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.

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.

The Sordid Truth About Joe Biden Revealed

 

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

The Ghost was asked by the Donald J. Trump reelection campaign to “dig up dirt” on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Ordinarily, the Ghost strives to maintain strict, nonpartisan objectivity when it comes to our reporting. But with so much at stake in this election and the country teetering on the brink of falling into the hands of liberals eager to confiscate our guns, socialize our medicine, slow down our toilets and take our lightbulbs, we on the Ghost’s staff felt we had no choice but to depart from our usual policy of strict neutrality in the national interest.

Our reporters have unearthed some shocking and disturbing facts about Mr. Biden that we feel the American people have a right to know. When Mr. Biden was in the eighth grade, he served as treasurer for the middle school camera club. We received from an anonymous source documentation showing that in December of that year, there was an $8.14 dollar discrepancy between income and spending. We attempted to interview the faculty advisor for the club, Al Timerz, who now resides at Sunny Side Long Term Care Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Mr. Timerz claims not to remember Joe Biden or much else. He insists, however, that there were no instances of embezzlement with the club as far as he could recall. But you have to wonder, how far is that?  He also said that discrepancies such as the ones we described were common and usually resolved through an annual auditing process. We sent an information request to Mr. Biden’s middle school seeking audits of the camara club from 1957, only to be told that the administration does not retain records of student organizations dating back sixty years ago. How very convenient! So where’s the money, Joe?

We have also learned that Mr. Biden opened checking accounts at numerous banks throughout the 60s and 70s, in exchange for which he was richly rewarded with toaster ovens, cannon blankets and electric irons. Looks like the so-called “man of the people” is in bed with the banking business. What else did you get from big money Joe?

We know that on two occasions Mr. Biden and his wife received free breakfasts and spa treatments in exchange for simply attending a time-share promotional event. Interesting, isn’t it? Breakfast and spa treatments without a dime paid. Makes you wonder, where is the quid pro quo? What kind of sweet deal has Joe worked out with the time-share industry? Is the Democratic House looking into any of this?

The Ghost is convinced that, once the American people have been given an opportunity to digest these horrifying disclosures, Mr. Biden’s quest for the White House will be finished. Compared to his trail of slime and corruption, what are Donald Trump’s trivial offenses of sexual assault, treason, obstruction of justice, racial discrimination, consumer fraud, lying to the public and fiscal mismanagement?

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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

Pushy Faith

ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Prayer of the Day: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I have to be honest. I don’t much like the way Jesus treats this woman. His response to her desperate plea for him to heal her ailing daughter sounds like the same disappointing comments I have heard from church people all my life. “Hey Pastor, how come we are sending missionaries, food and medicine overseas to people in other lands when we have hungry and sick people right here in our own country?” I always answer, “Jesus said ‘Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation. So what parts of ‘all’ and ‘every’ do you not understand?” Of course, these days, too, we keep hearing, “How come our church is so involved in trying to resettle refugees in this country? We can’t afford to take on all these outsiders and their problems.” And I always reply, “Don’t sweat it. We work for Jesus-you know, the guy who fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish? He’s got it covered.” As tiring as it is having to keep on answering these same old, tired objections, it is even more exasperating hearing them in the very mouth of Jesus. “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It isn’t right to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.” To the mother of a suffering child-that’s cold.

I don’t know what was happening with Jesus that day. Maybe he was just weary of dealing with people and their needs, their illnesses and their unhappiness day after day, hour after hour. Maybe he finally reached  the point where he couldn’t take one more desparate person with a load of problems-and he snapped. I get that. I love my children and would give my life for them. Still, after a morning of bandaging skinned knees, mediating heated disputes over whose turn it is and picking up against an endless stream of clutter from the toy box, I am ready for a time out. So just when I think I have found a quiet moment to sit and catch my breath, one of my children comes to me in tears over a lost stuffed animal companion, the one I have already searched for and found at least half a dozen times already. And I snap. “Confound it kid, it’s your stuffed bunny. You know better than anyone else where it might be. Find it yourself and let me finish my coffee!”

Or maybe Jesus was uncomfortable being confronted by this woman of another race whose nation had a long history of hostility with Israel. Though Jesus was God’s Son, he was also the son of a Judean mother from a Judean family where he learned to understand that there are some kids you don’t hang with, some people that are not your people, some neighborhoods into which you don’t go. As a human being raised in a particular human community, Jesus had to struggle, just as we do, to see past the prejudices, racial stereotypes and fear built into us from childhood in order to recognize the beautiful image of God that resides in people who are different from us. Though it took him awhile, Jesus finally did see. And that’s the whole point. Jesus finally sees this woman, her deep need and her profound trust in him.  “Great is your faith!” says Jesus.

