All posts by revolsen

About revolsen

I am a retired Lutheran Pastor currently residing in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I am married .and have three grown children.

A River that Carries the Reign of God

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
 
“And the crowds asked [John the Baptizer], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” Luke 3:10-14
 
What practical difference does the reign of God make? John’s answer is clear and direct. For those of us who have closets full of coats and pantries filled with food, his imperatives don’t seem all that severe. But for people living hand to mouth just one bad harvest away from starvation, emptying their meager surplus of food or parting with a spare coat could put their very survival on the line. Tax collectors in first century Palestine were more like wealthy mafia dons than the modestly paid IRS agents we know today. Extortion was the means by which they earned their living. So, too, the soldiers responding to John’s preaching were not anything like the military personnel that serve in our armed forces. They were not particularly patriotic, disciplined or subject to any code of military ethics. They were more like warlords whose attachment to Herod Antipas protected them from all legal reprisal for their brutal conduct. For all of these various people, John issued a clarion call to stake everything on his assurance that the reign of God has drawn near. The price of obedience was far higher than simple obedience to the law with a little charitable giving on top. John is inviting his hearers to begin living boldly and corporately into the reign of God.

If we fast forward to Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, we can find the earliest believers putting John’s admonitions into concrete action. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35. I think there are some interesting parallels between these kingdom ethics and intentional anarchism that might be worth exploring.

In his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism,[1] James C. Scott calls attention to a type of collective lawbreaking in which we all engage, namely, speeding. He uses, as an example, a major roadway with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Everyone knows that the police are not likely to prosecute drivers traveling at 56-60 miles per hour. For that reason, the de facto limit is 60 or perhaps even 65 miles per hour. This ten mile per hour “safe” zone thus becomes “occupied territory,” space that has been seized from the government, though without any formal “movement” or “organized resistance.” In the same way, the early church did not originate as an organized opponent of the Roman Empire. Its purpose was not to overthrow Caesar. Yet the mere existence of this community that refused to recognize the social hierarchy based on imperial office, Roman citizenship, gender and slavery threatened the empire’s legitimacy. The church claimed and occupied space for the reign of God within the heart of the empire and thereby destabilized its grip on the totality of human existence.

The point, here, is not to advocate lawbreaking for its own sake. Clearly, the New Testament church was not in the business of encouraging criminal conduct. It was rather concerned with embodying the life it had inherited from its Lord, a life of organic communitarianism modeled not on the hierarchical principles of the empire, but upon the interdependent relationship of limbs, eyes, ears and tongue for the functioning of a healthy body. The church represented God’s alternative way of being human made concrete in Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. That “way,” of course, brought the church and its members into a collision course with imperial culture.

Another book I have been reading sheds further light on John’s proclamation and the church’s witness. Called to Community: The life Jesus Wants for His People,[2] is a compilation of essays and fragments written by authors as disparate as Benedict of Nursia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Jean Vanier. Each author discusses aspects of intentional Christian community from the perspective of monasticism, common purse communities, commune type arrangements and house churches. These essays do not paint any utopian pictures. Intentional Christian community is not for the faint of heart and few brave enough to undertake it are able to go the distance. I am coming away with two impressions thus far: 1) Intentional Christian communities are fragile, subject to exploitation by unscrupulous leaders with no accountability, vulnerable to isolationist tendencies and cultish leanings and, in most cases, they end unhappily; 2) Intentional Christian community is nonetheless possible in spite of its dangers and difficulties (I have discussed a few thriving specimens in my post for Sunday, August 24, 2017); and 3) Jesus never calls us to do anything that is easy.

The question, then, is how can American churches often resembling more voluntary associations of likeminded, but fiercely individualistic people, become organic and interdependent communities that live into the reign of God in Christ Jesus? What if we were to change our focus from preaching justice to the rest of the world to practicing justice among ourselves? What if we were to commit to ensuring that no member of our congregations will ever go without necessary medical treatment? What if we were to ensure financing for full time clergy and lay leadership for our poorest congregations? What if we were willing to sell off all congregational or synodical assets necessary to finance these goals? What would it take for us to become a community with a politics based on service, an economy based on human need and a culture grounded in mutual compassion? What if we turned our attention to becoming what we believe God intends for all creation?

