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.

The Baby and the Bag Lady

PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, your only-begotten Son was presented this day in the temple. May we be presented to you with clean and pure hearts by the same Jesus Christ, our great high priest, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36-38.

Perhaps most of the people passing through the temple precincts that day thought Anna a bit daft. Religion is a fine thing, to be sure. But this old woman seems a little too fixated on it. Besides, who but a homeless bag lady lives in the temple precincts? Doesn’t this woman have a home? A job? Family? Grandchildren to take care of? I expect that a lot of folks walked past Anna just the way most people today would pass a raving lunatic parked with his sleeping bag in the entrance of an urban church. Pick up the pace, don’t make eye contact and continue on to your destination without looking back.

Of course, I suspect that those of us who have been raised in morally and socially responsible households might pity poor Anna. Clearly, this woman has no family support, no other place to live and suffers from some measure of psychiatric illness. Should we offer her a ride to the nearest shelter? Make a referral to a free clinic? Help her to find some kind of employment? Something should be done! She should not be left to spend her nights in church doorways and her days pestering worshipers with wild, delusional rants.

Our gospel lesson offers us another lens through which to view people like Anna. Though we might tend to see her as a social problem needing to be solved, Luke the Evangelist recognizes Anna as a valuable witness to God’s act of salvation through Jesus Christ. After listening to the lyrical hymn of praise from the mouth of Mary in the prior chapter, it should come as no surprise that people like Anna, people living at the margins of the margins, are the first to recognize in Jesus the beginning of God’s radical reversal of fortunes for the poor and oppressed. Anna the homeless crazy lady living in the temple precincts turns out to be Anna the prophet who, along with the homeless shepherds abiding in their fields by night, becomes one of the first witnesses to the good news.

I grew up in a home where the obligation to help the poor and underprivileged was taken for granted. One of the earliest memories I have took place on a winter evening when I accompanied my mother on one of her many trips to bring food and clothing donations to needy families. I recall how thankful the young single mom was to receive our help and how good it made us feel to support her and ease her burden. But when this woman offered my mom and me a cup of coffee and some cookies she had made, mom politely declined. It was all for practical reasons, of course. It was getting to be past my bedtime and that of my younger sister who was at home with dad running a fever. But young as I was, I sensed the awkwardness of the situation. This woman had something to offer beyond coffee and cookies. She was offering us hospitality-the gift of herself and, if we take our gospel seriously, the opportunity to encounter Jesus.

Christianity has for so long been a mainstream faith that we find it hard to read faithfully the gospel testimony that comes to us from the margins. We who live for the most part in privileged security find it hard to imagine that people like Anna and the single mom of my youthful memory are capable of much more than receiving our help. We have developed a collective “messiah complex” that prevents us from seeing ourselves as anything other than “helpers” and blinds us to the gifts and insights we so desperately need from those we categorize as “the helped.” Each Thanksgiving we rant about how “blessed” we are to have comfortable homes and more than enough good food to eat. Then, as if to prove it to ourselves, we eat ourselves silly. The words of John of Patmos come to mind: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Revelation 3:17.

The poor, as St. Lawrence rightly observed, are the “treasure of the church.” This is so not because they afford us the opportunity to exercise charity and feel good about it. It is because the God we worship was born incarnate of a homeless family in a barn, was first recognized by landless shepherds, an old man with a dying wish, a crazy homeless woman living in the temple precincts, lepers, harlots and foreigners. The people at the margins are not just unfortunates that have “fallen through the cracks” and who need our help to become self-reliant and productive like us. They are the favorites of a God who would have us become more like them-weak, humble and wholly dependent upon God.  It is in the poor that we encounter the one we call Lord. If we cannot recognize God at the margins, we do not know God, period.

I expect that most people simply ignored Anna that day of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. But some people apparently were looking for the same thing Anna was seeking. For some people, her words struck a chord of recognition. They evidently saw in her hunger, her yearning a reflection of their own need. So they stopped. They listened. They came near to see the infant squirming in Simeon’s arms.  I have no idea how many there were. A crowd? Just a handful? One or two? However many or few may have been gathered around the ancient prophetess, there were at least some left in Jerusalem that could still dream. There were still people in Israel who were not yet convinced that the way things are is the way they have to be and always will be. Some there were who could see past whatever stereotypical baggage might otherwise have obscured the miracle to which Anna testified. There were still people capable of believing the ancient promises of liberation from oppression, justice for all and peace among the nations. The last embers of hope had not yet been extinguished. They still have not been extinguished. That is because our faithful God continues to send us prophets like Anna to fan them into white hot flame just when it seems they are about to go cold.

As the poet points out, it sometimes becomes necessary to “reteach a thing its loveliness.” So too, it becomes necessary to reteach ourselves how to recognize loveliness and so much more in what we have been taught to view as peripheral, unimportant and distasteful. If we would see Jesus, we must learn to recognize goodness, beauty and truth in the words and faces of people like Anna. If we cannot find them there, we will not see them anywhere.

Here is the poem by Galway Kinnell to which I alluded in the prior paragraph.

Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Source: Three Books, (c. 2002 by Galway Kinnell; pub.by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Galway Kinnell (1927-2014) was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1982 collection, Selected Poems. He also split the National Book Award for Poetry with Charles Wright and was poet laureate for the State of Vermont from 1989 to 1993. Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He was drawn to poetry in his youth through his reading of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Kinnell was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States throughout the 1960s. Upon returning to the US after traveling in Europe and the Middle East, he joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and worked on voter registration and workplace integration in Hammond, Louisiana. This effort got him arrested. In 1968, Kinnell signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Kinnell died in October of 2014 from leukemia. You can find out more about Galway Kinnell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

 

The God Who Takes Sides

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, your loving kindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

“For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.” Isaiah 9:4.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Matthew 4:23.

