Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mishaps, Massacres and Mercy

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Young lives tragically and undeservedly cut short. A life mercifully and undeservedly spared. This Sunday’s gospel places these very different outcomes in stark contrast. The story about the eighteen people killed in the collapse of a tower and the Galileans killed in the very act of worship both have a contemporary ring to them. This week an Ethiopian passenger jet plunged to earth killing all on board. Then we got the news of the forty-nine men, women and children shot to death while worshiping in their mosques.  Why these people? Why now? It is not clear why Pilate killed the Galileans in our reading. It is possible they were involved in an insurrection of some sort, but they could also have been innocent victims selected for slaughter at random “to send a message” to any would be insurrectionists. Maybe, like so many killed in Syria and Sudan these days, they were simply caught in the crossfire of someone else’s fight. Violence against innocent civilians is distressingly common place in our world.

Such events send chills down the spine. They bring home to us how frail and vulnerable we all are. It takes only one defective screw, a second’s inattention at the wheel, an unanticipated change in weather patterns to cut off a bright and promising future for an unsuspecting victim. It takes years of dedication, patience, sacrifice and anguish to raise a child. It takes only the pull of a trigger to erase all of that in an instant. When we read about these horrific events, we can’t help thinking, “That could have been me or someone I love!”

Blaming the victims of misfortune comes naturally. We take a perverse comfort in believing that victims of accidents and violence were somehow at fault for what befell them. “He should have known better than to hike that trail this time of year.” “She shouldn’t have gone to that party dressed so provocatively.” “They should never have traveled to a dangerous country like that.” After all, if I can identify some error, moral infraction or misjudgment on the part of the victims, it is easier for me to convince myself that I can avoid their fate. I just have to exercise more care than they did or refrain from the careless and irresponsible behavior I believe led to their cruel end. I can fool myself into thinking that I am in control of my life and safe from the randomness with which death and destruction so often strike.

Jesus dispels that notion altogether. Are the victims of accident and violence any more deserving of death than those who lived to tell about it? “I tell you, No,” says Jesus, but he goes on to say that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” What does Jesus mean by that? I doubt he meant that repentance shields one from a violent death. Jesus has already made it clear that repentance and faith take us on the path of the cross. Discipleship makes a violent end more rather than less likely. I believe the explanation lies hidden in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree that follows.

Unlike the seemingly hapless victims in the daily news-both in Jesus’ day and our own-the fig tree has earned the judgment of destruction passed by the owner of the vineyard. In a semi-arid climate where cultivatable land is limited, it is difficult to justify allowing an unproductive tree to go on using up valuable soil. Yet unexpected and cruel as was the fate of the victims we read about earlier, equally unexpected and undeserved is the vinedresser’s plea for mercy sparing the fig tree. It is tempting to interpret this parable allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and Jesus the vinedresser interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is not making a threat. He has made up his mind to have the tree down. He seems to have no hope for the tree. There is no righteous indignation here. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.

At this point, the parable of the fig tree comes to an abrupt end leaving a lot of loose ends for us to consider. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one more year. Knock yourself out.” But Jesus does not tell us so much. It is just as likely that the owner said, “You have to be kidding! For three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” The parable therefor leaves us in a tenuous place. We can only conclude that we have but the present moment. Today we are alive. There is no guaranty beyond that. Yet we are to understand that the present minute is nonetheless a precious gift. We dare not allow it to languish under the illusion that there will always be more time. The tragedy of the lives lost under the fallen tower, under Pilate’s sword, in the crash of the Ethiopian jetliner and in the New Zealand mosque shootings is not merely that they were prematurely taken. The greater tragedy is our tendency to construe them as somehow the fault of the victims, something that happens to somebody else rather than recognizing in them a sobering reminder of our connection to all humanity in our frailty and vulnerability, God’s undeserved gift to us of yet another day and a call for us to use that day responding to these tragedies with the same compassion God so richly, lavishly and undeservedly pours out upon us.

Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it? It is tempting to begin promising to fill up our remaining days with good intentions. I will buy only Free Trade coffee; I will increase my giving to the church and to the poor; I will be more “intentional” (whatever that means) in working for justice and equality. All of those objectives are noble, but they amount to little more than New Year’s resolutions for a year we might not actually have. True discipleship begins with being rather than doing. Only a good tree is capable of bearing good fruit. Thus, before we can begin to do anything fruitful, we must be the kind of tree Jesus is looking for. We must be creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our human mortality. Disciples of Jesus are called to embrace with thanksgiving life in all of its immediacy and contingency. They are challenged to receive each day as one that the Lord has made and offers as a gift. They are mindful that the number of such days is finite, that tomorrow is not a foregone conclusion and that health, strength and length of days is guaranteed to no one. But that only makes today with all of its potential and possibilities the more precious. It is out of such faithful gratitude that generosity flows. Generosity gives birth to compassion and compassion fuels zeal for justice, righteousness and reconciliation.