That is remarkable comment. Just last week Jesus referred to St. Peter as a man of “little faith.” Peter, the chief of the Apostles, the one who was to hold the keys of the kingdom. Several times in Matthew’s gospel Jesus chides the twelve disciples for their “little faith.” So when Jesus says to this woman, “Great is your faith!” that really means something! I can’t help but believe that there was more to this conversation between Jesus and the woman than the gospel gives us. I can see this woman running after Jesus as he dismissed her and turned away. I can see her jumping in front of him and shouting, “Just a minute here ‘Son of David.’ I know the God you worship is bigger than just  ‘the house of Israel.’ I know that this God of yours means for Israel to be a blessing to all nations-even mine. And I know how you fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish-and you had twelve baskets full of leftovers. So don’t tell me you can’t spare a few crumbs for my little girl! I’m not taking that lame excuse from you, Son of David.” I can also see Jesus-after picking himself up, dusting himself off, commending the woman for her great faith and speaking the word of healing for her daughter then turning to the twelve and saying to them, “Now that’s what I’m talking about. That’s faith!”

There is one other place in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus recognizes “great faith.” You can read about it in the 8th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 8:5-13. A Roman commander came to Jesus when his servant was dying. Like the Canaanite woman, the commander was not an Israelite, had no claim on Israel’s God or Israel’s messiah. Worse, he was a leader of the hated Roman occupation force that ruled Judea with an iron fist. He had no reason to think Jesus would have anything but contempt for him. Yet knowing all of this and knowing that, with all his power, with all his influence and with all the troops at his command, there wasn’t a thing he could do to keep his servant alive, he came to Jesus. “Wow!” said Jesus. “Nowhere in all of Israel have I found such faith!”

Interesting, isn’t it, that the greatest examples of faith seem to come from outsiders, from people who don’t belong, from people who have no right ask anything of Jesus. Jesus is forever challenging our ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t, who deserves to live under the reign of God and who doesn’t, who is one of Jesus’ sheep and who isn’t. When I read this story about the Canaanite woman and her “pushy,” tenacious faith in God’s “yes” lying behind what appears to be a firm “no,” I can’t help but be reminded of all the heroes of faith who have pursued the promise of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ despite, rather than because of, the church’s teachings and practices. I think of our sisters and brothers form the LGBTQIA community who steadfastly remained in a church that consistently made clear to them that they and their gifts were not welcome. I think of persons of color who struggle daily fitting into and seeking transformation of a church like mine that is overwhelmingly white in more than just demographics. I think of the many people I know who have been wounded by the church yet refuse to allow their pain to drive them away from its Lord. Jesus’ refrain fairly rings out in these examples, “great is your faith.”

Here is a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson who, like the Canaanite woman, “battered the cordons” to “travel the immensity.”

Your World

Your world is as big as you make it.
I know, for I used to abide
In the narrowest nest in a corner,
My wings pressing close to my side.

But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the skyline encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
To travel this immensity.

I battered the cordons around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze,
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
With rapture, with power, with ease!

Source: Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art  (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2001). Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) was an African American poet and musician associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia and lived for much of her childhood in the town of Rome. She excelled in reading, recitations and physical education. Johnson also taught herself to play the violin. Her love of music is expressed in her plays, which make distinct use of sacred music. Johnson graduated from Atlanta University’s Normal School 1896. She taught school in Marietta, Georgia until 1902, when she left her teaching career to pursue her interest in music, attending Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. After studying in Oberlin, Johnson returned to Atlanta, where she became assistant principal in a public school. In 1903 she married an Atlanta lawyer ten years her senior. Her husband was somewhat less than supportive of her musical/literary career. Nonetheless, Johnson began writing poems in earnest during this period, dedicating two of them to her husband. The couple moved to Washington DC in 1910 where Johnson continued her writing and served as organist in her Congregational Church. Johnson published a total of four volumes of poetry. She was nationally recognized for her poems collected in The Heart of a Woman (1918). There she explores themes for women such as isolation, loneliness, pain, love and the role of being a woman during her time. You can read more about Georgia Douglas Johnson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Press Secretary McEnany Hospitalized with Vertigo

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

The president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center today with complaints of dizziness and nausea. Ms. McEnany reportedly collapsed and lost consciousness for several seconds following an interview on CBS This Morning with co-host Anthony Mason. She was fielding some difficult questions about President Trump’s promotion of the drug, hydroxychloroquine, contrary to the medical advice of his own Covid-19 task force, the CDC and the WHO as well as his endorsement of Dr. Stella Immanuel, a pediatrician who not only promotes hydroxychloroquine as a miracle ‘cure’ for COVID-19 but also insists that people do not need to wear masks in public to prevent spread of the disease.

