(News that’s fake, but credible)
Kierkegaard’s Ghost is honored to publish this editorial from our distinguished guest contributor, the Honorable Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader of the United States Senate.
Of late, I have been dismayed over the elevated hype and rhetoric from the House of Representatives, particularly the assertion that our president, Donald J. Trump, is a racist. This kind of overheated verbiage is not helpful and, more to the point, it is false. I want to say unequivocally that President Trump is not a racist. A review of the facts makes that exceedingly clear.
His critics point out that in 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Mr. Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision. So what? He doesn’t like people of color living in his apartments. Does that make him a racist?
Yes, I know that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. And yes, he continued to make this assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked. So what is racist about that? The statement was made during a presidential campaign. We all know politics is a contact sport and tough stuff gets said. That’s the way the game is played. It’s not racism. It’s politics.
Did Donald Trump paint Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists? Yes. But just because you happen to believe that people of a particular ethnic origin are bad people, does that mean you are a racist? I don’t think so.There is a difference between saying all Mexicans are bad actors because they are Mexicans and simply saying that all Mexicans happen to be bad.
And yes, we know very well that Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. Even some of my Republican colleagues jumped to the irrational conclusion that because you don’t trust Mexicans, you’re racist. Really? Is that all it takes? I don’t trust Mexicans either. Does that make me a racist?
And why was everyone so upset over President Trump’s calling Nazis very fine people. Yes, there are some bad apples in that bunch, some that call for genocide and ethnic cleansing. But is it fair to characterize a whole movement by the deeds of a few bad actors? In this age of “tolerance” and “political correctness,” can’t a man exercise a little “inclusiveness” toward Nazis without being labeled a racist?
Donald Trump called African nations “s#$t hole” countries and said he prefers immigrants from Norway. So? This is America after all. Isn’t a man entitled to his opinions anymore? Just because he expresses his honest opinions, does that make him a racist?
Today everyone is all over the the president because he said that four congress women of color should be deported back to their countries of origin. So now you are a racist just because you think people of color don’t belong in the United States? Really? I’ve felt that way for years and so do a lot of my constituents. Are we all racists?
So let me summarize: Democrats and the liberal media think Donald Trump is a racist just because his businesses have a long history of illegal segregation, he concocted a lie about the first African American president’s national origin, he thinks Mexicans are murderers, drug dealers and rapists, that people of Mexican origin cannot be trusted to serve in public office, that perpetrators of genocide are very fine people, that African countries are “s#$t holes and women of color have no place in this country. Is that all you’ve got?
I urge my colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle and the American people as a whole to calm down and stop with the name calling. When viewed with objectivity, the facts clearly show that Donald Trump doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.
United States Senator
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
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord
“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:42.
This text has often been used to elevate the “contemplative” life over the “active” life. A lot of sermons portray Martha as the one with the “to do” list and a dozen irons in the fire. She has little patience with people who want to “stop and smell the roses” or pray when there are toilets to be cleaned, rugs to be vacuumed and a meal to prepare. Mary, by contrast, understands that work is not an end in itself. Priority must be given to reading, marking, learning and digesting the Word of God. Only then does one’s path to action become clear. Martha would probably reply that this is all well and good in theory, but the roast is in the oven now and it’s not going to wait patiently for you to arrive at perfect inner clarity before burning to a crisp. What follows in such a sermon is a reflection on achieving the proper balance between care for the soul and responsible action.
I think, however, that all of this misses the point. There is nothing wrong with what Martha was doing. Hospitality ranks near the top of biblical values. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ ministry depends on the hospitality of people who support that ministry by receiving and caring for his disciples who carry it out. Luke 10:3-9. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers because you never know whether the one in need of it might be an angel. Hebrews 13:2. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their abuse of strangers in need of hospitality which, unfortunately for them, turned out to be angels! (Trump & company take note).
Furthermore, Jesus does not denigrate Martha’s ministry. He does not suggest that Martha should have been sitting with Mary listening to him or that she ought to drop what she is doing to join her. This isn’t about the relative worth of what Martha or Mary were doing. It is about Mary’s choice of the “ better part.” Martha’s mistake was not in dutifully attending to the ministry of hospitality. Her error was in trying to override Mary’s faithful response to Jesus’ teaching by appealing to her own priorities. For Mary, at this time and in this place, faithfulness to Jesus called for listening to and engaging with his teaching to the exclusion of all else. That may or may not have been the case for Martha.
The most difficult church conflicts I have seen arise not over choices between good and bad courses of action, but over two seemingly good opportunities. A deceased member leaves a substantial amount of money “for the mission of the church” without giving specifics. Some in the congregation insist that the money should be spent making the sanctuary barrier free for persons with disabilities. Others argue that the mission of the church lies outside its doors. The bequest should therefore be spent on ministries to the homeless and hungry in the community. The barrier free supporters counter that the sanctuary, as it is, excludes a whole class of people from worshiping and engaging in the church’s mission and the very ministries it promotes. There are no pat answers to questions like these. For this reason, we are always in a posture of listening to Jesus and trying to choose in this time and place what is for us “the better part.”
For over a decade now I have seen tea shirts, buttons and bracelets bearing the acronym “WWJD,” that is, “What would Jesus do?” The problem here is the assumption that Jesus is long dead and we are left to speculate over how he would respond to one thing or another. Disciples of Jesus believe, however, that Jesus is very much alive and with his church “to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20. We don’t have to guess where Jesus is or what he is doing. He is with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked and the sick. Matthew 25:31-46. If we would follow Jesus, a good place to start is at our nation’s southern border. Another might be the many neighborhoods struggling with the effects of decades of racial discrimination, predatory banking practices and decaying infostructure. We can hear the call of Jesus from across our borders appealing to our consciences against the fascist screams of “America First.” Anyone pondering what Jesus would do should take a good look at where Jesus is and what his disciples are doing.