This is not to say that acts of charity can replace systemic societal reform or that the church should not concern itself with what goes on outside its walls. To the contrary, the good news of Jesus Christ is addressed to the “cosmos” for which he lived and died. But we have to start somewhere and where we start matters. Bold proclamations condemning racism are somewhat undercut when they come from a church that continues to be over 90% white. So, too, preachy-screechy social statements calling for a more just economic order ring hollow when they come from congregations who underpay their pastors and staff and who live lives that are often tangential to the church’s mission and largely independent of one another. What made the New Testament church’s witness so persuasive was its remarkable communal, interdependent existence telling the whole world that there is a better way than imperial bondage. The early church seized space for the reign of God. It became the river that brought John’s prophetic imperatives to the gates of Rome.  That is what intentional Christian communities do. Often they fizzle out over time. Sometimes they fail. But always, like John, they are a light burning, shining and preparing the way of the Lord. John 5:35; Luke 3:4.

Here is a poem by Martin Espada about communal struggle that I think John the Baptizer would understand.

Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
—Walt Whitman

  1. The Red Flag

The newspapers said the strikers would hoist
the red flag of anarchy over the silk mills
of Paterson. At the strike meeting, a dyers’ helper
from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor,
lifted up  his hand and said here is the red flag:
brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties
and scarves, the skin and fingernails boiled away
for six dollars a week in the dye house.

He sat down without another word, sank back
into the fumes, name and face rubbed off
by oblivion’s thumb like a Roman coin
from the earth of his birthplace dug up
after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear.

  1. The River Floods the Avenue

He was the other Valentino, not the romantic sheik
and bullfighter of silent movie palaces who died too young,
but the Valentino standing on his stoop to watch detectives
hired by the company bully strikebreakers onto a trolley
and a chorus of strikers bellowing the banned word scab.
He was not a striker or a scab, but the bullet fired to scatter
the crowd pulled the cork in the wine barrel of Valentino’s back.
His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.

Two white-veiled horses pulled the carriage to the cemetery.
Twenty thousand strikers walked behind the hearse, flooding
the avenue like the river that lit up the mills, surging around
the tombstones. Blood for blood, cried Tresca: at this signal,
thousands of hands dropped red carnations and ribbons
into the grave, till the coffin evaporated in a red sea.

III. The Insects in the Soup

Reed was a Harvard man. He wrote for the New York magazines.
Big Bill, the organizer, fixed his good eye on Reed and told him
of the strike. He stood on a tenement porch across from the mill
to escape the rain and listen to the weavers. The bluecoats
told him to move on. The Harvard man asked for a name to go
with the number on the badge, and the cops tried to unscrew
his arms from their sockets. When the judge asked his business,
Reed said: Poet. The judge said: Twenty days in the county jail.

Reed was a Harvard man. He taught the strikers Harvard songs,
the tunes to sing with rebel words at the gates of the mill. The strikers
taught him how to spot the insects in the soup, speaking in tongues
the gospel of One Big Union and the eight-hour day, cramming the jail
till the weary jailers had to unlock the doors. Reed would write:
There’s war in Paterson. After it was over, he rode with Pancho Villa.

  1. The Little Agitator

The cops on horseback charged into the picket line.
The weavers raised their hands across their faces,
hands that knew the loom as their fathers’ hands
knew the loom, and the billy clubs broke their fingers.
Hannah was seventeen, the captain of the picket line,
the Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike. The prosecutor called her
a little agitator. Shame, said the judge; if she picketed again,
he would ship her to the State Home for Girls in Trenton.

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yidish the word
for shame. Back in court, she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail. After the strike came the blacklist,
the counter at her husband’s candy store, the words for shame.

  1. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed

Strikers without shoes lose strikes. Twenty years after the weavers
and dyers’ helpers returned hollow-eyed to the loom and the steam,
Mazziotti led the other silk mill workers marching down the avenue
in Paterson, singing the old union songs for five cents more an hour.
Once again the nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups.
Mazziotti pressed both hands to his head, squeezing red ribbons
from his scalp. There would be no buffalo nickel for an hour’s work
at the mill, for the silk of bow ties and scarves. Skull remembered wood.

The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too:
the Sons of Italy, the Workmen’s Circle, Local 152, Industrial
Workers of the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl
speaking in tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day.
Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet.
Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.

Source: Espada, Martin, Vivas To Those Who Have Failed (c. 2015 by Martin Espada, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) Martín Espada (b. 1957) is a Latino poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches poetry. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and was introduced to political activism by his father, a leader in the civil rights movement. Espada received a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Juris Doctor from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. For many years he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program. In 1982, Espada published his first book of poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. In 2001, he was named Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. You can find out more about Martin Espada and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Scott, James C., Two Cheers for Anarchism, (c. 2012 Princeton University Press) pp. 14-29.

[2] (c.2016 by Plough Publishing House).

