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Beware the Short Cut!

Mount of TemptationFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Temptation comes in many forms. There is the primal temptation confronting Adam and Eve, that is, the temptation to grasp at godhood rather than to live thankfully, joyfully and obediently within one’s created limits. There are the temptations Jesus faced, first to allow his conduct to be driven by his survival instincts rather than confident trust in his Heavenly Father. Second, the temptation to put God’s promises to the test in a pointless suicide mission and, finally, to grab at the reigns of political power to accomplish his messianic mission. The season of Lent begins with acknowledging the reality of temptation in our lives and renewing our baptismal vow to resist it.

It seems to me that the condition underlying all temptation is impatience. The serpent promises a shortcut around mortality and creaturely limitations to immortality and divine power. Satan’s temptations offer Jesus an end run around the cross. The devil always appeals to our impatient lust for quick and easy solutions to complex and difficult problems. Hungry? Raid the refrigerator. Want to change the world? Conquer it-by military or electoral means. Then you can make whatever changes are necessary and nobody can stand in your way. Want understanding and certainty? No need to trouble yourself with prayer, learning and study. Blind faith is the answer. If the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it-even if the Bible (or the one I trust to interpret the Bible) tells me to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, shoot up a Mosque or strap on an explosive vest and detonate in the middle of a shopping center.

I can understand the allure of the devil’s empty promises, having been tempted with them time and again throughout my life and ministry. Seldom does temptation come in the form of an inducement to do evil. To the contrary, it usually rears its ugly head when we are intent on doing something good, honorable and worthwhile. When something important needs to be done-such as renovating worship space to make it barrier free, safe and welcoming to all people-the temptation for pastors is always to “push it through.” That involves talking to the “movers and shakers” in the congregation first and getting them on board. With their support, you can often get a proposal approved by the church council, through a congregational vote and on the way to implementation without much push back- until the project us under way and it’s too late for push back. More risky, laborious, frustrating and time consuming is the process of bringing all members together to talk about problems posed by the current sanctuary, making the effort to include people at the margins of congregational life and hearing their ideas, concerns and priorities. At one point during this process, one of my congregational leaders remarked, “Pastor, if we go on this way nothing will ever get done.”

My congregational leader had a valid concern. At some point, a decision would have to be made on a plan that probably would not meet with everyone’s approval. But at the very least, everyone would have had the opportunity to participate in the process and hopefully have a sense of ownership. At the end of the day, we approved and completed a plan with which nobody was entirely happy, but that we could all live with and, most importantly, met the needs for safety and accessibility we wanted to address. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was ours. That was in large part because we resisted the temptation to do it the “quick and easy” way.

Our lessons for this Sunday warn us to beware of those peddling quick, painless and easy solutions, like border walls, to solve the complex challenges posed by global migration and the increasing number of persons seeking refuge from terror and persecution. Beware of those who promise health care for all without discussing the cost all of us must be willing to bear in order to make that happen. Beware of political candidates who promise that systemic racism and patriarchy can be erased in a single election. What my grandfather told me on numerous occasions still rings true: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Disciples of Jesus know that redemptive change, or what we call “sanctification,” is a long, slow and painful process. Transformation, whether individual or systemic, requires tireless effort and a stubborn refusal to take shortcuts. The reign of God happens not through conquest but through reconciliation. That means the final goal is not the defeat of our enemies, but their inclusion in the fabric of the new creation. Few among us have the patience for that long, slow work. Most of us would prefer to take the short and easy path. The devil is only too willing to accommodate us in that regard. He is an expert when it comes to finding short cuts. After all, what is war but a short cut to peace? What is democracy these days other than an effort to amass a large enough majority on our side to impose our will upon everyone else without the necessity of persuading them? What is genocide but a desperate effort to bypass the hard work of being reconciled to our enemies by simply getting rid of them?

Our Lenten disciplines are designed to shine a light exposing the emptiness of the devil’s promises and illuminating the hard but blessed way to which Jesus calls us. Fasting reminds us that our greatest hunger can never truly be satisfied until all our sisters and brothers throughout the world are fed, clothed and nourished. Prayer unites us with “the hopes and dreams of all,” especially those hungering and thirsting for justice. Alms giving reminds us that we have been blessed in order to be a blessing to our neighbors in the same measure God has blessed us. Our journey to the cross with Jesus reminds us that Easter comes at a terrible price our loving, merciful and persistent God was willing to pay. In the end, God’s reign is God’s gift to us. It is not cheap; it is not easy. But it is infinitely better than any lesser vision of the good life we might cobble together for ourselves by cutting corners, taking short cuts and building on the foundation of the devil’s empty promises.

Here is a poem/prayer by Michel Quoist addressing his struggle with temptation-and God’s response.