Chrystul Kizer, the teenager pictured above, is now nineteen years old. She was told in November of last year by Judge David P. Wilk in Kenosha County, Wisconsin that she must stand trial and face life in prison for murdering the man who sexually assaulted, imprisoned and forced her into a life of prostitution in her early teens. The crime was committed when Chrystul was just seventeen years old. You can read the full story in the Washington Post, December 17, 2019. The pertinent facts are as follows:

Chrystul was one of a few children born to a single mother who was herself a teenager when she gave birth to Chrystul. The family was living in Indiana and Chrystul’s mom was working to support herself and her family at several low paying jobs. Her on and off boyfriend was abusive both to her and to the children. Though the family contacted the police on several occasions when the boyfriend became particularly abusive, the responding officers would simply tell him he had to leave the premises-which he did, only to return a few days later. The family finally moved from Indiana to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to escape the situation. There they lived in a Salvation Army shelter for several weeks before finding an apartment.

By this time Chrystul was just sixteen years old and her life was beginning to unravel. Chrystul’s mother’s attention was consumed by Chrystul’s older brother who was having repeated scrapes with the law. Chrystul became involved with a young man three years her senior. Like her mother’s boyfriend, this young man was volatile and abusive. Though she left him several times, once after he was convicted for brutally assaulting her, she returned to him repeatedly because she felt she had no alternatives. At this vulnerable point in her life Chrystul met a thirty-three year old white man named Randy Volar over the website, “backpage.”[1]  Chrystul learned about backpage from a school friend and placed an add on the site hoping to raise money for “snacks and school supplies” in exchange for sex. Volar was the first to respond to the ad. He treated her with kindness at first, complementing her on her appearance and bringing her gifts. But his genuine motives became clear when he began pimping her to johns at cheap hotels and using her to produce child porn. When Chrystul told Volar she wanted out, he threatened to kill her.

In February of 2018, police arrested Volar on charges of child sexual assault, a felony punishable by up to forty years in state prison.  The police searched his home confiscating laptops, hard drives and memory cards, along with women’s pajamas, bikini bottoms and underwear. The hard drives contained hundreds of child pornography videos, featuring girls who appeared to be as young as twelve, and more than twenty videos of Volar with underage black girls-one of which was Chrystul. But on the same day police arrested Volar, they released him. Records indicate he paid no bail but was told he would be summoned to court. The court summons never came. He remained free until Chrystul, then 17, went to his house one night in June and allegedly shot him in the head, twice. She lit his body on fire, police said, and fled in his car. She was ultimately apprehended, arrested and held on $1 million bail.

Most states, Wisconsin included, have a law that gives sex-trafficking victims an “affirmative defense” if they can prove at trial they committed a crime because they were being trafficked. In most cases, however, the law has been applied to charges of prostitution or theft committed at the command of the trafficker. The defense has never been interpreted as applicable to homicide. Consequently, Judge Wilk held the defense inapplicable and ordered that Chrystul be tried for premeditated murder as an adult.  “The court is satisfied that a blanket affirmative defense to all acts leads to an absurd result,” said the judge. He stated further that ruling in Chrystul’s favor would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Damned right it would. It would be a dangerous precedent for male celebrities, CEOs and United States Presidents who seem to think that they are entitled to the bodies of any young girl they fancy. It would be a frightening precedent to male Senators and their accomplices who put an attempted rapist on the Supreme Court despite what everyone acknowledged as the credible testimony of his victim. Acquiting Chrystul would send a message to law enforcement that the lives of Black girls matter and when they find out that someone is sexually abusing them, they had damned well better do something to stop it. With all due respect to Judge Wilk,[2] acquitting Chrystul would not have been “an absurd result.” The absurd result is further punishing this young woman, whose childhood was stolen from her by a brutal predator, by robbing her of the rest of her life. This ruling reeks of racism, injustice and utter cruelty.

Thanks be to God, Judge Wilk’s decision has been overruled. It was, in fact, overruled twenty-six hundred years ago by the prophet Isaiah who declared the release of the captives, the breaking of the yoke of servitude and the liberation of the oppressed from the rod of the oppressor. It was overruled when Jesus emerged from the wilderness and began “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” God’s verdict has been spoken. To the “cruel majority” of which the poet sings and those of us who benefit from its systemic injustice, this precedent is dangerous and downright scary. But seen from the perspective of people like Chrystul, the news couldn’t be any better. The only question remaining is where we choose to stand.

Some might say that the connections I have drawn here between sexual predators, law enforcement procedures, purveyors of sexist jokes, the confirmation decisions of United States Senators and the predatory acts of our President are tenuous. I disagree. Men like Randy Volar do not materialize out of thin air. They are encouraged and enabled by a culture that devalues women. They find support in the growing chorus of misogynist voices that have become louder, bolder and increasingly found within the “main stream.” Their predatory behavior is reinforced by a criminal justice system that minimizes the worth and credibility of people of color while favoring that of white people. As long as men are convinced that they can victimize women with impunity and, more particularly, women of color, we can expect travesties like the ruling in Chrystul’s case to continue.

