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.

We’re Not Indispensable

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Prayer of the Day: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21:43.

Long before the days of ATMs and online deposits, I brought a check to my bank for deposit at one of the tellers windows. The teller promptly deposited the check and handed me a deposit receipt. While inspecting it on the way out, I noticed that the amount recorded on the receipt was exactly fifty dollars less than the amount on the check. Needless to say, I returned it to the teller who, after consulting with a bank manager, reissued the receipt in the correct amount with profuse apologies. “Not a problem,” I replied. “Just glad we caught it.” The bank manager was not quite so sanguine. “Don’t forget,” I heard him say to the teller. “You can be replaced.” Though not directed at me, those words and the tone in which they were spoken sent a chill down my spine. Perhaps the chief priests and Pharisees to which Jesus directed his parable felt the same.

I pause here to state what should be obvious, namely, that the passage cited above does not support the heretical supersessionist view that Christianity is God’s “better” replacement for Judaism. In fact, this text comes to us from a time before which either “Judaism” or “Christianity” existed as such. There was in Jesus’ day a people of Israel consisting of faith communities in Judea, Galilee, Samaria and regions scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The Jesus movement was one of several such communities. The boundaries for inclusion within Israel were disputed, as was the locus of genuine religious authority. Moreover, the parable is not directed against Israel as a whole, but against the chief priests and the Pharisaic leaders in Jerusalem. Consequently, Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the temple establishment and its leaders (similarly delivered by other faith communities within Israel) cannot be interpreted as a rejection of Israel in favor of a new chosen people.

How, then shall we read this text in our present context? As the parable is directed to the “clergy” of Jesus’ day, perhaps that is the place we ought to start. Maybe this text presents a challenge to those of us on the roster who identify as “called” to reflect on the kinds of fruit we produce. That is an especially uncomfortable task for me as I am currently retired from full time ministry. What I have done is done. It isn’t as though reflection on my part is going to benefit the church’s ministry going forward. Still, I am part of a living community of faith and so, along with all the baptized, I stand in need of confession, repentance and absolution.

“Fruit” is important for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew’s gospel. It is the defining characteristic of a true disciple. “You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus. Matthew 7:16. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’” Matthew 7:21-22. I suppose I might plead, “Was I not baptized and confirmed in your name? Was I not ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in your name?” Yet the possibility remains that my fruits might be such as to make me altogether unrecognizable as disciple of Jesus. Matthew 7:23.

While I am sure there are more shortcomings in my ministry than I am aware of, the one that grieves me most is my failure to appreciate properly the faithfulness and dedication of my lay leaders. In my first parish, I was particularly critical of my treasurer who seemed always to be fretting about the state of our finances when I was trying to get our council to focus on mission opportunities. “Why does it always have to come down to dollars and cents?” I asked at one meeting in a tone of exasperation. Though addressed to the council as a whole, my treasurer felt the brunt of that remark-as I probably intended. I didn’t stop to think that this woman, now in her 60s, was taking on a responsibility nobody else wanted, that she lay awake at night worrying about meeting the church’s expenses-not the least of which was my salary-or that she already had a full time job and an infirm relative to care for. Of course, I stand by my firm belief that a church’s life is guided not by the resources it has on hand, but by the mission to which it is called. But the faith required to sustain such a vision should not fall solely on the individual who must pay the bills and balance the books. What my treasurer needed was an expression of my appreciation for her good work and my assurance that she would be supported no matter what financial difficulties might arise from our decisions.

Nothing used to frustrate me more than council meetings at which we discussed and re-litigated again and again issues that were resolved in prior meetings, as evidenced by the minutes we approved! “These people have memories like mayflies!” I once vented to a colleague. Then, after resigning my first call, I went to law school and spent the next twenty-one years in practice. Although I remained on the clergy roster and did some supply preaching during that time, I was for all intents and purposes simply another member of the congregation to which I belonged. In this new life, the church and its rhythms were no longer the focus of my day to day existence. There I learned what it is like to work between sixty and seventy hours a week, care for sick family members, carry the weight of anxiety about potential unemployment and deal with the struggles of my children in school-only to be snapped at during a counsel meeting because I could not recall exactly what happened at a meeting that took place the month before. When I took my second full time call, I made a point of trying to exercise more patience, understanding, appreciation and compassion for these people who were giving up an evening at home with their families to support the work of their church. I hope that I did a better job the second time around.

When Jesus warns us that the kingdom might be taken away from us, he cannot be understood to mean that we are lost to the kingdom. The kingdom is God’s generous gift to the whole world God created and loves. It cannot be confiscated by anyone, neither will God rescind it. The kingdom does not belong to us anymore than it belonged to the chief priests and the Pharisees. Like them, we are stewards of the mysteries of God, spokespeople for the kingdom. Like them, we are not indispensable. We can be replaced. The call to be servants to the servants of God is a privilege, not a right. If we fail to produce the fruits of the kingdom, God will find others for this good work. That is good news for the people of God, even though it strikes a little healthy fear into the hearts of us clerics.

I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that, whatever my shortcomings, God has permitted me to remain in the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all these years. Nonetheless, I am sure that “the Day” will disclose much in my ministry that will fail the test of “fire.” I Corinthians 3:10-15. But however much of the work I might have botched, Saint Paul assures me that I myself can yet be saved-albeit by fire. I Corinthians 3:15. We do well, I think, to read Jesus’ parable as a sobering reminder that we are not irreplaceable, that we are fallible vessels for an infinite treasure and that the time we have to be of service is extremely limited. So we are left with the prayer of Moses, the man of God: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17.

Here is a poem about lost opportunity for fruitfulness that should inspire us to use wisely and well the time and the gifts we have been given in order to be fruitful servants for the kingdom of God.

Autumn Regrets
 
What’s left of my garden is
bathed in the moon’s white, frosty glow.
Big green tomatoes which will never ripen
into juicy red fruit
hang motionless from vines dried and dead.
The soil I spent so much time turning
over, mulching and raking is now choked
with weeds and littered with fallen leaves.
An early freeze took all but a few hearty geraniums.
Those remaining are but a sad, ruined shadow of
the flowerbed I envisioned beneath the
fig and mirabella trees.
My shovel, rake and hoe resting in the wheelbarrow
nearby accuse me of neglect.
They have been sitting idle, caked with dirt
since early spring.
This garden has too seldom felt the caring
touch of a gardener.
Many a day its parched earth cried out for water.
Weeds choked its tender shoots without mercy.
I saw, but was consumed with more important things.
Now, my heart grieves for this little plot of ground,
this garden which I planted but could not cultivate,
and for all the dreams I have failed to nourish,
the plans for good I have allowed to die.