Temptation

I’m at the end of my rope, Lord.
I am shattered,
I am broken.
Since this morning I have been struggling to escape temptation,
which, now wary, now persuasive, now tender, now sensuous,
dances before me like a seductive girl at a fair.
I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know where to go.
It spies on me, follows me, engulfs me.
When I leave a room I find it seated and waiting for me in the
next.
When I seize a newspaper, there it is, hidden in the words of
some innocuous article.
I go out, and see it smiling at me on an unknown face.
I turn away and look at the wall, and it leaps at me from a poster.
I return to work, to find it dozing on my files, and when I gather
my papers, it wakes up.
In despair, I take my poor head in my hands, I shut my eyes, to
see nothing.
But I discover that it is more lively than ever, comfortably settled
within me.
For it has broken my door open, it has slipped into my body,
my veins,
to the very tips of my fingers.
It has seeped into the crevices of my memory
And sings into the ear of my imagination.
It plays on my nerves as on the strings of a guitar.
I no longer know whether or not I want this sin that beckons to
me.
I no longer know whether I pursue it or am pursued.
I am dizzy, and the void draws me to the way a chasm draws the rash
Mountaineer who can no longer either advance or retreat.
Lord, Lord, help me.

*

Son, I am here.
I haven’t left you.
How weak your faith is!

You are too proud.
You still rely on yourself.
If you want to surmount all temptations, without falling or
weakening, came and serene,
You must surrender yourself to me.
You must realize that you are neither big enough nor strong
enough;
You must let yourself be guided like a child,
My little child.

Come, give me your hand, and do not fear.
If there is mire, I will carry you in my arms.
But you must be very, very little,
For the Father carries only little children.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.

 

Read the Bible, but Listen to Jesus

san marco florence 269TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Prayer of the Day: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” Matthew 17:4-8.

This account of the Transfiguration is a powerful reminder that disciples of Jesus are not a people of the book. Our faith is relational, meaning that it is finally grounded not in obedience to precepts recorded in a written document, but in relationship to a person. Saint Peter makes that clear when he reminds his readers that he and his fellow apostles did not base their preaching and teaching on “cleverly devised myths,” but upon their own eye witness testimony to Jesus and God’s acclamation of his Sonship. This testimony is a “lamp shining in a dark place” illuminating God’s reign in the person of Jesus.

That same hermeneutic ought to govern the church’s reading and interpretation of scripture. “First of all,” says Peter, “you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” II Peter 1:20-21. Of course, ecclesiastical history reveals that scripture is very much a matter of interpretation. Diverse interpretations of the Bible among and within the many manifestations of Christianity, to say nothing of that diversity within the New Testament itself, testify to its rich, layered and contrasting tapestry of voices. The Bible cries out for interpretation. But Saint Peter would have us know that it is never a matter “of one’s own interpretation.” Just as the Holy Spirit was essential to the production of our scriptures, so the Spirit’s assistance is required for a faithful interpretation of scripture.

But that begs the question. How and through whom does the Spirit work to give us an understanding of scripture upon which we can rely with confidence? Different Christian traditions have answered this question in various ways, none of them entirely satisfactorily. For reasons discussed in my post of Sunday, March 25, 2018, we cannot simply assume that the Bible is self explanatory and that if we can just manage to get people to read it, they will be able to interpret it for themselves. We all know that Bibles in the hands of ignorant, misguided or deranged people have given rise to some ghastly religious movements. On the other hand, history has demonstrated that church leaders and learned theologians are not always reliable interpreters either. There is a reason why we had the Reformation!

I don’t claim to have the final word (or even a preliminary one) on what shape scriptural authority should take in our churches. But I believe that our gospel lesson has a thing or two to say about how disciples of Jesus read the Bible. Peter, James and John see Jesus up on the mountain top speaking with Moses and Elijah. Moses, the giver of the law and the covenant; Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. The whole Bible, the law and the prophets, is right there with Jesus. Peter was probably trying to pay Jesus a complement by suggesting that the disciples make three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. What greater honor can you give to your teacher than to elevate him to the level of Moses and Elijah? But that’s when the cloud comes over them all and the voice: “This is my Son, the beloved. With him I am pleased. Listen to him.” When the disciples pick themselves up off the ground and look up, they see Jesus only. And that’s the whole point. Jesus is the voice to which we listen when we want to know God’s direction in our lives, God’s word to us. To be sure, we can and should listen to Moses, to Elijah and all the other voices in scripture. But we are not disciples of Moses or Joshua or Ezra or Peter or Paul. We are disciples of Jesus.

This means we read the Bible with Jesus colored glasses. As we know from our readings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes great liberties with the Bible. Yes, the Bible does say and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. “But,” says Jesus, “I am telling you something different.” Jesus tells us that the Bible, the law and the prophets, revolve around two great commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:34-40. Therefore, if your reading of the Bible leads you to judge, condemn, discriminate against, hurt or insult anybody at all, you have it all wrong-no matter what the literal text says. A loveless reading of the scriptures is not a testament to Jesus and the gentle reign of God he proclaims. Any such reading distorts the biblical witness to Jesus in the interest of a cruel, selfish and hateful agenda. That, in my humble opinion, is how a lot of religion purporting to be Christian misuses the scriptures. So whenever someone says in an authoritative tone, “The Bible says…” We must always respond with, “Yes, but how would Jesus have us read and apply that text?”