Here is a poem by New Hampshire poet laureate, Jane Kenyon, a woman whose struggle with depression and chronic illness taught her the art of living thankfully, generously and compassionately.

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.  I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach.  It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate.  It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks.  It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Source: Constance, Graywolf Press, 1993 (c. Jane Kenyon). Jane Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Of Foxes and Hens

Image result for growling foxSECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!” Luke 13:34.

The person that comes to mind here is Victoria Soto. If the name rings a bell, it should. Victoria was the twenty-seven-year old school teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed while trying to shield her students from gunshots fired by school shooter Adam Lanza in that horrible massacre of children almost seven years ago. The image of an unarmed woman trained only in the art of teaching, nurturing and caring for children confronted by a man bent on the destruction of life and armed with an AR-15 assault rifle designed specifically for only that purpose isn’t all that different from the image of a nurturing mother hen confronted by the fox, trying to gather her panicked chicks under her wings as the predator closes in.

This is not an altogether comforting image of divine protection. Perhaps that is why the people of Jerusalem are less than enthusiastic about taking shelter with Jesus. Even if the hen could gather her chicks together under her wings, what then? The hen is no match for the fox. So, too, Jesus hardly seems a match for Herod and the empire he represents. It is not hard to understand why the people would prefer to seek protection under Herod. Tyrant, bully and amoral scoundrel that he was, Herod had the wherewithal to impose some degree of order and predictability over a people feeling vulnerable and threatened. When people are afraid, they will sacrifice their freedom, their integrity and a large measure of their wealth in exchange for a promise of security. They won’t look very carefully at the one making the promises either. Any port in a storm. But disciples of Jesus understand that the shelter he promises has nothing to do with being safe and secure. To the contrary, we have been warned that following Jesus requires daily taking up the cross, daily exposing oneself to the enemies of God’s gentle reign, daily joining him in placing his body between the weak and vulnerable on the one hand and the fox on the other.

That brings us to the bizarre story from our Genesis lesson in which Abraham slices all the animals in two. What’s that about? Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to travel back in history to the Bronze Age. Stepping out of our time capsule, we discover that mid-eastern society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that, in time, will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances were not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what these agreements were. Such lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. This exercise was designed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”

In Sunday’s lesson, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”

This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, God becoming vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, that God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from the dawn of history.

To save us from ourselves, it takes a love that is stronger than our determination to run away from it. It requires love that is too deep ever to be revolted by our sin. This is love that is stronger than death-what St. Paul calls the “weakness of God” that is mightier than everything we think of as strength. I Corinthians 1:25.  It is the only force strong enough to hold the cosmos together against the forces trying to rip it apart. That is why, to those who tell me we need bullet proof glass, metal detectors and more armed guards in our schools to make our children safe, I say no. What we need are more teachers like Victoria Soto who love our children enough to place their own lives between them and all that would harm them. We need more disciples of Jesus who love this world as much as Jesus did and are prepared to lay down their lives for its people. We need more churches that are ready to put their finances, their property and their own personal safety on the line to stand with Jesus against the foxes of this world that know only one kind of power-the power to control, manipulate and destroy life. We need love that is prepared to die on a cross-because that’s the only thing that is going to make guns, prisons, armies, locks and border walls totally obsolete.

Here is a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper graphically illustrating the fierce passion of love pitted against raw power. It reminds us that the power of God is manifested chiefly at the margins of society where cruelty, injustice and terror appear to have the upper hand. It is the foolishness and weakness of the cross that leads us to confess this seemingly helpless love as the greater power.

The Slave Mother

Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light
That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,
Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
Is breaking in despair.

Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993).  Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 –1911) was an African-American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She was active in social reform and was a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She published her first book of poetry at the age of 20, making her one of the first African-American published writers. In 1851 she worked with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society helping escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. You can read more about Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

Fasting, Sex and Lent

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” Luke 4:1-2.

Fasting is altogether incomprehensible in our present day culture. Commerce is geared toward satisfying appetites as soon as they arise, whether they stem from hunger, sexual desire or a craving for the latest i-doohicky from Apple.  The very idea that a person would refrain from feeding an appetite strikes us as absurd. When you have an appetite, you feed it. That’s why we have fast food. When you want to know something, Google it. The answer is at your fingertips. Want something and can’t afford it? That’s the beauty of credit and Amazon. Punch a few keys and what you want arrives at your doorstep within hours. No more waiting for things, sacrificing for things, saving for the future. You can have it all right now.