It is all well and good for churches to issue social statements condemning racism and misogyny. But that only goes so far. What needs to happen is for ordinary people to shine “a great light” into the dark corners of bars, bowling alleys, coatrooms, boardrooms, police precinct lounges and, yes, church potlucks, parking lots and committee meetings where racist and sexist jokes, language and attitudes too often find a safe haven for expression.  It’s time to break the embarrassed silence when Uncle Ned airs his racist opinions at the family reunion because, well-that’s just Uncle Ned and we don’t want to make a scene. We jolly well do want to make a scene. It is time for pastors to stop speaking in generalities and start naming names. So if our bishops will not condemn as heretics evangelical religious leaders referring to Donald Trump in nearly messianic terms and the United States as God’s chosen people, I will. If the Southern Poverty Law Institute will not declare the GOP a hate group, I will. If no one else will go so far as to say that everyone who pulled the lever for Donald Trump on November 8, 2016 owes a sincere apology to their wives, mothers and all the other women in their lives, I will. Lasting cultural change does not begin with elections, landmark legislation or mass protests. It begins with people on the ground deciding that the status quo is intolerable and saying so-whenever and wherever they can.

I understand that what I have said might be taken as “judgmental,” “divisive” and “polarizing.” Some might say that I am hindering dialogue and reconciliation within the Body of Christ. That might be so. But there comes a time when one has to choose between peace in the ecclesiastical household and justice in God’s world. Sometimes, you have to choose between freeing the slaves and preserving the union. Sometimes you have to decide whether you will stand with people like Chrystul or go on placating the powers that keep her imprisoned. I think I know where the God of the Exodus stands.

Here is a poem by Jerome Rothenberg reflecting all too well the prevailing conditions of our time that yield up victims like Chrystul. May the people who walk in darkness know the light of Christ!

A Poem for the Cruel Majority

The cruel majority emerges!

Hail to the cruel majority!

They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.

Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them feel hunger or terror.

If the cruel majority would only cup their ears
the sea would wash over them.
The sea would help them forget their wayward children.
It would weave a lullaby for young & old.

(See the cruel majority with hands cupped to their ears,
one foot is in the water, one foot is on the clouds.)

One man of them is large enough to hold a cloud
between his thumb & middle finger,
to squeeze a drop of sweat from it before he sleeps.

He is a little god but not a poet.
(See how his body heaves.)

The cruel majority love crowds & picnics.
The cruel majority fill up their parks with little flags.
The cruel majority celebrate their birthday.

Hail to the cruel majority again!

The cruel majority weep for their unborn children,
they weep for the children that they will never bear.
The cruel majority are overwhelmed by sorrow.

(Then why are the cruel majority always laughing?
Is it because night has covered up the city’s walls?
Because the poor lie hidden in the darkness?
The maimed no longer come to show their wounds?)

Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.

They vote for shadows to take the place of ponds
Whatever they vote for they can bring to pass.
The mountains skip like lambs for the cruel majority.

Hail to the cruel majority!
Hail! hail! to the cruel majority!

The mountains skip like lambs, the hills like rams.
The cruel majority tear up the earth for the cruel majority.
Then the cruel majority line up to be buried.

Those who love death will love the cruel majority.

Those who know themselves will know the fear
the cruel majority feel when they look in the mirror.

The cruel majority order the poor to stay poor.
They order the sun to shine only on weekdays.

The god of the cruel majority is hanging from a tree.
Their god’s voice is the tree screaming as it bends.
The tree’s voice is as quick as lightning as it streaks across the sky.

(If the cruel majority go to sleep inside their shadows,
they will wake to find their beds filled up with glass.)

Hail to the god of the cruel majority!
Hail to the eyes in the head of their screaming god!

Hail to his face in the mirror!

Hail to their faces as they float around him!

Hail to their blood & to his!

Hail to the blood of the poor they need to feed them!
Hail to their world & their god!

Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!

Source: Rothenberg, Jerome, A Paradise of Poets, (c. 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999 by Jerome Rothenberg, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corp.). Jerome Rothenberg is an American poet, translator and anthologist. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrant parents and was born in New York City. He attended the City College of New York and received his master’s degree in literature from the University of Michigan in 1953. Rothenberg served in the U.S. Army in Mainz, Germany from 1953 to 1955, after which he did further graduate study at Columbia University. He published translations of German poets, including the first English translation of poems by Paul Celan and Günter Grass. He also founded Hawk’s Well Press and the magazines Poems from the Floating World and some/thing. He currently lives in San Diego, California. You can read more about Jerome Rothenberg and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] “Backpage” was a classified advertising website that had become the largest marketplace for buying and selling sex by the time that federal law enforcement agencies seized it in April 2018.

[2] I do not mean to suggest that the judge in this case is solely responsible for Chrystul’s cruel fate. From what I can see in the record, Judge Wilk gave this matter considerable thought before rendering his ruling. Judges are required to interpret the law as it is, not as what, in their opinion, it ought to be. Moreover, one can hardly expect judges to rule justly when the defendants brought before them have been arrested, charged and processed under a criminal justice system infected with racism and weighted heavily against people of color. This is a classic example of what we say in our confessional liturgy, namely, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” In a very real sense, individuals cannot be anymore just than the society of which they are a part.

Trump 2020 Campaign to Sell Tinfoil MAGA Hats

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source image

Trump 2020 Campaign press secretary, Kayleigh McEnay, announced today that the campaign will soon be releasing for sale a new and improved “MAGA” hat. The bright red hats, sporting the 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” continue to be popular among the president’s supporters. McEnany, explained that the new hats will have aluminum foil linings to protect the wearer against damaging radiation from Ez Pass detectors, cancer causing vibration from windmills and brain washing from exposure to liberal media. “We encourage our supporters to avoid electronically monitored toll roads, make whatever detour might be necessary to stay at least ten miles from windmills and listen only to ‘safe’ news outlets,” she said. “But we understand that people need to get to their jobs. And when you are getting your car fixed, you might not be able to convince everyone else in the waiting area about the dangers of listening to CNN. In cases like these, it’s good to know that your MAGA hat will protect your brain from any dangerous change of mind.”