“Thy Kingdom Come-” Is that Really what We Want?

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2

“Be careful what you wish for.” That was one of my Mom’s favorite sayings. It has often proven itself in my own experience. Christmas gifts for which I longed as a child frequently lost their charm before the dawn of the new year, leaving me to wish that I had coveted something else. Though the promotion I worked so hard to get brought a higher salary and a greater degree of financial flexibility, it also burdened me with responsibilities that brought stress and anxiety, commitments that took me away from my family and round the clock duties that robbed me of what little time I had for leisure activity. Wishes always come with an invisible price tag. In the words of Galinda in the musical, Wicked:

“I couldn’t be happier, no I couldn’t be happier,
Though it is, I admit, the tiniest bit, unlike I anticipated.
‘Cause getting your dreams, strange as it seems
Is a little bit complicated.
There’s a kind of a sort of cost,
There’s a couple of things you’ve lost.
There are bridges you crossed
You didn’t know that you crossed till you crossed them.”

Sometimes a wish come true ends in tragedy. How many stories have we not heard of lottery winners discovering that their “ticket to a dream” turned out to be a nightmare? Garth Brooks got it right: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

In this week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Malachi sounds a cautionary note against his peoples’ longing for the day of the Lord. He seems to be asking his hearers, “Do you have any idea what you are asking for?” He goes on to say, “[the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” I don’t know, but I suspect the folks listening to Malachi had a reaction similar to mine last Sunday as I participated with my church in the intercessory prayer. The rubrics typically call for the minister leading the prayers to end each petition with, “Lord in your mercy,” and for the congregation to respond, “hear our prayer.” This week the congregational response was changed to “Let your kingdom come.” As so often happens when a familiar liturgical response is altered, I read right over the words on the page and reflexively spoke the customary refrain.

This alteration was hardly a departure from any liturgical norm. After all, we speak the same words every week and I pray them every day in the Lord’s Prayer. Seeing them in this new context, however, gave me pause. I wondered, do we really know what we are asking for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, they will be done”? Do we fully appreciate the borders that will have to open up, the claims of sovereignty that must be surrendered, the privileges and entitlements that must be relinquished if everyone is to be assured of daily bread-the essentials to living well? Are we prepared for all the consequences that might flow from the abolition of an unjust economic system impoverishing millions even as it pays our salaries, finances our retirement plans and enables us to enjoy a lifestyle that is, by the standards of most the world’s peoples, extravagant? Do we imagine that the reign of God can be born in our midst without the birth pangs about which we read in last week’s gospel? Malachi’s words remind us that the kingdom cannot come until we have been made ready for it. Thus, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying for a radical transformation of ourselves and of our world.

In truth, I am more than half afraid of the coming of God’s reign when I see signs of it. I fear that I will be on the losing end of the new creation-among the mighty that must be cast down and the rich sent away empty. Luke 1:52-53. Yet Jesus assures me that I cannot lose more than he offers me. And I cannot receive what is offered until my hands are empty. That promise enables even people like me to hear the words of poet Langston Hughes with hope rather than dread.

I look at the world

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Source: Poetry (January 2009) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This poem is one of a few that were never published in his lifetime. They were recently discovered by a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. You can read more about Langston Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

A Season of Imagination

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jeremiah 33:15.

We are hopelessly messianic. Though the Psalmist warns us “put not your trust in princes,” we tend to do just that. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of the notion that our most vexing problems could be solved by getting the right person in power implementing the right policies. For that reason, we fall prey to populist demagogues who manage to put a face (often the wrong one) on our deepest fears, who offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and who make wild promises they cannot possibly keep. Though they are not necessarily intelligent, they nevertheless possess a shrewd, rat-like understanding of what it takes to rise to the top. Instinctively, they know that attractive lies become truth to a gullible public through constant repetition and that “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel (1970). Sadly, the words of that song have proven themselves in every generation, including our own. We have followed all too readily these self proclaimed messiahs to our ruin and the ruin of millions ground up under the wheels of their egotistical fantasies. We seem incapable of resisting their siren calls.

This being the case, we might be tempted to look with a jaundiced eye upon Jeremiah’s promise of a “righteous branch” from the house of David. After all, we learned from the Hebrew Scriptures that many such Davidic branches (David himself, for that matter) left much to be desired in the way of righteousness. Last week Jesus warned his disciples to beware of persons proclaiming themselves to be the messiah. So how can we remain alert for signs of the coming of the Son of man? How can we know what we are looking for and when we have found it? Our gospel lesson for this Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Luke 21:32. “All things” must include “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Luke 21:27. The New Testament witness is that God’s messiah has come and that his glory has been manifested through his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.