Of course, there is something lost here. Yes, washing and peeling fresh vegetables, cooking a pork roast to perfection, mashing potatoes, setting the table, getting the whole family together, pausing for a word of thanksgiving-all of that takes time, energy and discipline. When your stomach is growling, it might seem a lot simpler just to order a pizza. But there is more to a meal than satisfying a primitive appetite. A meal is about providing nourishment that builds a healthy body; it is about togetherness with family and loved ones; it is about recognizing that food, family and community are gifts that belong together. We do not live by bread alone and when we try to live that way, we starve ourselves to death at the deepest level.

Rev. Nadia Boltz-Weber, a pastor in my own denomination (ELCA), a stand up comedian and author, recently wrote an article published in the Christian Century entitled “Talking to My Children About Sex Without Shame.” Pastor Boltz-Weber laments the church’s failure to “embrace the reality” that our teenagers are sexually active and to take the initiative in providing them with guidance and information they need to avoid STDs, unanticipated pregnancies and sexual exploitation. Those of you who follow this blog know that I am 100% on board with sex-ed for children and the availability of confidential medical advice, contraception and medical care, including abortion, for women of all ages. See my post, “What it Means to be Pro-Life.”  I also agree with the pastor wholeheartedly when she points out that rules, whether religious, societal or civil, cannot protect our children from the dangers of our highly sexualized culture or give them the guidance they need to negotiate it. But shouldn’t we have more to say about the mystery of sex than physiology, safety and sanitation?

When it comes to having “the talk” with one’s children about sex, Pastor Boltz-Weber is refreshingly honest about her own experience: “I wanted to do better [than my parents] when I had kids. …[But] when it was my turn to have the sex talk with my own, I had no idea how to do it, either. Here, have a look:

2006: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper.
2007: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper.
2008: I mean to have “the talk” with Harper and Judah.
2009: The kids’ dad and I buy them each a book, hand it to them, and tell them to come to us if they have questions.

For all my big talk now about the things we can teach our children about sex, this was the extent of the sex talk I gave my kids when they were young.”

As a parent who has “been there,” I understand the difficulty of discussing sex with one’s children. But I don’t believe that difficulty arises from any sense of shame or discomfort we have with discussing penises, vaginas, orgasms, masturbation, rubbers or whatever else. I believe the root problem is that, like food, sex has become thoroughly divorced from its communal context. With the advent of reliable and widely available birth control coupled with the growing economic independence and opportunities for women in society, sex has become increasingly untethered from reproduction and married life. What, then, does a sexual act mean? Because we don’t really have a very good answer to that question, we find it difficult to discuss whatever parameters there might be for sexual expression. Indeed, it is hard to make the argument that there ought to be parameters if, like hunger, sexual desire has become only another appetite to be appeased. Why does it matter whether you get relief in the context of a long term relationship, a short term arrangement or a casual encounter? About the only requirement for sexual expression that we still seem to agree upon is mutual consent.[1]

I recently listened to a pastor addressing a group of us clergy on the topic of “story telling.” She related to us a story about how she wound up writing a funeral sermon in a hotel room following a one night stand with someone she met online. Perhaps we were all in a state of communal shock, but no one questioned the propriety of this liaison. At the time, I was a little taken aback. Upon further reflection, however, I had to wonder whether it is any more blameworthy to satisfy one’s sexual longings in a one night stand than it is to satisfy one’s appetite in the privacy of your car on the other side of the Wendy’s drive thru? If appetite is all there is to it, why not?[2]

Because, says Jesus, we do not live by bread alone. Eating isn’t just about food. Sure, we have the ability to satisfy our hunger whenever we wish and, unlike Jesus, we don’t even have to go to the trouble of turning stones into bread. But there is something off-you might even say demonic-about eating one’s bread in isolation. However much we may have separated ourselves from the soil and toil of our neighbors who grow, harvest and bring our food to places where it is processed for our own convenience; however much we may have convinced ourselves that we have provided for ourselves out of our own work and resourcefulness; and however much we have let the gods of convenience and efficiency deter us from communal meals, the fact remains that the food sustaining our lives is a gift from the One who gave us our lives. Food is not given merely to be consumed, but to be shared. As anyone who reads the Bible knows, meals are the cornerstone of community. The church is built around the meal we call Eucharist. We are the people who “spen[d] much time together” and “break bread at home, eating with glad and generous hearts.” Acts 2:46.

I believe we fast in order to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to teach us the critical difference between genuine hunger and mere appetite. Our hunger is so much deeper and our need so much more profound than we know. We will never come into that holy hunger that only God can fill unless we are prepared to empty ourselves. We will never find fulfillment of our deepest needs unless we free ourselves from the tyranny of our appetites. Fasting can help us rediscover the meaning of bread in the fellowship of family, in the community of faith and in the very person of Jesus who is our bread. From that vantage point, perhaps we can also begin to reflect on many of the other appetites that blind us to our deeper hunger.