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos hailed the new MAGA hat, which will be sold in child sizes, as a breakthrough for early childhood education. “We all know that the brains of very young children are malleable and subject to learning,” she said. “There are a lot of bad things children should not be learning. In a perfect world, we would have all children home schooled where they won’t learn much of anything. But unfortunately, we live in a world where most children go to public school. There they are exposed to learned teachers and libraries filled with books oozing dangerous ideas. Sending your children to school with the new MAGA hat will give them some measure of protection against premature learning.” Her sentiments were echoed by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Michael Azar II. “While our children are so very young and receptive to learning, we need to protect their brains from the dangers of overthinking,” he said. “The problem with liberalism is that it triggers thinking in children before they are able to handle it. We have to make sure we build all the correct thoughts about science, religion and politics into the minds of our children before we allow them to start thinking for themselves.”

Critics question not only the objective, but the efficacy of the new hats. “What scientific basis can there possibly be for the outrageous claim that tin foil can protect your brain from dangerous thoughts-or that there is any need for protection like that?” asked an incredulous reporter of Ms. McEnny. Ms. McEnny would not give specifics, but assured the reporter that the new and improved MAGA hat has been put through rigorous testing and has proven to be thoroughly effective. “Interviews and testing of people who wear our MAGA hats regularly demonstrate conclusively that our hats successfully inhibit thinking-and that’s before we added the aluminum foil linings,” she said.

The new MAGA hats are not yet ready for distribution and sale. Sources tell us that President Trump is tweaking some of his tariffs on Chinese goods to permit their importation into the United States. Ms. McEnny has assured the public, however, that the hats will be available well before the 2020 campaign gets under way.

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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

The God Who Remains

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word “meno,” translated in the English version as “remain” is the same in both cases. More broadly, the word means to “abide,” “live,” “dwell,” “continue” or “endure.” It carries with it the sense of determination to “hang in there” to the end. Used as it is in our lesson, the word indicates that, just as the Spirit remains and endures with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples remain and endure with him. Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide” is “meno,” the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson.

Abiding, remaining, enduring and continuing in Jesus is all important for John the Evangelist. Perhaps that is why his gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their boat and nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22. There is no ascension story in John’s gospel. It is as though the evangelist cannot imagine the church going on absent Jesus’ remaining fully present to his disciples. The gospel closes with the disciples following after their Lord. We are not told where they are going or what happened next. That is because the story of Jesus is not over and, in any event, it is a story too big for inclusion in any book-even the Bible. Indeed, John tells us that if everything Jesus has ever done were to be written down “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25.

The Spirit remains with Jesus and Jesus remains with his church, writing into human history too many stories to record even with today’s digital technology. Some of these stories constitute a dramatic public witness. I think of the disciples of Jesus abiding among refugees in wretched and terrifying conditions south of our border. I think of disciples all over the country abiding with and ministering to persons incarcerated for no better reason than that their paperwork is not in order. I think of believers around the world risking their lives abiding with non-white peoples and speaking out against the rising tide of global nationalism and white supremacy threatening their lives and communities. I think of the bold actions taken by my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its congregations on behalf of children and adults threatened daily with deportation from the only home they have ever known. All of this testifies to Jesus’ abiding with his church.

But not all of these stories are quite so visible. I also know many anonymous saints who work persistently each week to provide a community dinner for the homeless, for families that are food insecure and for people living alone who simply crave the opportunity to share a meal with others for a change. I recall the choir members from my prior congregation who remained faithfully with me week after week to ensure that our worship was rich in song and music. I watch with thanksgiving the hospice chaplains who remain faithfully with the dying in their final hours. Finally, I know of a church in Seattle, Washington that remained in its urban neighborhood throughout the 60s and 70s when its white inhabitants fled to the suburbs and transformed itself into a worshiping community reflecting its new neighbors. That same church stubbornly remains in its place today fighting for its neighbors as they struggle to save their homes and their community from domestic colonization, commonly known as “gentrification.” In a very real sense, John’s gospel continues to be written as Jesus remains with his church animating its people through his lifegiving Spirit.

God is the One who remains with us-even after we have messed up; even when the task seems hopeless; even when everyone else has thrown in the towel and gone home. That is good news to those of us who are hearing each day new evidence that the checks and balances in our government, that were supposed to protect us from tyranny, are coming apart at the seams, that our forests are burning up and that the international institutions and treaties that have maintained a semblance of global order for the last half century are failing. The one who sent the beloved Son for the sake of the world remains in and for the world. The one crucified by the world lives and remains in the world. The Spirit that remains with the Son continues breathing life into the world. If the Triune God stubbornly remains in and for the world, who are we to give up on it?

Here is a poem by Matthew Zapruder that I think reflects the kind of quiet “remaining” John the Evangelist attributes to our God and expects from disciples of Jesus.

