What Binds Us?

Do words bind us, or something deeper than words?

The lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday include the account from Acts 2:1-21, of the mighty wind and the tongues of fire coming down on the Jesus believers; and the account by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:22-27, of the Spirit groaning within us and within a creation in labor pains.

 

The Jesus believers waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit to come to them, and it did in a dramatic fashion, in fulfillment of a prophecy of the prophet Joel, and as indicated by the Apostle Peter. And the believers, touched in this way by the Spirit, spoke so that people from all over the Jewish Diaspora–all over the world–understood.

 

And Paul describes another connection that is too deep for words. As the believer groans along with the suffering creation, God understands.

 

We all want unity. Like Rodney King in the midst of the Los Angeles riots that followed his horrendous beating by police, we cry out, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

 

And one of the ways we imagine this might happen is if we speak in propositions, with such eloquence and obvious correctness, that others will be persuaded to come over to our side. We will agree and then we will all be happy together.

 

But it never happens that way. What usually happens is that the more we refine our thoughts and the more we define the boundaries between truth and error, the more upset we get with others. We define them more and more as defective or just plain “other.” And then we begin to see that they do not deserve the benefit of our morality. We can love and gladly break bread with those who are still within our boundaries, but what in heaven’s name can we do with those others?

 

In my 40 plus years in the ministry I was buoyed up by fellowship with a succession of groupings of pastors. In each place I ministered I found a Bible study fellowship with pastors. Most often it was ecumenical. Sometimes it was mostly Lutheran. But looking back, I believe what bound each group of us–what made us feel we were, like the Jesus believers in that Pentecost experience, “all together in one place,” was not a common creed. It was something deeper than words. It was awe-filled trembling before the Word of God. It was love of the people we served, and inner groaning for some way to feed and heal them. It was a trust in an unseen force that opened us to trust one another enough to be honest and ready to learn and grow.

 

Fellow DeKalb pastor, Janet Hunt, shared at today’s pastor’s Bible gathering, that she would preach these lessons plus the story of the Spirit giving life in the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel 37:1-14. She said, and the rest of us there agreed, the idea is that the Spirit is a mighty wind that blasts through boundaries and always has the effect of surprising us, or even blowing our minds.

 

Our words–even our most precious words in the form of our doctrines about God–do not have the power to bring us “all together in one place.” Only the movement of the Spirit can do that, and that by groans and other motives too deep for words.

 

Springtime Sprouts

Life has been happening fast at and around Heatherhope these days. Back in the hay field the alfalfa and grass that Chauncey II and III (or is it III and IV?) planted a couple of weeks ago are just minutely popping their little sprouts above the ground. We are eager for the rain that the forecast says will come overnight Wednesday. We have heard that great oaks from little acorns do grow, but it’s true for all the life that sprouts–it flows from the hand of God.

 

As we wait and watch and expect great things, here are some insights and blessings that have come in waves very recently.

 

  • “Why would anyone herd sheep?” That was what one woman asked during our sheep herding demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm the weekend before last. It is a delight for Connie and I to offer these events, and questions like that make it obvious just how far removed from food production most people live. There is an essential economy apart from smart phone apps and algorithms. Sheep and goats have kept major swaths of the world’s population going for at least 15,000 years; and still do. And without herding dogs such husbandry would be impossible in most places where these animals are essential. We hope we were able to cause some insights to sprout in people’s minds. And we certainly gained a deeper insight into the need to bridge the huge vacuum of understanding of agriculture that there is out there.

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

  • “Thanks for making me feel welcome.” That’s something that Mary Beth said as she left for home from our Gordon Watt Clinic. I’ve heard that expressed many times in the past, and it makes me feel so good about the sense of community that has grown up around the sheepdog clinics that we have hosted at Heatherhope for many years now. Many things contribute to this spirit of belonging. A major ingredient is our mealtimes together. Wife Connie, of course, works hard to put out coffee, tea, fruit, and sweet breads in the mornings; more hot beverages and snacks all day; and grand luncheons at mid-day. And, of, course, the sheer fact of throwing doors open to everyone, and breaking bread together, is a sacramental thing–inviting God to glue people together–signaling without words that all are welcome and all are valued.
  • “That dog is a great big sponge.” Gordon said that about one particular dog, owned by Sharon. But it genuinely applies as well to all the dogs at the clinic and beyond. He was noting that this particular dog was natural at its flanks and pace and all the essentials of herding. But that meant that those things came easy to it and so any little thing that Sharon would do, such as stopping its outrun or calling it back, or an unconscious gesture with the hand would be inadvertently learned as a rule by the dog. This is one reason why it is so important to watch Gordon’s choreography with dogs and sheep. He is amazingly spare with his body language and use of training tools like leads and sticks and slaps of a hat on the leg. That’s because all dogs noticing things–soaking up things. And the biggest problem we mortals have in training dogs is that we throw out heaps of unintended signals through the flailing of arms, swishing of sticks, and spewing of commands and other sounds that the dogs then must assign meanings–most of the time without our even noticing that it is happening. Come to think of it, people are sponges too. Every word or gesture carries meaning. And if we do things well, those around us feel encouraged. When we are careless the opposite can happen, even though we never intended it.
  • “What did you get?” vs. “What a Miracle!” Our dinner conversation on the Saturday night of the clinic revolved around the point of sheepdog competitions. Kathy, Priscilla, Connie and I agreed that competition itself surely whets the appetite and is thrilling. And it spurs us all to measure the skills of ourselves and our dogs so that we can see better where we need to improve. But there is also an immaturity in fixating on the opinion of others in the form of the judges scores and the whispers of others back in the handlers’ tent. It’s much like back in school when all that matters to some is the test score and the final grade. And when the report card or the exam grades come out and students anxiously ask, “Wudya get?” it signals that they have lost sight of the real purpose of school: to learn. It’s time then to remember what learning machines herding dogs are. They ARE sponges. They have amazing minds. They are always far more capable of understanding sheep, and far more driven to work for us than we can ever fully appreciate. So, it seems to me, the point of competition or of clinics, is to deepen the appreciation for the miracle right in front of us. When we do that it will free us of our anxieties, free us to get much better and more effective as trainers and teammates with our dogs, and free us to think to encourage our fellow competitors.
  • “I’m at the point in my life when I’m searching.” I’m not sure my friend at the dog clinic used just those words, but he was asking big questions. The atmosphere of encouragement at the clinic, and the wealth of time we had, and the miracle of listening allowed us to do a good deal of exploring of mysteries. One of the mysteries we explored was how and why God’s gift of dogs touched us both so deeply. It was a rare and satisfying conversation we shared.
    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

  • “The great aaahhh at the end of lambing.” This year’s lambing was tough. Good friends Graham and Margaret shared that their lambs also found many ways of dying, yet there was much good. We ourselves had many a sleep-deprived day and anxious hour dealing with freezing rain, snow, high winds, more snow, our first full-fledged prolapse, and watching and worrying and wrestling with the labor and delivery of big lambs. But today we finally put the mothers and lambs out on pasture. We take it slow and steady, moving them out of the barn and from one side of the feedlot to the other, then through the unfenced no-man’s land between the barn and pasture, and finally into the new grass. Moms chow down eagerly on the sweet grass along the way. Babies seem to bounce from this direction to that. Moms chortle while lambs call out. The youngest lamb of all, whose leg was broken and splinted a week ago, got the royal treatment by being carried by Connie. It led the way with its mom following its plaintive bleats and the rest of the flock following its super-concerned mother. But then we made it, without much fuss, to the pasture, closed the gate, and that was that. Mothers, lambs, all spreading out to enjoy the wide spaces and luscious new growth of grass. All the food they could possibly want spread out before them. The welcoming table of the Lord. The word “aah” in its correct spelling, certainly doesn’t have nearly enough of the letters “a” or “h” to satisfy. Watching those ewes and lambs contentedly grazing? Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!

Triplets Born As First Lambs of 2018

As I write this there is still a dusting of snow on the ground, but spring and new life are heralding the Easter season. The purple finch is singing it’s boisterous song just outside the window. And we are in the full swing of lambing season. First triplets 2018

We had no births the last two lambing seasons due to my shoulder surgery in 2016 when we didn’t breed, and a dud ram in 2017. As Judi Elliot, our shepherd’s wife friend from the Borders of Scotland said several years ago, though lambing is lots of work, “it is LIFE!” It is life indeed.

Our first lambs this year were a set of triplets born the day after Easter Day in the late evening. We had to forcibly evict #248 from trying to pinch the first lamb (a ram) of that set, but the true mother was determined and calm, and birthed the two ewe-lambs in the lambing jug or pen. She is still a trooper, and all three lambs are content to share mom’s ample milk.

Since #248 and others seemed ready to “pop,” I took a quick sleep till about 3:45 a.m. that night, and visited the ewes to see if anything else was happening. All was settled, so I went back to the house. Knowing Connie would be a bit restless, I gently stirred her and whispered, “four o’clock and all is well.” As I poured myself and sipped a wee dram of Scotch whisky to get back to sleep, I thought of those old town criers who called out something like that ages ago. I thought it must have helped our ancestors sleep much easier knowing no thieves were about and no houses were on fire.

The call of the purple finch does the same for my heart now.

Mary Magdalene: The Easter Angel

The Easter Gospel: John 20:1-18

Very often, my wife, Connie, will see me growing cranky looking for something. She says, “What are you looking for?” And no sooner than I name the elusive thing, she finds it. And often it had been hiding in plain sight, right in front of my nose.

Mary Magdalene pulls the same trick here in this Gospel. The two chief male disciples of Jesus, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, hear her dire declaration that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, and nowhere to be found. They run to the tomb. They see only the empty grave clothes. Then at least the Beloved Disciple sees and believes. What he believes is not explicated here.

But Mary sees more, and her seeing turns quickly to action. First, she looks at the tomb where the two disciples had seen nothing but grave clothes. She sees two angels there. The Greek word is angelos, which is a messenger, who, if sent by God, is obviously special. These two don’t get to give their good news, only to ask her why she is weeping. Perhaps, as more typical of women, she gets especially personal, as well as emotional, and says through her tears, “They have taken away my Lord. And I don’t know where they have put him.”

Then she sees even more. She turns behind her and sees someone who looks to her like a gardener or watchman, who also puts her emotions to the test: “Woman, why are you weeping?” But, when he then calls out her name, she realizes who he is and calls out to Jesus as her Teacher.

Then Mary Magdalene becomes the angelos to the disciples–the verb used is angelousa. She carries the simple but profound Truth to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She adds Jesus’ equally simple but profound explanation : he is ascending to the Father God we all share. With the good news she carries Mary thus becomes the first Easter Evangelist and Angel.

So often my wife has rescued me from my frustration, seeing what I cannot see. So often she has blessed my life by being an angel of God’s grace that I have been missing. I hope I have done the same for her half as many times.

And how often the male-dominated hierarchy of the Church has impoverished itself by quenching the Holy Spirit charismata of women. In a church that in its infancy cherished women as patrons of mission, apostles, prophets, and leaders of house churches, the men, anxious for their own imagined prerogatives, and quick to conform to the patriarchy of the mainstream culture, turned their backs on angels among them.

For those who see current openings for female leadership as innovative, just remember that the abolition of slavery was also innovative in the life of the culture and of the church. Viva compassion-inspired innovation!!

I am proud that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, along with a number of other “woke” denominations, is trying to hearken now to the fuller implications of Mary’s message. May the awakening continue. After all, Easter means Christ is changing everything!

Take Virgin Mary Off The Pedestal

There is nothing worse than being put up on a pedestal. And there has perhaps been no one whose usefulness to humanity has been more misused than the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

When we hear this Gospel of St. Luke passage read (1:26-38) on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the strains of countless beautiful “Ave Marias” run through our minds. “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

And coupled with our First Lesson for this same Sunday (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), in which the prophet Nathan does what genuine prophets always do, and keeps the powerful humble and in check, we can appreciate Mary even more. King David is full of himself and thinks it about time he built his God a fabulous home place–a temple. But Nathan’s word of the Lord for David is that God is the Home Builder–he the Giver of Sanctuary–he is the Powerful One in anyone’s story. Therefore David would be better off not formulating plans, but rather getting in with God’s.

Then we hear Mary’s “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

She passes the test David flunked.

Could today’s “#me too” movement signal a change in the way we heed and respect women and their wisdom in our world? Could there be a better hero for anyone of any gender aspiring to be “religious” or “righteous than this young maiden?”

But making of Mary simply a hero–singing “Ave Maria,” and putting her high up on a pedestal, could mark the end of her usefulness as a servant of the Lord. Does she not ride out of backwater and suspicious Galilee and into our lives and our stories to turn our lives upside down?

Hero worship, including the veneration of saints, including the singing of “Ave Maria,” is a key part of what Søren Kierkegaard called “crowd Christianity.” It can be done as we remain spectators–as we remain passive. “I’m just little old me. This world is messed up. People are being bombed out of their homes. Addicts are made by the millions, just incidental collateral damage as the stocks in Big Pharma keep rolling along–but what can I do about all this?”

No. This gospel reading is meant to inspire and transform and challenge us. The power of the Most High is casting its shadow not just over Mary, but over each and every one of us. We are being addressed by angels who are telling us that the Lord is with us, and we too are highly favored and blessed. But there is work to be done.

The “Prayer of the Day” in our service book, Evangelical Worship, contains this phrase: “free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy.” That’s what real sin is. It puts road blocks in the way of God’s unimaginable  love.

God’s love is a relentless power that washes all over the world and splashes over all of us. There are plenty of jobs available.  Sin, on the other hand,  feeds on our inertia–our resistance to God’s love. Sin is singular before it is plural. It is always first a bad belief–a faith that we are not part of God’s revolution. It is all colored by our secret conviction of our own weakness and fear. All the resentment that feeds tyrants and their followers, is born of this weakness and fear. And then it rises up to obstruct God’s mercy.

Mary’s “Her am I, Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” is not to be marveled at. It is to be echoed. Mary and her angel are challenging us, provoking us, daring us to rise above our fears and self doubt. They are calling us to obstruct no longer, but instead, to ride the oncoming wave of God’s ever expanding and revolutionary justice and mercy.

Gordon Watt Clinic Set For April 26-29, 2018

Gordon Watt works with Rich Kane in previous visit to Heatherhope.

Gordon Watt works with Rich Kane in previous visit to Heatherhope.

The November 2-5, 2017 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt has come and gone. It was marked by terrific learning by all the handlers, progress by all of the dogs, and way too much hilarity on the field and around the meals. It is a marvelous thing when a bunch of people get so good at getting each others’ jokes that they don’t mind the cold wind and rain!

Now the next opportunity to learn with Gordon will be coming up Thursday through Sunday, April 26-29, 2018. So mark your calendars, and email John at heatherhopefarm@gmail.com if you want to be part of the action. Prices haven’t been set yet, but you can get your name in to be notified first.

Thanksgiving and Harvest

Give us this day our daily bread.

Late harvest, November 24, 2017. Photo by John

Late harvest, November 24, 2017. Photo by John

The word Jesus used, that we now pray as “daily,” is a mystery word. In all of ancient Greek literature it is only used in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of that model prayer our Lord gave us. So we have nothing to compare it to.

It might mean bread for the day. It might mean bread for tomorrow. It might mean the bread we need to survive–the bread that is necessary. Or, if old Jerome is right, it might mean “super-substantial” bread.

This time of year we look around and things appear not quite. It’s not summer. Not much autumn. Not yet winter. The leaves are almost all off of the trees. The ground freezes, then thaws, then freezes again. It snows, but then doesn’t.

Indeed, bread is what seems most on our minds. But not quite. Yet much more. The harvest in this part of the world is late in being brought in. The machines labor almost around the clock to finish the process of gathering. But it is more than beans and corn that we gather. Try as we might we cannot set our calendars and clocks by it. We cannot take it for granted.

It is far more than beans and corn. It is our sustenance for today and hope for tomorrow. It is what we cannot live without, and yet the cleverest scientists and engineers in the world could not make one bean or one kernel of corn let alone a single embryo to replace us if we starve this day.

Unless you give us this day; and unless you, by your giving, unlock our gratitude, we will perish.

Panic Is Not Pretty

Bilbo is the name of our gentle giant livestock guardian dog. His job is to defend the flock from the constant threat of coyotes and wandering dogs who go feral when they happen to get in with sheep.

Bilbo’s bark and the smell of his urine, has, so far, been quite enough to deter the coyotes at night and the dogs by day. But, while he can be a ferocious presence with his huge Pyrenees frame, and powerful, surprisingly fast stride, when it comes to people he is a pussycat. He will charge to the fence when an odd walker happens by, or when a biker dismounts and comes up to the fence along the road. But when he gets to the passer-by, he puts his feet up on the fence, wags his tail, and begs for a lick and to be petted.

And, though in his first year Bilbo used to periodically get excited and try to play with the sheep–something they definitely want no part of–he now simply walks gently alongside them, and is welcomed as a part of their family.

But twice now Bilbo has shown a different side of his personality. It happened first when a couple of the hands who were planting soybeans in part of our hay field reported that he had broken the chain of the pasture gate and gotten out. It may have been their actions that excited him, or it may have been the peels of thunder from a passing storm, but he indeed had pushed so hard on the gate that the chain snapped. He was now in the unfenced part of our farm.

When I got on my ATV and went out looking for him I quickly spotted him walking along the tree line that helps form the north border of our property. I called to him in a sweet tone as I approached him on the machine, but before I could get very near he picked up his pace. Suddenly he was running faster and faster. He went north, and I managed, in top gear on the ATV, to head him off. Then he turned south full tilt. I raced him, only to see him turn sharply west when I caught up. Now he was on a neighboring farm’s property and I raced again, bouncing violently on the rough field. Bilbo, by this time, was running right alongside several strands of a barbed-wire fence. After two aborted tries he fatigued just enough so that I was able to pinch him into the wire, jump off the quad bike, and grab his collar.

Whew! It was amazing just how wild he had become, and just how fast he could run. I was up to top gear on the ATV and just barely able to catch up with him, even after a good mile and a half run.

Thank the Lord I had my handy flip-phone with me. I got hold of my wife and she came around with our Toyota Highlander, and we got Bilbo up for the ride home.

We decided then that it was the thunder that set the whole thing off. But we were wrong.

A few weeks later and a change of routine in the sheep barn made me slip up this time. No thunder, but I brought some dog food and sheep mineral into the barn to put in barrels before moving Bilbo to the pasture. But in all that back and forth I had left the service door of the barn open and forgot about it. Then I let Bilbo out of his spot in the feedlot, forgetting about the open service door. Again he was out and strolling along the tree line. Again I got my ATV and tried to get near to call him to me. Again he set off, and again he went faster and faster. This time I had him again along a barbed wire fence and tried to pinch him in, but he had learned. And he just bobbed and weaved, and kept going. I tried the same maneuver several times and he got round me and kept barreling along.

And this time his journey went on and on until he reached a paddock with several horses, owned by good neighbor-friends of ours.

Bilbo, who was already running mindlessly, now became even more excited. I tried to speak firmly, but less urgently to him, because that tactic seemed to have worked to settle him when, as a youngster, he chased after sheep. But these horses were big. And they pranced, and they bucked, and they whinnied. And it was all a pile of over-stimulation to this giant who wasn’t about to settle back into gentleness.

And as Bilbo’s panic morphed, my panic became almost unbearable. “Are the neighbor’s home? Will they hate Bilbo and his owner? Will they call the police? If they come out with a gun, what should I do? I’ll tell them to shoot Bilbo, that’s what. And will my aging heart be able to take all of this?”

I ducked under the fencing–actually more like crawled under the fencing on my two arthritic legs that complain loudly when I try to bend them. I tried to head Bilbo off, but he is younger and much more fit.