I don’t believe the church has any stock answers for our current disconnect with our sexuality. The moral rules we have inherited come from a time when coital sex always carried with it the potential for pregnancy, where women had no independent legal existence apart from the men to whom they belonged and when the institution of marriage served the salutary purpose of protecting vulnerable women and children. I don’t believe anyone in their right mind would want to return to that state of things even if it were possible. Nonetheless, I believe that our sexuality needs desperately to be grounded in meaning. Until that happens, we only spin our wheels trying to frame moral rules and social conventions. What the church can offer are its tried and true disciplines through which the Spirit creates and sustains communities capable of reflecting on our sexuality (and so many other dimensions of our existence) and contextualizing it. The season of Lent lifts up those disciplines and invites us to explore together the nature of our deepest hungers, the generosity of the God who promises to satisfy them and the way forward to a new day through repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here are two poems, one by Jonathan Holden speaking to the emptiness of loveless sex and the other by Ellen Bass hinting at what sexual expression can be.

Sex Without Love

If evil had style
it might well resemble
those pointless experiments
we used to set up and run
with our legs and our hands
and our mouths between two
and four p.m. while our kids
were swimming in the public pool
and our wives, our husbands,
were somewhere else-
an hour when nobody wanted
to move, the heat
had gone breathless, slack
as if the afternoon
had been punched in the stomach,
a victim of what we’d coolly
decided to do. There might
be the nagging of a single mower.
At last even that would die
in the heat. Would catch
a rumor of thunder in the hills-
a signal, like the smirk
of swallowed amusement you’d slip
my direction by raising just
slightly your eyebrows as much
as to ask, Well, Shall we?
It’s a style might well resemble
the wholly gratuitous gear
we would then shift down to
as deliberately we would undress,
our eyes wide open without
compromise, curious to observe what
a body might be up to next
on such a hopeless afternoon,
just barely affection
enough-a pinch of salt-
to produce that sigh, when
for a lucky moment or so
curiosity can be mistaken
for enthusiasm and we learn
what we already know.

Source: Poetry, June 1985

Marriage
 
When you finally, after deep illness, lay
the length of your body on mine, isn’t it
like the strata of the earth, the pressure
of time on sand, mud, bits of shell, all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.
How to bear the weight, with every
flake of bone pressed in. Then, how to bear when
the weight is gone, the way a woman
whose neck has been coiled with brass
can no longer hold it up alone. Oh love,
it is balm, but also a seal. It binds us tight
as the fur of a rabbit to the rabbit.
When you strip it, grasping the edge
of the sliced skin, pulling the glossy membranes
apart, the body is warm and limp. If you could,
you’d climb inside that wet, slick skin
and carry it on your back. This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding,
not the bright effervescence of champagne
spilling over the throat of the bottle. This visceral
bloody union that is love, but
beyond love. Beyond charm and delight
the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the petals torn off the branches of love,
the dizzy hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.

Source: Poetry, April 2018

Jonathan Holden (b. 1941) is a Professor of English at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. He was born in Morristown, New Jersey and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College. From 1963 to 1965, he was an editorial assistant for Cambridge Book Company in Bronxville, New York. He then taught math at a high school in West Orange, New Jersey for two years. Holden received an master’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State College and a Ph D in English from the University of Colorado. He was poet-in-residence at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. In 1978 he joined Kansas State University. He has served on the Pulitzer Prize poetry selection committee and was appointed poet laureate by the governor of Kansas in 2004. You can find out more about Jonathan Holden and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Ellen Bass (b. 1947) is an American poet and co-author of The Courage to Heal. She grew up in Pleasantville, New Jersey where her parents owned a liquor store. Her family later moved to Ventnor City, New Jersey. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Goucher College and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University where she studied with poet, Anne Sexton. Bass currently lives in Santa Cruz, California where she teaches creative writing. You can learn more about Ellen Bass and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] Consent is not the clear cut standard we sometimes imagine it to be. In most states, teenagers are deemed legally incapable of consent to sexual activity. Moreover, we might rightly ask what consent even means in our sexualized and patriarchal culture where the president of the United States can assert without any loss of support that, as a celebrity male, he is entitled to grab any girl he wishes by the genitals.

[2] In fairness to the speaker, I think she was at least hoping that her encounter might blossom into a deeper relationship. Yet I still have to wonder what meaning sex has in the context of such a tenuous encounter. Is it anything more than another form of  mutual entertainment, such going to a movie or taking a walk on the beach?

