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John the Baptizer’s Call to Relinquish Privilege

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“….for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:9.

This passage cannot properly be understood from the English translation that substitutes “Lord” for the divine name YAHWEH. To fully understand what it means to have “knowledge of the Lord,” we need to go all the way back to the third chapter of Exodus where God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This is the God of Sarah and Abraham who fled their homeland to escape starvation and were so desperate to get across the border into Egypt that they were willing to trade sexual favors to obtain refuge. This is the God who told Moses, “I will be who I will be” and was the God who took the side of slaves against the wealth, power and status of empire. This God is no mere theological abstraction. This God reveals God’s self consistently as the God who takes the side of the slave and the refugee.

So what would the world look like if everyone were privy to such “knowledge?” What if everyone believed that God’s face can only be seen clearly in the faces of the poor, hungry and oppressed? What if we all knew that God cannot be offended, blasphemed or disgraced by damage done to any shrine, icon, or church building, but is offended, blasphemed and disgraced in the death of every person through violence, malice or neglect? What if we believed that there is no god other than the God who hangs on an implement of torture and bleeds for the reign of justice and peace where there are no closed borders, no gated communities no streets strewn with the sleeping homeless?

Isaiah answers that question for us.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain…”  Isaiah 11:6-9.

Anyone reading this, both in our own time and that of the prophet, has to know that this is hyperbolic imagery. Clearly, lions cannot survive long on straw and without predators to keep their numbers down, herbivores would soon strip the land of vegetation bringing about all manner of ecological disaster. Nonetheless, the prophet’s hymn testifies to the harmony within humanity and between humanity and the natural world God intends. Neither the world nor any part of it is the possession of any nation state to be sealed off and guarded against trespass. The so called “wilderness” is not an enemy to be conquered, brought into submission and exploited for profit. The earth is not a dead ball of limited resources to be ruthlessly drained and fought over by competing national and economic powers. The earth belongs to the Lord-more specifically, the God of slaves and refugees. Human beings are here, not to dominate and exploit the earth, but “to till and keep it.” Genesis 2:15. We are the gardeners, not the owners of the estate.[1]      

I have no doubt that Jesus’ preaching of God’s reign was deeply informed by Isaiah’s proclamation and other prophetic texts like it. The Sermon on the Mount set forth in Matthew’s gospel is not an ideal to which we can aspire but never attain. It is a blueprint for the life Jesus lived, a life that led him to the cross. Ironically, I remember a man in a Bible study on the Sermon remark, “If I tried to conduct my business like that, I’d get crucified!” I don’t remember what I actually said in response. But I should have simply replied, “Well, yes. And your point is?” The reign of God does not come without struggle, suffering and sacrifice.  

Enter, John the Baptizer. He has got some choice words for the scribes and pharisees[2] who came to him for baptism:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Matthew 3:7-8.

The scribes and the pharisees are not being turned away. To the contrary, they are being called to repentance. They have misconstrued their association with Abraham as privilege. They have forgotten that they are the descendants of aliens and slaves, non-persons who by God’s call and saving acts have been made God’s people. To be children of Abraham is to be in solidarity with the tax collectors, harlots and the rest of humanity living on the margins. Repentance for these folks means renouncing privilege in order to embrace their identity as God’s suffering people whose lives glorify a different understanding of what it is to be human.

I think we ought not to be too critical of the scribes and the pharisees. After all, few religions have enjoyed the privilege and status known by white American protestants. Notwithstanding the constitutional separation of church and state, the church in its white protestant manifestations has exercised profound influence over American society. Our clergy were exempt from military conscription, our organizations are free from taxation, we are permitted to discriminate, segregate and exclude in ways no commercial entity can. Given this reality, it is nothing short of comical to hear white evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham whining about persecution.[3] Like the scribes and the pharisees John confronts, we are called upon to renounce our privilege and to “know” that we are the disciples of a crucified messiah from the God of slaves, refugees and aliens. That, of course, changes everything.

I believe that John’s challenge to us as white protestant Christians is to find ways to disengage from our privileged status.[4] That might sound rather frightening. But, in reality, there is no real choice in the matter. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25. We can relinquish our privileged position and renounce our belief in the god who we imagine has blessed us with privilege, or we can have our privilege ripped away from us as we desperately and vainly try to hang onto it. Only empty hands can receive the promise of abundant and eternal life.  

Here is a poem by Samuel French Morse inspired by Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah.

The Peaceable Kingdom

He looked up, like a savage: nothing there,

No starlight, not a star to help him now.

And nowwhere else to turn. He held his ground

For some sure sign or word, and tried to see.

He caught a flicker, as of fireflies

High up, then farther off; the summer air

Stirred once, still warm around him, Then the night

Was all there was between him and the past.

But what he saw out there was more than light:

A hand as broad as heaven reaching down

To touch eternity gave something shape

And being and first form; the moving deep,

Then mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and plains,

And afterword the hazy grasses, trees,

Birds, beasts, and fishes; and at last a child.

And he became the very child he saw.

He watched. The child sat down beside a stream.

The lion came, the lion and the lamb

Lay down together, dozing in the sun.

The flowering trees were full of singing birds

He called by name, and apples red as blood.

But when he touched the leopard with his hand,

To prophesy before Isaiah’s law,

He drew back, frightened; and the lion roared.

He stood in darkness, like the man he was.

Source: Poetry (May 1958). Samuel French Morse (1916–1985) was an American poet and teacher. He had a poetry prize named in his honor which lasted from 1983–2009. For twenty three years he taught at Northeastern University. He published five poetry collections during his lifetime and ninety of his previously unpublished poems were published posthumously. He lived in Boston until his death in 1985. You can learn more about Samuel French Mores and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] The command given to the human race in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” has been the source of much mischief. Standing alone, this verse might lead one to believe that humans are free to do whatever they wish with the planet. But this verse does not stand alone. It has a context. We need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22Numbers 32:29Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23. The Bible is big on ecology. In fact, insofar as the New Testament declares that God’s goal for the universe is the reconciliation of the world in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19), you could say that the Bible is all about ecology.

[2] I am mindful of the dangers of antisemitism lurking beneath so many attacks on the pharisees and scribes. Though Jesus could be critical of these folks, he also respected them and urged his disciples to do the same. Matthew 23:2-3. It is helpful to remember that all but a very few actors in the gospels are Jewish. Though disputes within a family are often sharp and bitter, the family remains family. Jesus never considered himself anything other than a faithful Jew preaching a gospel of renewal to his beloved people in the tradition of the prophets who came before him. He was crucified by Rome under Roman law for sedition. That some Jews colluded with the government of Rome in this matter does not reflect in any way on the many scribes and pharisees who loved the Torah and shared the same hope for God’s reign as did Jesus.

[3] In that regard, see An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham by a “Small Church Pastor,”

[4] How do we do this? That is a very big and very important question. But for making a small start, see An Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe.

Looking South for Advent

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” Romans 13:11-12.