Source: Anonymous

Time to Bid Farewell to Sunday School and Confirmation?

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Prayer of the Day: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:5.

One could say that this is the whole point of the church, namely, to be a community animated by the Spirit of Jesus. I didn’t come that understanding in my seminary studies. I learned it in the church of my childhood from a teenager named Gary. Gary helped with our Sunday School and he was the only teenage boy I knew who showed any interest in kids my age. My church friends and I lived for that fifteen minutes between the end of Sunday School and the start of the service during which Gary played kick ball with us. He listened to our stories and laughed at our silly jokes. I don’t remember exactly when I learned Gary was what in those days we called “mentally retarded.” What I do know is that my thinking about Gary was shaped by a community that received him, not as a social problem to be solved, but as a child of God with special gifts to offer. I didn’t need to be “taught” that “disabled” persons were not to be mocked, ridiculed or patronized. The “thou shalt not” was unnecessary because the “shalt” had been so thoroughly modeled for me in a community shaped by the mind of Christ.

Yes, I know that the church doesn’t always get it right. You don’t have to look any further than Saint Paul’s letters to find out that the church was from the beginning and still is rent by false teachings, divided along racial and cultural lines, plagued with ambitious  leaders obsessed with being “first” and consumed with disputes over money. Yet it is within the furnace of such communities that saints are forged. The mind of Christ is formed among people who would never have chosen each other as friends. It takes shape when people who don’t much like each other learn to love one another. Formation of Christ’s mind in our midst depends on a confident belief that Jesus has called everyone in our congregation, even-or rather especially-the one you can hardly stand. The church’s job is to incorporate each person’s gifts into Jesus’ ministry and mission. The ancient church had a name for this process: catechesis.

Sometimes catechesis happens informally and spontaneously as was the case with Gary. But discipleship, as the name suggests, is built on discipline. It is something that must be taught and learned through communal practices. On the whole, I think it is fair to say that mainline protestant churches like my own have, at best, a mixed record when it comes to developing effective catechetical practices. I have been reflecting a lot recently on those practices within my own Lutheran tradition. While I have nothing in the way of new revolutionary approachs to catechesis, I have a few concerns about our old ones and some observations about how catechesis actually happens, often in spite of rather than because of what we do. I leave to greater minds the development of new directions formal catechesis might take in the future.

First, I think it is time to retire Sunday School. Don’t get me wrong. Sunday School once served a noble purpose. Sunday schools were set up in the 18th century to provide education to working children. The American system was begun by Samuel Slater in the 1790s. Classes were held in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There was no universal compulsory education at that time and no prohibition against child labor. Thus,  Sunday was the only day on which school could be held for working children. The church took a leadership role in this movement with the laudable goal of providing basic education to children that would otherwise have grown up illiterate.

With the passage of laws prohibiting child labor and requiring universal compulsory education, the Sunday School movement’s objective was met. But, like so many institutions that have outlived their usefulness, Sunday School refused to die. Instead, it evolved into a ministry of the church designed to provide “Christian education” to its members’ children. Over the years few, if any, church leaders questioned this method of catechesis. We all assumed that employing the methods of the classroom to catechetical instruction was the best way to pass on our faith to the next generation.

That is still the assumption. In every church I have served, Sunday School was in decline and there was much distress over that fact. I have spent numerous anxious hours with good church people wracking their brains over how to “fix” Sunday School. In all these discussions, there was always an unshakable conviction that Sunday School was the future of our church and that our survival depended on building it back up. But if a healthy Sunday School really does equate with effective catechesis, then I have to wonder, where are all the thousands of kids that went through Sunday School in the church’s heyday? Why are they and their children not in church today? Perhaps Sunday School was not all it cracked up to be.

More important, when did you ever read about Jesus or Saint Paul teaching religion classes? Jesus’ disciples learned to follow Jesus by, well, following him. They got their training on the job. So, too, Saint Paul urges his churches to “imitate” him. That might sound a little arrogant, but if your chief catechetical tool is example, it makes good sense. Perhaps our children should be accompanying our lay leaders on home communion visits, working with them at food distribution centers or learning to write letters to congress as part of the church’s advocacy ministry. Maybe time formerly devoted to Sunday School should be spent training children to assume responsibilities for service on the altar at worship. Education is best received when it is requested via the inevitable questions, i.e., “So why do we do this? Why are we changing the color of the vestments? Why do we stand for the gospel? How come we don’t say alleluia in Lent?” It should be noted that our Small Catechism, the Lutheran Church’s chief teaching document, was designed for heads of families to instruct their children. Where did we get the idea that it was supposed to be used by pastors for teaching confirmation classes?

Which brings me to my second observation. Perhaps it is time to retire confirmation. For the life of me, I could never see the logic in demanding that budding adolescents, who are only beginning to think for themselves, question what they have been taught and form their own opinions, publicly commit to a set of doctrinal propositions they learned in classes they were most likely required to take. Confirmation, as we currently practice it, is inherently coercive. If there is one thing young teens hate, it is being coerced. Small wonder, then, we see so few of them after they are confirmed. I am aware, of course, that theologians, Christian educators and pastors (myself included) have worked from hell to breakfast trying to make confirmation more “relevant” for young people. But it has always seemed to me that we were only taking the edge off what is a fundamentally flawed program-a little like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poop.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that the church should give up on discipling teens. The church must work actively to shape in adolescents the mind of Christ no less than it does for all its members. What I do believe is that, once again, catechesis is accomplished more through example and participation in ministry than in formal classroom teaching. Moreover, not every individual travels in the same direction or at the same pace when it comes to spiritual formation. Rather than establishing one hard and fast time and place for all teens to make their formal confession of faith, why not create several opportunities for Affirmation of Baptism throughout the church year? There are also plenty of occasional opportunities where the Affirmation can be employed meaningfully, such as upon taking on a ministry or office in the congregation or during a rite of blessing before leaving for college. There is no reason to require arbitrarily that all persons aged fourteen who have completed a specified religious curriculum submit to this rite under penalty of extreme disapproval.

Catechesis is and always has been critical. If we had done it right from the beginning, we would not have to be explaining to our members why it is important to declare that black lives matter, why we welcome refugees a lot of Americans want to keep out of our country, why we care as much for the poor on the other side of the world as for those in our own neighborhoods or why being pro life does not mean submitting the bodies of women to government regulation. Of course, we have never gotten catechesis completely right. Perhaps we never will. But that is no excuse for striving to do it better.