Meeting the Jesus you Thought you Knew

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All four gospels have Jesus acclaimed as God’s beloved Son by the unmediated voice of God. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, from which this Sunday’s lesson comes, that declaration is made on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-43). In John’s gospel, it comes as Jesus is entering Jerusalem with his disciples following the raising of Lazarus. John 12:27-36. There can no longer be any question in the minds of the disciples about who Jesus is. But, like us, the disciples are struggling to make sense of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son and what it means for them to follow him.

I think that about sums up my own poor life of discipleship. I did not have the misfortune of growing up in a faith community where God was painted as an angry judge, where the devil was lying in wait for me behind every TV show and every hit song or where every stray thought constituted a sin against the Holy Spirit-for which there is no forgiveness. I grew up in a Lutheran tradition that emphasized grace over all of these things. Thus, in my early years, I had the notion that being baptized set me apart for certain privileges. I got to go to heaven when I died. I could get forgiveness for anything I might do wrong. Using the name of Jesus in prayer unlocked God’s inner office and somehow got my petitions closer to the top of the divine inbox.

In my teens, Jesus was transfigured for me. As I became more deeply involved with discipleship through participation in my church’s youth activities, I discovered that faith is relational, not transactional. That is to say, I learned that it is less about accepting a set of doctrinal propositions and more about trusting in a person, namely, Jesus.  God was no longer a distant abstraction for me, but a loving Father with a “plan” for my life. This new dimension of understanding deepened my appreciation for worship, Christian community and the importance of public witness. A flame had been lit in my heart. I wanted desperately to grow in my faith and discipleship. Still, my understanding of Jesus remained very “me” centered. The piety practiced by me and my peers was heavily weighted toward knowing Jesus as our “personal savior” and cultivating the inner life for its own sake. Additionally, we were captive to a limited moral universe that emphasized personal ethics over responsibility for the welfare of the larger community. We were particularly preoccupied with sexual sins and the “impure thoughts” that led us in that direction. I suppose this was in no small part due to the fact that we were, after all, adolescents boiling over with hormones and in the throes of discovering our sexuality. Sadly, our faith, as then constituted, was inadequate as far as giving us much direction beyond “thou shalt not.”

As I entered college, I experienced yet another of Jesus’ transfigurations. I became aware that Jesus’ love extended to the whole person and that salvation was for the world. I discovered that sin was not merely a personal matter, but a systemic one manifested in the persistence of poverty, injustice, racism and sexism. I came to understand that following Jesus is not consistent with neutrality on these matters. I learned that discipleship must necessarily have a public dimension. I was introduced to our church’s efforts to combat hunger, poverty and racial injustice. I was also confronted for the first time with gay and lesbian believers who opened my eyes to what my church was doing to these children of God through its moral teachings and practices of rejection and exclusion. Seeing Jesus in them transfigured him for me once more. I was thereby compelled to re-think much of what I had been taught.

I am not through seeing Jesus transfigured. These days I struggle with what it means for a son of white privilege to hear the call of Jesus to discipleship and respond. In trying to find my place in Jesus’ mission to bring good news in a world of racism, patriarchy and economic inequality, I often find myself just as blind, clueless and tone deaf as Jesus’ disciples were as they consistently failed to listen to, understand and obey him. Just when I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover that I don’t. He is always showing himself to be deeper, more complex, more compassionate and more generous than I have the capacity to imagine.

It is fitting, I think, that our Lenten pilgrimage is prefaced by the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This Sunday, we will hear the voice of God declare of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” In the following weeks, we will strive to do just that. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we learn who Jesus is. But it is only in following him down into the plane that we will discover what that really means and what it means for us to be united with him.  As we make this journey once again through the forty days of Lent, the phrase from Luther’s Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” should be ringing in our ears.  It is important that we enter into this season each year with the expectation that Jesus will again be transfigured before us, that we will see him once more in a different light and that we will greet the Easter sunrise with a deeper, fuller and more mature faith in him and a clearer understanding of the new life into which he calls us.

Jesus, it seems, will always be a mystery however much we may love him, however zealously we try to follow him, however near to us he is. Like the daughter in James Lenfestey’s poem, he will always remain “a mystery in a story.”

Daughter

A daughter is not a passing cloud, but permanent,
holding earth and sky together with her shadow.
She sleeps upstairs like mystery in a story,
blowing leaves down the stairs, then cold air, then warm.
We who at sixty should know everything, know nothing.
We become dull and disoriented by uncertain weather.
We kneel, palms together, before this blossoming altar.