The church year begins where the secular year is drawing to a close. The clarion call to stay awake, to watch the horizon intently for a sign of the dawn rings out in a time of encroaching darkness as the hours of daylight recede. That should not surprise us. God does some of God’s best work in the dark. Abraham and Sarah received the promise of a child under the starry night sky in their twilight years. The miracle of the Exodus was conceived in the darkness of slavery and oppression. Jesus’ resurrection was birthed in the darkness of a graveyard. What better way to begin a new year than reminding ourselves that the darkness surrounding us is not the darkness of the tomb, but that of the womb.

I have preached that message for some forty years each Advent season. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that this is true for only half the world. Our Christian siblings in the southern hemisphere are celebrating Advent in the spring. For them, daylight is not in retreat, but advancing. In the southern half of the world, the dawn for which we hope has broken and sunlight is stretching over the fields and infiltrating the dense forests with spears of light. The dark and cold of winter is only a memory. While we hunker down, the church of the south basks in the sunshine and warmth of spring. Fresh blossoms, new growth and the season of planting are the surrounding parables of Advent.

I wonder how this seasonal difference shapes the preaching of our Advent texts among Christians south of the equator. What I do know is that we in the north could use an infusion of spring time hope into our Advent observance. I won’t belabor this post with yet another recital of the threats, both immediate and existential, that flood network news, the internet and conversations in barber shops and nail salons. You all know what’s out there. And maybe that is part of the problem. It’s gotten so damned dark that we have forgotten the dawn. We are not looking for it anymore because we cannot see any way of digging out of the ecological, geopolitical, partisan rancor that imposes itself on all of the personal struggles that go with getting through any given day. We have grown so accustomed to the darkness that our eyes reflexively close in the face of every show of light. In short, we have begun to lose hope-an essential ingredient to discipleship.

Hope is not the same as mere optimism and it does not rest on rational argument. It is inspired by parables, stories and analogies that appeal to our imaginations. Jesus never told us where the reign of God is located or when and how it will come. He spoke about it in parables. The reign of God is like a mustard seed, a farmer planting wheat, a pearl of great price, a treasure buried in a field, a royal banquet for the poor and the lame, a wedding feast and the list goes on. Does imagination make a difference? Long before there were vaccines, someone dreamed of a world without smallpox or polio and refused to accept the gloomy assumption that “such afflictions will always be with us.” Can we, for our part, imagine Russians, Ukrainians and people from nations all over the world transforming tanks into tractors? Can we imagine a congress and president committed to dismantling once and for all the engines of systemic racism and investing in restorative justice for its victims? Can we imagine a united global initiative to save what is left of our rainforests, reduce carbon emissions substantially and provide relief for those populations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change? Have we lost altogether the prophetic imagination of Isaiah who could visualize the day when peoples of all nations cry out,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2:3.

Have we become so thoroughly jaded that we can no longer imagine a day when

“[God] shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4.

If so, I am afraid we have little to offer a despairing world.

Perhaps instead of singing “people look east”[1] this Advent season we should be singing “people look south.”[2] We need a reminder that the darkness will not last forever. We need to be reminded that imagination precedes knowledge and spurs us on toward things we cannot now see. We need to be reminded that fulfilment follows God’s promises just as surely as the season of increasing light and renewed life follows the season of darkness.

Last week a friend and fellow disciple with whom I participate regularly in an weekly prayer gathering reminded me of a passage from J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It comes from the third book, The Return of the King. I trust that most of you are familiar with this classic work of fantasy fiction. For those who are not, perhaps this will wet your appetite. Frodo and Sam are deep in the bleak land of Mordor on a mission to carry the dreaded ring of power to the cracks of Mount Doom, the one place where its evil power can be destroyed forever. The journey has been fraught with danger, misssteps and wrong turns. The end seems as far away as ever. It is night. Frodo is sleeping, but Sam is kept awake by his doubts and fears. And then….  

“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

Make no mistake about it. The power of evil in the form of systemic racism, nationalism, ecological exploitation and their dreadful consequences are not mere illusions to be wished away. The darkness around us is very real. But it is not the only or even the most compelling reality. In this season of growing darkness, we need the witness of our southern siblings to remind us that the dawn is just as real as the darkest hour of night.

Here is a poem by Joy Harjo telling an ancient tale brimming with something akin to Advent hope.

Once the World was Perfect

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.

Then we took it for granted.

Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.

Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.

And once Doubt ruptured the web,

All manner of demon thoughts

Jumped through—

We destroyed the world we had been given

For inspiration, for life—

Each stone of jealousy, each stone

Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.

No one was without a stone in his or her hand.

There we were,

Right back where we had started.

We were bumping into each other

In the dark.

And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know

How to live with each other.

Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another

And shared a blanket.

A spark of kindness made a light.

The light made an opening in the darkness.

Everyone worked together to make a ladder.

A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,

And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,

And their children, all the way through time—

To now, into this morning light to you.

Source: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, (c. 2015 by Joy Harjo; pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..) Joy Harjo (b. 1951) is an American poet, musician, playwright, and author. She served as the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that honor. She was also only the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to have served three terms. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation. In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, performed internationally at poetry readings and music events and released seven albums of her original music. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, and two award-winning children’s books. You can learn more about Joy Harjo and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] “People Look East” (c. Miss E. Farjeon Will Trust) Hymn #248 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006) 

[2] Seriously, I think that might be a great theme for an Advent hymn. Composition of good church music, however, is significantly above my pay grade. So I will have to hope that somebody else will pick up that ball and run with it.

Following a Glorified Failure

SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“…in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20.

Sunday’s gospel lesson makes abundantly clear who the church is to acknowledge as its sole monarch. It was the one put to death under Roman law for sedition. It was the one religious leaders and moral authorities rejected as lawless and immoral. It was the one ridiculed even by his fellow death row inmates. This man hanging on an implement of ruthless torture is the one in whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created…,” the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” His life is the template for his disciples. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” says Jesus. “And where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:27. As our gospel graphically illustrates, “carrying the cross” is not a metaphor.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has observed that the church is a people whose lives make sense only in light of Jesus’ resurrection. It does not make much sense for young people, who could be doing far more entertaining things, to be walking the beaches of Cape Cod in the pouring rain picking up plastic bottles-even as tons of unregulated materials and waste are daily pumped into our oceans, thereby eclipsing whatever modest gains these hapless volunteers make. It does not make much sense for a young person to spend the best years of her life in a refugee camp where she can offer little to nothing other than bare subsistence for people who have little to no hope of a better life. It makes no sense and (as I have often been told) it is futile, hopelessly naïve and morally irresponsible to confront hostile armies, dangerous criminals and terrorists with nothing more than love, prayers and acts of kindness. None of this makes any sense-unless you believe that God raised Jesus from death. In that case, all of this makes perfect sense.

As Americans, we have been infused with a “can do” mentality and confidence that success is always within reach. That isn’t all bad. A lot of problems are easily fixable. Some are more complex requiring thought, research and a careful, patient trial and error approach to finding solutions. Others appear to have no solution, but that does not justify giving up the search for one. There is no virtue in cynicism and weak resignation. But there are limits to what human initiative, knowledge and technology can do (ask any hospice worker about that!). In a culture where success is the measure of happiness, self esteem and the significance of one’s life, that is a bitter pill to swallow.