Given the grim realities of our violent planet, it is hard to continue believing that the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ is to become reality for the whole creation. It is difficult to discern any signs of that reality in the monotonous drone of what we mistakenly call “news.” It is not easy to imagine God’s will done on earth as in heaven under God’s righteous branch. Yet imagination is precisely what is most needed. The whole point of the prophets’ poetry, Jesus’ parables and the imagery employed by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation is to jolt us out of our one dimensional way of thinking and tickle our imaginations. The Bible was written to break our fixation on what is and force us to catch a glimpse of what might be. Advent is the season of imagination, creativity and newness. In this dark age of fear, that sees no salvation beyond more guns, higher walls and stronger armies, Jesus’ disciples have the joyful task of offering a world full of broken promises, failed politics and worn out ideologies the precious gift of a holy imagination.

Here is a poem by Tracy K. Smith about the reawakening of imagination and its power to restore creation.

An Old Story

We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.

Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst of us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.

A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended

Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.

Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.

Source: Wade in the Water, (c. 2018 by Tracy K. Smith, pub. by Graywolf Press). Tracy K. Smith (b.1972) is an American poet and educator. She was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, but was raised in Fairfield, California. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope. Smith became interested in writing and poetry in elementary school where she was exposed to Emily Dickinson whose poetry had a profound influence throughout her formative years. She is currently serving as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, an office she assumed in 2017. She has since been nominated for a second term. She has published three collections of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 volume Life on Mars. You can read more about Tracy K. Smith and sample more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.

Trump Applauds Saudi Leader as Ally in the War on Media

The Portico

The Ghost of Kierkegaard

(News that’s fake, but credible)

President Donald Trump had nothing but praise this morning for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Notwithstanding his denials, the crown prince has been implicated in the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. “He [bin Salman] says he didn’t do it and doesn’t know anything about it,” Trump told reporters today. “That’s good enough for me.” But he went on to say that, even if bin Salman were involved, “Good for him. Hey, any guy that can do a journalist like that, he’s my guy.”

Notwithstanding pressure in congress for strong sanctions against Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s killing, the president expressed reluctance to sanction the Saudi’s. “I have a strong relationship with the crown prince,” he said. “Mr. bin Salman, along with my good friends Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, is a strong ally…

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God is Not in Control

See the source imageSUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4-8
John 18:33-37

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever.  Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,  one God, now and forever.

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” John 18:37.

This coming Sunday we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. This feast day, which marks the conclusion of the church year, is relatively new to the church calendar. The Roman pontiff, Pope Pius XI, instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 for the universal church in his encyclical Quas Primas. He saw the ascendancy of nationalism as a denial of Christ as king and viewed with alarm the rise of dictatorships in Europe and the captivating allure of their autocratic leaders. This nine decade old proclamation is as relevant now as then, given our president’s open embrace of nationalism, his enthusiastic support among white Christians and the shameful failure of American Christian leaders to name this lie for the heresy it is. For more on that, see my post of July 27, 2017. Protestant churches using the Revised Common Lectionary also observe Christ the King Sunday (titled Reign of Christ Sunday by some). These include my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as the Church of England, the Anglican Church in North America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church.

By ending the church year with a confession of Christ as King, we remind ourselves that history has an end and the end is Jesus. The day will come, St. Paul tells us, “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:10-11. Yet care must be taken in proclaiming Jesus king. As Jesus points out to Pilate, his “kingdom is not from this world.” That does not mean that the Kingdom of God is somewhere other than here and now. Rather, it means that the reign of God is not government as we know it. It is not imposed by the consent of the governed, by rule of law, by force of arms or by any other coercive means. God’s sovereignty is of a different order. God rules the world through the power of God’s Word spoken through the prophets, the apostles and, in the fullness of time, in and through his Son. God’s weapon is the persuasive power of the Holy Spirit working repentance, faith and reconciliation. God overcomes the world by loving the hell out of it.

You have no doubt seen bumper stickers boldly asserting that “God is in control.” I guess that is supposed to be comforting, but I don’t care much for that expression. Control is something you exercise over your lawn mower or automobile. It is not something you exercise over someone you love. When somebody calls you a controlling parent or spouse, they are not paying you a complement. Nothing ruins friendship, marriage, family and community quite as effectively as someone’s desire to exercise control. Arguably, God could come with a show of force, as he does in the Left Behind books, and impose God’s will on earth as in heaven by sheer might. But that would make God little more than Caesar on steroids. God does not want to reign over creation in that way.