Source: A Cartload of Scrolls, (pub. by Holy Cow! Press, c. by James P. Lenfestey 2007). James P. Lenfestey is an American author and poet, a former college English instructor and editorial writer for the Star Tribune. He has produced multiple collections of essays and poems and has edited a number of anthologies. He is chair of the Literary Witnesses poetry series, teaches at the Mackinac Island Poetry Festival and lives in Minneapolis with his wife. You can find out more about James L. Lenfestey at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Hard Work of Vanquishing Enemies

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-31.

This is undoubtedly among the sayings most Christians of every persuasion secretly wish Jesus had never uttered. If you define love as broadly as possible, you can perhaps fudge love for enemies by characterizing what appears to be loveless behavior as “tough love.” But Jesus is not content to leave this open to interpretation. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” he says, “offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Anyone daring to suggest that Jesus might actually mean to be taken literally here can expect to be showered with “what abouts.” What about the thug who sticks a gun in the face of your dear old granny? What about Hitler? What about the abused wife? Should I stand by passively as my grandma is murdered? Should the Jews have walked obediently into the gas chambers? Should a wife cheerfully submit to being beaten?

There are some serious concerns lurking under these objections. But their phrasing betrays a host of unexamined assumptions. First, these questions all assume an easy distinction among human beings, namely, a distinction between “good” and “evil.” So much of the violence woven into our American culture is based on our belief that all of life is a titanic battle between what is indisputably good and what is irredeemably evil. American entertainment reinforces this belief with any number of cop shows, westerns, courtroom dramas in which good people are victimized by crazed criminals and saved ultimately by men with guns employing violence to subdue them. Seldom are we given any insight into the motives, experiences and views of the criminals, terrorists and thugs gunned down for the cause of good. Neither do we see much about how the routine employment of violence dehumanizes the gun wielding heroes. Good and evil remain hermetically sealed and separated one from the other. Small wonder, then, that we find our politics, religion and everything else so thoroughly polarized.

As everyone who has ever done real police work or served in combat knows, this isn’t reality. Often it is not evident until the smoke clears who the “good” and “bad” actors were. A bullet can’t discern between the bank robber and a passerby who happens to be in the line of fire. When lethal force is used, there seldom are clear winners and losers. Even the so-called “bad” actor is likely a spouse, parent, sibling and friend whose death rips the fabric of a community. Long after formal hostilities between nations have ceased the scars of combat continue to plague devastated communities, grieving families and traumatized soldiers for generations to come. Abu Graib and My Lai remind us that the line between good and evil does not run neatly between our enemies and ourselves.

Let us be honest. When we assert that lethal force is sometimes a necessity, we are saying in the same breath that there are people whose lives are expendable. We are usurping the right to decide who lives and who dies. I am not convinced that we are capable of making decisions of this kind. For example, if I were a civil authority and learned that an angry mob was seeking to stone an innocent man, I might authorize the use of force necessary to disburse the mob. Certainly, it would be my preference that no one be killed. But in circumstances like this, there are likely to be hostile casualties and perhaps even some “collateral damage.” Let’s say the mission is a success. The stoning victim is rescued with only one hostile fatality. The dead man was not actually involved in the stoning himself, but he was facilitating it by watching the belongings of those doing the dirty deed and cheering them on. As those of you familiar with the Book of Acts know, I just prevented the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by killing Saint Paul. Our judgments about a person’s worth and rightful destiny are woefully short sighted. Just as we cannot know in an instant of time all that brought a person to the point where we have determined that s/he must die, so we cannot know all that will unfold in that life should it be spared. Good and evil, the separation of the wheat from the weeds, must await the end of the age. Only then and only to the final Judge will it become apparent what must be harvested and what must be burned.

Second, these “what about” scenarios all focus on the moment at which the use of force seems unavoidable-as though nothing happened before or after the moment of decision is thrust upon us. It is all so very reminiscent of the adulterous couple who cry remorsefully, “It was bigger than both of us.” At some point, that was probably true. It was not true, however, the first time they found themselves chatting in front of the water cooler for longer than they both knew was natural or appropriate. It was not true when they both found themselves working late on days when there really was no work that could not have kept until tomorrow. It was not even true when they arranged to be sent to the same professional conference in another city and…well, as I said: at some point it really did get out of hand. But it would not be fair or accurate to say that the affair was fated from the beginning. It could have been checked at a thousand points along the way.

In the same way, I think it is a little disingenuous to argue that bombing Germany was necessary to stop the Nazis when they could have been checked at the ballot box by the German people, restrained by a strong, united European/American diplomatic effort or thwarted altogether by a more just and evenhanded peace following the close of the First World War-which also could have been avoided at any number of points. So, too, I think it would be far more productive to focus on creating safe havens for women fearing domestic violence and programs to address pathological behaviors growing out of toxic masculinity among American men than to agonize over what to do when visited by the consequences of our gross neglect of these issues. While there might not be much you can do to keep deranged people from threatening granny, such persons would be a good deal less dangerous without guns in their hands and could therefore more likely be handled without resort to lethal force.