This coming Wednesday we begin our journey into Lent. This time, may we catch the urgency in that voice from heaven: “This is my Son…Listen to him!” Let us listen for Jesus’ words to us as intently as the poet in the heart of Winter listens for tell tale signs of Spring.

Winter’s Song

I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.

Source: anonymous

 

The Cost of Truthfulness and the Toll of Lies

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you.  Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:33-37.

“The allegations made in the articles of impeachment are very serious. As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise “impartial justice.” I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the President, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah explaining his decision to vote for the removal of President Donald Trump from office.

As I said last week, it is critical to remember that the Sermon on the Mount is not directed to the general public. It was not designed for personal application to “everyday life.” Nor is it a template for governance in a utopian society. The Sermon is directed to the disciples of Jesus. It describes the shape of a shared life of repentance, forgiveness and witness to a better way of being human. Within the Body of Christ, Paul instructs us to “put[]” away falsehood” and “let everyone speak the truth with their neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Ephesians 4:25. Truth is all that we should be speaking to one another. Every word that comes out of our mouths ought to be spoken as though in the presence of God-because it is. Oaths are therefore superfluous.

But the Body of Christ exists in a world where, to use the words of presidential adviser and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, “truth isn’t truth.” I suspect most avid Trump supporters know that their president lies-not inadvertently, occasionally or in peripheral matters, but that he lies knowingly, consistently and in matters of grave importance. It isn’t that they are deceived. They just don’t care. Truth doesn’t matter. In fact, some of the president’s apologists have gone so far as to say that his lying is a form of authenticity! “Trump is a liar, but since he doesn’t have a filter, he manages to lie authentically.” So said Commentator Eve Peyser in explaining what Joe Walsh meant when he said, “Trump is at least open & honest about his lying.” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. In such a topsy turvy moral universe, an oath serves to remind people of what St. Augustine affirmed centuries ago: that truth exists, that it is knowable and our testimony must always be in conformity therewith.

In the biblical context, an oath is promissory in nature. It is meant to guarantee that what is undertaken will be brought to completion. Such oaths must not be taken frivolously because we cannot know in advance the cost of fulfilling them. When my friend Rodney married Melissa, I am sure he was mindful of the gravity of his vow “to join with her and share all that is to come.” I am sure he was aware of the difficulties involved with learning to live in an intimate relationship with another, the arguments bound to occur, the differences that would need to be ironed out and the challenge of raising children. What he was not prepared for, however, was spending the next fifteen years of his life caring for his ailing spouse as a ravishing chronic illness rendered her an invalid and slowly took her life. Rodney would be the first to tell you that, notwithstanding the unanticipated course of his marriage, it was nonetheless blessed. Be that as it may, the terrible cost of keeping the vow he made to Melissa was not even on his radar the day that vow was made. Still, he kept it faithfully.

People of faith understand that a promise made in the presence of God is not a thing to be taken lightly. In describing the character of one worthy to enter into God’s sanctuary, the psalmist says of such persons that they “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” Psalm 15:4. That means when you undertake the obligation to testify truthfully, you tell the truth-even when it is personally embarrassing, even when it can get you fired, even when it hurts your political ambitions, even when it costs you your life. It means that when you undertake the obligation of a juror, you render a just decision-even when it disappoints your constituents, hurts your party and dooms your political career. Contrary to the prevailing belief in at least one of America’s two major parties, truth exists and it matters.

You don’t have to like Senator Mitt Romney’s politics to respect and admire his recognition that the solemn duty imposed upon us by our Maker to speak the truth ranks before party loyalty which, these days, amounts to total obeisance to Donald J. Trump. Mr. Romney is an example of those who “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” If the fate of other Republican politicians who have had the temerity to cross the president is any reliable indicator, Romney’s decision to vote in favor of the president’s removal from office almost surely doomed his future in the party. More severe still was the consequence of truthfulness for Purple Heart recipient Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who was fired for giving his courageous testimony before the House of Representatives. [1] It is no exaggeration to say that the truth is under attack in our day and those who would defend it are paying a steep price.