All of this might appear to gainsay the sovereignty of God and make God look weak. But, as the Apostle Paul points out, it is this very “weakness” of God that is actually God’s power-a power that finally overcomes all others. I Corinthians 1:18-25. The cross of Jesus redefines for all time the meaning sovereignty. For this reason, I do not believe that God engineers events in history so that they occur in accord with some predetermined plan. I do not believe that the murder of six million Jews was part of God’s design or intent. Nor do I believe that God wills cancer, auto accidents, hurricanes and earthquakes. Is God triumphant over all of these things? To be sure, but God’s triumphal victory is a strange kind of victory. God’s power is God’s patience. God does not fight fire with fire. That only results in a bigger fire. God refuses to be drawn into the vortex of retaliation and retribution in which we are enslaved. Instead, God responds to the wastes of our wrath with forgiveness, an offer of new life and eternal love. God does not clobber evil. God simply outlasts it. Against God’s eternal determination to save us, our stubborn resistance finally runs out of steam. That might take some time, but God is nothing if not rich in time. The redemption of all creation is too important a job to rush.

In a world where only the ruthless seem to rise to the top, it takes faith in what is yet unseen to confess Jesus as king. In a world where our leaders insist that there is not enough to go around and urge us to grab what is ours and cling to it with all our might, it takes faith in God’s eternal love to keep looking for signs of a kingdom in which all are fed, cared for and free. In a world that keeps telling us that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” it takes faith to beat swords into plowshares. Disciples of Jesus are called to live a “perpetual spring” in the midst of winter. Here is a poem by Amy Gerstler to that effect.

In Perpetual Spring

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion   
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.

Source, Bitter Angel: Poems, (c. 1990 by Amy Gerstler, pub. by New York: North Point Press).  Amy Gerstler (b. 1956) is a graduate of Pitzer College. She holds an M.F.A. from Bennington College and is currently a professor of writing at the University of California, Irvine. Previously, she taught in the Bennington Writing Seminars program, at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing Program. Gerstler has authored over a dozen poetry collections and two works of fiction. She has also produced numerous articles, reviews, and collaborations with visual artists. You can read more about Amy Gerstler and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

When Buildings Fall

TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your sovereign purpose brings salvation to birth. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Mark 13:2

Every time a read these words I recall the first time I came into New York. It was the winter of 1977 and I was traveling on the Amtrak from Indiana where I was going to school to visit my brother, a pastor who was then serving a church in Brooklyn. I arrived at Penn Station in the early afternoon. Upon my brother’s instructions, I took the subway down to World Trade Center Plaza where we were to meet. I remember coming up out of the subway station and staring up at the Twin Towers like a typical tourist. They were so overwhelmingly big and tall that they nearly blocked out the sky. I wonder what I would have thought had someone said to me, “Hey kid, see those sky scrapers? In twenty five years these buildings, their steel beams, their sheer glass windows and the offices they host will be rubble.”

The Temple that stood during the time of Jesus was a magnificent piece of architecture. It would undoubtedly be considered one of the monumental wonders of the world, were it still standing. I expect it would have been as hard for the disciples to imagine the destruction of that temple as it would have been for me to foresee in 1977 the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. For that reason, the disciples and Jews generally believed that the end of the temple meant the end of the world as we know it. Its fall would be a prelude to the dawn of a new heaven and earth.

Given the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to for us to conclude that Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction hardly required much in the way of clairvoyance. Anti-Roman sentiment was strong among the people of Judea and Galilee. Tensions were particularly high during the feast of Passover, a celebration of the liberation of enslaved Israel from imperial bondage in Egypt. The people in Jesus’ day longed for another Exodus from the bondage of Rome and were ready to follow any leader who promised to deliver one. In reality, the chances of a military confrontation with Rome ending well for the Jews were less than slim. Hence, Jesus’ warning against believing such promises of deliverance and following self-proclaimed messiahs. But people are bound to see only what they want to see and believe only what they want to be true. All the ingredients for a suicidal insurrection were present.

The destruction of the Temple took place just as Jesus warned, but it was not the harbinger of the messianic age. It turned out to be just one more instance of blood letting and destruction along the violent path of history. There would be more such events. Kingdom would rise up against kingdom; there would be wars, earthquakes, wild fires, terrorism and mass shootings. Great skyscrapers would fall and countries once beacons of democracy would slip into the abyss of fascism-but the end was still to come and there was no word on when that end could be expected.