We have, I believe, arrived at a moment that demands our choosing the “better part.” In its recent history, my own ELCA has issued apologies for Lutheran silence and complicity in the Holocaust and for our church’s complicity and inaction during this nation’s years of slavery and Jim Crow. It is my prayer that a future generation of Christians will not be issuing apologies for the church’s failure to denounce as heresy the Christotrumpist evangelicalism preached by the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Tony Perkins and Robert Jefferies supporting nationalism and white supremacy. I hope my grandchildren will not be embarrassed by the silence of our pastors, the inaction of our leaders and a paralyzing preference for peace in the ecclesiastical household over the justice of God’s reign. I pray that the machinery of institutional ecumenism will not become a barrier for the unity in Christ Jesus that we need so much in this hour. Most of all, I pray that we will not hear on the last day that haunting and damning indictment: “I was hungry, homeless, imprisoned, naked and thirsty…and you did not…”
Below is an ancient poem from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The book as a whole is attributed to King Solomon of legendary wisdom, referred to as “the teacher.” Though actual authorship of biblical works often differs from attribution, there is good reason to believe that some of the book’s material goes back to the royal court of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. The poem appears to be an independent source subject to extended commentary and interpretation by the teacher. Poems, of course, are never entirely exhausted by commentary. Thus, it is fruitful to consider this poem in its own right and apart from its immediate biblical context for what it can teach us about the contingent nature of our existence and the ever shifting circumstances calling for very different courses of action depending on the “time.” Jesus’ injunction to recognize the “signs of the times” gives the lines of this piece an added sense of urgency. Matthew 16:1-4.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Source: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Good Samaritan” is one of those biblical allusions that, in common secular parlance, has come altogether loose from its biblical moorings. When the term is used to describe someone, it usually means no more than that s/he goes out of her/his way to help a stranger. That is admirable, of course, but hardly above and beyond the call of duty. We don’t prosecute people who drive past an elderly person on the roadside with a flat tire in obvious need of help. But most of us would probably think such behavior more than a little shabby. Neighbors should help neighbors. It’s the right thing to do and, besides, you never know when you might find yourself in need of a little neighborly assistance.
But then, of course, you have to ask the question posed by the lawyer prompting the parable: Who is my neighbor? Is a neighbor someone from my neighborhood? A fellow American? People who speak English only? Folks that belong to my church, my lodge, my party? Invariably, the question always comes down to this: “Where do you draw the line?” At our southern border with Mexico? Along the NATO alliance countries? Between legal and illegal residents of this country? And what about enemies? Do I still have to be a neighbor to the folks who want to kill me and people like me? We can debate these questions endlessly because you can always make good arguments for where you draw your lines. That is where the lawyer was trying to take his discussion with Jesus. He wanted to bait Jesus into a “Where do you draw the line” argument.
Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question. As he so often does, Jesus tells a story to help him ask better questions. We have gotten into the habit of calling this story of the compassionate Samaritan a parable, but I am not convinced that it was only that. It is different from most parables in that Jesus gives us some geographic details, such as the fact that this all took place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Why would that matter if this were only a parable? Furthermore, if this were only a parable, the lawyer might simply have said, “Nice story Jesus. But you don’t know Samaritans like I do. They wouldn’t cross the road to spit on a dying Jew. In fact, they would probably be only too happy to finish him off.” The lawyer, however, says no such thing. He doesn’t challenge Jesus’ account. Could that be because the story was drawn from an event that really happened? Could it be that this event become a parable only because Jesus used it that way?
Whatever the case may be, Jesus would have us understand that neighborliness is not a duty whose scope is a matter of interpretation. Neighborliness is a miracle that happens when the Spirit of God opens our eyes so that we can see, even in our enemies, the image of God and the object of God’s love. Jesus tells us that the Samaritan was “moved to pity” when he saw the victim of the robbers. Luke 10:33. But the Greek verb means a lot more than that. The Greek text expresses a kind of compassion that gets under the skin, a kind of caring that allows the Samaritan to see the world through the eyes of this man, this victim, this enemy and recognize in his suffering the call of God to act with godly compassion. Now a miracle like that might not happen very often. But even if it happened only once in all of history-it proves that such love is not humanly impossible. It proves that it is possible to love your neighbor, including your alien neighbor, your hostile neighbor and your enemy neighbor. As our lesson from Deuteronomy points out, it “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14. The opportunity for you to obey the law of love is as near to you as your needy neighbor. You can do it.
Jesus would have us know that this is not, as the lawyer assumed, a legal issue. It’s a grammatical one. “Your problem, son,” says Jesus to the lawyer, “is that you are focused on nouns and God’s commandments are all about verbs. If you thought about what it means to be a neighbor half as much as you fret over how to define one, we wouldn’t be having this silly conversation. Now let’s put a stop to this ridiculous bickering over how to define a neighbor and get on with the business of being one.”
It is our coldness of heart that leads us to limit the reach of our compassion and our duty of love along the lines of neighborhood, nation, family, race and tribe. “Our country is full, our area’s full, the sector is full. We can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry, can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.” So says our president to families with their children fleeing violence and starvation to what our national mythology says is a land of promise. I have come to expect such sentiments in the halls of congress and in the White House. What is truly heartbreaking is having to hear them spoken in Christian sanctuaries and on the lips of those who would hold themselves out as church leaders. It is heartbreaking that so many of us seem to have lost the capacity for compassion.