Here is a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman with a lyric description of what catechesis looks like in her faith community.

New Marriage, A Barnraising

What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first

post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-

beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have

tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be

offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters

who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What

grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step

on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.

They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading

out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not

own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves

Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.

Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.

 

 

 

 

Mitch McConnell to Hold Prompt Vote on Confirmation of Trump Supreme Court Nominee-Whoever it is

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel announced today that he will push for an immediate vote to confirm President Trump’s nominee to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court-whoever that might be. “If the President want’s him,” he told reporters, “there’s nothing left to discuss. So let’s get on with the vote.”  McConnel dismissed criticisms from Democrats who pointed out that Republicans blocked former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on grounds that no such action should be taken by the Senate on the eve of a general election. “This is  not the same thing at all,” McConnel quipped. “This situation is entirely different. Why, it’s as different as black and white.” Mr. McConnell denied assertions that Republicans were out to undue Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of supporting civil rights for women and minorities. “The whole idea that Republicans are out to deprive minorities of their voting rights and take away protections from discrimination against women and limit women’s reproductive rights is just left wing hysteria,” McConnell said. “But even if that were all true,” he added, “would it really be so bad?”

Meanwhile, the White House announced that the flag would be flown at half mast to honor the departed Supreme Court Justice. “Fifteen minutes ought to do it,” said presidential press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. Asked whether the president had yet settled on a nominee, McEnany declined comment, but added that Mr. Trump’s criteria for selection are simple. “It all boils down to three things: white skin, a penis and loyalty to the president,” she said. McEnany did not deny that white supremacists, Richard Spencer and Stephen Miller were on Trump’s short list. “There has been plenty of controversy over which lives matter in this country,” she said. “The president strongly believes that the highest court should settle the matter once and for all and so it’s critical that we have enough people on the court with a clear understanding of what is really at stake.”

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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

Justice isn’t Fair!

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15.

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11.

Jonah has a problem with God. It is not that God is cruel, vengeful or capricious. Jonah’s problem is that his God is too kind, too generous and not sufficiently vindictive. There is nothing wrong with Jonah’s expression of anger against God or his desire for revenge against Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s arch enemy. The Psalms are filled with such sentiments. But however graphic and terrible the punishments called down upon their enemies, the psalmists always leave for God the responsibility of executing the justice they seek. “’Vengeance is mine,”’ says the Lord,” according to St. Paul. Romans 12:19 citing Deuteronomy 32:35.

The problem for Jonah, and perhaps for us too, is that God’s justice frequently looks different from the way we think justice ought to look. In our limited perspective, justice amounts to fashioning a punishment that fits a particular crime. From that constricted point of view, the mercy shown to Nineveh was clearly unjust. The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was notoriously brutal in its scorched earth methodology of conquest. Next to Assyria, ISIS looks like a scout troop. How can the God who brought destruction on the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple for Israel’s sins give Nineveh a pass on its centuries of violence just because its king declared a national day of prayer? Can you imagine the outrage if one of our judges were to suspend execution or imprisonment for a serial killer in exchange for a mere expression of remorse, however sincere it might be?

I suspect the same outrage is evoked by Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It just doesn’t seem right that a group of workers, who have spent the better part of the day unemployed and sitting in the shade, should be paid the same wage as those who have been working from dawn to dusk. We Americans, who believe ourselves to be self made, independent and industrious, put a high premium on rewarding hard work and punishing sloth. Treating the late coming workers the same as those that have been in the field for the duration cannot help but destroy their incentive to work hard and earn their livings. Moreover, what incentive is there for the other workers to continue putting in a full day’s work once they find out they can get the same pay by showing up an hour before quitting time? In short, it just isn’t fair.

But I have to ask, is “fair” what we really want? If that is what justice requires, what is fair punishment for the serial killer? Should the same punishment be inflicted on the parents who abused him since he was a toddler? What about the neighbors who heard him scream with every lash of the belt, but simply turned up the TV and tried to ignore it because, after all, it was none of their business? What about the gym teacher who noticed the welts on the young boy’s body, but didn’t want to risk an ugly confrontation with the family? What about a community that votes consistently to defund school counseling services and other programs designed to identify and intervene on behalf of children with serious behavioral problems? None of this is to suggest that the killer is not responsible for his deeds. He surely is. But the responsibility is not his alone and perhaps not even primarily his. What would justice look like if everyone in that chain of responsibility got what they deserved?

In my reading of Jesus’ parable, I have always identified more with the workers who went into the vineyard early and worked to the end of the day. And why not? I worked hard in school (at least after my second year in high school). I worked hard in every parish I served. I worked my way through law school and practiced law for eighteen years, working my way into partnership at my firm. I was never unemployed a day in my working life. The comfortable retirement I now enjoy is nothing less than what I earned by the sweat of my brow-or so I like to think.

But is my thinking correct? Did I really pull myself up by my own bootstraps? I had the good fortune to be born in the mid fifties when the economy was friendlier to blue collar workers lacking a college education-like my father. Having been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, Dad was able to secure an entry level job that paid a living wage. Through careful saving, numerous opportunities for on-the-job training that, in turn, led to promotions, he was able to build a small house and secure for his four children the college education he was never able to obtain. Though Dad was a diligent, hard worker, I have no doubt he would have found his course a good deal more difficult had he started out at the same place around the turn of the recent century.

As I said, I worked hard for all my life but, like my father, I had more than a few head starts. For one thing, I am a man. That means that a lot of professional opportunities were open to me that did not exist for my sisters. Even though women have made numerous advances throughout my lifetime, they still experience barriers I never had to overcome. I never had to worry about how to deal with a predatory boss or client, whether my clothing was too provocative, to severe or otherwise inappropriate. I didn’t have to worry about going into a job interview with just the right balance of respect and assertiveness so that I don’t come across as either too weak or too “bitchy.” I did not have to battle daily the presumption that some jobs are not for my sex, that people of my sex are not suited for leadership positions, that my family responsibilities would hinder my job performance or that, because I had a working husband, I could make due with less pay.