Whatever else this gospel might have to say, it reminds us that the ground under our feet is not as secure as we like to imagine. The gains we have made in furthering the civil rights of racial minorities, women and LGBTQ folk are in danger. The constitutional freedoms of speech and due process are under attack as never before. Even the seasonal rhythms of our climate are becoming increasingly unstable. The church, that one rock of sameness and stability in our lives, seems to be bleeding out-at least in North America. Still, Jesus urges his disciples to live faithfully in a world that is coming apart at the seams and look for the signs of his coming.

More than that, Jesus assures us that the violence of the world’s unraveling is not a  vortex into oblivion. The death throes of the old order are the “beginning of the birth pangs.” Those of us who have either given birth or witnessed one know that it does not happen without the rending of flesh, the shedding of blood and a good deal of pain. In the midst of all the violence, loss and chaos God is at work doing a new thing. In fact, it is precisely here that God does God’s best work. This is not an easy word to hear for those of us who are comfortable with the old order and enjoy the privileges that come with being white, male, heterosexual and wealthy relative to the world’s millions of poor. Our natural inclination is to hang on tight to the familiar features of the doomed world in which we feel safe and comfortable. But in so doing, we render ourselves incapable of taking hold of the new life God longs to give us. We need finally to decide whether we will surrender to the gentle reign of God or cling to the dying structures of injustice and oppression.

There are signs of new creation for all who have eyes to see it. The latest election has brought into our congress the voices of women, people of color, Muslims, sexual minorities and other voices that have been ignored for far too long. The church is experiencing an injection of youthful leaders more concerned with mission and ministry than erecting buildings and preserving institutions. If the administration of Donald Trump has uncovered the worst in American culture and history, it has also called forth the best in us and forced us to confront injustices with which we have become far too comfortable. “A terrible beauty is born” of these trying days. None of this is to say that the reign of God is any closer to fulfillment than it was two thousand years ago. But make no mistake about it. The new creation’s birth pangs began with the resurrection of the crucified messiah and they continue. God is a faithful midwife and can be trusted to see this delivery through.

Here is a poem by William Butler Yeats memorializing the Irish uprising of 1916 brutally suppressed by the British within weeks of its inception.  Though a disaster for Ireland in military terms, this tragic and violent event gave birth to a vision of and determination to achieve freedom that ultimately prevailed. Yeats skillfully weaves his ode to the rebellion and its aftermath with allusions to the events of Holy Week.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
&nbs
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Butler Yeats (1865 -1939) was an Irish poet. He was born in Sandymount, Ireland and spent childhood holidays in County Sligo. Yeats studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends, spiritualism and the occult. He later abandoned his pursuit of spiritualism as he became increasingly drawn to the Irish struggle for independence. Yeats served two terms as a senator of the Irish Free State. He was a leader in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read more about William Butler Yeats and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

An Election Day at the Beach

 

It’s election day. I already voted over a week ago. So how to spend the day? I elect to spend my morning at the beach, LeCount Hollow to be more precise. It’s a foggy morning out here on the Cape. The sun is struggling to break through the cloud cover, spilling a silver sheen on the breakers. I have the beach to myself today. Not many people come out here on a breezy and overcast day, but such days are my favorites for strolling along the shore.

I never tire of inspecting the tideline. It constitutes an ever changing mosaic of multicolored seaweed, shell fragments and sea worn stones. Most shells that make it to shore here are pretty well broken up by the relentless pounding of surf and sand.

But every so often I come across one that is fully intact, like this sea snail shell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seagulls and seals are year round residents, as are the coyotes that roam the beach at dawn and dusk. You stand a decent chance of sighting a minke whale off shore on any given morning. Great white sharks have also been observed, but not by me.

 

What does any of this have to do with the election? Nothing, really, but that’s the point. Sometimes you have to withdraw from the pressing issues of the day to get some perspective on them. The great preacher and theologian, Karl Barth, once said that we need to read the Bible with the newspaper at our side. I don’t disagree with that, but if the newspaper is the only source you have in front of you to help you discern the message of the scriptures, your interpretation is likely to be skewed. The news isn’t always what we think it is. If CNN, Fox, NBC or ABC had been around two millennia ago, I doubt you would find their reporters covering the birth of a baby to a homeless couple in a barn standing in a small town at the frontier of the Roman Empire. Sometimes you have to look past the headlines to find the real news.

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” says poet, Mary Oliver. If we are going to be fully attentive to the Spirit of God, then we need periodically to get away from the cries of urgent matters demanding our immediate attention so that we can hear the call of significant matters that require our sustained attention. We must learn to let the great historical events of the day percolate up through the matrix of those truths that are eternal, the ones we learn from listening to the voices of waves and seagulls. We must learn to discern the patterns left at the shoreline in order to make the connections required to live faithfully and well.

