Trinity B: The Stormy Glory of Embracing Diversity

The readings for this Sunday are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 6:1–8

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Romans 8:12–17

Gospel                   John 3:1–17

We have heard about George Floyd’s death for a year now, and about the explosion of rage that followed.

It wasn’t comfortable a year ago, and it’s not comfortable now.

But then, birth never is. And the God behind what is happening in our world is inviting us to a very uncomfortable new birth from above–inviting us to the glory of the storm.

Nicodemus, in our Gospel lesson, had to learn that there was a birth from above that he had to experience. As a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a rabbi, he came to Jesus convinced his biological birth as a Judean had fixed his place in the world as part of the chosen and favored of God. Jesus’ declaration that none of that mattered, but only a birth from above, dumfounded him when he misunderstood it, and then pierced him to the core of his identity when he finally understood.

Poor Nicodemus! But surely after he had time to follow the crucified Christ he would have gained the light of spiritual understanding. The Paul, who we hear in Romans, has had years in the Arabian desert, of negotiating with Jesus’ disciples, and more years on the missionary trail, where he was beaten, jailed, shipwrecked and defamed trying to bring God’s freely given love to anyone who would listen. He had time to consider the birth from above. He understood that we all have a tendency to misuse our biological birth, and turn it into a wall to keep out others, and a prison to keep our souls within. Paul proclaims to the Judeans and Gentiles in Rome that we must break out of that prison we have made. We must envision ourselves not as debtors to our flesh, but to the Spirit of God, who wants to free us to be not only with others, but for them as well. The Spirit is working to liberate us from our prisons of fear and hatred of the “other.” But life on behalf of such freedom always comes with great suffering; so we should get used to the sound of our own cries: “Abba, Father—this is very uncomfortable.”

Isaiah certainly experienced that pain as well when he was called into prophetic ministry. He realized that his whole family of flesh – the chosen people of Israel – had the privileged status of worshipping God on Zion and in the one Temple of God’s presence. But they had let God down when they forgot the responsibility that came with that grace. This false vision of comfortable faith had made them all unclean—especially in the mouth. The very words they used to forgive and excuse themselves made them unclean. So, when God opened Isaiah up it was like burning hot coals on tender lips. So, with us always—the very first thing that happens when we awaken to the responsibility of joining in God’s great Gathering is that we realize we must repent of all the scattering we have done, and the lies we have told ourselves to justify it.

For my money, the Psalm for today is the most vivid message. It is fitting for the task ahead for a new Diversity Initiative that we have launched upon in our Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore, Illinois. In the long wake of the George Floyd death, our congregation has decided that when we return from pandemic distancing, we must greatly strengthen our commitment to diversity. We must be better at welcoming diverse people into our family of faith, working to understand diverse people in our community, and fighting for justice and equity in the systems of society around us.

We must, in other words, genuinely repent of how we have divided God’s people, and answer God’s call to come together.

The Psalm for this Sunday is particularly apt, because it captures the poetic drama of where we are all headed when we work for justice, and inclusion—when we take up our obligation to the Spirit of God that is bringing us together.

The Psalm says, the path toward justice and embrace of the “other” is not an easy or comfortable path. We are headed into the Glory of the Storm.

Please pray Psalm 29, and then contemplate the splendid and awe-filled lyrics that Bob Dylan penned early in his 80 year life—a song used with his permission by Amnesty International as it celebrated its 50th birthday a few years ago. Each time I hear this song I see my dear friend, Louis Warner and me, standing on top of Natural Bridge in Kentucky, watching a violent lightening storm roll by. The storm was far from tame, but the war in Vietnam was far more lethal, and it snuffed out Louis’ life soon after our stand on the bridge. But we are still standing in the storm when I contemplate Bob’s “Chimes of Freedom Flashing.” It captures both the majesty and the terror of  Psalm 29:

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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1 Response to Trinity B: The Stormy Glory of Embracing Diversity

  1. Hank Milner says:

    John,
    I am deeply saddened by the death of your friend in the Vietnam war. That picture of a storm is powerful. Your reflections on the Glory of the Storm more powerful still. I praise God for blessing you with such deep insights and for your dedication to sharing them with us.
    Peace,
    Hank

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