On the other hand, there are also many parabolic miracles of compassion occurring each day to remind us that neighborly love is very much alive. Churches across the country are offering shelter and sanctuary to families in danger of deportation and separation. Lawyers, physicians and healthcare workers are donating their time and resources to address the deplorable conditions growing out of the culture of fear and intimidation created by our country’s immigration policies. Religious leaders of all persuasions are speaking out against the inhumane incarceration of children and separation of families at the border. These are living parables of hope.
Here is a poem by William Blake speaking of divine love as it is manifested in compassion that draws no lines.
The Divine Image
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Though unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake eventually came to be considered an important figure in poetry of the Romantic Age. He was born in Soho, London and attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing. Blake considered himself a committed Christian, though he did not identify with the Church of England in which he was baptized and had little use for organized religion. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake. It remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake met and married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was five years his junior and lacked formal education. Blake taught his young wife to read and write, however, and she assisted him in his artistic endeavors throughout the rest of his career. You can learn more about William Blake and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 I recall how a little over a decade ago another Republican President, namely, George W. Bush, told the country: “I want to remind people that family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do, to be able to feed their families. And I think there’s a humane way to recognize that…” That was before the Grand Old Party was overwhelmed by the howling lynch mob appropriately referred to as its “base.”
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.” Luke 10:3-7.
As a life-long member of the clergy, I find it hard to read this text without contemplating the current state of protestant ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United States. To say that we are facing a crisis is a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, our vocation is facing some significant challenges. The church and the culture in which we minister is changing. For reasons too numerous and complex to discuss in a short article, our churches are growing smaller, poorer and older. According to a recent article in the Christian Century, 37% of the congregations in my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have an average attendance of fifty or less on a Sunday. “What Pastors Get Paid,” Christian Century, June 19, 2019, p. 25. Unless these churches have a substantial endowment to fall back on, they find it nearly impossible to support a full-time minister with a living wage and benefits.
Our vocation has also changed. In the church of my youth, seminarians were all young men, most of them single. They discerned their call early in life and began their ministerial training at colleges with programs designed to prepare them for advanced seminary training. For the most part, these young men grew up in the church, many of them in parsonages. They had a clear understanding of the expectations of ministry having seen it from the inside. There was also a general consensus within church and society concerning the role of ministers and what was expected of them. Unless they chose to become missionaries or mission developers for new church starts, ministers in the church of my childhood were not expected to concern themselves overly much with growth and innovation. For the most part, seminary grads entered into well functioning churches run by a council of experienced church leaders and working committees that handled the work of running the day to day operations.
The ministers graduating seminary in the church of my childhood knew they would never earn more than a living wage and they accepted that fact. They knew they would spend most of their lives living in houses that belonged to the church-a notoriously capricious landlord. Their cars would always be second or third hand and in need of constant repair. Any woman willing to marry one of these young men was given to understand that she was marrying a role as well as a man. Often these hapless women did as much or more ministry than their husbands except without pay and with little recognition. The quid pro quo for all of this was a special bond of love and loyalty toward the pastor on the part of the congregation. However much my folks may have criticized the pastor’s sermons, shook their heads at the way his wife dressed, looked with dismay on the conduct of his children, he was, after all, our pastor. He was the one present when grandma breathed her last and he walked with us through the difficult grieving process as no other person did. He baptized us kids and put up with our antics in confirmation class. We knew that we could call him at any hour of day or night and he would be there for us. For that we loved him, warts and all.
By the time I entered seminary in the late 70s, that paradigm was on its last legs. Like the rest of the country, the church was caught up in the turmoil of the late 60s. Pastors were having to confront hot button issues like the Vietnam war, feminism, civil rights and changing attitudes toward sexuality. They were assailed by conflicting voices. Some urged them to hold the line against the tidal wave of change. Others challenged them to engage directly with the issues on. Pastors were increasingly expected to become experts in marriage counselling, addiction treatment and spousal abuse. The once well-defined role of parish pastor was becoming increasingly broad, blurred and conflicted.
Seminary life had changed as well. Women made up at least 30% of my seminary class. A good many of my classmates were older individuals with life experience, skills and maturity I lacked, but without the solid grounding in theology and biblical languages with which I came to seminary. Many of these students were married with families, struggling to balance the demands of their class work with the needs of their loved ones. The faculty’s response to all of this was mixed. Some professors worked hard to draw out the contributions of women, older students and the few people of color among us. Others went right on lecturing to young white men just as though no one else was in the room. One thing had not changed, however. Seminary was affordable. I was paying about $800 per quarter at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978. College costs were not insignificant, but still within reach for blue collar workers like my parents who wanted to give their children the education they lacked. Consequently, I graduated seminary penniless, but debt free.
Today a college education alone is increasingly beyond the reach of anyone unwilling to assume substantial debt. The cost of seminary education has similarly skyrocketed. It is not uncommon for seminarians to graduate with a student loan liability of $100,000 in combined seminary and college debt. In view of the staggering cost of preparing for ministry and the diminished ability of congregations to provide even adequate compensation, it is not surprising that seminary registration has dropped off significantly. Of course, declining enrollment strains the finances of seminaries leading many of them to close or merge with other institutions. Clearly, the current model of ministry is unsustainable unless something unforeseen changes the trajectory of our churches.