And what about the horses? How will they accept me? One of them slipped on ice and fell on its side. Yes I would gladly shoot Bilbo now. Then one came straight at me. Would it rear up and kick me senseless? Would Bilbo run it right over me?

Thank God the horse brushed by me and let me live.

But the whole mess didn’t settle down. Not for a long, long, long time. After Bilbo got close enough to one horse to bite at its tail, it turned on him and fought back. That was a good thing as Bilbo, while he kept chasing, did so at a much more respectful distance. I even managed to make him think just a bit and the distances grew and the demolition derby slowed down. When Bilbo left the paddock I dove under the fence and tried lying on my back and rolling in the grass laughing and calling to him. Sometimes, you see, dogs get curious, and you can trigger their play instinct. I think Native Americans even used this tactic to attract wild animals on the Great Plains.

Well, it didn’t work on Bilbo. He just disappeared around a barn. Did he go into the barn? I heard a bit of a crash and a rumble, and there was an overhead door that was raised just enough for a big dog to get in; so I went inside and hoped to trap Bilbo there. But no. I heard another clatter and went back out and around another corner, to find more horses in more paddocks! And yes, Bilbo was flying about, much more limber in ducking under fences, and getting a great ruckus going. There were several metal barns there and when I called to Bilbo the echoes just made the whole scene more absurd.

I dodged more horses. I said more prayers that the horses wouldn’t kill me and Bilbo wouldn’t hurt them. And it was just me and horses and Bilbo–no neighbors, and no time to call in reinforcements–and I was running out of ideas. I hadn’t a clue as to how to put a stop to this whole spiral of chaos. My knees ached more and more, and I slowed my pace of walking on turned up, frozen ground and doing belly-flops under horse fencing, until, finally, it happened. Bilbo turned in my direction and tried to slip through a narrow opening between a feeder and the corner of the barn, and me. So I was able to reach out and grab him. Just.

My heart was pounding. I was hot and sweaty. I stood there with a death grip on Bilbo’s collar, and tried to breathe and collect myself. I then waddled with him over to my ATV and got the chain lead to put on his collar. He still wasn’t back to his gentle giant mind, so I was super cautious as I phoned Connie to once again “come rescue me.”

I’m a slow learner, so it took hours for my mind to settle and to deduce that, if it wasn’t thunder or field hands who had set Bilbo off, it must be something else. So, when he escapes he strolls along the tree line. So, when I come after him with the ATV he bolts and doesn’t look back. It must be the ATV itself! He does not like being near it or the tractor when I work to fertilize or to top off the fast growing grass. No matter how sweet or how firm I might plead with him, if I have that ATV and try to get near, he will go into full flight mode.

So, wouldn’t you know it, just a few days after the awful mess with the horses, we came back from doing a sheepdog demonstration and were going in different directions to exercise the Border Collies, feed rams, etcetera. I looked for Bilbo in the field and assumed Connie had taken him to the sheep barn to feed him, and I backed the stock trailer to the pasture gate to return the sheep we had used in the demonstration. Then I casually opened the pasture gate; and as I turned, I could see out of the corner of my eye Bilbo flash by me.

Oh, dear Lord no! He will be off to the horses for sure.

But I said not a word. I did not dash off to the ATV. Instead, I went into the house and got a big hunk of smelly salmon roll from the little fridge we keep for animal meds and treats. I tore the wrapping back so that about half the huge roll was exposed, went out into the yard, saw Bilbo there, and tossed it right at him. He grabbed it in his mouth and took off. But fortunately he made a bee line to the barn door to enjoy his catch. By the grace of God, Connie was there and let Bilbo in. So we had him.

Panic is not a pretty thing. Not in a dog. Not in a slow learning dog owner. But thank God for the opportunity God give us to learn from our mistakes.

Turn the Page: Reflections on Lessons for Pentecost 24 A

The very first time I assisted with leading worship at my home congregation the very first thing I was assigned to do was to go to the altar and read aloud the introit from the big book lying there. I approached. I looked down at the open book, expecting to see the proper introit. But it wasn’t there.