I Commit

I commit to vote because
I’m pretty sure I grab
whatever I need from the world
and place it in my mind
which is getting incrementally
like the commons
undeniably more toxic and sad
yes I too walk around
considering my intractable problems
complaining it’s too late
for more sonatas
everything is already too beautiful
music and anger won’t save us
yet I commit to talking
earnestly with Sarah
about the school board
it will be night and we will be sitting
shoulder to shoulder
at the old table we love
each holding a pencil
like grade school children left alone at last
then in the morning
before our son wakes
I commit to holding
this tiny bit of quicksilver
(quick in the sense of living
in its very molecular nature
it wants to usefully combine with yours)
in my palm and to walking
up to the blue mailbox
I pass most mornings
in that familiar silence
under those nameless little trees
when all things that surround me wait

Source: Father’s Day, Zapruder, Matthew, c. 2019 by Matthew Zapruder; pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Matthew Zapruder (b. 1967) is an American poet, editor, translator, and professor. He holds a B.A. from Amherst College with a major in Russian Literature. He earned an M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in Slavic Languages and an M.F.A. from the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches in the low residency MFA program at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert and at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Zapruder is the author of several collections of poetry, including Father’s Day, from which the above poem is cited, as well as Sun Bear (2014), Come On All You Ghosts (2010), The Pajamaist (2006) and American Linden (2002). You can read more about Matthew Zapruder and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website and at the author’s own website.

An Address to Supporters of Donald Trump in the Spirit of “Golden Rule 2020”

Dear Supporters of President Donald Trump:

I just read in the Christian Century magazine that Christian leaders across theological and political divides are pushing an initiative called “Golden Rule 2020: A call for Dignity and Respect in Politics.” Part of this initiative calls for people of faith “to take a pledge” to promote the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) in political discourse. The objective is to “highlight the need to bridge the divisions in our country…”[1] My own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has signed on to this initiative as have The National Association of Evangelicals, the American Baptist Churches USA, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and The National Council of Churches. I understand that soon there will be an option on the Golden Rule 2020 website for individuals to endorse the project as well.

Though it pains me to spoil this Kumbaya moment, I won’t be signing the pledge. I don’t see the need. Whatever is in that pledge is surely covered by my baptismal vows “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” That means I won’t be driving a pick-up truck through your daughters’ college campus in the middle of the night sporting the flag of my chosen candidate while hurling insults, threats and obscenities, as did two of you at my daughter’s campus on the night of Donald Trump’s election. I won’t call you ugly names like “snowflake,” “libertard,” and “cuck” as you have done to me, my family, friends and my colleagues. I forgive you this behavior, though I doubt most of you know, care or feel the need for my forgiveness. If you come to my door hungry, homeless, sick or grieving, you will receive whatever help I can give you regardless the political affiliation displayed on your cap, your lapel or your bumper. I will pray for you, bless you and wish only the best for you and your loved ones. I will do all that because, as the GEICO commercial says, “it’s what you do” when you are a disciple of Jesus. Nevertheless, I must confess that I don’t have much respect for you and I’m about done talking to you.

Of  course, I will always treat you with respect because there is no other way to treat a neighbor. But respect you? Respect who you are and what you stand for? That’s an entirely different proposition. Let’s take a look at what you are asking of me.

  • You howled with laughter when Donald Trump mimicked and mocked a disabled reporter like a middle school bully. Is that your idea of funny? Are you one of those kids I remember from high school who laughed and jeered as the “cool” guys shoved the head of a terrified mentally impaired kid in the toilet? Well, you sickened me then and you sicken me now. How dare you demand respect!
  • You cheered when Donald Trump bad mouthed the family of a fallen soldier at the RNC convention. Is that your idea of patriotism? Is that what I am supposed to respect and admire about you?
  • You didn’t blink an eye when Donald Trump called several women “fat pigs” and “dogs.” You shrugged when he was caught on tape bragging about molesting women. When several women came forward to say that Mr. Trump had in fact done exactly what he said he did, he called them liars and several other derogatory names. But that didn’t stop you from supporting him. How much respect does that show for the women you love? I pray to God for your daughters, that they have some other healthy adult influence in their lives so that they don’t grow up believing that their bodies are fair game for any white celebrity who wants them. It doesn’t appear that they will be getting much of that from their parents!
  • You voted for Mr. Trump though you knew he had a sordid history of racial discrimination in his failed real estate ventures, that he called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and you still support him even after he referred to people of African nations by a name I won’t dignify in print. So I have to wonder, do you hate people of color as much as he does? Or is their dignity so inconsequential in your eyes that it doesn’t matter whether they are treated with respect by the president of the United States? And you would seek my respect?

Spin them any way you like, but these are hard facts.[2] This is the man you support. Because you support him, you own all of this crap. And let me add that it doesn’t matter one wit that you were not personally present at Trump’s rallies joining the mob in its hateful laughter and vile chanting or that you “don’t approve” of all the most extreme tweets from the White House. Bystanders at a lynching who do nothing to stop it are no less guilty than the ones doing the dirty work.

Please don’t tell me that all politicians lie, that all presidents have had their faults, that Donald Trump is being held to a higher standard than past presidents or any similar malarkey. Nobody is saying that any past president was perfect. But as imperfect as they may have been, past presidents did not criminally assault women and brag about it, spew racist rhetoric, make fun of disabled people or mock the families of fallen soldiers to the cheers of their crazed followers. They didn’t hurl personal insults at their political opponents and make personal attacks on members of their families. I refuse to normalize these  atrocious behaviors by letting you shrug them off as just the endearing idiosyncrasies of an otherwise normal president. If you can excuse this behavior in the highest law enforcement official in the land, you don’t deserve respect.

Finally, don’t tell me that, in spite of his obvious shortcomings, you support Donald Trump because he has given us a booming economy with low unemployment.[3] That is no different than excusing Hitler for killing six-million innocent people because, after all, he gave people jobs, cleaned up the streets and got the trains running on time. These lame excuses only tell me you understand exactly how corrupt, immoral, perverse and cruel Mr. Trump is, but that you don’t care. You are willing to overlook his racism, misogyny, lies and lawless actions as long as your wallet is padded. Morality has nothing to do with it because for you, everything boils down to money. This makes your support for Trump more rather than less despicable.

You want me to respect you? To put this as civilly as humanly possible: Oh hell no. Where I come from, respect is earned. The people I respect have earned their respectability through acts of kindness, compassion and courage. They are people who stand up to bullies when they victimize weak and vulnerable people. They are people unafraid to speak up when they hear someone make a racist or demeaning remark-even when it spoils Thanksgiving dinner. They are people who do the right thing even if it means losing an election, getting fired from their job or being shunned by family and friends. I respect people whose lives demonstrate that truth, justice and mercy matter more than the health of their retirement accounts, the size of their paychecks or the GNP. To be sure, you have my compassion, my pity and my prayers. But if you want my respect, start earning it.

I also have no further interest in dialogue with you. I’ve tried that numerous times and, to be perfectly honest, I’m exhausted. If this is a war of attrition, you win. I can’t do it anymore. Make no mistake about it, I would have loved to have had a serious discussion with you about the important issues facing our nation. But I can’t possibly have an intelligent, civil conversation with people who make up “alternative facts” when they don’t like the real ones and believe in baseless fairytale conspiracies. So as long as you insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that Ukraine and not Russia was responsible for interfering with our elections in 2016, as long as you insist, contrary to scientific consensus, that climate change is a Chinese hoax because some talking head at Fox or Breitbart told you so, as long as you go on blathering about the “the deep state,” about how liberals, socialists and intellectual elites are conspiring to destroy Christianity, steal your light bulbs and slow down your toilets, as long as you continue propagating myths about how gay and lesbian people can and should change their sexual orientation through a harmful and thoroughly discredited “conversion therapy” and as long as you continue passing off as news wild assertions, such as that Hillary Clinton and George Soros are running a child porn business out of some pizza parlor and all the other make believe crap your president and his enablers dribble into cyberspace, we’ve got nothing to talk about. I won’t dignify such moronic hog slobber by admitting it into serious discourse. If you want to rot out your brains with that phony bologna and throw away the rest of your lives chasing a pack of lies, be my guest. But don’t expect me to waste a single minute of my life chasing you down all of those empty rabbit holes. I have better things to do.

Perhaps you think I’m being unfair, that I am branding you with a stereotype you don’t deserve and that you don’t recognize yourself in the picture I have painted. Believe it or not, I hope to God you are right. Nothing would make me happier than to learn that I have been wrong about you and your president all along. I would love to believe that there is “another side” to this story that I’m just not seeing. But after three plus years of trying to carry on conversations with you that always seem to end in your calling me some derogatory name, reading your president’s tweets and listening to his speeches, watching your  abominable behavior at his rallies and being the recipient of your hate mail on my FB news feed and on my blog, I have not seen anything of value under that pile of filth which is the Trump presidency. So if there is something I’m missing here, by all means point it out to me. But don’t waste your time or mine with any further recitations of the above. If that is all you have, please stay in your bubble and swap your bigoted opinions, your made up facts and your hair brain conspiracy theories among yourselves and leave me out of it.

On that note, I will close with a prayer that the new year brings you health, happiness and a goodly measure of peace. May we someday meet as friends with genuine mutual respect in a brighter future unclouded by ignorance, cruelty and lies.

Very Truly Yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

[1] Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics

[2] I am not even taking into consideration here the Mueller Report and the impeachment proceedings.

[3] There is more wrong with the bogus claim crediting Donald Trump with positive economic indicators than one can shake a stick at. But, in the spirit of the golden rule initiative and because I am feeling benevolent today, I will give you that one for the sake of argument.

How Can You Speak When Everyone is Shouting?

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Prayer of the Day: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  Isaiah 42:1-4

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17

As 2020 dawns, so do the presidential primaries. Already we are hearing the shrill cries of the contenders for and the defender of the oval office seeking to make their voices heard in the street, in print, over the airways and through the internet. This promises to be a bruising season as all but one wick must inevitably be extinguished. While the no holds barred tactics and over the top rhetoric promise to make this election more abrasive and divisive than we have seen in recent years, the process has always been ruthless with a lot of bruising and quenching along the path to glory. About the only thing to be said for republican democracy is that it manages the will to power in such a way that we avoid assassinations, rioting and the sight of tanks in our streets-so far at least.

By contrast, the Beloved Son raises neither his voice nor a sword. His way of “establish[ing] justice in the earth” does not involve seizing the levers of power. For that reason, he need not trouble himself with raising funds, whether in wine caves among the well heeled or through appeals over the internet to the anonymous masses. He is content to travel dusty roads from town to town, trusting in the hospitality of strangers and preaching the good news of God’s gentle reign to whomever will hear it. That does not sound like a winning strategy. But if the cost of winning is breaking a few bruised reeds along the way and quenching a few embers struggling to remain lit, Jesus is not interested. Jesus understands that bringing justice to the coast lands cannot be accomplished by conquest or electoral victory. Jesus has no interest in ruling the world by force. He will conquer it by persuasive, persistent and undying love-or not at all.

It is easy in times like these for the church to be drawn into the shouting match between partisan interests screaming their moral imperatives, advertising their calls to action and asserting their priorities-much of which are cast in terms of the interests of the nation state in which we reside rather than the reign of God under which we are called to live. This week at a gathering of evangelical Christians in Miami the President of the United States declared to a cheering crowd that “God is on our side.” Whether that was meant to refer to his military strikes against Iran or his upcoming re-election campaign or both is anybody’s guess. Either way, it amounts to an equation of God with the nation and its leaders’ political agenda. As such, it constitutes an idolatrous nationalism that, to date, our mainline churches have been shy about confronting head on. Perhaps that is because we, too, have been drawn into the political fray in more subtle ways and have tied our mission a little too closely to the fortunes of the American empire.