How does our gospel lesson speak to all of this? Jesus does not give us a silver bullet. He never does. But I think there is some valuable guidance here. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Luke 10:4. It is useful to remember that the church doesn’t need much in the way of material wealth to fulfill its mission. Give us a Bible, a bottle of wine and a little water and we are open for business. Everything we have that isn’t one of those three items is disposable wealth. From that perspective, we are crazy rich. We just have to get over our attachment to ivy covered buildings with bronze plaques bearing the names of ecclesiastical patriarchs, pews engraved with family names, institutions that live off the affection of their alumnae and lots of other stuff that could be put to better use. Scarcity of resources is not the issue. The resources are there. It’s just a matter of priorities.
“The laborer deserves to be paid,” Jesus tells us. Luke 10:7. The work of ministry is too important to be left to whoever shows up and has nothing more pressing to do on a Sunday morning. It belongs to those who are called, set aside, trained and compensated for that purpose. Jesus took great care in selecting his disciples and those he sent out. He fully anticipated that they would be compensated for their work-at least to the extent of being sustained by it. The church must value its ministers and their work at least as much as does Jesus.
For that reason, I am not a fan of part time ministry. I understand that there are circumstances where it appears necessary and some places where it seems to work. I have nothing but respect for those enterprising pastors that are able to make such arrangements effective. But I am not convinced that this is a healthy paradigm for the church as a whole. I believe that there is value in setting aside a member of the community whose vocation is solely to study and apply the Word of God, preside at the Lord’s Table, welcome members into the Body of Christ through baptism and bury the dead. To do these things “half time” is, in my opinion, to do them half assed. Whether a congregation worships twenty-five or twenty-five thousand on a weekend, it needs a pastor who is deeply into the scriptural text, attentive to the ebb and flow of congregational life and connected to all facets of the surrounding community. That is more than a full time job. The quantum of pastoral responsibility is never determined by the size of the congregation, but by the magnitude of the congregation’s mission.
Still, it remains true that the existing road to parish ministry is increasingly difficult for people of ordinary means, to say nothing of those coming from circumstances of poverty. We need a different way of preparing people for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I think we can all agree that an eight year educational commitment ending in a master’s degree from an accredited institution is not necessarily the only way to prepare individuals for ministry. It also seems clear to me that an overhaul of seminary curriculum is long overdue. But I believe that seminary training and experience is critically important, regardless of whether it is credited or unaccredited, preceded by a college degree or not. We don’t help ourselves by short circuiting that experience. Here is what I mean: conference call discussions, skype lectures and e-mail interchanges are an inadequate substitute for true community. Saving money, accommodating busy schedules and reducing overhead are poor excuses for eviscerating person to person contact that is at the heart of what the church is. “Virtual community” is a gnostic myth that should have no place in Christian education, least of all seminary. There is a reason the Word became flesh rather than “virtual.”
The most valuable education takes place when teachers and students sit at the same table and discuss issues over lunch. Spiritual growth occurs when students argue, discuss and joke about the Bible, church history, our confessions of faith and life in general in the hallway, in a coffee shop or over a beer. Whatever form seminary may take in the future, I hope it has a physical local where seminarians live together in community in some measure. Living in community is essential to preparation for ministry. That is, after all, the way Jesus trained his disciples. I am aware that this might require prospective seminarians to make some sacrifices. Some might well need to be told that they are not yet ready to pursue a call to ministry of Word and Sacrament. They might have to be led to the understanding that their calling lies instead with caring for their families, fulfilling obligations within their respective jobs and serving the communities in which they live.
Ideally, I would like to see my church reduce its numerous seminaries to one single seminary. I would like to see all our increasingly diverse seminary demographic living together, eating together and playing together just as they are learning together. In such a community it becomes possible to do the hard work of confronting our inbred racism and sexism, overcoming our blinding stereotypes and learning to hear one another’s stories. Such a seminary setting could prepare the next generation of pastors to lead our church into a new day of witness in a nation increasingly polarized along so many fault lines.
Though it has nothing much to do with the above, we will observe the 4th of July holiday this week. Pastors often feel the need to acknowledge national holidays in some way, shape or form. Here is a poem by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. It is a fitting meditation for Independence Day and a reminder that this day marking the birth of our nation is, for the Americans who were here before us, the beginning of the end of their nations.
America, I Sing You Back
for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
for Whitman and Hughes
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.
Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.
My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.
As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.
My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.
But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—
and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.
When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.
When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Source: Streaming (c. 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, pub. by Coffee House Press). Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (b. 1958) is an American poet and editor. She is currently a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. She was born in Amarillo, Texas and grew up in North Carolina, Canada and on the Great Plains. Hedge Coke dropped out of high school and went to work sharecropping tobacco and working fields to support herself. She obtained her GED at age sixteen and went on to study photography, traditional arts, and writing in community education classes at North Carolina State University. Hedge Coke is of mixed heritage, including Native American. She frequently addresses issues of culture, prejudice, indigenous rights and the environment in her writing and poetry. You can read more about Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.” Luke 9:51-55.
“A religious community that believes itself to be in possession of ‘The Truth’ is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery.” Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, (c. 2003 Augsburg Fortress).
Religious violence is as old as living memory. Indeed, the very first murder recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures arouse out of a dispute over how God should be worshiped. See Genesis 4:1-16. That same dispute lay at the heart of the mutual antipathy between Jews and Samaritans. In spite of their mutual hatred, Jews and Samaritans had much in common. Both were Israelites. Both claimed lineage from Sarah and Abraham. They shared the same language and the same scriptures. Both had far more in common with each other than either had with the Roman overlords enslaving them. But for 1st century Jews, the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple was the locus of worship. For Samaritans, their own temple on Mount Gerizim was the location chosen by God for a holy temple. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Jews and Samaritans each regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel; therefore, the very existence of each constituted an existential threat to the other.