I don’t know what the political landscape will look like tomorrow morning. But I know that the ocean will still be there with all of its wonders. I know that the love that binds together my family, my church and which extends itself to neighbors I do not yet know will remain no matter what shape the electoral map takes. I believe that, come what may, God, who  loved the world enough to send it his only beloved Son, will find a way to hold it together.

A Story of Illegal Immigration-with a Biblical Twist

See the source imageTWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Prayer of the Day: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Our lesson from I Kings relates a common narrative. A man who is a wanted criminal crosses the border illegally into a neighboring country. There he encounters a single mother living alone with her son. She is vulnerable, helpless and near starvation. It is a powerful narrative that is being employed even now to fire up that hysterical lynch mob euphemistically referred to these days as the Republican “base.” Nothing moves a fearful white audience to fanatical rage more effectively than the specter of foreigners with dark skin coming into our country to take our women and bleed us of our insufficient resources. Strange, isn’t it, how we cannot tolerate even the slightest regulation of fire arms to lessen the likelihood of our own citizens slaughtering our children, but we are ready to send the armed forces to the border in order to protect us from a group of unarmed families, still seven hundred miles away as I write, who only want to cut our lawns, clean our homes and pick our vegetables for a meager seven dollars and change per hour.

Am I politicizing the Bible again? Perhaps, but I’m not the first. Jesus already beat me to the punch on that score. You can read all about it in Luke’s gospel. Luke 4:16-30. In brief, Jesus, who was attending Synagogue worship in his home town of Nazareth, is invited to read from the scriptures and is given a passage from Isaiah in which the prophet proclaims that s/he has been sent

“to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

At the conclusion of the reading, Jesus sits down, as rabbis typically did when preparing to teach, and announces that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21. At this point many in attendance begin to wonder just what gives Jesus the right to speak so decisively and authoritatively. Isn’t this the kid who grew up in our town? We know his family, where he went to school and who he took to the prom. So why should we pay any attention to him? Jesus then relates our story from I Kings about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath who gave him life saving food and shelter. He points out that the widow, who was a foreigner and not a woman of Israel, was the recipient of the prophet’s ministry.

Jesus’ remarks to this effect whipped his audience into a fit of rage approaching that of a Trump rally. Having no foreigners nearby against whom to vent their anger, they attempt to lynch Jesus, who somehow manages to escape their violent assault. The notion that God, their God, might show love and compassion to someone outside their number and who may actually have something to contribute to them so incensed them that they had to silence Jesus. They did so in the only way they could imagine-through violence. When you feel that your borders are threatened, you send troops.

What Jesus’ audience, both then and now, fail to recall is that their borders are not threatened. Bringing “outsiders” into the healing realm of God’s gentle reign is precisely why Israel was elected in the first place. Furthermore, the biblical narrative does not end in the way xenophobic politicians and their frightened supporters would have us believe. Elijah, the foreigner, does not take advantage of the widow, threaten her or take by force what little she has to live on. The widow does not shut her door and tell Elijah to “get out of her country” because there isn’t enough to go around. Elijah asks the woman for help and she freely gives it-notwithstanding her perception of scarcity. And the Lord provided for all. Nobody starved to death. Nobody had to take anything by force. Nobody had to close the border or send in the troops. That is the Biblical story. That is the gospel. There is enough for all to live well. God feeds the birds of the air, clothes the lilies of the field and fills his own with good things. There is no reason to fear want or to jealously guard the store.

In the end, it all comes down to which story you believe: the story of God’s limitless generosity and abundance to which the Bible witnesses, or the threat of scarcity, stinginess and fear peddled so insistently this election cycle. Let’s be clear about this. Neither I nor anyone I know, conservative or liberal, is saying that we shouldn’t regulate our borders. The insistence by the present administration that we must choose between protecting our nation on the one hand or obeying Jesus’ command to exercise compassion toward our neighbors on the other is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. This is not about “open borders” but open minds, compassionate hearts and trusting spirits.