For another thing, I was white. That means I never had to think about how job interviewers might react to my skin color, my hair, facial features or my accent. I didn’t have to deal with questions trying to ferret out whether I really earned my law degree or whether I got into school and got special treatment because of some “affirmative action” program. I didn’t graduate from college, seminary or law school with a crushing load of debt. I could add to this that I was not born into abject poverty; that I was not born with physical or mental impariments making it difficult or impossible to find work; that I have not experienced any disabling accidents or injuries throughout my working life. The list could go on forever. Again, I am not saying I didn’t work hard to get where I am today. But I am compelled to admit that, without the aforementioned advantages, I would have been working a lot harder and a lot longer to get to the same place.

So, in reality, I am more like the eleventh hour workers than I like to admit. For that reason, I am reluctant to insist that justice be based solely on fairness. I shudder to think where that might leave me. Perhaps that is the point of Jesus’ parable. Justice-God’s justice-is not a matter of giving everyone their just desserts. It is about giving all of us together what we need to thrive. Why are we so resentful about that? Why, when God has provided so richly for our needs, do we look with a resentful eye at God’s goodness toward someone we deem undeserving? Why are so many religious people outraged at the very thought that God might not punish the wicked in this life or the next as they seemingly deserve? Is it so hard to see that if God were to execute our kind of justice, no one “could stand?” Psalm 130:3. The good news of the gospel is that God does not exercise against us the kind of justice we would exercise if we were God.

Part of our problem is that our thinking about justice is based on our own Anglo European notion of what justice entails. In a typical criminal case, the jury renders a verdict and the judge sentences the defendant. In civil matters, the jury decides between the contending parties and the judge enters an order reflecting the jury’s determination. After that, the judge moves on to the next case. The judge is no longer concerned with what happens to the parties after that. God, however, continues to be concerned about the fate of the parties post judgment. That is because God’s justice does not end in retribution or compensation, but in restoration. Judgment is not the end of, but the means to justice. God desires restoration of relationships. That, of course, includes compensation for injuries inflicted and assumption of responsibility for wrongdoing. Beyond that, however, divine justice means reconciliation and peace. God’s exercise of God’s sole prerogative to punish, forgive or excuse wrongdoing is therefore not tied to any supposed measure of sin’s severity, but to God’s determination to achieve the perfect justice that is “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” II Corinthians 5:19.

Here is a poem/prayer by Alexander Pope that reflects an attitude of humility and respect for the mystery of God’s just and gentle reign to which Jesus calls us.

Universal Prayer  

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives:
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth’s contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace import
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe’er I go,
Through this day’s life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot;
All else beneath the sun
Though know’st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,—
Whose alter earth, sea, skies,—
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature’s incense rise.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed.), Edit. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo and Stallworthy, Jon, (c. 1970 Norton & Company, Inc.) p.574. Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) is regarded as the foremost English poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive works as well as for his translation of Homer. Pope was born in London. He was taught to read by his aunt and went to Twyford School. From there, he went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London. While illegal, such schools were tolerated in some areas. In 1700, however, Pope’s family moved to Berkshire due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a law preventing Catholics from living within ten miles of London or Westminster. Pope made his share of enemies as fellow critics, politicians, and several other prominent figures felt the sting of his satires. So hostile were some of these enemies that Pope feared for his life. Pope was known to carry a pistol on his evening walks for self protection.

Pope suffered numerous health problems from the age of twelve, including tuberculosis. His illnesses deformed his spine and stunted his growth, leaving him with a hunchback. Throughout his life he struggled with respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He grew to a height of just a little over four feet. Although he never married, Pope had many female friends to whom he wrote witty letters. You can learn more about Alexander Pope and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Forgiveness: It’s Never Wasted

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:35.

These words, particularly in the context of the foregoing parable of the Unforgiving Servant, are severe by all measures. And that for good reason. Forgiveness is not just another admirable quality in some hierarchy of virtues. For the church, it is constitutive and essential to its ongoing life. It is assumed that members of the church will sin against one another and that they will be sinned against. How could it be otherwise where sinful people are called into a life of holiness? The only way such a community can function is through regular confession, repentance and forgiveness. Though all of this takes place regularly on a corporate level, it must, on occasion, occur on an individual level as well. Last week’s gospel lesson dealt with the procedures applicable to that practice. This week’s gospel focuses more broadly on the nature of forgiveness itself.[1]

Forgiveness is often portrayed as weakness, a form of selflessness that renders its practitioner a kind of doormat. It is anything but. On one level, forgiveness is very practical and self interested. Holding grudges is draining and self defeating. It bends your mind back into a past moment that cannot be changed and away from a future that can still be shaped. Forgiveness is not capitulation to the one who wrongs you. It is an affirmative act of resistance. By forgiving my enemies, I deny them power over me. My daughter Emily, also a pastor, regularly admonishes me to “evict the troublesome tenants in my head.” She goes further, inviting us to imagine serving a notice of eviction to the one most deeply imbedded under our skin. She even encourages us to imagine the sheriff forcefully removing the tenant from the premises.

Forgiveness is therefore liberating, both for the one forgiving and the one forgiven. For the former, it frees up band width for relevant data and operations that matter. For the latter, it opens up the possibility for renewed relationship free from the constraint of past hostility. The operative word here is “possibility.” One can always hope that expressing forgiveness to an offender will inspire thankfulness and a determination to make a new start. As Jesus’ parable illustrates, however, that hope does not always materialize. For that reason, it is important to understand that forgiveness is not contingent on repentance. As Jesus points out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. Disciples of Jesus are called to practice the same perfect forgiveness whether it meets with acceptance and repentance or not. Matthew 5:48.

Forgiveness is not permission for the offender to continue aggressive, abusive or violent behavior. Jesus’ life and ministry are nothing if not a frontal assault on evil, oppression and injustice. Thus, his admonition to “turn the other cheek” when stricken does not mean that aggression is not to be resisted at all. It does mean that aggression is not to be resisted with counter-aggression. Violence is not an arrow in the disciple’s quiver. But there are numerous means by which aggression can and should be resisted that do not involve violence or equate with vengeance. The insistence that violence is sometimes unavoidable is grounded more in a lack of imaginative faith than in “realism.”