I am not suggesting that churches ought to steer clear of politics. We could not do that if we wanted. But we need to enter into the business of politics with a very clear and sober understanding of what it is, namely, the art of the possible. In a democratic republic, government is designed to create a framework of laws acceptable to a diverse population made up of groups with similar, overlapping and sometimes conflicting interests. Legislators must understand that, in order to get their highest priorities enacted, they must put others on the back burner or sacrifice them altogether. They must sometimes agree to drop their opposition to laws they find objectionable in order to win the support of other legislators whose votes need to get their own legislation passed. Hopefully, this process will evolve into an adequate, if not perfect arrangement under which everyone gets enough of what they need to live together in a measure of peace. That’s the intent, anyway.

While the church is not indifferent to the shape of the civil structures under which we live with our neighbors, its mission is to proclaim the reign of God. God’s reign is not the product of political evolution, but the result of God’s revolutionary incursion on the planet by way of Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection. In view of God’s resurrection of Jesus and seating him at God’s right hand, the rule and authority of all other sovereigns is rendered relative, temporary and contingent. The church is therefore not at liberty to yield its ultimate allegiance to any government, national leader or political party. Thus, for example, disciples of Jesus are not at liberty to “soft peddle” racial justice even though it is regarded by many progressive politicians as the “third rail” of American politics whose very touch can render them unelectable. So while it might make sound political sense for a candidate for office to put issues like reparations to descendants of African American slaves on the back burner in the interest of defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 election, for the church to do the same would be a faithless betrayal of the Lord to whom the church owes its highest allegiance. As tempting as it can be to settle for the “possible,” the “achievable” and the “lesser of evils,” disciples of Jesus know that justice can never be subordinated or delayed in the interest of some “higher good.” “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” II Corinthians 6:2. In God’s view, there are no higher goods than justice, righteousness and peace-all of which must be had together or not at all.

The long and short of it is this: disciples of Jesus must enter into the political realm with a willingness to lose elections, accept failure of their efforts and live with defeat. Faithfulness, not efficacy, is the measure by which political involvement (and all other Christian endeavors) must be judged. That is because the reign of God is not a distant future hope to be achieved, but a present reality given to us as sheer gift. Our political involvement, then, consists first and foremost of witness to the reality of God’s reign and the imperatives it places upon us. If along the way we accomplish something in the political realm, so much the better.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson God lets us know in no uncertain terms that the beloved Son is none other than the one who whose ministry fails spectacularly with his arrest, his followers’ desertion and his cruel execution. Everyone Jesus healed eventually died of something else. His preaching was misunderstood by most, ignored by many and opposed by some. It doesn’t always seem that Jesus left us with much and often it seems we have very little to offer the world or each other. Our world’s wounds are so very deep and our efforts so very frail. I think about that as I walk the beaches of Cape Cod picking up discarded bottles, plastic bags and deflated balloons-even as Australian forests burn, the polar ice fields melt and my government opens up the regulatory floodgates to pollutants we have spent forty years cleaning up. I wonder as I peel carrots for our town’s community walk in dinner what real world effect I can possibly have on the looming threat of global famine. Most days it seems as though our acts of kindness and mercy amount to little more than a thimble full of water thrown at a raging wild fie. As in the words of the poet, it often seems as though we have little more to offer than a frail opportunity, a mere chance for a better tomorrow in some small corner of the planet.

In the weeks to come, Jesus will let us know in no uncertain terms that his followers can expect nothing less than what he himself experiences. Yet because God raised up the crucified one who staked his life on a kingdom of which we can catch only fleeting glimpses, disciples of Jesus persist with living into that kingdom, as futile and ineffectual as that might seem. They know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. For them, as for Jesus, God’s reign is more real than the “political realities” that constrain the workings of nation states. God in God’s limitless compassion and generosity, takes up our little offerings of kindness and mercy and puts them to work in God’s undying mission to redeem and make new God’s creation.

Live and Let Live

It must have been born out of time,
that wasp I saw fly across the room,
startled evidently when the clock began to chime.
Cooped up indoors it would surely expire
from hunger, thirst, or a swift blow with the newspaper
wielded by my mother-in-law in her ire.
Outside on this cold December night
it stood hardly a better chance,
the dead grass and flowers being shrouded in icy white.
No friend of these creatures am I,
having known their venomous sting,their malicious humming in the sky.
To this one misplaced stranger, though,
I felt a certain kinship, a bond between myself
and this insect, my natural foe.
Desperately, I hoped he would survive,
yet knew the odds were stacked against him
and could not imagine how he’d stay alive.
I opened the window and let him fly.
He disappeared into the black of night.
The wind gave fourth a mournful cry.
So often it seems the most we have to give
is a lottery ticket, a quarter to the homeless beggar,
the hope, the possibility, the mere chance to live.

Source: Anonymous

Preaching the Absurdity of a Human God

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS/EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

When I was still in active full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Epiphany on the closest Sunday to January 6th. I was advised once (in a very disapproving tone) by one of my colleagues in ministry that this is not proper liturgical practice. Epiphany, he told me, is not a “movable” feast. Consequently, it ought to be celebrated with a separate mass on whichever day January 6th falls. That’s fine in theory. If I thought for one moment that my working members would take the day off, my teens would skip a day of school or that my elderly members would drive through the dark to a weekday service, I would gladly have done an additional Eucharist. But that was not about to happen and I was not about to exile Epiphany, a feast I consider critical to the church calendar, to a worship service no one would attend. So, I advised my learned colleague that Epiphany would be celebrated in my parish the coming Sunday and that he could sue me. (OK. I really said something more gracious and respectful, but to the same effect.) If you are of the same mind, I invite you to re-visit my post of January 3, 2015.