Yet as high a price as you might pay for telling the truth, the toll taken on the soul for betraying it is higher still. I have to wonder what kind of lies all of the Republican senators who voted to acquit Donald Trump had to tell themselves to justify that action in their own minds as they watched a man who put his life on the line to defend theirs escorted out of the office he served faithfully for years as though he were a criminal. I wonder what kind of  fabricated stories they have to tell themselves about themselves in order to live with themselves. I wonder whether, in the depths of their souls there is not yet a still small voice crying out to them, “How can you not speak out against this man’s cruel words and actions, how can you not offer even a whimper of protest when he vilifies men like John McCain and Alexander Vindman, slandering them and devaluing their service? I pity these near empty shells of what once were men and women moved to give their life to public service and who took an oath to defend the Constitution and defend the people it was written to protect. It must be hell living in their skins. It must be agonizing to be reminded of all the promises betrayed, all the ideals left behind and the fearful toadies they have become under the reign of Trump each time they look in the mirror. The words of William Shakespeare come to mind: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene II.

Truth is worth whatever price must be paid for its defense. Nowhere does that become more evident than in the cross. After all, the greatest truth is God’s oath to bless God’s creation and the highest expression of that truth is the terrible price of God’s faithfulness to that oath-the life of God’s only beloved Son. Again, Saint Augustine teaches us that all truth is finally grounded in God’s Triune self and is therefore holy-whether it pertains to the highest doctrinal assertions or the merest of human transactions. Lies, however seemingly trivial, are always an affront to our Creator and a blemish on our souls.

Truth telling and promise keeping is heroic work. Here is a poem about heroism that is grounded in faith and personal integrity. This is the kind of heroism our time needs so desperately.

Heroism

An heroic act is an individual act.
It is performed in utter solitude.
The hero knows that he acts alone,
is aware that his efforts may well be wasted
and embraces the likelihood that his sacrifice
will never be known, appreciated or understood
by any, save God alone.
History’s judgment neither adds anything,
nor takes anything away.

Source: Anonymous

[1]  The simultaneous firing of Vindman’s twin brother who played absolutely no part in the impeachment proceedings demonstrates the absolute childish ruthlessness of the Trump regime and further exposes the cringeworthy cowardice of the Republican leadership in turning a blind eye to this outrage.

Newly Disclosed Phone Transcript: Trump Asks Russian President to Terminate Rivals

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Donald-Trump-sexist-phone-call

The Ghost has just obtained another White House telephone call transcript from a source who does not wish to be identified. The call appears to be between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The transcribed conversation is reprinted below:  

Trump: Vladimir!

Putin: Donald! I just had to call to congratulate you on your acquittal in the United States Senate.

Trump: Yes. Well, the whole thing was a hoax and a witch hunt. I knew it would turn out all right. But it was a little dicey for awhile. Some of those senators-you know. They were starting to cave. But Mitch, he held them all together.

Putin: Ah, Mitch. How is my good friend and most valuable asset?

Trump: Mitch is good. Never better-we’ve had our ups and downs, him and me. Like I said, I was a little worried that some of those senators might break rank. Hate to think of what might have happened then.

Putin: Silly Donald. You were never in any danger. Do you think I would stand by and let you be removed from power? Trust me, Donald. We in the Kremlin will always have your back. Now, about the transfer of Alaska…

Trump: Ah, yes. Well, I’m working on that. It will be ready for occupancy by Russia soon. Real soon. But we need you to do us a favor, though.

Putin: I know, I know. Dirt on Joe Biden. I have my people working on that…

Trump: Actually, Vladimir, I need something a little bigger than that. I need you to take out Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.

Putin: Like, how “take out?”

Trump: Like take ‘em out. Like waste ‘em. Like, you know…

Putin: You want me to assassinate your political opponents?

Trump: Not you personally. I mean, you know people who handle jobs like that, right? Only it’s got to look like, I don’t know-an accident maybe…or wait! Make it look like Islamic terrorists did it!

Putin: Donald! I’m so proud of you! Now you think like real leader! Like strong man! But this is big job. Lot’s of complications. People who handle things like this, they don’t come cheap. I’m not sure Alaska covers it. You know, you people already took most of the gold out of it.

Trump: OK Vladimir. Here’s the deal. Do me this favor and I’ll throw in Washington State, Oregon and California.

Putin: Very generous of you, Donald.

Trump: Well, it’s good for both of us. I know you people always wanted a warm water port. With this deal, you get a whole coast line full of them. Plus, those are all blue states. When they are gone, that will cement my majority in the Senate and put a huge dent in the Democrat House majority. Oh yes, and when you move into California, that nasty woman, Nancy Pelosi, I wouldn’t mind if you “made her go through some things,” if you know what I mean.

Putin: I know exactly what you mean, Donald. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to, how do you Americans say, “seal the deal.” I need writing.

Trump: Call Rudy-you know-Rudy Giuliani. He handles the paperwork for me-and a lot of other stuff too. You can also call-ah, the Attorney General. He doesn’t like me to mention his name in my phone calls. Got real pissed when I did that with whats-his-name, you know, the guy from Ukraine. But his first name rhymes with kill and his last name rhymes with far. Oops! Gotta go. Just got a text from ICE. My border wall is falling over! Later!

Putin: Be well Donald.