Forgiveness does not mean that wrongful acts have no consequences. The harms done to others live on, regardless whether they have been forgiven. They will continue to have ramifications into the future. Forgiveness, however, opens up the possibility for redemption. Sin can be that which needs constant justification, excuses and rationalizations, all of which keep one bound to the past. Or, thanks to forgiveness, it can be a turning point, an opportunity to abandon destructive courses of conduct and pursue “a more perfect way.” It is precisely because one has been forgiven that one has opportunity for change and reconciliation.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, tells the tale of a meeting between an aged seaman and a young guest on the way to a wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man and relates to him his near death experience on the sea. While sailing in the Antarctic Ocean the mariner’s ship is caught in a storm and driven into icy waters. Lost and directionless, the ship meets with an albatross, a large sea bird, that leads the pilot safely through the ice into open water. For no reason in particular, the Mariner shoots the albatross with his cross-bow. Thereafter, things go badly for the ship as it sails into the doldrums, drifting aimlessly over the sea with no wind to propel it. The rest of the crew succumbs to thirst, leaving only the mariner alone and near death on a ship full of corpses. Through numerous dangers and surreal adventures, the ship is brought safely to the mariner’s homeland. During his long ordeal, the mariner comes to recognize the gravity of his cruel and thoughtless killing of the albatross. He comes to understand his frailty and vulnerability, his inescapable dependence on all living things, the natural elements and his fellow human beings. Most importantly, he comes to know the mercy of a God who spares his life though he was the least deserving among the crew. Forgiveness has not been wasted on this mariner and his redemption did not come cheap. The poem is the antithesis to Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I offer here the parting words of the ancient mariner to the wedding guest. I encourage you to read the entire poem at the Poetry Foundation Website.

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772- 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. He also had a major influence on American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist who was rigorous in the careful reworking of his writings. Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression.  He was physically unhealthy, suffering the ill effects from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He was treated for these conditions with drugs that helped foster a lifelong addiction to opiates. Despite these impediments, Coleridge was enormously prolific as a writer and critic. You can read more about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Thus, the lectionary’s coupling of Jesus’ interchange with Peter and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is potentially misleading.

Preaching Repentance as though Our Lives Depended on It

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” Ezekiel 18:7-9.

“We’re all tired of being called racists,” said a Trump supporter recently to Elaina Plott, journalist for The Atlantic. Ms. Plott’s 2019 article chronicled several interviews with participants in one of Mr. Trump’s massive rallies in Cincinnati. All Plott’s interviewees denied emphatically that they were racist, pointing to their interracial grandchildren, their black co-workers and their many acts of charity toward people of color. I know from my own conversations with folks like these that nothing elicits as much anger as the suggestion that they are racist. Talking about race is by far the hardest task I have ever faced as a preacher-and one that, to my shame, I often avoided. I avoided it because I am conflict averse and nothing generates conflict like racism. I avoided it because I know from the times I haven’t that it leads to anger, defensiveness and resentment. I avoided it because I feel awkward, knowing that I struggle with the same demon in my own heart and wonder how I can presume to cast it out of someone else. But mostly, I avoided confronting racism because it is easier just to leave it alone. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, however, took the “leave it alone” option away from me. Since that time, the prophet Ezekiel’s words seem directed to reluctant preachers like me.

Time and again I have been confronted with the angry rhetorical, “So, are you calling me a racist?”I am never quite sure how to respond to that. Are Trump supporters racists by definition? Is it fair or accurate to characterize them that way? I think it is fair to say that these folks are not racists in the sense that they consciously adhere to a racist ideology or associate with Aryan Nations, the KKK or other hate groups. It is likely that they do have family, friends and neighbors who are people of color and for whom they feel a genuine degree of affection. They might even take exception to some of Mr. Trump’s more blatant racist rants. Nevertheless, it is troubling that these same people, who profess to be “color blind” and friendly with people of all races, can at the same time support Donald Trump. Rather than argue over whether supporters of Donald Trump fit anyone’s definition of racism, let us simply consider some hard facts about the president that were well known before the 2016 election.

  • It is a matter of record that in the 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision.
  • It is a matter of record that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. Moreover, he continued to make this baseless assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked.
  • It is a matter of record that Donald Trump painted Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists.
  • Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. Even most Republicans found the remark to be racist-though it did not stop them from selecting him as their party’s candidate for the highest office.
  • During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump savagely attacked the Muslim family of an American soldier who gave his life serving the nation in Iraq.
  • Donald Trump refused to distance himself from the support of avowed white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke for days after receiving his endorsement and finally issued the most tepid of disclaimers against him much later. Nevertheless, Duke continued to and still does support Donald Trump.

Since his election, Donald Trump has referred to African nations as “s##t hole countries, referred to white supremacists as “very fine people,” referred repeatedly to Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists,” “rioters,” “Marxists” and “extremists.” The president has at times seemed to encourage discrimination and even violence against people of color and, in any event, it is indisputable that hate crimes against people of color and visible expressions of white supremacy have increased substantially since the president took office.

Finally, the RNC convention that ended last week should lay to rest any lingering doubt about the true colors of the President and the Republican Party that re-nominated him. Those colors are white, white and white. Nobody had to use the “N” word this week. We all knew  from whom Donald Trump was promising to save our suburban neighborhoods. Nobody had to tell the cheering white Republican mob what color the “rioters” were or against whom the “law” had to be ruthlessly enforced to ensure “order.” Yes, there were some faces of color in the speaking line up. But neither their presence nor their endorsements were sufficient to override the Trump message to white America: Your country is being taken away from you by brown skinned people, people with different religions and different languages. They will dilute the white race, undermine Christianity, change our neighborhoods for the worse, denigrate our American identity-and, as Trump has said repeatedly, “I am the only one standing between you and them.” Those of us who are old enough hear loud and clear the echos of George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Strom Thruman.

On the basis of these facts, I cannot help but conclude that supporters of Donald Trump do not feel his disparaging remarks against people of color or the support he receives from avowed racists and racist hate groups disqualifies him from serving in America’s highest executive office. I must conclude that Trump supporters are not particularly concerned about how people of color might experience threats and denigrating remarks from the United States President. I also conclude that Trump supporters have determined, on balance, that benefits they enjoy as a result of the Trump presidency outweigh whatever concerns about discrimination and violence people of color express in its wake. This is the kindest construction I can put on the “softest” supporters of Donald Trump.

I leave to others the task of determining whether the above assessment places Trump supporters within the racist classification. For my part, it tells me that the best of them are lacking in sensitivity, understanding and empathy. It tells me that their own economic and social wellbeing trumps (no pun intended) all concern for other members of society whose fortunes are adversely affected by the status quo. It tells me that the moral compass of Trump’s least malignant supporters is seriously impaired.