The gentle, just and peaceful reign of God comes on God’s own time and in God’s own way. Like love, you can’t hurry it. “You just have to wait.”[1] But the waiting to which Jesus calls us is not passive. Between now and the end when God is all in all, there is work to be done. Truth must be spoken boldly to power. Resistance must be made to the tyrannical overreach of the “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” and the systemic injustice sustaining them must be exposed and dismantled. Disciples must create communities in which the mind of Christ can be formed in order that the Body of Christ may become visible to the world. For followers of Jesus, the reign of God is not merely a future hope, but a present reality in which they live, however imperfectly, in the midst of hostile foreign occupation.

The toughest lesson to be learned when following Jesus is that his way does not bring the most efficient, cost effective or successful results. Faithfulness sometimes means sacrificing golden opportunities for success. Nobody knew that better than Jesus, who was offered the glory and authority of the world’s kingdoms. Luke 4:4-8. Putting aside for the moment the fact that this offer came from the lips of the devil, it certainly has its appeal for pragmatic realists like us. Think of all you could accomplish with power like that: universal health care, mandatory living wage, quality education for all, affordable housing in every community, world disarmament-and the list goes on.

There is, however, a hidden moral and spiritual cost the devil is concealing. The exercise of political power requires compromise. In order to get your education bill passed, you might have to let the civil rights bill die in committee. If both bills are unpopular and it happens to be an election year, you might have to let both die. After all, you can’t do any good in the halls of power if you can’t get re-elected. Moreover, behind all political authority is the raw power of violent coercion. If you would hold the authority of nations, you must be prepared to use it. If persuasion, rule of law and threats fail, the use of force cannot be ruled out. You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs-or so the saying goes. None of that squares with what Jesus teaches us.[2] But you have to decide whether you want merely to be good or get good things done. Our culture values the latter. Jesus calls us to the former.

“I just want to make a difference.” That is the reason commonly given by those of us who go into careers like medicine, social work, law, policing and, yes, ministry. It is a noble sentiment. It clearly sets us apart from those whose only ambitions are wealth and power. But it also sets us up for temptation. What happens when making a difference requires sacrificing personal integrity? What happens when doing the “right thing” doesn’t get results? Is tampering with evidence such a great evil when you know that doing so will take a dangerous person off the street? Is bending the truth a little bit so very wrong if it will win enough popular support for a piece of legislation benefiting the most vulnerable among us? Is it so wrong for national church leaders or even parish pastors to temper their welcome to LGBTQ+ folk in the interest of preserving church unity and support for all of the important ministries that might suffer from substantial membership loss? What is the price we are prepared to pay in order to “make a difference?”

The life of Jesus is a classic example of one that didn’t make a difference. Jesus was misunderstood, betrayed, denied and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by the leaders of his people. He died the death of a criminal. And nothing changed. Roman tyranny still held sway over Judea. The religious status quo remained unshaken. The poor were still poor, the sick still sick and the outcasts outcasts still. Jesus is Exhibit A for the proposition that “nice guys finish last.” His story illustrates what happens when you let your ideals get the better of you; when let your moral scruples get in the way practical necessity; when you fail to put the ends ahead of the means. The way of Jesus doesn’t work against bad guys with guns. The way of Jesus doesn’t work in the halls of congress. The way of Jesus doesn’t work in the commercial market place. The way of Jesus doesn’t work for running ecclesiastical institutions. Jesus is the last one you should emulate if your highest objective is “making a difference.” Nothing Jesus did or said during his lifetime “made a difference.”

But here’s the thing. Jesus is the one God raised from death. Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation.” In Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Through Jesus “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” We would have preferred that God had raised General Patton, Steve Jobs, Franklin D. Roosevelt or somebody whose life made a real historical difference. That would have confirmed everything we believe about power, glory and success. But by raising Jesus, God turns our understanding of all these things on their head. Jesus’ way, spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain and put into practice throughout his faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection is the way for his disciples as well. It is not for us worry about making a difference. Ours is to choose obedience even when it invites hostility, bypasses every prospect of success and ends in failure. Ours is to live faithfully as Jesus lived and, with our last breath, to say “into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” It is for God to gather up the imperfect offering of our obedience and make of it something beautiful, something that matters, something that makes a difference.

Here is a poem by Ha Jin reflecting the spirit of inner confidence that I believe disciples cultivate as the mind of Christ is formed in them.  

A Center

You must hold your quiet center,

where you do what only you can do.

If others call you a maniac or a fool,

just let them wag their tongues. 

If some praise your perseverance, 

don’t feel too happy about it—

only solitude is a lasting friend.

You must hold your distant center.

Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. 

If others think you are insignificant,

that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.

As long as you stay put year after year,

eventually you will find a world

beginning to revolve around you. 

Source: A Distant Center, (c. 2018 by Ha Jin; pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Ha Jin is the pen name of Chinese American poet, Jin Xuefei (b. 1956). He was born in Liaoning, China. His father was a military officer. At thirteen, Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. Jin began to educate himself in Chinese literature and high school curriculum at sixteen. He left the army when he was nineteen and entered Heilongjiang University. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in English studies. This was followed by a master’s degree in Anglo-American literature at Shandong University. Jin was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre occurred. This tragic event hastened his decision to emigrate to the United States. He eventually obtained a Ph.D. You can read more about Ha Jin and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] You Can’t Hurry Love, Diana Ross and the Supremes, 1966.

[2] I have been asked whether, in view of these observations, I believe that disciples of Jesus can enter faithfully into a political career. My response is a qualified “yes.” There is nothing wrong with seeking elected office in an effort to advance the public good. Yet while a Christian can in good conscience be a politician, s/he might not be a very successful one. For one thing, national priorities are often at odds with the priorities of God’s reign. Secondly, the way to which Jesus calls his disciples inevitably collides with morally repugnant practicalities one must often accept for political success. Does that mean political involvement for Christians is futile? Not if witness rather than success is the objective. Many people have run for political office with no realistic prospect of being elected. Many elected leaders have put forward proposals that had no realistic prospect of becoming law. Still, they brought into the realm of public discussion important issues that, in some cases, changed the course of public deliberations, helped to shape future legislation for the better and paved the way for election of subsequent candidates that might not otherwise have been considered.

Editorial by Former Governor and Republican Spokesperson, Chris Christie

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source image

The Ghost is pleased and honored to host the following editorial by former New Jersey State governor and former presidential candidate, Chris Christie. In addition to the above, Mr. Christie has the high distinction of being one of the first rats to desert the good ship Trump after the January 6, 2020 insurrection. He is now a prominent commentator and Republican spokesperson on national media.  

Republicans are going to win big on Tuesday. You know why? Because while Democrats have been whining about women’s reproductive freedom, fair elections and racial equality, we’ve been talking about what Americans really care about. Kitchen table issues. I’m talking inflation and the economy. That’s what matters. That’s all that has ever mattered.