Although the Ghost was prohibited from interviewing McEnany’s treating physicians, we have learned through a White House staff person wishing to remain anonymous that Ms. McEnany’s condition is now stable and that she is due to be discharged soon. Our source told us she was diagnosed with a severe case of vertigo, thought to be the result of strenuous fact spinning. “Ms. McEnany has had to respond numerous times to the president’s remarks at odds with reality and the strain is starting to show.” He went on to say that he has no doubt Ms. McEnany will make a full recovery. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “But I expect she will be a little off balance for a while.” Her private secretary, Stan Down, assured our reporter that residuals from this medical episode will not interfere with Ms. McEnany’s professional responsibilities as presidential press secretary. “She’s been off balance for as long as I’ve known her,” he said. “That’s never slowed her down before.

Ms. McEnany’s predecessor, Stephanie Grisham, commented on this episode saying, “I can fully sympathize. This is exactly why I never held a press conference during my tenure as press secretary. The very thought of having to spin everything that comes out of Mr. Trump’s mouth made me nauseous and dizzy.” Grisham’s predecessor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had a different view. “I was always able to keep my balance,” she said. “The thing is, you need to make peace with the idea that truth is simply a philosophical concept. It isn’t real. It’s all in your head and it can be whatever you want it to be. And facts, well, there are as many alternative facts as there are alternative universes. So you just pick the ones you like and to hell with the rest.”

The president tweeted his support for Ms. McEnany, saying, “I wish her a quick recovery. She’s the best. Always keeps the press at bay.”

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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

A Long Shot for Racial Justice-Open Letter to the ELCA Bishops Revisited

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Prayer of the Day: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.” Psalm 85:10-13.

This hope of the psalmist is also the hope of prophets, apostles and saints of every generation. It isn’t yet a reality. That is because hope is not self-executing. Unlike a mere wish, hope does not come to fruition on its own. Jesus tells us as much: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23. Allegiance to the reign of God leads to loss of privilege, loss of property and even to dissolution of family ties. Luke 18:29-30. So the question every generation of disciples must confront is this: Is it really worth it?

As those of you who follow me know, I recently wrote an open letter to the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) proposing a five year reparational tithe to be delivered to black American churches for their mission and ministry. There was, in my view, nothing particularly “radical” or “new” in this proposal which I intentionally dubbed “modest.” To the contrary, it promoted nothing more than what St. Paul called for in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, namely, that “as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality.” II Corinthians 8:14. Those words were spoken in support of the apostle’s own very concrete challenge to his churches to supply aid for the famine stricken church of Judea. Just as the gentile churches had benefited so richly from the spiritual wealth of Israel’s heritage, so they also must share generously of their material wealth with the Judean church. Paul believed that the church was the embodiment of the resurrected Christ and his reconciling power. Or, as farmer, preacher and New Testament scholar Clarance Jordan puts it, the church is a demonstration plot for God’s reign. The ELCA acknowleges in its Declaration of Apology to People of African Descent the benefits it derived from centuries of slavery and economic exploitation of black Americans. Furthermore, like Paul’s gentile churches, the whole church in America has been enriched by the deep spiritual contributions of the black American church’s music, preaching and witness. Returning those benefits in some measure by way of a reparational tithe is simply what St. Paul would call “a matter of equity.” It is the ecclesiastical embodiment of the reconciliation God desires for all creation.

I received a wide range of responses to my proposal. As it was presented as an “open letter,” I heard from a number of folks who thanked me and told me they felt actions of this kind were long overdue. I also received the usual tiresome objections, to wit, “We don’t owe them anything,” “Slavery ended over a century ago,” “None of my ancestors had slaves and, even if they did, I had nothing to do with it,” “We had the civil rights movement and we’ve had an African American president-so racism isn’t an issue anymore,”  “Some of my best friends/coworkers/grandchildren, etc. are black,” “What about the Native Americans? What about the Asians? What about the unborn? What about…(fill in the blank). I can’t say I saw a lot of these responses, but there were enough to convince me that our church has a long way to go in understanding systemic racism and its complicity therein.