The truth is, the world is generally a peaceful place. The use of lethal force is neither inevitable nor is it as common as we are sometimes led to believe. On any given day, nations resolve their disputes without resort to military action; police officers go about their duties without taking their fire arms out of the holster; domestic abuse, school yard bullying and disputes between neighbors are dealt with peacefully by social workers, counselors and the courts. Resort to violence is the exception, not the rule. It represents not a necessary exercise of power to maintain peace, but a breakdown of peace resulting largely from the neglect of the social institutions that enable it.

That being said, we live in a world where the peace has broken down at many points. How, then, does a follower of Jesus live faithfully in a world where there exist angry people who are perhaps bent on harming us? How do we deal with enemies? By that I do not mean simply people who rub us the wrong way or don’t seem to like us. By enemy I mean what I believe Jesus means: people who might kill us if they could. First and foremost, Jesus commands his disciples to love them. By that he does not mean that we need to feel affection for them or that we should do whatever they wish or give them whatever they want. It does mean, however, that we treat them as we would wish to be treated. That is difficult because it means getting into their skin, trying to see the world as they see it and experiencing life as they do. It is scary, too, because seeing the world through the eyes of my enemy can open my own eyes to a lot about myself I would rather not confront. Yet once I understand my enemy’s animosity toward me and whatever responsibility I might carry for it, a breach is made in the wall between us. There now exists a way out of the vortex of retribution. My enemy is no longer the personification of evil, but a person like myself in need of redemption-a commodity for which we desperately need each other.

Sometimes love requires one to resist one’s enemies. Allowing abusive spouses or parents to continue their pathological behavior does not benefit them and it certainly has no salutary value for the victims! Nor should the church or the world turn a blind eye to genocide, ethnic cleansing or systemic injustice. But that is not to say that love requires the use of violence. There are many ways to resist[1] but, for us disciples of Jesus, violent coercion is not an arrow in our quiver. We know or should know that “all who take the sword perish by the sword.” Adopting the enemy’s methods only transforms us into the image of all that we hate in the enemy. As tempting as it is to rationalize that the ends justify the means, we know that the means are the only reliable way we have of shaping the ends.

Love is hard. Love is costly. Love doesn’t deliver results in any way we can measure. But, as the following poem by Wendell Berry illustrates, it’s the only way there is to vanquish an enemy.

Enemies

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Walter Wink, professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount represents not passive submission to evil, but a “third way” of actively opposing injustice and hostility. Evil is to be actively resisted, though not on its own terms. The community of Jesus’ disciples is to be a counter cultural community whose very existence and way of being represents a challenge to imperial oppression. Though some of Professor Wink’s interpretations of particular texts strike me as speculative and fanciful, on the whole, I think his analysis is on target. See Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Press) pp. 98-111.

Of Prophecy and Broken Government

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

Prayer of the Day: Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength…” Jeremiah 17:5-10.

Jeremiah had good reason to be skeptical about human leadership. The rulers of Judah, descendants of king David, had failed miserably to measure up to their great ancestor’s stature. According to the ancient covenant, kingship in Israel was not a privilege. The king, as God’s anointed one, was charged with judging the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. He was charged with defending the cause of the poor of the people, giving deliverance to the needy and crushing oppression. Psalm 72:12-14. But David’s royal descendants used their power to enrich themselves at the expense of their people, led the people into the worship of idols and pursued selfish and shortsighted foreign policies that brought Judah to the brink of extinction. This, says Jeremiah, is what comes of trusting human leadership.

I expect that the good people of Virginia are feeling much the same way.  Several of their leaders appear to have betrayed the public trust placed in them. First, an obscure news outlet unearthed a medical school yearbook page from 1984 for Virginia’s Governor, Ralph S. Northam, sporting a blatantly racist photo. Then, while the state was still reeling from this scandal, Lt. Governor Justin E. Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. Next Attorney General Mark R. Herring admitted to having appeared in “blackface.” Finally, it was revealed that Thomas K. Norment, Jr., the majority leader in the Virginia Senate played a leading role in editing his college yearbook, which contains several photographs of students in blackface as well as racist slurs. There have been numerous calls from all quarters for the resignation of these individuals from their offices. It remains to be seen whether they will heed those calls.

Any such infractions on my part would have ended my ministerial career-and rightly so. Our faith communities place profound trust in us. When we abuse that trust, we inflict enormous injuries on both the individuals involved and the communities to which we minister. We are held to a higher standard of conduct and the consequences for our failing to live up to it are treated with greater severity. That might seem unfair, but life isn’t meant to be fair. “To whom much is given, much is required,” says Jesus. Luke 12:48. What goes for ministers also goes, in some measure, for elected leaders entrusted with making and enforcing the rule of law. We can hardly trust an individual who mocks and ridicules members of another race or ethnicity to ensure equal protection and justice for all. Nor can we trust people who abuse women and girls to protect their rights. Such conduct on the part of our elected leaders destroys irreparably our confidence in their ability to lead.

Jeremiah goes on to sound a cautionary note, however. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” says the prophet. Jeremiah 17:9. However much we might rightfully expect from those we elevate to positions of leadership, we dare not forget that they are no less human than the rest of us. Their hearts are no different from our own. We ought to know that each of us has fault lines in our souls and character flaws that, under enough pressure and in the right circumstances, might well break. Never having run for public office myself, I can’t speak from personal experience. But it seems to me that the challenges of satisfying often conflicting demands of one’s constituents, obtaining financing for one’s campaign, employing the tactics necessary to win an election and navigating the process of governing in a system heavily controlled by powerful interest groups must inflict a severe strain on one’s moral compass. What I do know is that power is intoxicating. You don’t need to have much to make you more than a little tipsy. Being surrounded by people who look to you for help, support and comfort has a way of filling you with the kind of self-important narcissism that blinds you to the results of your selfish actions and their tragic consequences for others. Too many of my colleagues in ministry have drunk too heavily from that cup and lost their way. I know only too well how easily one moral compromise prepares the groundwork for the next and how one seemingly innocent and inconsequential lie steels your conscience for bigger lies to come. For that reason, I believe we need to temper our righteous anger at our fallen leaders with a degree of understanding and even compassion.

Perhaps the fault lies with us as much as with our leaders. We are not likely to elect a candidate who tells us hard truths we don’t want to hear. We don’t like being told that the problems facing us are complex and that solving them will require time and sacrifice. We long for leaders who give us soundbite answers and guarantee that they can “fix” things without requiring anything from us. We tend to vote for candidates promising to restore us to some golden age of yore or lead us into some utopian future. Winning an election practically requires a candidate to make promises that cannot be kept-that is, to lie. Should it surprise us, then, that we wind up with leaders who cannot be trusted? Are the lies we so desperately want to believe driving us to follow only those willing to indulge our falsehoods? Are we manufacturing for ourselves the leaders we deserve?

One final observation. The prophetic viewpoint is generally from the bottom up. That is to say, prophecy takes its stand among the victims of nationalist idolatry, whether they be the exploited and dispossessed Israelites employed as pawns by the Davidic rulers in their reckless and destructive game of geopolitical domination or the 16.2 million children in the United States struggling with hunger[1] as their government hands out billions to its corporate citizens. Prophecy, like the poem below, struggles to give voice to those who have no voice-like women and young girls sexually assaulted by powerful men and people of color subjected to systemic oppression and racist ridicule. Biblically speaking, the righteousness of a nation is judged by how well or poorly it cares for the most vulnerable under its jurisdiction. There can be no neutrality here. Prophecy is not intended to support the interests of the state or legitimize its every use of power. Prophecy exists to ensure that the cry of the poor against unjust regimes reaches the ears of God.

What the Old Homeless Man Had to Say About the Candidates’ Debate

Calling ‘em whores is an insult,
to the whores, I mean.
As far as I know,
Whoring never hurt anyone
But the whores themselves.
So if all those glad handing,
Back slapping sons of bitches
Ever did was hustle up a dollar
Or two for a pint of gin,
Maybe a snort of crack
Some place to flop for the night,
I might be more disposed to
Pity the lying sacks.
But those blood sucking
Bastards aren’t content
To lie, cheat and steal away
Just what they need to live on.
They gotta take it all.
Every last inch of land,
Every last crumb off the plate,
Every last spoon full of soup
Out of every stinking caldron.
They gotta fill the air with their stink,
Muck up the water so bad
We can’t drink it and then
Bottle up what clean water’s left
And sell it to us-
Just as though anyone could own water!
What the hell gives’ em the right,
I’d like to know?
They didn’t make the rivers and streams.
They don’t make the rain fall.
So how comes it that they got the right
To go collecting it, putting it in bottles
And selling it to us?
Democrats and Republicans,
Know what the difference is between em?
Democrats make big promises and don’t deliver
Republicans promise nothing and do!
Either way it goes, you wind up with nothing.
To hell with em! To hell with the lot of em!

Anonymous

[1] Dupere, Katie, 6 Startling Facts abut Hunger in the U.S.-and How You can Help,” Mashable, July 14, 2016.