Take a lesson from history. When Hitler first came to power, rejuvenated the economy, created jobs, rebuilt the military and restored a sense of national pride, did anyone worry about a bunch of Jews disappearing? Did they get all antsy about attacks on the press? Did they cry over the loss of their civil liberties? Hell no. They sat at their kitchen tables, thanked the Fuhrer and stuffed their faces. Americans are no different. You think they lose sleep over some ten-year old girl made to bear her rapist’s child? Think they boohoo over a bunch of little five-year old brats that get their brains blown out by an AR-15? Think they worry about losing the opportunity to stand in line every year and pull a lever? Think they care about abstract notions like “feedom,” “democracy” and “constitutional rights?” Nope. They vote for cheep gas, coffee and hamburger meat-and that’s what we promise them. Bread and circuses. It’s what mattered in Rome and it’s what matters in the USA.

And let me tell you something else. In spite of the fact that Republicans get substantial support form so called “evangelical Christians,” they aren’t any different than anyone else. They elected a president who was an adulterer, a compulsive liar and a sexual predator. They are supporting a senatorial candidate who is running against abortion while he paid for two of them on his own offspring. About the only Republican presidential hopeful who has been able to keep it in his pants and live a “pure” life is Mike Pence. These people hate him more than the Democrats do. These so called evangelicals don’t really care two cents for all that Sunday School crap they rave about. They care about what everyone else does: food on the kitchen table.

I repeat, Republicans are going to win big because they understand what Democrats never will. The average American’s interest begins and ends at the kitchen table. It doesn’t reach the poor, the persecuted or the neighbor across the street. Never has. Never will.

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

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

Endurance and Gaining a Soul for the American Church

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Malachi 4:1-2a

Psalm 98

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:19.

The woes of Jesus’ warnings in Sunday’s gospel are playing out in real time as I write. For the first time in eight decades, war is raging in Europe and another is brewing over the Korean peninsula. The bloody insurrection of January 6, 2020 threatens erupt once again as widespread violence strikes the families of our leaders, threats of violence surround our voting centers and hate crimes rise to unprecedented levels. Famines are again plaguing northern Africa and the middle east. Moreover, there is no shortage of ominous signs of impending ecological disaster as forests burn, carbon content in the atmosphere increases and glacial and polar ice melt into rising seas.

As if all of this were not enough, Jesus warns us that the bonds of human community will decay resulting in increased violence, particularly against those who would align themselves with God’s gentle reign. That, too, is becoming evident as political discourse devolves into swinging hammers, threats of violence and the rhetoric of civil war. I have always had sharp political disagreements with folks who identify as conservatives, but I have never before feared them. But last fall, when a humvee with a machine gun* mounted on it arrived in the square of a neighboring town surrounded by a group of people dressed in colonial garb and crying out for another revolution against the government and “the rein of liberals,” I was a little unnerved. One particularly boisterous fellow was shouting at the top of his lungs “Liberalism is a mental disease” at cars with progressive bumper stickers driving through the town center. There are a lot of those in these parts as the population is generally liberal leaning. There were banners proclaiming, “Trump is still president” and various Q type conspiracy memes.

I wanted in the worst way to approach one of these folks and ask them, “What is this all about? Do you hate and fear people like me so much that you think killing us is the only way you can live in peace and security? I’m an old man with grown children and grandchildren like many of you. Don’t we all want a better, healthier, friendlier world for them? Can’t we have a civil discussion about how we get there together? Does it have to be your way, my way or no way?” Those were questions I was burning to ask. But the truth is, I was worried that any attempt to have a discussion with these folks would end badly. We have finally reached the point where even dialogue is a risky venture. So we remain safely behind our barricades and shout slogans at each other. Thankfully, for the most part, that is as close to civil war as we have come. God help us the day it goes beyond that.

In the face of all this, Jesus admonishes us to endure. Truthfully, I wish Jesus had some better word of promise for us. I wish he would assure us that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” I wish he could promise us that things will get better soon. I suspect the disciples felt the same way. They were all starry eyed over the Temple. That is hardly surprising. If it were still standing, the Jerusalem temple constructed by Herod the Great would doubtless be one of the world’s architectural wonders. The disciples could no more imagine it in ruins than I could have imagined the Twin Towers in ruins the day back in 1975 when I first visited New York City and stood under them, gawking like a typical tourist. I suspect, too, that most of us find it hard to imagine the United States of America in ruins-or so drastically changed that we no longer recognize it as the country we have known. But Jesus seems to be warning us that we might well be called upon to live in and give testimony under drastically different conditions than we take for granted today. The road from where we are today leading to God’s reign of justice and peace is a long one with ups and downs, hills, valleys and plenty of formidable obstacles. Endurance, not speed enables one to finish the race.

“By your endurance,” says Jesus, “you will gain your souls.” Interestingly, the New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek word “psyche” as “soul.” The old Revised Standard Version translates the same word, “life.” Both translations are subject to misinterpretation. The biblical word psyche has a wide breadth of meaning. It can mean simply one’s earthly existence, but it is also used to denote more than a person’s vital functions. The psyche is the “the life force or principle” of living things. It is the “seat and center of the inner life of a [person] in its many aspects.” It can also refer to the “feelings and emotions.”  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Translated form the German by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, pub. by University of Chicago Press, c. 1957). Its meaning depends largely on context. In this particular context I believe the term psyche can be understood as the person of the disciple as defined by that disciple’s relation to Jesus. To endure, then, means to continue one’s allegiance to Jesus throughout the shifting winds of political and environmental change. It is to perservere as a community in which the mind of Christ is formed, resisting all of the cultural forces pulling it in different directions.

We have heard repeatedly that the upcoming election is about the “soul of America.” Frankly, I don’t even know whether nation states have souls. As there were no nation states in existence in biblical times, we are unlikely to find a direct answer to that question in the Scriptures. What I do know is that there are numerous currents of thought and action normative in American society that are contrary to the mind of Christ. Chief among them is the formative influence of white supremacy in the origins, development and ongoing life of our nation. There is a toxic culture of patriarchy and misogyny in our schools, churches, workplaces. Additionally, laws now governing the practice of medicine are making life for our women and girls perpetually unsafe. Last but not least, ours is a culture of violence and intolerance for LGBTQ+ folk. All of this is being given divine sanction by persons identifying as Christians. What ails America ails the church, which I am quite sure does have a soul.  

More important in my view than saving the soul of America (assuming such a thing exists) is preserving the soul of the church. I fear that it may be in mortal danger. I am not certain that we American Christians are capable anymore of distinguishing our call to follow Jesus from the societal role America has assigned to us-and which we have all too uncritically accepted and are trying frantically to hang onto. If the stage were to collapse and the script were lost, would we have any memory of who we were before we became starstruck by landing a part in the great American drama? Should the American nation state implode, fracture or devolve into barbarism, would American Christianity have the spiritual maturity, theological depth and moral courage to be a community formed by the mind of Christ? Can we recover the faithful imagination and thick spiritual practices that sustained the church in past ages through the disintegration of civilizations, persecution under openly hostile governments and public excoriation/indifference?  

Here is a poem by William E. Stafford I shared previously calling us to wakefulness, awareness and attention to what should hold us together and guide us. Perhaps this is something like what Jesus means when he calls us to endurance.  

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (Norwood House Press, 2013) William Edgar Stafford (1914–1993) was an American poet. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, he was the oldest of three children. His family moved from town to town during the Great Depression as his father sought work. Stafford helped to support his family by delivering newspapers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables and working as an electrician’s apprentice. He received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937 and began pursuing a master’s degree there as well. Before he could complete his program, however, Stafford was drafted into the United States armed forces. He declared himself a pacifist and was registered as a conscientious objector. He performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. During this time, Stafford met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. Upon discharge, he returned to the University of Kansas where he completed his master’s program. he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1957 after teaching for one academic year in the English department at Manchester College in Indiana, a college affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Stafford was 48 years old when his first major collection of poetry was published. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published fifty-seven volumes of poetry. You can read more about William Stafford and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

* I am not a munitions expert by any means. Still, I am reasonaby sure that the humvee was a dolled up pickup and the machine gun was neither loaded nor operative. Nonetheless, the message was clear when that vehicle rolled onto the public square of a town populated in the main by left leaning folks like me: “You took our country away from us and we mean to get it back if we have to kill you for it.”

One Holy Catholic And Apostolic Church

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 19:23-27

Psalm 17:1-9

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O God, our eternal redeemer, by the presence of your Spirit you renew and direct our hearts. Keep always in our mind the end of all things and the day of judgment. Inspire us for a holy life here, and bring us to the joy of the resurrection, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

ALL SAINTS DAY

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Psalm 149

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Whichever text preachers decide to preach this Sunday, I hope they all lift up All Saints Day. In these days when we find Orthodox Christians in Europe putting aside their unity in Christ in order to promote the military ambitions of their respective nation states and refugees (many of them Christians) fleeing for their lives are turned away by Christian vigilanties shouting “America First,” we need to be reminded who and whose we are. We need to hear above the din of patriotic rhetoric the prayer of Jesus that his church be perfectly one. Now more than ever the church needs to be reminded that its sole ultimate loyalty is to the one who spoke these words to his disciples, their spiritual ancestors:

“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.

The church of Jesus Christ has always understood itself as a global community transcending the borders of ethnicity and nationaI affiliation. In spite of our sorry fragmentation, we have always maintained that we are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Historically, however, nationalistic loyalty has trumped catholicity pitting Christian against Christian in military bloodletting. Now I worry that, if the church fails to disentangle itself from the false gods of nation, blood, soil and the myths and rituals of systemic injustice holding them in place, we will destroy whatever meaning and credibility the name of Jesus still carries. By disentangling the church, this is what I mean:

  • No weapons of any kind in our sanctuaries, in our offices, schools, church camps or any other church property. That should not even have to be said. But the sad truth is there are congregations taking the view that the only way to protect their members from violence is by arming them or hiring armed security. Apparently, Jesus was not allowed to participate in the deliberation process and his approach to aggression was set aside in favor of the NRA mantra, “Only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The way of Jesus, it seems, is fine for neighbors who have nothing between them but white picket fences. But when it comes enemies, sorry Jesus, go play with the Sunday School kids. We need a manly man.
  • No weapons of any kind belong in a Christian home-unless in the possession of a legal law enforcement official. I am no fan of the so-called “just war” theory. But it is what my own church and most orthodox Christian churches espouse. That doctrine holds that the default posture of Christians is absolute pacifism-the kind Jesus teaches. There is but one narrow exception to this rule and that is for agents of the government entrusted with keeping the peace. Consequently, no disciple of Jesus should be carrying arms for any purpose outside of that single narrow exception. That is not some radical leftist idea dreamed up in a 1960s commune. It is what Christians from Augustine to Luther have taught. No biship or pastor should have any hesitency in teaching it as well. In a sick and twisted culture of violence that gleefully sacrifices its children on the altar of the Second Amendment, the teaching, practice and discipline of peace needs to be at the core of the church’s life.
  • A strong condemnation of America’s and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine. Let me start by saying unequivocally that there is no moral equivalency between Russia’s blatant war of aggression and Ukraine’s defense of its homeland. I condemn and I think anyone with a reasonable sense of morality would also condemn the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Still, if the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is the futility of trying to resolving differences by military means. If the present conflict in eastern Europe does not escalate into a wider conflict, if it does not trigger a nuclear exchange, if it does not manage to starve millions of Africans by blocking the transfer of much needed grain, then it will surely continue as long as NATO and Russia have weapons to pour into it. Thus, the best case scenario for this war is its indefinite continuation until someone on one side or the other decides it just isn’t worth prolonging. That could be a very long time. In the meantime, we have seen in living color the horrendous cost in human life. It will only get worse. One tenant of the just war theory states that arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success. I believe that, by any reasonable measure, the destructive violence unleashed by both sides of the conflict in Ukraine is disproportionate to anything like success and that success is by any measure a pipe dream. You might remember how in March of this year the people of Lviv, Ukraine placed in front of their city hall one hundred and ninety-nine strollers in neat rows – one for each child killed since the start of the war in Ukraine. Is any nation, flag or ideology worth that terrible sacrifice? To be clear, I believe there are things worth dying for. I believe there are things for which sacrificing life and limb is a worthy and faithful act. Blood, soil, national identity are not among them. I don’t think it is the place of the church to instruct the nations of the world in diplomacy. But we who believe that all humanity is one, that all people of every nation, tribe and people bear the image of their Maker, that on all sides of every national conflict is the Body of Christ, we need to say clearly, unequivocally and without hesitation to the leaders of the nations in which we reside that this war has to stop.

I have said before and I will say again that peacemaking is not one of the church’s many tasks. It is the task. As Saint Paul instructs us, we are ambassadors of reconciliation. It is our calling to preach peace far and near. II Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 2:17. More than that, we are to be witnesses for peace, confronting hatred with kindness, curses with prayer, violence with non-violence, abuse with forgiveness and generosity. And yes, the consequence of becoming vulnerable and approaching our enemies with the open hand of friendship might be getting a nail punched through that hand. Jesus is not speaking metaphorically when he calls upon his disciples to take up the cross. Nevertheless, as the great Reformation hymn reminds us, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse, though life be wretched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 504.

I fear that the world will pay little attention to the church’s witness for peace until Christians are prepared to sacrifice as much for the gentle and peaceful reign of God as the worshipers of nation, blood and soil are sacrificing daily to their idols. Until Jesus’ prayer is answered and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church becomes a visible reality transcending humanly drawn borders, those borders will continue to divide and more blood will be spilled in their defense.

Here is a poem by Eloise Robinson illustrating the wounds inflicted upon Christ in our military conflicts. If we would follow Jesus, we must be prepared to take on these very wounds.  

War 

LAUGH to see them pray

And think God still is in the sky.

The little Christ whose name they say

Is dead. I saw him die.

They burned his house and killed his priest,

Just as the Bible saith.

We had no milk for little Christ

And so he starved to death.

II

There was a Virgin Mary made

To sit in church, all whitely sweet,

And hear our prayers. She smiled and played

All day with baby Jesus’ feet.

Each day, our faces clean like snow,

Amid the candle-shine and myrrh

We children, standing in a row,

With folded hands would sing to her.

“O Mary, let thy gentle son

Come down with us today,

And be the blessed Holy One

In all our work and play.

I wish that we had prayed to her

To keep him safe instead.

She did not know about the war.

Now little Christ is dead.

III

The sun-waves floated past the sill

And buzzy, bumping flies.