END TRANSCRIPT

The president’s press secretary refused to comment on the transcript, but Senator Mitch McConnell shrugged it off. “So what?” he told our reporter. “We’ve been through all this before. The president believes that his re-election is in the interest of our country. If unloading a bunch of useless real estate and terminating his Democrat rivals ensures his re-election, he can do that under Article 2 of the United States Constitution.” Senator Lindsey Graham agreed. “I sure hope the Democrat party isn’t thinking about another try at impeachment. That whole charade was just a damn lynching-not that I’ve got anything against lynching, mind you. It’s part of my proud southern legacy. But President Trump isn’t the colo-I mean the kind of man you lynch!” Phone calls to the office of Attorney General William Barr were not returned.

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

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

 

The Impossible Task of Salting the Salt

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112:1-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you.  By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. Matthew 5:13.

The first thing to remember is that these words, indeed, the entire Sermon on the Mount, are directed not to individual persons but to the community of disciples.[i] It is not as though Jesus calls us to struggle heroically as lone individuals in the midst of a sinful world to embody a set of highly impractical moral precepts. Neither is the Sermon a kind of spiritual measuring rod designed to “put us in our place” so that we can be properly repentant. To the contrary, these words of Jesus are a gift, a vision of the life Jesus promises to his followers in order that they might become what preacher, teacher, farmer and advocate Clarence Jordan called “a demonstration plot” for the reign of God. It is through the community called church that the world comes to know there is a better way of being human, that the way things are is not the way they have to be nor the way they always will be. Or, as Jordan puts it: “The crowning evidence that [Jesus] lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

So how then does the church function as “salt”? There is no small discussion among scholars as to whether the metaphor implies that the church is a preservative, as was commonly the case in the ancient word, or whether the church is to be understood as a spice. Either way, it is obvious that the church is intended to have a redemptive effect on the world. Moreover, it is obvious that once salt has lost its taste (however that might happen), there is no restoring it. Adding more salt is much like throwing good money after bad. You only dilute the good salt you have to produce mediocre salt. The point, it seems, is that Jesus’ community of disciples is to be different from all other communities. Unlike communities and societies grounded in race or nation or tribe or culture, the church is grounded in its allegiance to Jesus. It exists within every nation, but it does not pledge its ultimate allegiance to any of them. It is made up of people with differing loyalties and commitments, but none of these commitments, whether to nation or party or family, rise to the level of their baptismal vow of loyalty to Jesus. The worst thing that can happen to the church is for it to become “just like everyone else.”

Some time ago I related on this blog how I was listening to an interview on the radio of a young man in his twenties who had recently converted to Islam. It might have been on NPR but I can’t swear to that. I was only half paying attention until I heard the young man say that he had been raised a Lutheran. Suddenly I was all ears. When asked why he turned away from the faith in which he had been raised, there was a noticeable pause. I was beginning to think that the station was having technical difficulties. Finally, the young man spoke out a little tentatively. “Well, you know, the church I grew up in was full of nice folks. I have nothing against them. But since I was a teenager, I was always looking for something more, something I could give my life to. I just figured there had to be more to faith in God than playing Twister and eating pizza in the church basement.”

I don’t doubt that there were people of faith worshiping and serving in the congregation where that young man grew up, but somehow, they failed to transmit that faith to him. He didn’t hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in that church’s preaching, teaching or ministry. He never caught a vision of the reign of God worthy of his dedication and commitment. What a tragedy. Here was a young man looking for the Bread which comes down from heaven and all his church offered him was Twister and pizza. No wonder he went searching for something with a little more spice!

I am not faulting this church for trying to appeal to teenagers anymore than for trying to reach millennials, boomers and however many members of the “greatest generation” are still around. But I suspect the underlying assumption here might have been that any serious effort to engage these kids with Jesus’ call to discipleship, challenge them with a grown up faith pushing them out of their comfort zones and enlist them in worship, prayer, witness, service and giving would surely have driven them away. Who knows? The assumption might have been correct. Perhaps the alternate approach I suggest would have driven many, or even most of those kids away. It might be equally unappealing to millennials, boomers and the greats. But I suspect that a serious engagement with Jesus would very probably have held this one young man who was seeking him so earnestly. As I used to tell my church council to the point of eliciting a “there he goes again” eye roll, I would prefer making one new disciple to signing up twenty new members.