Of course, this need not be a binary choice between sticking to the lectionary or observing Epiphany. Sunday’s gospel from St. John presents a perfect opportunity for talking about the revealing of God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ. I think that perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel is aptly reflected in the words of John Steinbeck:

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.

Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.

John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God.

But then John goes on to tell us something really remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. John goes on to speak of the enfleshed Word as God’s Son. It would seem that if we are going to say that God has a Son, it follows inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset as it forged its Trinitarian confession, rejecting numerous simplistic and more plausible alternative understandings along the way. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.

The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, by disrespect for the Bible or by desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.

One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!

There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful. One might consider weaving the themes of Epiphany into the miracle of the Incarnation and the divine humanity of Jesus-as does the following hymn by Mechthild of Magdeburg.

We praise You, O Lord.
For you have sought us in your humility,
Saved us by your compassion,
Honored us by your humanity,
Led us by your gentleness,
Ordered us by your wisdom,
Protected us by your power,
Sanctified us by your holiness,
Illumined us by your intimacy,
Raised us by your love.

Source: The Flowing Light of the Godhead,  published in Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Writings, Madigan, Shawn ed., (c. Fortress Press, 1998). Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282) was monastic and mystic born to a noble Saxon family. At age 12 she had the first of several visions. In 1230 she left her home renouncing all claim to wealth and privilege to join a Beguine order at Magdeburg. There she seems to have risen to a position of authority in the community. She became acquainted with the Dominicans and became a Dominican tertiary, studying many of the Dominican writers. It was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged and helped Mechthild to compose The Flowing Light. Mechthird’s criticism of church dignitaries and their religious laxity along with her claims to theological insight by reason of her visions aroused ecclesiastical opposition. Some clerics called for the burning of her writings. In old age Mechthird lost her sight and found herself alone and the object of much criticism. Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, where she was given protection and support in the last years of her life. You can read more about Mechthild of Magdeburg and sample more of her writings at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

Jesus at the Border

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The grizzly story we know as the “Slaughter of the Innocents” and the flight of the Holy Family from that terror into Egypt reads very much like the stories of thousands of refugee families fleeing gang violence, starvation and war in Central and South America, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Burma and many other places around the globe. As we don’t read that Mary and Joseph were detained at the Egyptian border, the family separated or the Christ child confiscated and caged, we can presume that the imperial authorities regulating borders back in the 1st Century were a tad more humane than our own U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, affectionately known as “ICE.” This is the same border to which Abraham and Sarah came fleeing famine and starvation in Canaan some four millennia earlier and felt compelled to trade sexual favors for passage. Centuries later, Jacob and his family came as refugees to Egypt and then fled as refugees four centuries later. The people of Israel knew very well what it was like having to flee from home to a foreign land. They knew what it was like to live as foreigners in a land where they were hated, feared and persecuted. It is for this reason that as Israel established itself as a people in the land God had given them, the people were strictly ordered: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34.

As I write these lines, hundreds of asylum seekers, including around 200 young children are sleeping in the open near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This is due to policies under U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at reducing the number of new arrivals in the United States. This has caused a backlog as United States border officials limit the number of asylum cases they receive at ports of entry each day. Consequently, tens of thousands of mainly Central American asylum seekers live for months in Mexico as they await court dates or interviews with border officials.

As serious as this humanitarian crisis is, it pales in comparison with the horrendous suffering resulting from migrant refugee waves within and out of Africa, Asia and South America. Moreover, this too is but a foretaste of the global refugee movements that will surely be triggered by floods, famines and epidemics resulting from climate change. Soon, the industrialized nations will be faced with a stark choice: 1) meet the refugee crisis with substantial aid for those areas worst affected, open borders to resettle displaced persons and sacrifice substantially to rebuild a more just and sustainable order; or 2) fortify their borders and use all necessary means to preserve their positions of wealth, power and privilege. The current administration has clearly chosen the second path. But disciples of Jesus know that salvation lies in the first.

My biggest fear is that one day my church, which has issued apologies for its participation in our country’s slave trade, for its involvement in the genocide of America’s first nations, for its silence and complicity in the murder of six million Jews will someday be issuing an apology for its failure to stand with refugees turned away at numerous borders and allowed to die. For once, I hope the church recognizes Jesus in the hungry, poor and desperate stranger in front of its face rather than having to apologize for making that recognition only a century later. There are some hopeful signs. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is currently suing the Trump administration over its unlawful executive orders severely limiting refugee resettlement within our borders. Congregations of all Christian traditions around the country are sheltering refugee families from deportation. Armies of disciples are at our border even now assisting refugees with nutritional support, medical care and legal representation. It is my Advent prayer that perhaps this time, the Church of Jesus Christ will be standing with Jesus, the child of refugees fleeing for their lives in search of a safe haven.

Here’s a poem by Robert Southwell, S.J. capturing this very hope:

The Burning Babe

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Robert Southwell (1561–1595) was an English Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit Order and a poet, hymnodist. He served the Roman See as a clandestine missionary in post-Reformation England. Southwell was arrested and imprisoned in 1592 and after being tortured and interrogated by the authorities, he was tried and convicted of high treason for his links to the Roman Catholic Church. He was executed in February of 1595 by hanging., Southwell was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. You can read more about Robert Southwell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.