As the letter was addressed to the ELCA bishops, I was most interested in their response. A few replied simply to tell me that my proposal was “intriguing.” Others reminded me that the bishops, as a group, do not serve any legislative function and were thus powerless to act on or advocate for my proposal unless or until it found its way through congregational resolution to synodical memorial where the churchwide assembly could then act on it. One of the bishops assured me that my proposal would be discussed among them as a group. I was assured by our presiding bishop that the proposal would be “shared” among the bishops as they continue their study of, among other matters to related to racism, reparations.

I have mixed feelings about these responses from the bishops. I am obviously pleased that they didn’t simply hit the delete button on their computers. I am glad that there is an openness to the proposal-at least among those responding. But I cannot say that I am satisfied. Since I was ordained in 1982-before the ELCA was a twinkle in anyone’s eye-Lutherans have been talking about racism, issuing statements against racism, doing antiracist training, dialoguing about race, advocating on racial issues, participating in protests, candlelight vigils and marches. Yet we remain solidly white and solidly entrenched in white privilege. For that reason, I’m done with resolutions calling upon us to “talk about race.” I’m done with breaking up into little groups at synodical conventions to talk about my feelings on race. I want no part of any statement of repentance that does not bear the fruit of repentance. I am hoping that recent events have convinced enough of us that it is time for something different.

Having been involved with my church for nearly forty years, I am well aware of its institutional limitations. Lutherans change direction more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. Thus, I had no delusive belief that my open letter would ingite a new reformation. I knew from the beginning that a call for reparations to African American churches from an overwhelmingly white denomination was a long shot. Indeed, getting our bishops’ attention with such a proposal was a long shot, as is persuading them to step up to the plate and call upon the church to take this step toward racial healing. Getting a favorable response from our ELCA and its members to any such appeal by the bishops is a long shot. The hope that the ELCA’s commitment to reparations might push our society as a whole in the same direction is, to be sure, a long shot. But I took that long shot because sometimes the long shot is the only shot you ever get. Take it and you risk missing the hoop, failing and perhaps looking a little silly. Don’t take it and you risk nothing-but you can be sure you will never score. Hope is on the side of the long shot. Those who don’t shoot have no hope, only wishes.

I am hopeful that our bishops will find the courage to be teachers and theologians of the church and call us to a daring step toward racial justice-whether to something like the one I propose or a better one. I am hopeful that the Holy Spirit will overcome the craven fear lying behind racial prejudice and open our eyes to the need for justice that must be met within the church before it can witness faithfully as Jesus’ reconciled community to a segregated nation. I am hopeful that my grandchildren will inherit from us a church that doesn’t embarrass them and that they will not be compelled to issue yet another apology for our inaction at this critical time. I am hopeful that  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Hope is a powerful force that drives one forward even when it seems there is no place to go. It strives toward a future that looks to all the world like a dead end and keeps one struggling long after the battle appears to have been lost. Here is a poem that touches on the contours of hope.

Perpetual motion
 
Someday perhaps I’ll understand
Why the ocean’s waves assault the sand,
Why the rocky cliffs above
Stand fast against the tide and will not move,
Why these great powers match their might,
And strive against each other day and night,
One a mighty, relentless force,
The other too strong to move or change its course,
Why they strive in hurricane and gale,
Though each must know that neither can prevail.
Once that riddle is clear to me
Then perhaps I’ll also see
What drives men into battle time and time again
Though war’s a game that nobody can win,
Or why a woman longs so to give birth,
Knowing that the life she gives today
tomorrow must be laid beneath the earth,
Or why when overcome by dark despair,
My stubborn heart keeps beating
And my lungs still gasp for air.

Source: Anonymous

 

Mustard Seeds, Yeast, Pearls and Representative John Lewis

EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Prayer of the Day: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like an invasive species that takes root in a fragile ecosystem, breaks down the existing harmonies, pushes out indigenous growth and transforms the local environment into something altogether different.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like yeast falling into the dough set aside for the Passover feast, leavening the unleavened, corrupting the holy, raising up an unrighteous loaf from the sanctified mass.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is the value hidden in a barren and unpromising lot that only the keen eye of a speculator can see. It is land sold for three times what the seller thinks it is worth as he snickers to himself over the fine bargain he struck with the witless yokel-who is, in fact, walking away with a fortune.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like a pearl so fine it smites the heart of a connoisseur who will gladly pay any price to have it-whatever the market might otherwise dictate.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like a net thrown into the sea sweeping into its coils everything in its path for sorting, purifying and cleansing with fire.

Georgia Representative John Lewis, renowned and respected leader of the civil rights movement, died late Friday. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama in 1940. He was the the son of sharecroppers and grew up in a region where legalized racial segregation permeated every facet of society and reminded him constantly that he was deemed a second-class citizen. Denied entrance to the all white Troy University, he attended and graduated from American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961. He subsequently received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1967.

Lewis joined the first group of freedom riders traveling from the East Coast to the South to challenge interstate segregation. He was arrested in Birmingham and beaten at a bus stop in Montgomery. These events did not deter him from continued involvement. Within a mere two years, Lewis rose to become a prominent leader in the civil rights movement, chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. In March of 1965 Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers while on the front lines of the fifty mile march from Selma to Montgomery pushing for voting rights. That event subsequently became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

In 1986 John Lewis was elected to serve as Georgia’s fifth district representative, a position he held until his death. Known as “the conscience of Congress,” Lewis was a fierce advocate for civil rights, an ally of the underprivileged and a man of profound faith. His life and his words gave us a taste of what Jesus’ parables were all about. Here are a few words you might think of as “mustard seeds,” “yeast,” “pearls” and “buried treasure.”

“Selma is a place where we injected something very meaningful into our democracy. We opened up the political process and made it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to come in and be participants.”

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

“It was not enough to come and listen to a great sermon or message every Sunday morning and be confined to those four walls and those four corners. You had to get out and do something.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little agitation for what’s right or what’s fair.”

“You have to tell the whole truth, the good and the bad, maybe some things that are uncomfortable for some people.”

“Sometimes you have to not just dream about what could be – you get out and push and you pull and you preach. And you create a climate and environment to get those in high places, to get men and women of good will in power to act.”

“We must be headlights and not taillights.”

“The kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” says Martin Luther. He is right. God’s reign will come without your lifting a finger. But is that what you want? Do you want to be sitting on the sidelines watching the parade go by? Or do you want to be “in that number when the saints go marching in”? Do you want to be caught up in God’s redemptive design for creation, or throw your life away in a futile effort to resist change, suppress God’s revolutionary movement toward reconciliation and come to your last day only to find that there is nothing worth incorporating into God’s future? Jesus’ parables force us to see the reign of God in stark relief against the backdrop of a dying status quo. The story of Representative John Lewis testifies to a life caught up in God’s redemptive agenda, disrupting the orderly, stirring up resistance to an unjust status quo and pouring out everything in pursuit of God’s gentle reign.

Here is a poem by Angela Jackson honoring Rosa Parks, another mustard seed that got into the garden and fomented an uprising.

Miz Rosa Rides the Bus

That day in December I sat down
by Miss Muffet of Montgomery.
I was myriad-weary. Feets swole
from sewing seams on a filthy fabric;
tired-sore a pedalin’ the rusty Singer;
 
dingy cotton thread jammed in the eye.
All lifelong I’d slide through century-reams
loathsome with tears. Dreaming my own
silk-self.
 
It was not like they all say. Miss Liberty Muffet
she didn’t
jump at the sight of me.
Not exactly.
They hauled me
away—a thousand kicking legs pinned down.
 
The rest of me I tell you—a cloud.
Beautiful trouble on the dead December
horizon. Come to sit in judgment.
 
How many miles as the Jim Crow flies?
Over oceans and some. I rumbled.
They couldn’t hold me down. Long.
No.
 
My feets were tired. My eyes were
sore. My heart was raw from hemming
dirty edges of Miss L. Muffet’s garment.
I rode again.
 
A thousand bloody miles after the Crow flies
that day in December long remembered when I sat down
beside Miss Muffet of Montgomery.
I said—like the joke say—What’s in the bowl, Thief?
I said—That’s your curse.
I said—This my way.
She slipped her frock, disembarked,
settled in the suburbs, deaf, mute, lewd, and blind.
The bowl she left behind. The empty bowl mine.
The spoiled dress.
 
Jim Crow dies and ravens come with crumbs.
They say—Eat and be satisfied.
I fast and pray and ride.

Source:  And All These Roads Be Luminous (c. 1998 by Angela Jackson; pub. by TriQuarterly Books). Angela Jackson (b. 1951) is an American poet, playwright, and novelist currently residing in Chicago. Though she was born in Greenville, Mississippi, she grew up on the South Side of Chicago where her parents moved with her and her four siblings in 1977. She served as editor of the journal, Nommo and has received numerous literary awards. You can read more about Angela Jackson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.