It always seems that religious hatred is most intense among those whose ties are closest. The carnage between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is far greater than between Muslims and Christians. Witness the savagery between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants. Catholics persecuted Lutherans and Calvinists during the Reformation. Once we protestants established our own territories, we returned the favor within our borders. In a rare show of Reformation era protestant-catholic ecumenism, we both persecuted the anabaptists and all of us persecuted the Jews.
I think that part of what lies at the base of all this blood letting is a deep insecurity on our part. I see it frequently in the urgent insistence of some of my more conservative leaning friends that “there is no salvation outside the church” and that only those “who have accepted Jesus as Savior can be saved.” “If we compromise on that,” one colleague told me, “then there is no point in the church. No point in evangelism. No point in anything.” For this pastor, faith in Jesus was a zero sum game; an all or nothing proposition. If we make room for other faiths or recognize the value of life without religious faith-we undermine our certainty and lose our own faith. It therefore becomes imperative to win outsiders over, give them up for lost or perhaps annihilate them.
Sadly, a zealous evangelical concern for the “lost” can easily mutate into zeal for their destruction. Such was the case for my church’s reluctant namesake, Martin Luther. Early in his career, Luther expressed sympathy and compassion for the Jews and decried their mistreatment by the medieval church. He was convinced that, once the threat of persecution was removed and the Jews were allowed to hear the gospel in its purity, they would flock to the church. When that didn’t happen, Luther turned on the Jews with a vengeance. Luther’s vitriolic rhetoric against the Jews and his calls for violence against them remains a scandal and an embarrassment to his spiritual descendants down to this very day.
James and John seem to be having a similar reaction to the Samaritans. These people were offered the Truth. They rejected the Truth. So let’s “nuke ‘em.” But Jesus takes a different view. Though the Samaritan villagers reject him, he will not reject them. Judgement belongs to God and, as the prophet Jonah had to learn, judgment, justice and righteousness often look quite a bit different from God’s perspective than from our own limited understanding. Faith and salvation are not inseparably linked to discipleship. When Jesus encountered a gentile Roman soldier who likely knew nothing about Israel’s God and turned to Jesus looking only for compassion on his servant, Jesus marveled at this pagan’s faith. When Jesus was informed that a man not among his disciples was performing exorcisms in his name, he would not allow his disciples to hinder him. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus. Mark 9:40. All whose lives and work bear witness to the ways of God’s gentle reign are allies of Jesus-whether they recognize it, understand it, acknowledge it or not.
It is helpful to remember that disciples are called to be witnesses to the truth. It is not the role of a witness to persuade. That belongs to the advocates. It is not for the witness to decide the case. That is for the judge. As witnesses, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The rest belongs to God.
Furthermore, what we have heard and seen, wonderful as it surely is, does not constitute the entirety of what can be said of God’s saving work. As Jesus reminded us two weeks ago, we do not yet have “all” the truth. John 16:13. Indeed, it is presumptuous for us to imagine that we can ever “have’ the Truth. But Jesus assures us that the Truth has a hold on us. We need to be led each day ever deeper into that Truth which is God. It should not surprise us that, as we grow ever deeper in our understanding of God’s Triune life, we discover more evidence of God’s working in the lives of God’s people, especially those whose understandings differ from our own. We can marvel and wonder, but never doubt that God is at work in every corner of the universe reconciling creation, filling its cracks and healing its fractures with the love which the Father has for the Son from eternity. It is not for us to short circuit that long and loving process by forcefully converting, dismissing or purging people who, from our limited perspective, seem not to fit.
Here is a poem by the Muslim poet, Mahmoud Darwish, reflecting on his sojourn in the City of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and his own faith tradition. Listen for the mixture of Jewish, Christian and Islamic images over against the harsh reality of occupation. Can you hear the sound of God’s reign struggling to be born?
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.
Source: The Butterfly’s Burden. (c. 2008 by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into English by Fady Joudah and pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) was a Palestinian poet and author. He was born in al-Birwa, Galilee, a village that was occupied and later destroyed by the Israeli army. Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over thirty books of poetry and eight books of prose. He won numerous awards for his works. Darwish used Palestine as a metaphor for the biblical themes of losing Eden, of birth and of resurrection. He sees in the suffering of his people the biblical anguish of dispossession and exile. Darwish also served as an editor for several literary magazines in Israel. You can read more about Mahmoud Darwish and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
(News that’s fake, but credible)
Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is suing the devil, seeking to rescind her contract with him. A multi-count complaint filed in the United States District Court for the District of Arkansas alleges that Satan procured Ms. Sanders’ signature on their contract through duress and failed to fulfill his own obligations under its terms. “Bottom line,” said Sanders, “I want my soul back.” She further explained, “When I first took on the job of White House press secretary, I was desperate. My predecessors had all failed both to satisfy the president and represent him in a positive light to the public. I had no idea how I could possibly do this job and I didn’t know where to turn. When Satan offered me supernatural powers of persuasion in return for my soul, it seemed like an offer I could not refuse at the time. Of course, I realize now that it was a bad decision.”