My Mother lay all pale and still,

With eyes like Mary’s eyes.

I promised her I would be brave

And help her, and I tried;

And all the things she asked I gave,

And never cried.

But at the end all I could do

Was, stop my ears and pray,

And hide my face. I never knew

The Christ would come that way.

IV

My Mother held me close to her;

I feel her one kiss yet.

How sweet she was, alone and dear,

I never can forget.

Her face was just like Mary’s face,

As if a light shone through.

I took the Christ Child from that place

And ran. She told me to.

V

There were long, dust-gray roads to run,

And sticks that hurt my feet,

And dead fields lying in the sun,

And nothing there to eat.

The Baby Jesus never cried,

But with soft little lips and weak

Wee hands kept nuzzling at my side

And tried to suck my cheek.

VI

We slept beneath a bending tree,

The little Christ and I,

And woke up in the light to see

The sun lift up the sky.

And all the birds that ever were

Sang to the Christ Child then,—

Sweet thrush and lark and woodpecker,

Gold warbler and brown wren.

There were no bells for mass

Singing a little tune;

White faces lying in the grass

Were laughing at the moon!

VII

They made a little, lonely bed

Where it was cold and dim.

The baby Christ was dead, quite dead.

There was no milk for him.

Source: Poetry, May 1917 I have been unable to learn anything about this poet, including her dates of birth and death. I would welcome any information anyone would be able to provide me!

Zacchaeus on the Issue of Reparations

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST/REFORMATION

Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32:1-7

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

Prayer of the Day: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“‘Look, [said Zacchaeus] half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’” Luke 19:8-10.

“Look here!” said the angry red faced parishioner. “Nobody ever gave me a dime! I worked my way through college, fought like hell for every job interview I ever had, started at the bottom rung of the ladder and climbed every step of the way with my own blood sweat and tears. I don’t have anything I haven’t worked my butt of for. So don’t be calling me “privileged!” “God loves EVERYBODY!” the elderly woman nearly screamed in my face. “God doesn’t care whether we are rich or poor!” “Yes, you could say I’m rich by some standards,” said the doctor in his measured and rational tone. “But with pre-med studies, medical school, residencies and fellowships, my life didn’t even start until I was almost thirty-and then there was the debt for all that I had to pay off. That is the price I paid to obtain the skills promoting human health and saving human lives I use today for the benefit of all. I am not about to apologize for the benefits my profession brings to me.”

All of this following a sermon I preached during my internship back in 1980 in which I used the following quote from liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez.

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

We are nothing if not defensive about what we call our own. Though I suspect few of my readers would consider themselves rich, I think it fair to say that the most financially strapped among us still live on a level of comfort and security the financial bottom third of the world’s population can only dream about. That is perhaps why preaching the God of slaves, the God who champions the rights of the poor, the God who “sends the rich away empty” pushes a lot of hot buttons. When I read the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke describing the “great reversal” in which the powerful and wealthy are cast down in favor of the destitute, I can’t help but wonder where I will end up. My name may not be Gates, Musk or Zuckerberg, but I know that I am probably a good deal closer to the hated 1% than I am to the folks to whom Mary sings her liberating hymn of hope. So I have to wonder, is there any place for people like me in the new world God is preparing?

Sunday’s gospel issues a resounding “yes,” to my anxious query. Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector-and “rich.” Yet Jesus does indeed see Zacchaeus as a child of Abraham, one beloved by God and one God seeks to redeem. Zacchaeus, for his part, recognizes what this means for him. He understands now that the reign of God Jesus proclaims stands all of the power, wealth and status arrangements of this world on their heads. He understands now that ownership is a myth, that private property is a fraud perpetrated on behalf of the powerful to hold the status quo in place against the onslaught of God’s just and peaceful reign. So Zacchaeus does what any sensible person would do in his circumstances. He gives away half of his wealth to the poor. More importantly, he vows to restore fourfold the wealth he has made at the expense of others. To use a more contemporary term, Zacchaeus makes reparations.

Of course, a lot of wealthy and privileged people are not as perceptive as Zacchaeus. I can well imagine Zacchaeus making the same kinds of arguments as those of my hearers decades ago . Sure, nobody likes the tax man. Everybody complains that taxes are too high. Everyone thinks they are paying too much. But if you want the streets paved, police and fire protection and some semblance of civil order, you need government. Government has to be paid for and that means taxes. Somebody has to get the taxes from the pockets of the people to the government coffers. “So,” says Zacchaeus, “that is the legitimate service I perform. And, I might add, I’m good at what I do. So good that I was promoted to the station of ‘chief.’ The job pays well-as it should. If you have a problem with my success, it’s your problem. My being rich doesn’t make me responsible for your being poor. The world isn’t a fair place, I’ll grant you that. But I didn’t make the world, I just live here.”  

These excuses would have been as lame in the mouth of Zacchaeus as they are in our own. As Gutierrez reminds us, we did and do make the world. “The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.” As he goes on to point out, “the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” I believe that this is precisely what Zacchaeus is doing. His relinquishment of half of his wealth to the poor is not to be construed as a charitable donation. It is a wholesale rejection of a way of life that sustains itself by impoverishing others. Zacchaeus’ fourfold restitution to all who have been impoverished through his profession reflects his new found determination to live henceforth, not in the cruel and unjust world of his own making, but under the just and gentle reign of God’s making. The radical reversal about which Mary sings is not a distant future hope. It is a present reality in the life of Zacchaeus and all others who hear Jesus’ call to the new reality of God’s reign.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is, I believe, the tragic alternative to the story of Zacchaeus. The nameless man in this parable never perceives the reign of God and its life changing potential for him-though for all his life it has been lying right in front of his gate in the person of Lazarus. Unlike Zacchaeus, the rich man never recognized how his bondage to wealth, power and security built a huge chasm between himself and the rest of the human community of which he was created to be a part. But this story of Zacchaeus and his transformative encounter with Jesus is in our scriptures to remind rich folk like ourselves that it doesn’t have to end that way for us. There is a way out of bondage, out of guilt and out of death on the wrong side of the chasm between rich and poor.

I believe it would take legislative action backed by political will exceeding that behind the New Deal and the Marshall Plan to begin remedying the political and economic inequality imposed on black Americans from the foundations of our nation. So also for genuine efforts to restore for indigenous peoples the life and culture we have stolen through violence and genocide. In the same way, it will take more than good wishes and intermittent acts of charity to rebuild the communities built for the convenience of corporate America and then summarily discarded and left to rot. There is not much appetite for that in either major American political party. But is it too much to expect the Body of Christ to take a different view? Is it too much to expect that white American churches make financial reparations to black churches in recognition of the historic wrongs against them and their members from which we and our members have benefited? Is it too much to expect that our larger, wealthier congregations in more propsperous communities share their substantial wealth with smaller, struggling churches in stressed communities? Is it too much to ask that the Body of Christ at least strive to be the change it keeps calling for from the rest of society in its screechy preachy social statements? Perhaps, in the spirit of Reformation, we ought to attach such questions to the door of ELCA headquarters in Chicago.

Here is a poem by Marcus Wicker that puts the lie to claims of impossibility for making meaningful reparations to the descendants of slavery in the United States.

Reparations Metric Ending in Assisted Schadenfreude

It is impossible to come up with a fair metric for recompensing slavery ten
generations after slavery’s end.
—Ben Shapiro, Fox News

What apple, which conquistador

oats? Which ruby red

moat, what filet of bartered goat?

Which glazed carrot caught your nose,

drew you into the station

w/ blinders on? Horse’s ass.

Quaffed cad. Whatdoya call a

property tax on a revolving

accessory? What’s a loan

w/o a lessor, B? Which of these

eventualities is not like the other—free

& clear from the shattering / a mast

of tears makes / when it fractures /

scalpels away / silt / clean off

a runaway cliff,

before gashing the quarry w/ after-

shot? I’ll take my safety net in breakneck

class action union wage annuity checks

from Ancestry.com, 23 & Everybody

Who’s Made a Killing Trafficking

in Families & Trees. Run me my knot,

Money. Untie my limbs. Underwrite

the court costs, plus notary fees

to petition my change of surname.

Now multiply that expense by a modest

interest rate accrued over 154 summers,

give or take. Or strap weights

to your ankles / go float in a lake.

Source:  Poetry (November 2019). Marcus Wicker (b. 1984) is an American poet. He began writing in elementary school, beginning with mystery stories and personal journals. His Tenth Grade English Teacher introduced him to poetry and encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. Wicker earned an MFA from Indiana University in 2010. In 2011he won the National Poetry Series Prize for his collection Maybe the Saddest Thing. He also won a Pushcart Prize for his poem “Interrupting Aubade Ending In Epiphany” in 2014. Wicker currently teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. You can learn more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Navigating the Highways to Zion

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTACOST

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Psalm 84:1-7

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy surprises us with everlasting forgiveness. Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Happy are those whose strength is in you,
   in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Psalm 84:5.

Not many years ago, a pastoral colleague in my pericope discussion group remarked, “I don’t know who Ezra was or what he did.” While I would find such an admission troubling on the lips of any believer, coming as it did from a fellow pastor left me searching for my jaw down on the floor where it had fallen. Ezra, of course, was the teacher credited with re-establishing Hebrew society, culture and worship in the Holy Land for the Jewish exiles returning from captivity in Babylon. His reinterpretation of Torah for the community of refugees returned home formed the basis for a fresh, renewed Judaism. The legacy Ezra and his disciples left behind gave shape to the hopes expressed by the prophets and set a foundation for the growth and development of both the synagogue and the church. How could a preacher not know about Ezra?

I think that perhaps the fault likes in part with the common lectionary and the way it has been fed to us throughout the years of my ministry. Most of us in the ELCA received pre-printed bulletin inserts with the lessons, the prayer of the day and some ready made petitions for use in the general prayers. This made it much easier for us to avoid pulling the Bible off the shelf and finding the readings ourselves. And let’s face it, in days filled with parish obligations of one kind or another, anything that saved a few minutes of our time was more than welcome. Of course, there were downsides. Unless you made a conscious effort to explore the whole biblical context of the lessons-which involved pulling the Bible off the shelf-you were left with a disembodied text without any “before” or “after.” Moreover, the lectionary leaves a good deal of scripture unexplored. If all you have is the lectionary, there are many stories, legends and poems that will never intersect with your life and ministry or find their way into your preaching. There are many fascinating biblical characters you will never meet. Finally, the makers of the lectionary tend to “censor” the readings in ways that are not always helpful. Unless you are paying close attention to the verse numbers, you might not even realize that passages from the lessons have been omitted. Of course, that too can be remedied by pulling the Bible off the shelf. For all its benefits, the lectionary as it is given to us tends to encourage laziness, carelessness and breeds a sense of disconnection with the larger Biblical narrative.

This disconnect between the Biblical narrative and our use of the Bible in worship and liturgy has produced a Biblically illiterate membership. Most of our members these days are far more familiar with some version of the American story than the Biblical one. Sadly, for us mainliners, the Bible serves as little more than window dressing for our progressive, ever white and ever polite social agendas-which might be just fine, but can stand well enough on their own without the frosting. Of course, the white evangelical wing of American religion finds little use for the Bible beyond employing it as a weapon in the culture wars. While I suspect that nearly every American home has a Bible in it somewhere, most of them are probably doing little more than collecting dust. The Bible has become in many respects a stranger to us.

That is what led me to advise a seminarian in a sermon preached at her ordination as follows: Read the gospels-one chapter each morning seriatim-Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And don’t worry that you find yourself reading the Christmas story on Good Friday. The feasts of the church year do not exist in isolation from the rest of the Biblical narrative. Read regularly the whole Psalter, two psalms a day, morning and night, from one to one hundred fifty. Don’t worry that the language, moods and content don’t seem to resonate. There are prayers in the Psalter you have no idea how much you will need later in life. Read through the rest of the Bible one chapter each evening from Genesis to Revelation. Get to know the Biblical characters and not just the Sarah’s, Abraham’s, David’s and Esther’s. Get to know the marginalized, exploited and suppressed voices seeking to be heard. Cain, the exiled murderer. Tamar the rape victim, the daughter of Lot who narrowly missed being handed over for gang rape to the mob at Sodom and the nameless concubine of the Levite in Judges who was not so fortunate. Get to know Hagar, the discarded wife and Ishmael, her disowned child. Meet Esau, the disenfranchised son. You will meet all of them in your ministry. They need to know that they, too, are caught up in the grand sweep of God’s story by the “God of seeing.” Genesis 16:1-14.

The psalm for this Sunday is likely a song composed by and for Jews making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem on high feast days similar to the “songs of ascent” found at Psalms 120-134. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (c. 1962 b S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 565-566. The vivid description of the pilgrims’ travels through the wilderness on their approach to Mt. Zion suggests to me a post-exhilic time when many Jews continued to live in lands far removed from Palestine. Vs. 5-7. Though separated from the holy city by miles, foreign borders and dangerous terrain, still “the highways to Zion” are indelibly etched into the hearts of these Jews from distant lands. Vs. 5. I believe that the scriptures ought to be for preachers, no less than the rest of us, “highways to Zion.” That is, the songs, stories and preaching along which we travel to find our place among the people of God and the meaning, purpose and direction for our lives.

Much like the home described in the following poem by David Igatow, the Bible should be for us a home which, familiar as it might become, has undiscovered corners, closets stuffed with items loaded with meaning and memories of times good and bad. It is a place that is forever open, welcoming our return. Yet it is forever turning our gaze beyond itself to the open road. The ways forward and back become inscribed on the heart-like the highways to Zion.

The Journey

I am looking for a past

I can rely on

in order to look to death

with equanimity.

What was given me:

my mother’s largeness

to protect me,

my father’s regularity

in coming home from work

at night, his opening the door

silently and smiling,

pleased to be back

and the lights on

in all the rooms

through which I could run

freely or sit at ease

at table and do my homework

undisturbed: love arranged

as order directed at the next day.

Going to bed was a journey.

David Ignatow (1914-1997) was born in Brooklyn and lived most of his life in New York. He published sixteen volumes of poetry and three prose collections. He taught at Columbia, the New School for Social Research, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, York College of the City University of New York, New York University and Vassar College. He has worked as editor for both the American Poetry Review and Beloit Poetry Journal. You can read more about David Ignatow and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

Why Pray?