A lot of churches, including my own, have a sign that says “all are welcome” in some way, shape or form. If that is taken to mean that all are welcome to come in and check us out, I guess that’s OK. But is it the case that everyone should feel welcome once they come inside? If David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, sat through one of my church’s worship services and then told me how welcome and at home he felt, I could only conclude that we are not doing our job. There are clearly attitudes, opinions and ideologies that are unwelcome within the Body of Christ. So too, if a church is attractive because the music is singable, the sermon is always upbeat and the pastor stays away from controversy, I have to question whether that church is really fulfilling the Great Commission. If we are hiding the hard realities of the cross and downplaying the good news of God’s reign in the interest of marketing, we are doing exactly what the Apostle Paul warns us against in our second lesson. If people cannot sense Jesus’ thirst for justice, his longing for peace and his commitment to defending the human dignity of every person when they walk in the door, we are not salty enough. If we are to be preservative for a world rotting with racist and nationalist hate, if we are to be a people shaped by the mind of Christ and his yearning for the reign of God, it follows that a lot of folks will not feel welcome within our walls-not only the new ones walking in the door, but many of the old faithful members walking out the door.

I know whereof I speak. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I serve took a welcoming stance toward same sex couples, we lost a number of our churches to breakaway bodies. When I announced that I stood with my church and that I would recognize these couples and their marriages, I lost five members of my congregation. As a result, however, we were in a position to welcome one wonderful new family that immediately became active in our children’s ministry and we were able to provide assurance to a number of people in our church, who had previously been living their lives in partial secrecy, that they need not hide who they are any longer. Let me add that I am not proud of the way this went down. A better pastor might have been able to welcome and affirm our gay and lesbian members while convincing the objectors to open their hearts, get to know these new people and trust the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all truth.” Regardless, if we would be the salt of the earth, then we need to become the kind of community in which the mind of Christ is formed-even when it drives potential members away and alienates the ones we have. Because church is finally not about accumulating members. It’s about making disciples.

When the church loses its focus on God’s reign, we are in the impossible position of having to salt the salt. Fortunately, Jesus loves us too much to let that happen. Jesus declares to us, “you are” the salt-just as Saint Paul says to the hopelessly dysfunctional church in Corinth, “you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Jesus simply will not allow us to go stale on him. He continues to breath his Holy Spirit into our communities, salting them with fire and prodding them with his promises. We have everything we need to be the demonstration plot for God’s kingdom. Jesus has given us the kingdom. All we need to do now is start living in it.

Below is a poem by Maureen Ash telling a story similar to that of the young Muslim related above. Salt, it seems, was in short supply.

Church Basement

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.

Source: Poetry Foundation, Poems for Children, (c. 2012 by Maureen Ash). Maureen Ash is an American poet currently living in Wisconsin. 

[i] To be sure, the “crowd” is present and paying close attention. But in Matthew’s gospel, the crowd is a character in its own right sometimes selfishly seeking Jesus’ gifts of healing, sometimes curious and, in the end, hostile. Jesus nevertheless views the crowds with compassion “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

See the source imageThe Hon. Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister
State of Israel
Beit Aghion, Jerusalem

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

I saw you on TV a couple of nights ago standing next to our president and felt compelled to drop you a line. I’m obviously not a Jew, so maybe I’m sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong. Nonetheless, I am a Lutheran pastor whose church’s silence and complicity with the nazis contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe eight decades ago.  History need not repeat itself and we want to ensure particularly that this sorrowful chapter does not. Thus, as between the risk of speaking out of place and that of remaining silent when duty requires one to speak, I choose to incur the former.

I feel compelled to share with you some relevant matters concerning your American friends. I understand that Mr. Trump and his administration have been good for your own political agenda, which you believe is the best way forward for the State of Israel . You probably feel that the strategic gains arising from your partnership with Mr. Trump outweigh whatever risks that partnership might entail. After all, if Israel’s national interests are advanced, why trouble yourself with the American president’s political woes and ethical deficiencies? And why not pursue a robust, uncompromising policy based on military strength with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors? After all, you have the might of the United States of America standing squarely behind you.

Well Mr. Prime Minister, I have just two words for you: Honorary Aryan. As you probably know, that was an expression used in Nazi Germany to describe the unofficial status of persons who were not recognized as belonging to the so called aryan race according to nazi standards, but were informally considered to be part of it. It was a designation given a few Jews and other “non aryan” individuals useful to the state for propaganda purposes or for the war effort. Survival under this designation lasted for about as long as the usefulness of the one holding it. In short, honorary aryans had no right to live, but were granted their existence as a privilege of the state-which could be revoked at the state’s pleasure.

You probably know, Mr. Prime Minister, that Donald Trump is the darling of a growing number of white nationalists in the United States, many of whom look upon Hitler as a kind of hero. I don’t doubt you know that, on the morning after Mr. Trump’s election, a band of white nationalists led by one Richard Spencer celebrated the new day in America with a nazi style salute to Trump. You are aware, I am sure, of how Trump supporting white nationalists marched through the streets of  Charlottesville, Virginia in a torch light parade chanting “Jew will not replace us.” It cannot be any secret to you that, since Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and election, anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, including mass killings, have increased substantially. If you are inclined to dismiss all of this American anti-Semitism as insignificant fringe activity, I remind you that many German Jews initially made the same tragic miscalculation about the nazis. The lesson I hope we all learned from that horrific era is that when someone says or even implies that they are going to kill you and your people, it behooves you to take them seriously.