Ms. Sanders’ attorney, I.M.A. Pettifog of the law firm Shyster & Pettifog, Esqs., told reporters he is confident the district court will declare the contract null and void. “It is a long standing principle of equity that contracts procured through duress may be declared unenforceable. We think there is little doubt the judge will find that Satan employed duress and exercised undue pressure against Ms. Sanders in the making of this contract.” Mr. Pettifog went on to point out that, even assuming the contract is held to be otherwise valid and enforceable, it must be rescinded because the devil failed to perform his obligations under its terms. “My client relied in good faith on the devil’s promise to give her extraordinary powers of persuasion so that she could do her job effectively. Yet after two years of diligent effort on her part, the president’s approval rating is in the thirty percentile range. Public support for his impeachment continues to grow. Satan didn’t come through with his end of the bargain. It’s as simple as that. It’s not for nothing they call him ‘father of lies.’”
The Prince of Darkness has denied all allegations of the complaint through his attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “Duress?” said Giuliani. “What happened with this contract is no different than what goes on every day in this country. One person has what another person needs and is willing to pay for. So they make a deal. That might be called duress in failing socialist regimes like Venezuela, California and Massachusetts. But here in America we call it capitalism.” Giuliani also took issue with the claim that his client breached his contract with Sanders: “Look, Ms. Sanders undertook a tough job. She had to follow Donald Trump like a clown behind the horses in the 4th of July parade picking up his droppings. Then she had to sell them back to the American people as fudge. Now you can say what you want about opposition to the president, but he still has between 30%-40% approval. I think any jury would agree that the fact she managed to get a third of the American people to gobble up manure for two years- convinced all the while they are eating chocolate-that’s pretty strong evidence of superhuman persuasive ability. Not infallible maybe, but infallible was not in the contract.”
Some legal experts have questioned the propriety of Mr. Giuliani’s representation of Satan in this matter. “He represents President Donald Trump whose interests could, at least potentially, conflict with those of the devil in this litigation,” said Professor Oblit. R. Dictum, formerly an instructor of legal ethics at the now defunct Trump Correspondence School of Law. Giuliani dismissed these concerns. “Ridiculous,” he told reporters. “You have a conflict of interest only when you represent two clients with different legal interests. The interests of both my clients are and always have been perfectly aligned.”
No trial date has yet been set.
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
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus casts out a demon. Its name is “Legion.” I don’t believe the name refers simply to the fact that the man of Gerasene was possessed by many demons. Palestine was under Roman occupation and its “legions” were a regular part of the landscape. The “peace of Rome” was enforced by its legions and their choice instrument to that end was the cross-Rome’s ultimate symbol of terror. Augustus Caesar, the architect of Rome’s peace, would have agreed with NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre’s slogan, namely, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Simply put, peace and security depend on the ability and the willingness to kill in order to preserve them. I suspect that the herd of swine into which Jesus sent the demons was being maintained to feed one of Rome’s legions. There wouldn’t have been much of a market for pork anywhere else in Israel. That would also explain why the locals wanted Jesus out of their territory. You don’t want to be seen in the company of a man who just threw the legion’s supper into the lake.
Biblical archeologist John Dominic Crossan discusses the phenomenon of demonic possession in one of his recent books. Pointing to the work of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, Crossan notes that “the physical body is a microcosm of the social body so that there is a dialectic between the personal and the social, the individual and the corporate, with regard to taboos and boundaries, with regard to the acceptable, the permissible, and the tolerable.” Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus-The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, Inc., pub. by HarperCollins) p. 313. That is to say, one cannot help seeing oneself as one is perceived by the society as a whole. Thus, it is a very different thing to live in the United States as a white person than as an African American descendant of slaves. For the former, the national monuments and landmarks under whose shadows we live, the historical narrative telling us who we are and the social conventions so deeply ingrained that we are hardly conscious of them reinforce our sense of value, identity and destiny. For the latter, these same things testify to a legacy of oppression; they are a reminder of marginalization; and they bar opportunity in every way forward. So, too, the presence of Roman legions in the occupied territories of Judea and Galilee were a constant reminder to the Jews of their servitude and powerlessness. There could hardly be a greater indignity for a Jew than being compelled to care for herds of unclean animals, meat that their ancestors refused to eat even at the cost of martyrdom. Internalizing-being possessed by-the loathing and contempt in which you are held by the dominant culture can’t help but make you a little crazy-perhaps crazy enough to live naked among the tombs or even to bloody yourself with stones as Mark’s account of this same story tells us. Mark 5:5.
Naming demons can be a dangerous business. But Jesus knows that exposure is the first step in exorcism. Once a demon is named, once it is brought out into the light and shown up for what it truly is, it begins to lose its power to enthrall and control. It is in that spirit that I introduce the above image. It is the cover of a magazine designed for young girls. I don’t know anything about its articles. I haven’t read them. I looked at the pictures, though. If you were to do the same you would find on every page beautiful, well dressed, immaculately manicured young ladies like the one on the front. What you won’t find in this magazine are pictures of girls even slightly plump, girls with braces, girls with acne, girls horribly scared by self-cutting, punishing their bodies for not looking like the ones in this publication. Nor will you find the emaciated bodies of girls who have starved themselves half to death in hopes of fitting into the outfits this magazine advertises. The message is clear: if you want to be beautiful, then you must look like this. Having raised two daughters of my own, I know only too well the toxic nature of this propaganda. Too many of our girls are starving and mutilating themselves in order to be considered beautiful, lovable and worthwhile because they have internalized our largely male fantasy driven standards of beauty. Let us name this demon “glamour.”