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 121

2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Luke 18:1.

Why pray? Is it really the case that God is largely disinterested in our little lives and loath to get involved with them? And is it also true that, if sufficiently needled with enough prayer, God can be goaded into action? That seems to be the message of the parable at first blush. It seems to be an interpretation that many of us buy into. “Don’t worry Dad,” I overheard a woman say to an elderly man in the ICU where I have spent more time than lately than I care to recount. “Everybody in church is praying for you.” I think that was meant to be comforting and it probably was. It means a lot to know that you are surrounded by the love and prayers of a caring community. But I wonder about the underlying assumption. Is God really more likely to intervene on behalf of this man, who is the object of numerous prayers by numerous people, than to act for the man in the next room who has no family, friends or church to pray for him?

Does prayer influence God? Should it? If God knows infinitely more than we do about every situation, what is needed and what should be done, what can our prayers add? If God can be trusted to know and to do what is right, what is the point of prayer? How do we know that we are praying for the right things? I might want a sunny day for the church picnic, but the local farmers desperately need rain. My prayers can be selfish, misguided and uninformed. I will always be missing the “big picture” only God can see. So why pester God with information God already has, advice God doesn’t need and desires that may be altogether wrong? Why not just let God be God and go confidently about our human affairs knowing that what lies beyond them is in capable hands?

Some argue that prayer is more about the transformation of the one who prays than about swaying God’s opinion. There is something to be said for this outlook. I can vouch for the fact that, through the exercise of prayer over time, I have come to understand the selfishness of my requests, the limits of my understanding and a greater dependance on and faith in God. But while I recognize the importance of this aspect of prayer, I am not prepared to reduce prayer to nothing more than a spiritual exercise for personal edification. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to involve God at all.

Plagued with these questions during my high school years, I turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer at my brother’s suggestion. Brother Steve, then a seminary student, was a good listener and a ready source of information on questions like these. He gave me a copy of Bonhoeffer’s book Meditations on the Psalms, wherein Bonhoeffer writes: “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.” So, I put aside all of my metaphysical troubles with prayer and began praying though the psalms on a daily basis-a practice I continue to maintain to this day. I learned a few things from this daily ritual and life long immersion in the psalms.

Praise is the first lesson I learned from the psalms. There are numerous prayers that ask God for nothing; complain to God about nothing and expect from God absolutely nothing. They simply praise God for God’s mighty deeds, for God’s love and compassion and the beauty of God’s creation. While much of our church teaching and preaching focuses on goodness and truth, beauty is often neglected. Much of our public proclamation and preaching is infected with anger or delivered in language that is abstract, theoretical and sterile. The psalms are filled with metaphors, similies and imagery taken from the natural world and the great stories of God’s salvation. They challenge us to fill our prayers with this same rich and powerful language.

Related to praise is thanksgiving. Gratitude is a mainstay of the psalms. Israel never forgot that it was a community formed by God’s many mighty acts of salvation. When offering praise, God’s goodness is lifted up. When crying out for deliverance, God’s past works of salvation are invoked to inspire confidence in facing present threats. God was acknowledged and thanked for the rains nurturing rich harvests, for times of peace and prosperity and for the promise of Israel’s future destiny. It sounds corny to say that one ought to count one’s blessings, but that old saw is true.   

Yet I also had my share of problems with the psalms. First of all, many of the psalms cry out for help against enemies. I had a difficult time relating to these petitions as I cannot say I have any enemies. There are of course, people who don’t like me and people who have hurt and disappointed me at times. But as far as I know, nobody is out to kill me, take my home or injure my family. Frankly, I would be shocked to learn that there were such people. I would like to think that is because I am so even tempered and amiable. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that, as a straight, white upper middle class male, I have managed to navigate life without worries about whether my dress is too provocative, how my accent or skin color is being perceived or what my interviewer would think if he or she knew who I loved and what my family was like. I never had any problem getting credit or applying for a mortgage. When I say that I am “privileged,” I don’t mean to say that I didn’t work hard to achieve all that I have accomplished. But I understand now that I had a huge head start in life that many folks do not.

So perhaps my lack of enemies demonstrates that I am standing on the wrong side of the gap between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors. The psalms were written in part by a people who know conquest, occupation and colonization. Lately, I have quarried my church leaders about taking up the call for reparations to Black Americans for centuries of slavery, segregation and discrimination that continues to this day. See Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe. With one notable exception, this letter met with a resounding silence.[1] Perhaps if more of us put our privilege toward pushing our church leaders, and if our churches take serious steps toward compensating those whose oppression helped to enrich us, we will discover that we have some formidable enemies. Then the psalms crying out for justice against oppression will come more naturally from our lips.

Another problem I had with the psalms is their frequent calls for vengeance. That seems to run contrary to everything Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. But the truth is, I have harbored secret desires to see vengeance against people who hurt me. I know that is not what I have been taught, but it is how I sometimes feel. As one wise colleague told me years ago, “feelings are not right or wrong. They just are.” While it might grate on me to pray that my enemies “little ones” have their brains bashed our against the rock (Psalm 137:9), I can understand how victims of war, occupation and genocide might feel that way. The important thing, though, is that the psalmists leave the business of actually carrying out punishment of the wicked in the hands of the God to whom they pray. They do not take that task upon themselves. Thus, prayer is a place to which we can bring our whole selves-even the bad and the ugly.

One question the psalms do not answer is the question with which I began? What exactly does prayer do? The stories of Abraham’s plea for the righteous citizens within the evil cities of Sodom and Gommorah and God’s response to the repentance of Assyria indicate that God’s mind can be changed. What neither of these stories tell us is when, where and how God’s mind is changed and how God responds to our prayers. I have often found comfort in the belief that every transaction in the Universe, from grand historical events to the revolutions of the most minute subatomic particles, has a “God factor” built into it nudging the world closer to the new heaven and earth God envisions for us. That leaves plenty of room for creation’s freedom and human agency. It also leaves room for robust prayer and for God to surprise us with outcomes we could never have anticipated.

Here is a poem/prayer by Anna Kamienska capturing what a mature prayer might look like.  

A Prayer That Will Be Answered

Lord let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head.

Source: Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, (c.. 2007 byParaclete Press; translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon). Anna Kamienska (1920-1986) was the member of a distinguished generation of Polish writers who experienced the Second World War as young people. Many of her colleagues died at the hands of the Nazis. During the war she taught in underground schools in the Lublin region, having studied Education in Warsaw. She continued her studies after the War and subsequently became deeply involved in the literary life of the Polish capital, working on the important monthly magazine Creativity. You can find out more about Anna Kamienska and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] A notable exception is the New Jersey Synod of the ELCA which has launched project raising funds for deepening education regarding reparations and the role of leaders of color in our church. The program will further address structural barriers to persons of color seeking to serve the ELCA and has raised substantial funds for scholarships for the education, training and participation of these leaders. Most importantly, the program was formed and is being implemented in partnership with the ELCA’s leaders of color. Kudos to Bishop Bartholomew and her staff for their prophetic leadership!