So if Trump and his base are so anti-Semitic, why is the president so generous toward Israel? The answer is obvious. A huge part of Mr. Trump’s base is made up of white “Evangelical Christians” who are rabid supporters of Israel. At the same time, however, these folks are none too friendly to Jews and many are outright anti-Semitic, blaming American Jews for infecting American culture with socialism, liberalism and atheism. Mr. Trump’s closest evangelical adviser, Rev. Robert Jeffress, has made no secret that he believes God has rejected the Jewish people and that they are all destined for hell. That, Mr. Prime Minister, is the true face of your new allies.

“How can this be?” you ask. “How can people love Israel while hating Jews?” Allow me to explain. Many evangelicals subscribe to a fringe doctrine known as “premillennialism.” According to this teaching, a blueprint for the imminent end of the world and the return of Christ to establish a one thousand year Christian theocracy is woven into the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. There is much disagreement among evangelicals holding these views over the details of exactly how the end will unfold, but I won’t bore you with that. The point is, in premillennial thought, the nation of Israel plays a crucial role in igniting the wars and tribulations that will plunge the earth into a hopeless condition of demonic global rule. After this, Christ will return and with him the resurrected Christians to crush the powers of evil and rule the world for the next thousand years.

So you see, Mr. Prime Minister, for Mr. Trump and his evangelical supporters, you and the Jewish citizens of your country are honorary aryans. Mr. Trump needs your support to satisfy his evangelical base. The evangelicals need the nation of Israel to fulfill its critical role in bringing about the thousand year reign of Christians. You can expect their support to last for as long as you and your country continue to be useful. That might not be very long. Let’s face it, Israel needs to come to some agreement for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians and its neighbors. There might be plenty of disagreement over what the terms of that agreement should be, but the agreement is a foregone conclusion. Even if you are able to get a peace agreement all on your own terms, it will still be a peace agreement-and peace agreements do nothing to bring about World War III. Any such agreement, however favorable to Israel, is bound to be seen as a betrayal of the divine time table for the last great battle and the return of Christ.

Furthermore, you should know that many of these premillennial theologies predict a mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. History has taught us how ugly things get when Jews resist conversion. I suspect that your evangelical supporters’ zeal for Israel will cool the minute it becomes clear to them that the Jews are as determined as ever to remain Jews.  Worse yet, some of these premillennial theologies predict another holocaust of the Jews during the tribulation before the coming of Christ. Do you think your evangelical fans would support a military effort to protect Israel if that would thwart or delay the thousand year reign of Christians? Would they want to support Israel in any military action that is at cross purposes with the plan of the Almighty? Can Mr. Trump be trusted to adhere to his alliance with you when it no longer serves his political interest in retaining white evangelical support? I suggest you consult the Kurds about that.

Bottom line, Donald Trump has not the least bit of love, empathy or concern for Israel and its people. Hell, he doesn’t have any of that for the American people. He is a self centered, self-serving egomaniac who thinks nothing of separating families at our border, calling Mexican migrants rapists and murderers and referring to people from African nations by a name I won’t repeat. Do you really believe he would have any compunctions about treating Jewish people the same way? Do you really think he won’t drop you like a hot potato the minute you become a political liability to him? And have you given any thought to the welfare of Jews in the United States? Are they not also of concern to Israel? Torchlight parades, desecrated synagogues and violence against Jews, all with the underpinnings of religious teaching-your ancestors saw this before in Europe. Now we here in the United States are seeing it within our own borders and with the implicit blessing of our government. History has already shown us the dark places to which all of this leads. Are you really willing to risk going down that dark path again? Do you really want to lend further legitimacy to this president? Do you really think that your partnership with Donald Trump is in the best interests of Jews in Israel and worldwide? These are questions I hope you are asking yourself.

Well, that’s all I wanted to say to you. Be well, Bibi. And watch your back. These new friends of yours-they are not your friends.

Very Truly Yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (Retired)

The Baby and the Bag Lady

PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, your only-begotten Son was presented this day in the temple. May we be presented to you with clean and pure hearts by the same Jesus Christ, our great high priest, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36-38.

Perhaps most of the people passing through the temple precincts that day thought Anna a bit daft. Religion is a fine thing, to be sure. But this old woman seems a little too fixated on it. Besides, who but a homeless bag lady lives in the temple precincts? Doesn’t this woman have a home? A job? Family? Grandchildren to take care of? I expect that a lot of folks walked past Anna just the way most people today would pass a raving lunatic parked with his sleeping bag in the entrance of an urban church. Pick up the pace, don’t make eye contact and continue on to your destination without looking back.