In addition to naming demons, exorcism requires that we tell them to “get the hell out of here.” If we want to speak the good news about Jesus to this generation, we need to speak a frank and uncompromising word against the voices screaming at our daughters and granddaughters that they are ugly and unlovable. Our girls, and everyone for that matter, need to know that neither Cosmo nor Victoria’s Secret have the last word on what is beautiful. Beauty is grounded in these words spoken at the baptismal font: “You are my beloved child.” No word to the contrary is to be countenanced, regardless the name of the devil speaking it.
Here is a bitter-sweet poem by Norman Dubie about some beautiful women formed by a community that values its members as an extension of itself. It is the beauty of sick and forsaken individuals caring for one another and finding therein a deeper, more profound and beautiful sense of self.
The Pennacesse Leper Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922
The island, you mustn’t say, had only rocks and scrub pine;
Was on a blue, bright day like a blemish in this landscape.
And Charlotte who is frail and the youngest of us collects
Sticks and branches to start our fires, cries as they burn
Because they resemble most what she has lost
Or has little of: long fingers, her toes,
And a left arm gone past the elbow, soon clear to her shoulder.
She has the mouth of sea perch. Five of our sisters wear
Green hoods. You are touched by all of this, but not by us.
To be touched by us, to be kissed! Sometimes
We see couples rowing in the distance in yellow coats.
Sometimes they fish with handlines; we offend
Everyone who is offended most
And by everything and everyone. The five goats love us, though,
And live in our dark houses. When they are
Full with milk they climb the steps and beg that
They be milked. Their teats brush the steps and leave thick
Yellow trails of fresh milk. We are all females here.
Even the ghosts. We must wash, of course, in salt water,
But it smarts or maybe even hurts us. Often with a rope
Around her waist Anne is lowered entirely into the water.
She splashes around and screams in pain. Her screams
Sometimes carry clear to the beaches on the Cape.
For us I say so often. For us we say. For us! We are
Human and not individual, we hold everything in common.
We are individual, you could pick us out in a crowd.
You did. This island is not our prison. We are not kept
In; not even by our skin.
Once Anne said she would love to be a Negro or a trout.
We live without you. Father, I don’t know why I have written
You all this; but be proud for I am living, and yet each day
I am less and less your flesh. Someday, eventually, you
Should only think of me as being a lightning bug on the lawn,
Or the Negro fishing at the pond, or the fat trout he wraps
In leaves that he is showing to someone. I’ll be
Most everything for you. And I’ll be gone.
Source: The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001 (c. 2001, Copper Canyon Press). Norman Dubie (b. 1945) is an American poet born in Barre, Vermont. He is the author of twenty-eight collections of poetry. Dubie is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Modern Poetry Association and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award. He currently teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program of Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. You can read more about Norman Dubie and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 In 1905, Penikese (spelled by the poet “Pennacesse”) Island in Buzzard’s Bay off Cape Cod was designated as the site of the first (and only) leper colony in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Throughout its sixteen years of operation, thirty-six victims of Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to as leprosy, lived on the isolated island with a handful of caregivers. The onsite doctor, Frank Parker, M.D. and his wife, Marion, went to great lengths to make their patients comfortable. Their small staff provided good food, fresh air, exercise, entertainment and nursing. At that time, the disease bore the curse of stigma and social ostracism, largely due to public belief that it was highly contagious. The Penikese colony closed in 1922.
HOLY TRINITY SUNDAY
Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Trinity Sunday is the one and only festival of the church year that celebrates an ecclesiastical dogma apart from any particular biblical narrative. Although the term “trinity” does not appear in the Scriptures, this way of articulating the scriptural witness to God grew out of centuries of reflection by the church’s greatest pastors, theologians and teachers. The doctrine of the Trinity represents the church’s best effort to articulate the mystery of the God revealed in the Bible. That articulation is not simple or easily understood. From time to time, the church has been confronted with easier, more seemingly straightforward and understandable ways of explaining the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These were rejected because theories that are simple and easy frequently fail to capture the depth, goodness and beauty of our enormously complex and mysterious God.
The term “dogma” has acquired an unsavory reputation over the last century. If somebody calls you “dogmatic” it is almost certainly not a complement. Dogma is popularly associated with dry, outdated and uninspired religious, political or ideological precepts. Dogmatic people, in common parlance, are ridged, narrow-minded and intolerant individuals with an annoying propensity for imposing their stuffy opinions on others. I suspect we all know people like that. I am not defending them or their conduct. I believe, however, that we need to define our terms more carefully to ensure that we are gunning for the right target.
The word dogma literally means “teaching” and one who possesses dogma is one who has been taught. Unless you think there is some virtue in ignorance, you should not be speaking ill of dogma. Being taught is not always a pleasant experience. I frequently hear people say that they don’t want to be part of a religion that “rams its teachings down their throats.” I can relate. When I was kid, my parents and teachers rammed a good many things down my throat that I wasn’t interested in learning-like math, reading, good manners and the like. Thankfully, I was surrounded by mentors that knew better than me what I needed to learn and cared enough about me to see that I learned it-like it or no.
When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune to wind up in Professor S’s Old Testament History class. Professor S was a hard driving instructor with high standards. Very early on in the course, a young woman raised her hand and said, “Professor S, with all that is going on today in the world, I just don’t see how any of this is relevant to our lives.” Professor S asked in a measured tone, “May I have the privilege of knowing your name.”
“It’s Janet Jones,” the student replied.
“Well, then Ms. Jones,” Professor S went on, “You are not yet at the point where you have the first idea what is and is not relevant and you are clearly not ready to have the conversation with me that you would like to have. But you are obviously bright, passionate and intelligent. If you develop the patience to listen, learn and understand, I have no doubt that one day you will have something meaningful to say to me. That time is not yet.”