I froze in place. I wanted to get it right. What a fool! I stared at that page. My knees wobbled a bit. Then I heard my pastor whispering from the side of the chancel, “Turn the page.”

Duh! Of course. Just turn the page.

This Sunday’s first reading from Zephaniah–1:7, 12-18 can leave us wondering what kind of God we have. This God says he will punish those who “rest complacently in their dregs,” saying to themselves that the Lord is completely irrelevant. But that punishment is described in way too much detail: “a day of wrath…distress and anguish…ruin and devastation…darkness and gloom.” Sinners will “walk like the blind” and their “blood shall be poured out like dust.”

Of course in our times the belief is waxing that the concept of God is nothing more than a relic of an ignorant past, and that religion itself is way worse than irrelevant, but downright poisonous. And passages like this confirm the notion that the biblical image of God is characterized by mindless brutality.

But turn the page! Turn back and you will see that the wrath of God that the prophet wants to give voice to is a needed rebuke of those who were entrusted with leadership only to betray it. And turn ahead to the end of the book and you will hear the prophet call for a song to celebrate a God who takes away judgment, turns back enemies, gives a swift kick to oppressors and turns back disaster. All of this is because the Lord does what good leaders are supposed to do: lifts up the weak and the fallen. The Lord gathers people and brings them home (Zephaniah 3:14-20).

Our gospel reading for this week, Matthew 25:14-30, is also a downer. A master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to slaves. Two of these slaves make investments that turn out to be lucrative and the master is pleased. A third one, rightly fearful of the hardness of character of the master, buries the wealth he has been entrusted with and returns it when the master returns. The master concedes that this man has judged his master rightly to be rather mean spirited. He should also concede that his slave has not run off and has demonstrated great honesty. But instead, he deems the slave “worthless” and commands that he be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

If we get stuck staring at this page and trying to turn this parable into an allegory where everything symbolizes something else, then the master must be God–and a hell of a god he must be. Quick tempered. Vengeful. Completely lacking in understanding or compassion.

But when we turn the page we read in the very  next parable that Jesus has a deeper kind of investment in mind. He tells the parable in Matthew 25:31-46 of the judgment of nations–of peoples. One kind of people are in tune with their king. They give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and good company to the prisoners. Simply put, they see pain and they reach out and touch it.

When we turn the page we see that the investment Jesus is urging upon us is the investment of our Maker’s compassion for others. It should be a first principle with us. If our religion or our own hang-ups should make us fearful, and more concerned with our own image or our own standing before God, we should quickly cast those demons off and cling to the assurance of the gospel: that God in Christ has already taken care of all we are obsessed with. God has already clothed us in the righteousness of Christ. So we can see the hunger, nakedness, loneliness and bondage that our neighbors are suffering.

And the beauty of that frightening parable of the talents is a startling wake-up call. It is a warning that sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. For years men in power in entertainment, government, churches, and elsewhere, have known of the abuse, harassment, diminishment, and exploitation of women. But for the sake of preserving an illusion of wholesomeness, they have kept silent. For the fear of awakening demons they can’t handle they have kept passive. And because of the silence and the sweeping of things under the carpet, and the burying of the gift of compassion, the horrors have festered and multiplied. People have lost faith in their leaders and in God.

We must turn the page.

We must, indeed, turn the page of the Bible and look for the Christ who saves us and enables us and forgives us, and who died on the cross for us; and we must keep that at the vital center of our interpretation of God’s Word.

We must turn the page of the Bible and accept that it not only is our authority, but that it also authorizes us and calls us to think new gospel thoughts for a new day.

We must turn the page as pastors and preach two sermons on Matthew 25:14-30. In one we must acknowledge what Jesus probably meant: It is serious stuff when we bury our talents–when we sin by omission and fail to share God’s love with the victims of evil all around us. But we should also go beyond the Bible itself and preach that it is wrong to have slaves, wrong to use dogma to clobber others, and wrong to punish without mercy or wish punishment on our enemies. It is wrong to try to force a binary worldview on the analogical world we live in.