This shoud concern us. Consider that only a fraction of the German people in the thirties and forties were members of the Nazi party. Many and perhaps most party members sought that status primarily to boost their social and professional standing rather than out of any strong political conviction. It is worth noting that, although antisemitism is an ancient stain on all of Eurpean culture, it was not particularly pronounced in Germany.  It is probably fair to say that most Germans bore no intense animosity against Jews. Most Germans probably socialized and interacted professionally with Jewish doctors, attorneys and shop keepers on a regular basis.  Still, they supported Hitler notwithstanding his antisemitic rants. He was, after all, rebuilding the country’s shattered economy and restoring national pride in the wake of national humiliation and economic depression following the First World War. When Jewish businesses were confiscated, Jewish homes seized and Jewish families moved into concentration camps, relatively few non-Jewish citizens questioned the government, much less protested. It was not so much the virulent antisemitism of the Nazis as the indifference of so many others that made the Holocaust possible. A small group of people was able to slaughter millions because millions more were willing to look the other way. These onlookers were not evil people. Like the “soft” Trump supporters, they were simply people who lacked the social awareness, spiritual maturity and moral courage to be good.

I have been told that I am hyperbolizing here with comparisons between Trump’s America and the Third Reich. Perhaps I am. Sometimes you have to hyperbolize in order to make your point. Therefore, let me be clear. I know that historical comparisons are dicey. And no, I don’t believe we are yet a fascist police state, but is that a direction in which you want to travel even one more inch? No, I don’t foresee our government building concentration camps to incarcerate black Americans. But isn’t it bad enough that a disproportionately high percentage of black men are incarcerated for non-violent offenses? Isn’t it bad enough that our banking practices have and continue to deny so many black families the opportunity to purchase homes, thereby restricting their social, economic and geographic mobility? No, we have not yet seen people lined up, shot and buried in mass graves. But isn’t it bad enough that hardly a week goes by without a new story of an unarmed black person shot to death by police? Isn’t it bad enough that Covid-19 infection and mortality rates are substantially higher among people of color due to historic disparities in access to health care? No, we have not reached the levels of infamy earned by the Third Reich, but how much closer do you want to get?  How high does the body count have to be? How many murders does it take to make a holocaust? Do you really want to find out?

There is a glimmer of hope in all of this. A very significant number of those “softest” Trump supporters are sitting in our churches or, more likely these days, tuning into our services on the internet. They have never chosen between white privilege and discipleship with Jesus because they have never been taught that a choice is required. They have never chosen between God and country because it has never occurred to them that the two could ever be in conflict. They need to hear from their church that, whatever the Republican party once stood for, it now stands for white supremacy. They need to hear from their church that supporting Donald Trump is, not to put too fine a point on it, sin. Our people need to hear from their church that the communion of saints made up of every nation, tribe and tongue can never be reconciled with an attempt to build a secular kingdom grounded on the flimsy foundation of blood, soil, race and nation. In short, our people need to hear the good news that the way of Donald Trump is not the way things have to be nor will be. They need the opportunity to follow a “yet more perfect way.” And woe to us, says the prophet Ezekiel, if we do not make that way known to them.

I expect that some people, I don’t know how many, will be driven out of the church by such direct preaching. But I suspect there will be others who will find such direct proclamation refreshing and full of promise. I strongly believe that there are people in our churches who will be thrilled to hear their pastors speak truth to power-with authority. I believe there are many people in my church that would eagerly respond to our bishop’s call to invest a substantial portion of our corporate wealth in the ministry of back American churches on the front lines of the battle against racism. That, however, is all beside the point. As the prophet tells us, our duty is to warn our hearers away from unrighteousness and injustice and toward repentance and its life-giving fruits. The greatest danger is not that we shall have failed to convince our hearers, but that the word will never have been spoken because of our fear of conflict, our desire to avoid the way of the cross and our lack of confidence in the efficacy of that word. We need to preach and practice the reign of God and the communion of saints against the darkness of racist nationalism as if our lives depended on it-because they do.

Here is a subtle and layered poem by Adrienne Rich speaking to the necessity of proclaiming hard words reviving memories we would prefer to leave burried in forgetfulness and exposing truths we are reluctant to face, using whatever language, whatever metaphor, whatever image will pierce the listening ear.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Source
:  Collected Poems: 1950-2012. (c. 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust,  pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.)  Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet and essayist. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two sisters. Her father, a renowned pathologist, was the chairman of pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her mother was a concert pianist and composer.  She was home schooled until she entered public education in the fourth grade. After graduating from high school, Rich earned her college diploma at Radcliffe College where she focused on poetry and the craft of writing. In her final year at college, Rich’s first collection of poetry was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University. They had three children together. Rich and her family moved to New York in 1966 where Rich became became heavily involved in anti-war, civil rights and feminist activism. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. In 1971, Rich was the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and spent the next year and a half teaching at Brandeis University as the Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. She took up the position of the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellow at Bryn Mawr College in 1974. Having separated from her husband, Rich began a partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff. This union lasted until her death. From 1976 to 1979, Rich taught English at City College and Rutgers University. In 1979 she received an honorary doctorate from Smith College. Thereafter, she moved with Cliff to Montague, MA, but eventually took up residence in Santa Cruz, CA where Rich continued her career as a professor, lecturer, poet, and essayist.
Rich wrote several poems explicitly tackling the rights of women in society. Her poems are also notable for their feminist elements. Besides poems and novels, Rich also wrote and published a number of books that discuss feminist issues. You can find out more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Exclusive Interview with “Q”

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Through a series of contacts who wish to remain anonymous, the Ghost was able to secure an interview with Q, the illusive leader behind the QAnon movement. Though we were given free reign to interview Q on any topic, we were informed that Q would be communicating with us through an opaque media and would not respond to any line of questioning calculated to disclose his/her/its identity.

The Ghost: Good evening…should I call you “Mr. or Ms.” Q?

Q: Nope. Just Q is fine with me.

The Ghost: OK then. Now, we understand that you are not going to disclose your identity to us. But there is a lot of speculation about exactly “what” you are. Some say that you are an individual embedded within the United States government. Others say that you are actually a group of pro-Trump government workers fighting the “deep state.” Some say that you are just a symbol and others that you are a computer program. Can you tell us, are you a flesh and blood individual?

Q: What’s it to you? I might be all or none of those things, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to my supporters and they are all that I care about.

The Ghost: Yes, your supporters do put a lot of faith in you. But you have to admit, the things you claim, “the deep state,” an elite cabal of liberals practicing pedophilia and cannibalism-that’s all pretty incredible. I have a hard time understanding how your followers can believe these things. You have never provided any evidence to support your assertions.