You might think that was a bit arrogant and off putting. Perhaps it wasn’t the best pedagogical approach Professor S might have taken under these circumstances. There are probably better ways to make your point than by humiliating people. That aside, Professor S makes an important point, namely, that anything worth knowing takes time, patience and effort to learn. Moreover, you can’t expect to converse on a complex subject you have not taken the time to learn.
All teachers worth their salt correct their students when they are wrong, chide them when their work is less than satisfactory and push them to take their learning beyond what is necessary simply to receive a passing grade. Learning is a life long task and dogma, so far from being a finite set of precepts to be learned by rote, is a growing body of knowledge upon which further learning builds. Dogma is always reinterpreting what has been learned, expanding upon what is known and pushing forward into the unknown. So says Jesus in our gospel lesson for this Sunday:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15.
Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide his disciples “into all the truth” indicates that they do not yet possess “all the truth.” They must be taught the truth and this “teaching” (dogma) will occur over time. Of course, the Spirit does not begin with a blank slate. God revealed God’s self to Sarah and Abraham when God called them to leave behind everything familiar to pursue the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. God revealed God’s self to Israel through its liberation from slavery in Egypt by the words and acts of Moses. God spoke through the prophets and, in the fullness of time, God revealed God’s self in Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is the dogma, the core of the church’s teaching that must be learned in light of two millennia of the church’s reflection and interpretation. It is helpful, I believe, to think of dogma as the language of faith the Spirit uses to guide each generation of the church “into all the truth.”
Education begins with learning to speak. Those of us who have learned or tried to learn another language understand that it is tedious work in the beginning. Learning the rules of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is mind numbingly boring. But it is absolutely essential if you want to arrive at the point where you can converse with people who speak the language and read the great works of literature produced in that language. If you are not willing to do the hard work of mastering a country’s language, then you will forever be struggling with a few words, rudimentary phrases and inarticulate sign language simply to find a bathroom. You are unlikely ever to feel at home, develop deep friendships or learn to conduct everyday transactions with confidence. So, too, faith without dogma is doomed to remain forever shallow and to fumble along in perpetual immaturity.
For that reason, I don’t much care that people with no faith background walk into our sanctuaries and find what we are doing incomprehensible. I don’t worry that our worship is hard for novices to follow. I think we need to stop apologizing for the fact that our language of faith and its expression is deep, nuanced, complex and difficult to learn. Biologists don’t apologize for the complexity of DNA. Physicists don’t apologize for the complexity of quantum mechanics. So why should we be chagrined because someone who walks in off the street complains that they can’t figure out how to follow the liturgy through which we praise the Triune God? Why should we tie ourselves in knots because somebody says they “can’t relate to all of our God talk?” I can’t relate to Mandarin. If I want to understand it, the burden is on me to learn it. To be sure, that would be a difficult undertaking requiring from me a good deal of time, effort and sacrifice. But that is no fault of the Chinese.
Yes, I understand that our churches are to be welcoming communities. I am not suggesting that we should make worship unnecessarily difficult by forcing worshipers to follow the liturgy through three different books and two separate pamphlets. I also understand that loving our neighbors and working together with them to build a more hopeful future does not require that we indoctrinate or convert them. I am perfectly content for people to be involved in the life and mission of the church at whatever level of commitment and understanding they bring. But I don’t think we are being honest with the people we encounter or faithful to our Lord when we substitute entertainment for worship, offer dumbed down sermons filled with profanity and colloquialisms, third grade level liturgy, musically mediocre and lyrically banal hymns all in the hope of making our faith simple and attractive enough for public consumption. A faith shallow enough to pick up in forty-five minutes probably isn’t not worth having. It takes more than a lifetime for the Spirit to lead one into all truth.
We owe everyone who darkens the door of our sanctuaries a liturgy that evokes imagination, creeds that draw us to the precipice of mystery, sermons that leave us with more questions than answers and prayer that reaches to the depths and complexities of our souls. Church on Sunday morning is no place for the incurious and intellectually lazy. Jesus calls upon us to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37. Participation in something so profound as worship of the Triune God requires one to learn the language of our faith-dogma. There is no shortcut.
What goes for our faith applies equally to everything else. Our lesson from Proverbs calls us into to a holy curiosity about all aspects of life. The psalmist invites us to reflect on the heavens, the moon, the stars and the place of our own human race in the midst of this marvelous universe. We are challenged to cultivate an inquisitive spirit that pries beneath the surface of everything coming into view. To be sure, we are not all specialists in the various fields of science, mathematics, economics and other areas of learning. Nevertheless, these are realms where wisdom beckons us to apply our understanding, however limited it might be. To dismiss these varied and marvelous opportunities for learning more about ourselves and our world as being beyond the scope of our interest or irrelevant to our lives is to disrespect our Creator and spurn the “call of wisdom.” It is, in short, to be a fool.
Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja expressing some divine Trinitarian curiosity. I cited this same poem last year for Trinity Sunday and do so again because I believe it captures the nature of dogma as that foundation from which we exercise our imagination, direct our curiosity and build upon our knowledge.
You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.
Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:
We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like code
Etched within the DNA. If we are divine,
Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?
Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Are we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri?
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?
All the nebular rosaries of heaven
Are bound by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:
One movement we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:
The Father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:
Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.
Source: Poetry, March 1994, pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeja at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 Obviously, a fictitious name. I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what her real name is and wouldn’t disclose it if I did.
 It also goes a long way toward explaining how a twenty-first century democracy could elect as its leader a man so thoroughly ignorant as to believe that vaccines cause autism and windmills cause cancer! In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”