Of course, I suspect that those of us who have been raised in morally and socially responsible households might pity poor Anna. Clearly, this woman has no family support, no other place to live and suffers from some measure of psychiatric illness. Should we offer her a ride to the nearest shelter? Make a referral to a free clinic? Help her to find some kind of employment? Something should be done! She should not be left to spend her nights in church doorways and her days pestering worshipers with wild, delusional rants.

Our gospel lesson offers us another lens through which to view people like Anna. Though we might tend to see her as a social problem needing to be solved, Luke the Evangelist recognizes Anna as a valuable witness to God’s act of salvation through Jesus Christ. After listening to the lyrical hymn of praise from the mouth of Mary in the prior chapter, it should come as no surprise that people like Anna, people living at the margins of the margins, are the first to recognize in Jesus the beginning of God’s radical reversal of fortunes for the poor and oppressed. Anna the homeless crazy lady living in the temple precincts turns out to be Anna the prophet who, along with the homeless shepherds abiding in their fields by night, becomes one of the first witnesses to the good news.

I grew up in a home where the obligation to help the poor and underprivileged was taken for granted. One of the earliest memories I have took place on a winter evening when I accompanied my mother on one of her many trips to bring food and clothing donations to needy families. I recall how thankful the young single mom was to receive our help and how good it made us feel to support her and ease her burden. But when this woman offered my mom and me a cup of coffee and some cookies she had made, mom politely declined. It was all for practical reasons, of course. It was getting to be past my bedtime and that of my younger sister who was at home with dad running a fever. But young as I was, I sensed the awkwardness of the situation. This woman had something to offer beyond coffee and cookies. She was offering us hospitality-the gift of herself and, if we take our gospel seriously, the opportunity to encounter Jesus.

Christianity has for so long been a mainstream faith that we find it hard to read faithfully the gospel testimony that comes to us from the margins. We who live for the most part in privileged security find it hard to imagine that people like Anna and the single mom of my youthful memory are capable of much more than receiving our help. We have developed a collective “messiah complex” that prevents us from seeing ourselves as anything other than “helpers” and blinds us to the gifts and insights we so desperately need from those we categorize as “the helped.” Each Thanksgiving we rant about how “blessed” we are to have comfortable homes and more than enough good food to eat. Then, as if to prove it to ourselves, we eat ourselves silly. The words of John of Patmos come to mind: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Revelation 3:17.

The poor, as St. Lawrence rightly observed, are the “treasure of the church.” This is so not because they afford us the opportunity to exercise charity and feel good about it. It is because the God we worship was born incarnate of a homeless family in a barn, was first recognized by landless shepherds, an old man with a dying wish, a crazy homeless woman living in the temple precincts, lepers, harlots and foreigners. The people at the margins are not just unfortunates that have “fallen through the cracks” and who need our help to become self-reliant and productive like us. They are the favorites of a God who would have us become more like them-weak, humble and wholly dependent upon God.  It is in the poor that we encounter the one we call Lord. If we cannot recognize God at the margins, we do not know God, period.

I expect that most people simply ignored Anna that day of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. But some people apparently were looking for the same thing Anna was seeking. For some people, her words struck a chord of recognition. They evidently saw in her hunger, her yearning a reflection of their own need. So they stopped. They listened. They came near to see the infant squirming in Simeon’s arms.  I have no idea how many there were. A crowd? Just a handful? One or two? However many or few may have been gathered around the ancient prophetess, there were at least some left in Jerusalem that could still dream. There were still people in Israel who were not yet convinced that the way things are is the way they have to be and always will be. Some there were who could see past whatever stereotypical baggage might otherwise have obscured the miracle to which Anna testified. There were still people capable of believing the ancient promises of liberation from oppression, justice for all and peace among the nations. The last embers of hope had not yet been extinguished. They still have not been extinguished. That is because our faithful God continues to send us prophets like Anna to fan them into white hot flame just when it seems they are about to go cold.

As the poet points out, it sometimes becomes necessary to “reteach a thing its loveliness.” So too, it becomes necessary to reteach ourselves how to recognize loveliness and so much more in what we have been taught to view as peripheral, unimportant and distasteful. If we would see Jesus, we must learn to recognize goodness, beauty and truth in the words and faces of people like Anna. If we cannot find them there, we will not see them anywhere.

Here is the poem by Galway Kinnell to which I alluded in the prior paragraph.

Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Source: Three Books, (c. 2002 by Galway Kinnell; pub.by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Galway Kinnell (1927-2014) was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1982 collection, Selected Poems. He also split the National Book Award for Poetry with Charles Wright and was poet laureate for the State of Vermont from 1989 to 1993. Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He was drawn to poetry in his youth through his reading of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Kinnell was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States throughout the 1960s. Upon returning to the US after traveling in Europe and the Middle East, he joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and worked on voter registration and workplace integration in Hammond, Louisiana. This effort got him arrested. In 1968, Kinnell signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Kinnell died in October of 2014 from leukemia. You can find out more about Galway Kinnell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.