Q: Well, you might just as well ask a minister, priest or rabbi how their congregations can believe in a God or a devil they have never seen. They don’t even try to prove empirically that these religious abstractions of theirs exist. But that doesn’t keep their people from believing in them. Look, I don’t do anything different from what religion does. People are frightened by a world that is dangerous and full of powerful forces they can’t control and don’t understand. I give them stories, characters and a narrative that helps them make sense of their world. I put a face on their fears and give them something they can trust and believe in-like Q.

The Ghost: So, the deep state, the cabal of liberal elites, the child prostitution ring operating out of pizza parlors-none of that is real?

 Q. Is God real? Is the devil real? Does it matter? I give people hope and comfort. I give them something to believe in. Their faith in that-that’s what’s real.

The Ghost: Well this is something of a surprise. I expected you to be…how shall I put it? A person of conviction.

Q. You mean a true believer, a zealot, a fanatic-like my followers? No, I am the one who manufactures objects of faith. My follows are the ones who have the faith.

The Ghost: So what’s in this for you? What do you get out of accumulating a following?

Q. Existence. I mean, what is Q without a following? Just a collection of conspiracy theories; a demented soul muttering nonsense into his beer for the benefit of whichever poor bartender gets stuck with the late night shift; an internet meme on the fringes of Google’s search algorithms. I’m only as real as the faith people have in me.

The Ghost: So, aren’t you concerned that this interview will expose you as a fraud? As someone or something designed to mislead people? What would happen to your following then?   

Q. Nothing at all. Look, my people believe what they want to believe. And they want to believe whatever makes their experience intelligible to them. I give my followers simple explanations for their problems and simplistic solutions. What can you offer them? They won’t let anything you say take their safe, understandable world away from them and plunge them into nuance and ambiguity. You will, of course, publish this interview, but my followers will never read it. And if they were to read it, they would reject it as fake news from the mainstream media. So you see, your investigative reporting poses no existential threat to me.

The Ghost: Well, Q, this has been fascinating. Thank you for making yourself available for this interview.

 Q. Pleasure is all mine.

**************************************************************

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 Hijacking of Kayla Mueller’s Legacy

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Prayer of the Day: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19

Kayla Jean Mueller was an American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker from Prescott, Arizona. She was taken captive in August of 2013 in Aleppo, Syria after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital. In 2015 she was killed in uncertain circumstances after being raped several times by her ISIS captors.

More importantly, however, Kayla Mueller was a devout Christian. While in college, she was active in ecumenical Christian campus ministry. Mueller supported a variety of humanitarian aid and human rights organizations. Her personal involvement in human rights activism and humanitarian aid included work in India with Tibetan refugees, advocacy for Palestinians and volunteer assistace for the African Refugees Development Center in Israel. She was also involved in Vrindavan Food For Life, an organization that provides free food, education, and medical care for those in need and, in addition, she worked with the organization, Food Not Bombs. In February 2015, Charlotte Alter of Time magazine described Kayla Mueller as an ideal role model, citing her selfless desire to end suffering, her activism and her humanitarian aid work. According to Alter, “Mueller represented the best qualities of the millennial generation – our idealism, our optimism, and our love of our families – without the troublesome ones.”

In what I can only describe as a cynical move to incite further anti-Muslim sentiment so deeply satisfying to its base, the Trump administration code named the military operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 27, 2019 “Operation Kayla Mueller.” During the 2020 State of the Union Address, to which Kayla’s parents were invited as honored guests,  Trump mentioned Mueller as part of his self aggrandizing account of attacks on ISIS insurgent forces and the military operations directed at taking down prominent members under his administration, directly referencing the Barisha raid in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed. While one can understand and forgive Kayla’s grief stricken parents for getting sucked into the vortex of Trump’s hateful state of the union circus, I cannot imagine that this quiet, humble servant to those regarded as the “least” among us would be anything other than horrified by this sickening hijack of her legacy.

Like the God they worship, Christians “take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but celebrate the death of saints. Saint Stephen did not cry out for God to avenge his executioners with a military show of “shock and awe.” He prayed that they might be forgiven-just as I am sure Kayla prayed for her tormentors. Following Jesus means taking up the cross. Surely Kayla Mueller understood that. She knew full well that serving families struggling to survive in war zones put her life at risk. Jesus said, “where I am, there will my servant be.” Kayla stood with Jesus and was prepared to pay the price. Surely, her violent death at the hands of cruel and depraved men is a great evil. But her short lifetime of corageous service and the faith that brought her to that point is worthy of celebration. She deserves to be enrolled in the hall of martyrs along with Saint Stephen, Saint Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Trump’s use of Kayla’s story to glorify military exploits and inflame hatred of Muslims makes a mockery of her memory. Worse, his use of her name to glorify an act of vengeance makes a mockery of Paul’s injunction against vengeance.  Donald Trump’s exploitation of Kayla’s memory and her family’s grief turns Paul’s admonition on its head. Vengeance is not the Lord’s, according to Trump. It is his and he boasts of taking it. In the view of Trump and his supporters, Kayla is no hero and her life was a waste. They have reduced her to a naive, dreamy little idealist who got herself killed because she didn’t understand the “real world.” Kayla’s passionate love for others, including enemies,  didn’t accomplish anything, except to prove that love doesn’t work. The only solution to violence is greater violence.  I think it is time that our church corporately stand up and tell Mr. Trump to keep his blood stained hands and hateful rhetoric off the memory of our saints. (Are you listening, bishops?). Kayla’s story belongs to us.

This week Kayla’s parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, are scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention that will formally nominate Donald Trump for a second term as president. I cannot predict what they will say. I hope that they will lift up their daughter’s passionate love for people who, at best, we Americans typically think of as nuisances to be kept out of our country or, at worst, enemies to be exterminated. I hope they will testify to Kayla’s courageous choice of love and compassion over hatred and fear. I hope that they will honor her life of discipleship and her faith in Jesus. I hope that they will celebrate her entry into the communion of saints. Such testimony would surely be a beacon of light in what promises to be a hurricane of darkness.

Here is a poem/hymn by Isaac Watts celebrating the death of saints in the spirit that should inform our thinking about Kayla and all whose faithful lives bring them into mortal combat with evil.

How bright these glorious spirits shine!

1 How bright these glorious spirits shine!
Whence all their white array?
How came they to the blissful seats
of everlasting day?

2 Lo! these are they from sufferings great
who came to realms of light,
and in the blood of Christ have washed
those robes that shine so bright.

3 Now with triumphal palms they stand
before the throne on high,
and serve the God they love amidst
the glories of the sky.

4 Hunger and thirst are felt no more,
nor sun with scorching ray:
God is their sun, whose cheering beams
diffuse eternal day.

5 The Lamb, who dwells amid the throne,
shall o’er them still preside,
feed them with nourishment divine,
and all their footsteps guide.

6 In pastures green he’ll lead his flock
where living streams appear;
and God the Lord from every eye
shall wipe off every tear.

Source: this poem is in the public domain. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was the son of a schoolmaster. He was born in Southampton and showed remarkable precocity in childhood. He is said to have begun the study of Latin at age four and was writing verse at the age of seven. At the age of sixteen, he went to London to study in the Academy of the Rev. Thomas Rowe and became assistant minister of the Independent Church, Berry St., London 1698. He became senior pastor 1712. Watts was in chronically poor health throughout his life. Nonetheless,  he continued his ministerial duties throughout his life, preaching as often as his health would permit.

Watts produced numerous hymns like the one above, many of which are found in the hymnals of virtually all Christian traditions. Some of his hymns were written to be sung after his sermons, highlighting the meaning of the text upon which he preached. You can read more about Isaac Watts and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Skin in the Game

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Prayer of the Day: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1.”

The Wall of Moms is a group of women who identify as mothers. They first demonstrated at George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon and have since grown in number, organizing protests in several other US cities. Hundreds to thousands of these women have participated in the movement since then. These unarmed mothers demonstrate together against police violence against black Americans, linking arm and arm and facing off against riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. This is perhaps the most graphic example I have seen recently of persons “presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice.” It is one thing to hold strong opinions about justice. It is quite another to put your life on the line for it. These women recognize what we all should know: that when it comes to combating racist violence masked as law enforcement, everyone’s skin is in the game.

It is worth asking ourselves, individually and as a church, what we are willing to present as a sacrifice for God’s reign. How much is your congregation and the ministry it does worth to you? Is it worth a trip to Disney World? A cruise? A new car? How much are our congregations willing to risk in order to become reconciling presences in their communities? How many of our churches are willing to open their doors to homeless people? Provide a safe space for teens who are struggling with their sexual identity? Welcome and shelter persons in danger of deportation? And what of our regional and national church expressions? Are they prepared to do more than issue preachy/screechy social statements condemning racism and commit a meaningful portion of our material resources to supporting the mission and ministry of black churches that are on the front lines of combating racism?

We in the Lutheran tradition have a hard time calling for sacrifice. Anything that sounds like “works righteousness” or “legalism” scares the bejesus out of us.  Paul doesn’t seem to have that problem when addressing the Roman church and neither did Jesus when he spoke with his disciples. “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25. Loss there must be for God’s reign to come and those of us who have known only privilege will feel that loss acutely. A world in which all have their daily bread doesn’t look very attractive to those of us who are accustomed to having so much bread in store that it goes stale before we can eat it all. We cringe when Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke 14:33. How does that square with our insistence that God’s salvation is by grace alone?

It is helpful, I think, to ask ourselves: “From what and for what do we need to be saved?” If the answer to the “from” question is “the wrath of God,” then, yes, salvation is and must be by grace alone. But God’s wrath does not seem to be our problem. Rather, it is our own wrath against each other, our own hostility against people we perceive as threatening us, our own lifestyle of reckless consumption that brings our planet to the brink of ecological ruin. What we need is to be saved from ourselves and the oppressive structures that impoverish the many to enrich the few and plunder the earth to feed our insatiable appetite for more. Sin doesn’t enrage God, but it wreaks havoc upon us. Or perhaps it would be better to say that sin does enrage God, precisely because it wreaks havoc upon us and God’s good creation.

Make no mistake about it, God forgives sin unconditionally. Jesus’ resurrection is a pledge that nothing we can do, however hateful and destructive it might be, will extinguish God’s love for us and God’s determination to save us. But forgiveness alone will not save us. And that brings us to the “for” question. We have been forgiven and spared from the fate we deserve so that the “mind of Christ” may be formed in us, as St. Paul would say. Philippians 2:5. That, according to Paul, is the whole point of the church. It is to be a community formed by its worship and practices into the Body of Christ and presented as a living sacrifice for the sake of the world. That means offering ourselves up, individually and corporately, for the sake of God’s gentle reign. If that means divesting ourselves of privilege, wealth and control, so be it.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we still have not “resisted [sin] to the point of shedding []our blood.” Hebrews 12:4. Yet that day may come and perhaps has arrived already. When I see a wall of moms facing off against the machinery of oppression, I am forced to ask myself whether the relative safety I enjoy has been bought at the cost of Jesus’ call to discipleship. “The Word became flesh,” the gospel tells us-which is another way of saying that in Jesus, God has put God’s skin in the future of creation. Nothing less is required of those who would be Jesus’ disciples.

The following poem by John Oxenham reflects the heart of one formed by the mind of Christ and prepared to put some skin in the call to discipleship.

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
With your eager face and your fiery grace?
Where are you going, Great-Heart?

“To fight a fight with all my might,
For Truth and Justice, God and Right,
To grace all Life with His fair Light.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To beard the Devil in his den;
To smite him with the strength of ten;
To set at large the souls of men.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To end the rule of knavery;
To break the yoke of slavery;
To give the world delivery.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To hurl high-stationed evil down;
To set the Cross above the crown;
To spread abroad my King’s renown.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To cleanse the earth of noisome things;
To draw from life its poison-stings;
To give free play to Freedom’s wings.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To lift To-day above the Past;
To make To-morrow sure and fast;
To nail God’s colors to the mast.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To break down old dividing-lines;
To carry out my Lord’s designs;
To build again His broken shrines.”
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

Where are you going, Great-Heart?
“To set all burdened peoples free
To win for all God’s liberty;
To ‘stablish His sweet sovereignty.”
God goeth with you, Great-Heart!

Source: This poem is in the public domain. John Oxenham (1852-1941) was an English novelist and poet. He was born in Manchester, England. Oxenham began his career as a publisher. He traveled extensively in Europe and North America as part of his publishing duties, ultimately deciding to devote his life to writing. He completed his first book in 1913 and, by the end of his life, had published more than 40 novels, poetry books and essays. You can read more about John Oxenham and sample more of his poetry at the All Poetry website.