If we ourselves are to stand before our Lord, we must admit that we are the lazy and worthless ones, we are the sinners, and we have no choice but to cry out for mercy, and for the chance to do better toward women, toward all the victims of injustice and violence, and toward the hungry, naked and imprisoned ones in our world. We must follow our Lord in fearlessly touching the pain of others.

Reflections on Lessons Pentecost 23 A

We had a spirited discussion today in our weekly Bible study of area pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It was fed by a feeling of dread about recent signs of sickness in our society. One of our number put it something like this. “Why is it that we are Christians, and so we should be animated by compassion for others, yet when sisters and brothers call out for understanding and help, others turn away, often meeting their pleas with scorn?”

The issue topmost on the mind of this colleague was the issue of sexual abuse and harassment of women. Of course, we also expressed concern about the reaction of many whites to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But it could have been any of a list of other concerns as well: LGBT rights, reproductive options, gun violence, mental health issues or the needs of the disabled.

A subtext in all of this was cowardice–the cowardice on the part of politicians as they avoid making difficult decisions to respond to suffering because of pressure from special interests (like the NRA), but, above all, the cowardice of Christians as they avoid the necessary engagement with vital issues of social justice.

My own opinion about all of these concerns is that leaders of the church, from pastors up to the level of our most senior theologians and bishops and other ecclesiastical officials, must first and foremost do justice as ambassadors of Christ.

We live in an age when secularism and pluralism are in vogue. But if the disciples of Christ strive to speak the language of the marketplace, they are in danger of forgetting the language of the gospel. Then there is a void. People inside and outside of the church lose their literacy. We may be left with activism that has no context, lives toward no particular vision, is unaware of its story, and has then no staying power.

The Gospel lesson for this week is Matthew 25.1-13. The scene is the second and main half of a first century Jewish wedding when the groom takes the bride to his home, to become part of a new family. The audience of Jesus would have understood that this point in the extended wedding ritual would have been the most festive. The early Christian audience of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood believers as the bride and Jesus as the groom. But the issue in this parable is the virgins whose simple job was to be ready for the party. Foolish virgins don’t keep oil for their lamps and so they aren’t ready to party. Wise virgins keep fueled.

My favorite seminary professor was Doctor Frederick Danker, known affectionately as “Red Fred” for both the color of his hair and his fiery personality. He spoke of the Christian life and the Kingdom of God as being part of the “Great Party.” Waiting wisely means leaning into the party that has already begun to get into full swing. And that is the way Christians keep their courage to speak out for the voiceless and stand up and stand fast for the powerless.

Our second reading this coming Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 where the Apostle Paul says we are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Death has lost its power over us. If we keep our lamps oiled we can stare down Death. If we take advantage of the nourishment God provides for us in the church, we can be confident in the face of social evil.

The first reading this Sunday is Amos 5.18-24. It sounds a warning about perhaps the most fundamental error of social activism and our religion: self-righteousness. How many would-be prophets and agitators lose their effectiveness and perhaps their souls by getting so caught up in pointing the finger at others that they become blind to their own need of repentance? That’s what Amos’ audience has done. The first part of the book that bears his name is a litany of warnings of impending judgment aimed at Israel’s neighbors. But then the prophet moves from preachin’ to meddlin’ by saying that judgment is coming also for Israel herself. Then he writes, in our lesson, that the Day of the Lord, that is so eagerly awaited by Israelites as a day of judgment for “those people out there,” will also be a judgment against the injustice tolerated and perpetrated by Israelites.

Now is the time for Christians to be bold and public and loud and proud to bear the name of Christ. This is the time to be not just political activists, but Christian activists. Today is the day for us all to be politically active and not quiescent. But it is vital that we do so as Christians, directing people to the fuel of their faith. We need to be hard at work studying the Bible, praying, partaking in the Eucharist, repenting and receiving absolution, comforting and encouraging our fellow believers and opening ourselves to the strength they give us.

We need to do all these “churchy” things so that we can keep our lamps lit in this dark and dangerous time. And so that we can be living it up in the Great Party! It’s coming soon! It’s already among us!