It was president George W. Bush who said over a decade ago “family values don’t end at the border.” That sentiment was not partisan. It was neither Republican nor Democratic, nor liberal nor conservative. Whether the president knew it or not, it’s just plain Jesus. Your neighbor is anyone in need, whether foreign or domestic, “legal” or “illegal,” English speaking or otherwise. I hardly need to say that it is scarcely possible to imagine a Republican president expressing this sentiment in today’s climate of “America First” and against the tidal wave of nationalist hate that has overtaken that organization. But the former president’s admonition reminds us of a time when we were a better country than we are today. It also gives us hope that we may yet find our way into a better future. As people of God living in these days, it is more important than ever for us to get the biblical story right and tell it to a world that cannot imagine a future without walls, sealed borders and armies guarding an ever-shrinking pie.

In closing, I feel compelled to say that I think it a tribute to this country that, in spite of our legacy of racism; notwithstanding the present strong current of hostility toward “outsiders” lead by the most vile, racist and misogynist president ever to darken the door of the White House; and even in the face of the recent spate of violent rhetoric against immigrants vomited through the airwaves and over the internet, still, so many people the world over continue to view the United States as a destination of hope. Because we are too pre-occupied with our own paranoia and the perceived hardships these newcomers to our country impose upon us, we seldom, if ever, consider the sacrifices made, the hardships endured and the efforts required by them to make this country their home. Here is a poem by poet and immigrant Shirley Geok-Lin Lim reflecting the difficult journey toward becoming American.

Learning to Love America

because it has no pure products

because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because the water of the ocean is cold
and because land is better than ocean

because I say we rather than they

because I live in California
I have eaten fresh artichokes
and jacaranda bloom in April and May

because my senses have caught up with my body
my breath with the air it swallows
my hunger with my mouth

because I walk barefoot in my house

because I have nursed my son at my breast
because he is a strong American boy
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don’t know

because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them

because it is late and too late to change my mind
because it is time.

Source: What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say, (c. 1998 by Geok-Lin Lim, Shirley, pub. by West End Press) Shirley Geok-lin Lim (b. 1944) is an American writer of poetry, fiction, and criticism. She was born in Malacca Malaysia where she attended Infant Jesus Convent, a school under the British colonial education system. She won a scholarship to the University of Malaya and there earned a bachelors degree in English with first class honors. In 1969, at the age of twenty-four, she entered graduate school at Brandeis University under a Fulbright scholarship. She received a PhD in English and American Literature in 1973. Lim’s first collection of poems, Crossing The Peninsula, was published in 1980. It won her the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the first both for an Asian and for a woman. She received the American Book Award in 1997 for her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces. You can read more about Shirley Geok-lin Lim and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Rep. Steve King Demands Investigation into Obama Dissolution of NASA UFO Monitoring Unit.

See the source imageThe Ghost of Kierkegaard

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Iowa Representative Steve King announced today that he is pressing for a congressional investigation into Barack Obama’s connections to extra-terrestrial interests. “Am I the only one who doesn’t find it highly suspicious that, just as Barack Obama wins re-election securing his second term, the defense department’s unit on UFO monitoring gets shut down?” King went on to point out that, although Obama’s purported Hawaiian birth certificate was a cheap photoshop, no one has yet been able to come up with a Kenyan certificate. “I’m thinking maybe that’s because he wasn’t born in Kenya,” He told reporters. “I’m guessing that Mr. Obama is more ‘alien’ than we ever suspected. I’m also wondering how many of his alien comrades he has managed to slip through our air defenses and resettle in the United States since 2012?” Mr. King insists that getting the investigation underway could not be more urgent. “For all we know, there could be hundreds of extraterrestrial sleeper cells waiting for the order to rise up.”

Mr. King also pointed out that the threat is not unrelated to the “immigrant caravan” making its way toward the southern border of the United States. “We don’t know who these people are, where they came from and you can be damn sure they won’t have any documents on them. They could be from any corner of the universe.” He went on to say that the potential influx of extra-terrestrials into our nation poses a serious threat to America’s national security as well as to its cultural identity. “It will be the end of our national culture. If we don’t take action to defend our borders and airspace now, our children will be learning Klingon instead of English and hairless, four-eyed, three fingered aliens will be taking our jobs.”

Later today, President Trump announced his full support for Representative King. “I’ve already called for the creation of a space force to defend us from the threats Steve is talking about,” Trump said in a recent interview.  He said also that he fully supports King’s call for an investigation. “We need to stop wasting time and resources on the phony Russia probe and start investigating real threats to our national security for a change.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders concurred, saying in a recent press briefing, “the president is even now calling upon congressional leaders to probe Mr. Obama’s dissolution of this critical arm of the national security apparatus and to renew investigations into his origins.” Mr. Trump has long been skeptical about former President Obama’s citizenship status. In a late Twitter message today he expressed relief that “we are finally going to get to the bottom of this.”

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen. “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck