Advent 3 C: The Ideal of Ordinary in These Extraordinary Times

The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are

Old Testament      Zephaniah 3:14–20

Psalm                    Isaiah 12:2–6

New Testament     Philippians 4:4–7

Gospel                   Luke 3:7–18

We might think these extraordinary pandemic times call for extraordinary people. We might be tempted to hold our very human leaders to super-human standards. Why can’t they give us immediate, simple answers? Why can’t they reignite the economy even while the supply chains are broken?

We might be disappointed and anxious when we ourselves cannot rise to this extraordinary occasion.

And expectation of heroism is a persistent and pernicious habit when it comes to spirituality. It is a grave mistake to believe the gospel entails the transformation of humans into a super race? And when we start with the notion that this is what God promises, is it any wonder that we feel discouraged when no matter how hard we pray about it, we can’t make it to sainthood? We either get so good at covering up our sins that we fool even ourselves, or we fall into despair.

The hoards of people flocked out to the wild banks of the Jordan River expecting something extraordinary indeed. Word was that this was the One foretold by Malachi: Elijah reborn to usher in the final days of God’s reckoning. And when they heard John’s brassy call to prepare the way of the Lord by showing seriousness—by not only repenting of sin, but bearing the fruits of repentance—the spiritually thirsty cried out in response, “What fruits do you mean? What should we do?”

John’s answer: “Be decent.” Yes, the examples he gives, in Luke 3:11-14, demonstrate that John’s idea of the gospel of forgiveness is that it is the power to free us simply to be the human beings that God designed us to be. The gospel means you can share in the manna knowing more will come. That frees you to realize simple human decency in your life. The gospel means you don’t have to cheapen yourself by cheating or bullying others. You are freed by your repentance and God’s forgiveness to be “satisfied with your wages,” and satisfied with your part in the routines of life in this world. That’s just simple human decency.

Note what John doesn’t say about bearing the fruits of repentance. He doesn’t call on people to join him in the wilderness to become a saint or martyr. And he doesn’t charge them to do what Jesus does. Jesus is the Messiah who will baptize with fire and winnow people. There are things Jesus will do because he is the Christ, the Son of God, and able to do super-human things. Jesus is not an example to emulate, but a Savior to follow. So, we just build on forgiveness by being decent, ordinary, every-day human beings. That’s what God designed us to do.

And I, for one, would love seeing and hearing from more ordinarily decent human beings on the streets, in the restaurants, on the airplanes, at the school-board meetings, in congress, on social media, and everywhere else. Fighting this pandemic and moving forward to more meaningful action on gun violence, climate change, political division, and all our other crises, would be much easier if we all would strive for this kind of ordinariness in these extraordinary times.

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Max and Being Home

Being at home is essential to being. We humans aren’t human without it; and dogs aren’t real dogs without a home either.

We do well to bear this truth about humanity when we think of the homeless in encampments in our cities and when we think of the wanderers desperate to immigrate all around the world.

Max gives us a lesson. Good friend Anne loves him, but realized she had many dogs, and Max wasn’t enjoying the intense pressure of herding dog trials. So Anne sacrificed when she let Max go.

Gordon and Kerry had put a great deal of effort into training Max and helping him find his place. But they saw a good fit for Max at Heatherhope Farm since we worried that our dogs were getting old and may not be able to do the work of moving stock. So Gordon and Kerry arranged for Max to make a move.

Now it is up to us at Heatherhope. We need to understand how confused a dog can be trying to fit in and trying to understand the ways and the words of a new family.

But Max is full of life and full of gifts to give as we work to welcome him. Here he is on his first full day at Heatherhope. And after this picture was taken we introduced him to our four other Border Collies and to Bilbo, the guardian dog. We even had him around the farm with the ATV. When we have built our trust in one another Max will be introduced to the flock so that he can move them between field and barnyard.

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Advent 2 C: Omicron as Refining Fire

The readings for this Second Sunday of Advent are

Old Testament      Malachi 3:1–4

Psalm                    Luke 1:68–79

New Testament     Philippians 1:3–11

Gospel                   Luke 3:1–6

This past week a wave of panic has swept the globe. We know it now by the label Omicron. (Silver lining: we are slowly learning the Greek alphabet.)

We like to think of our nation’s President as the Leader of the Free World, and by far the most powerful person on earth. Yet his call to be concerned about this newest variant of Covid-19, but not to panic, has persuaded few. The welcome mats of the airports have been rolled back. The securities markets have grown dizzy on their roller coaster. And people the world over have held their heads in their hands despairing that life will ever get back to normal.

But is normal where we want to get?

Normal is fighting for power. Normal is flight and fight. Normal is accumulating more stuff than we can ever wisely use. Normal is every nation for itself.

The world needs the church more than ever. But the church has work to do. Despite our attempt to take the penitence out of Advent—coloring it blue instead of purple, we have not outlived our need for God’s refining fire. Malachi reminds us of it. He says that God is sending a messenger to prepare a path for God by enabling repentance:

The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

God is being ironic. The target audience for this message certainly does not “delight” in God or in God’s messengers. Even the priests are proving unfaithful. Priests and people  have decided that God is a non factor in life, and that therefore the line between good and evil behavior has been erased. They have wearied God insisting that all the evidence of history is that God is either powerless to enforce justice, or God indeed prefers evil (Malachi 2:17).  They have, in other words, decided that there is no real covenant relationship between God and people. God cannot act out of compassion, or there is no such thing as true compassion left in the fabric of the cosmos.

So, Malachi announces the coming of a heaven-sent Messenger who will refine away such  despair. And we, the church, see John the Baptist as just such a Messenger. He calls all people to the baptism of repentance as the only legitimate way of preparing for Jesus, the Messiah.

We, the church, are tempted to slight the penitential message of John. We change purple to blue. We want Advent to be uplifting. We want to hang the tinsel, shop for gifts, and chase all the darkness away with candles and strings of colored lights.

Just so, we the nations of the world, talk constantly now about our options for crushing the virus. But our desire to “get back to normal” sabotages it all. We prefer easy answers that require nothing from us. That’s why closing the borders is the first thing that comes to mind. Failing that, perhaps we can just take some Ivermectin. Some of us just hope for a tweaked vaccine booster.

But the single thing that will beat the virus is if we all work together: if we stop beating up on our public health workers and the decision makers in schools and governments, local and national; if we stop hoarding vaccines; if we stop jockeying to win the next election; if we stop being so “patriotic” and nationalistic. Only global cooperation will lead to herd immunity, because the whole human race is the only herd the virus recognizes.

So, is the Omicron variant a tool of the Messenger? Is it yet one more flame in the Refiner’s Fire?

For millennia Hindus have respected Shiva as creator who also destroys. Is not this the ancient and profound wisdom that the ongoing work of building up the new requires tearing down the old?

The Bible too proclaims this truth. It is full of talk of fire. Our God is said to be a jealous God whose nose gets hot and burns with a fire. But this is the destruction that creates. It is the kind of  fire that we see at work in the forge of the  blacksmith and the factory. It refines precious metals. It melts things to remove impurities and to combine weaker elements to make something new, like bronze or iron or steel. And so God’s fire destroys the old in us to make something stronger and better and new.

The virus is killing us because of the old. The selfishness of individuals, political parties, tribes, and nations, is the old mortal sin that keeps us from thinking anew and working together—that is the old. A world that can cooperate when called for—a world where people agree to quarantine, or socially distance, or wear masks, or share vaccines, or do whatever it takes—a world where compassion trumps selfish pride—that is the new that God is calling us to.

Of course, at an even more fundamental level it is our cynicism and faithlessness that is the oldest and most rotten impurity of all. We must remember the covenant of Noah—the way God has bound God’s self to the human race God created. We must renew our faith in God’s eternal Promise of Love. Repentance is the way we prepare. But the most precious gift of the Christmas that awaits us is the Christ-child’s guarantee of the Promise.

Advent is our season for understanding the Refiner’s Fire, and for renewing willingness to die and rise again with Christ and embrace the new way of living that the cross leads us to.

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“It’s Life!” Happy New Sheep Year!

Do you want a hint about the secret to hopefulness in dismal, pandemic times? Talk to a shepherd or a shepherd’s family looking forward to lambing time. They may anticipate days or even weeks of hard work and sleepless days and nights, lambing hundreds of ewes. Yet, I once asked a shepherds wife what could cause a shepherd to be so in love with lambing, despite it all. She relied quickly and simply: “It’s life!”

The ovine new year of life for our farm started nine days ago when I returned from Margaret and Graham Phillipson’s Littledale Farm in Richland Center, Wisconsin, with our new rental ram. It started the countdown to Eastertide lambing here at Heatherhope.

Here is what the moment of his introduction to our small flock looked like.

Our new ram starts his work with his nose. The ewes are shy at first, but as the shepherdess once said, “Where there’s a willy there’s a way!” Photo by John

Of course, Covid-19 and other agents of death sometimes seem to have the upper hand. But Connie and I know that the gift of life from the Creator is impossible to stop. So we await new life of all kinds that will happen for us this coming spring and summer! And so, we hope in the Lord.

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Advent 1 C: Heads-up Christianity

The lessons for the First Sunday of Advent are:

Old Testament      Jeremiah 33:14–16

Psalm                    Psalm 25:1–10

New Testament     1 Thessalonians 3:9–13

Gospel                   Luke 21:25–36

Today I had yet another conversation about yet another person quitting their calling because of nastiness. I have heard nurses, doctors, teachers, school board members, civil servants, and politicians, say that they are giving up because they have been worn down by the insults and threats hurled at them by the very people they are trying to serve.

Today the story was about the resignation of  yet another pastor who has been hounded by critics. And when I hear of this I know that the congregation where a handful of nasty people hounded a woman of God out of her calling, there will be countless festering wounds in this moment’s wake. Many people will see that, in the name of Christ, very un-Christ-like things were said and done. Many people will thus be disillusioned and discouraged about their faith. They will be tempted to join the growing ranks of the “unaffiliated”—those who would like to follow Christ, but who are put off by the horrible things Christ’s followers do.

But who are the true followers? And what is Christianity really, other than a life set like flint against the demons that haunt all corners of human life, including the church? Yes, true Christianity is, and always will be, a minority religion. It is a hard thing to keep following Christ and caring for others, when people hate you for it. And so, it will always require Christians to dig in and resist the urge to lay down that cross.

And this is what the Bible was written to address. Our fathers and mothers in the faith wandered as aliens, were enslaved, were attacked and invaded, put under siege, taken into exile, hated and betrayed by members of their own families, shunned and persecuted. The more they were faithful to the God of love, the more they suffered.

During this regular period of the end of one church year and the beginning of a new one, Christians contemplate the costs. They take a long hard look at what it means to live through crises. They consider both penultimate and ultimate ends and new beginnings.  

In our Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36) we hear Jesus’ advice after he has spoken of the penultimate ending of the fall of Jerusalem—the stuff of warfare and forced migrations and desperation. Then he shifts to the end of all human history that will come with cosmic signs, the raging of the primordial sea of chaos, global distress, and overwhelming fear like the world has never experienced. But the point our Lord is trying to make is that the end is the beginning. God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth requires this remaking of everything. And faith in this promise will be needed so that we can receive God-given strength to stiffen our backbones, be alert, raise our heads, and stand fast.

In times such as these our redemption is near.

The nasty ones at our school board meetings and in our congregations have something worse than blood on their hands. They discourage. They take big bites, often lethal, out of the courage for living that others need. They teach the lesson that no good deed goes unpunished, and that if someone tries to love and serve others they will get their teeth kicked in.

So, the only way for any of us to go on caring is to stiffen our backs and keep our heads up. This is the life of those who give a damn. This is the life of the Christian. It is necessary to keep on keeping on—to endure—to bear up to suffering for love’s sake—for Christ’s sake.

And, though such people will always be a minority, they will always be many, and they will always hold onto one another and lift one another up.

So, every ending is a new beginning. Every battle prepares us for the Big Finale. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

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Christ the King B: “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody”

The lessons for Christ the King, year B, are:

Old Testament       Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14

Psalm                    Psalm 93

New Testament      Revelation 1:4b–8

Gospel                   John 18:33–37

Bob Dylan published a song in 1979, during the peak years of his more religiously expressive period, that holds a crucial lesson for our times. The verses asserted that you may be of any sort of class or status, and then the refrain repeated this fundamental truth:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In today’s America a dominant refrain, spoken forcefully by the Republican Party and people like Green Bay Packer star Aaron Rogers, is “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.” In other words, life is all about “bodily autonomy.”

But Dylan shares the insight, You aren’t as autonomous as you think. You are listening to someone. You choose to believe someone. You march to someone’s drum. So be aware—it makes all the difference whom it is you follow and serve, and sometimes your so-called autonomy is really just serving the devil in disguise.

The lessons for Christ the King Sunday are all about this choice, and who it is who truly makes the world go ‘round, who this world belongs to, and who is worthy of devotion,

One of my favorite Old Testament teachers used to talk about the arrogant usurpers of this world by asking, “Who died and left you in charge?”  Today, in America, the ones who want to step in for God and put themselves up as the next and best messiahs, are the ones who most often trumpet the cause of autonomy and personal freedom and rights. That is the Big Lie of today’s autocrats and potential autocrats. It is because they care so much for your freedom that they then brook no criticism, respect the humanity of no one who gets in their way, and allow no true discussion of solutions.

It is instructive to consider that each of our readings for this Sunday come from a time when despots were on the ascent. For Daniel it was Antiochus IV who wanted to be called Epiphanes, or god made manifest. This king of the second century Seleucid empire took his humiliation by the Romans out on the Judeans, and reacted to their resistance by suppressing the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

For Jesus it was both Pilate and the Empire he represented, and the chief priests who had that Empire as both overlord and grand manipulator.

For John, the author of Revelation, it was again the Empire that ruled the Mediterranean world through ruthless military might, economic oppression, and a system that depended on slavery and coercion.

Each of the readings has something to say about who has both the might and the right to rule this world. But the one to focus on here is that first chapter of Revelation.

John’s purpose in writing his letters and his visions for the churches of western Asia Minor was to encourage them not to cave in to the pressures to assimilate to such an arrogant and oppressive regime and its beast of an autocratic regime. Of course the Caesar and his minions promoted their own version of the Big Lie by swearing that they cared only for the people, and that they were the creators and protectors of the Pax Romana—the Roman peace. With their might, they said, they brought prosperity and security, even as they enslaved millions.

But, John writes, believers must choose a better King to serve. John points out that Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth [who is worthy of being served because he] “freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” This is the One who has both the might and the right to be served—to receive “the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

So, there is no alternative. None of us truly have the option of  “bodily autonomy.” None of us can live long by championing nothing but our own personal rights. In the final analysis, none of us are entitled to anything. We all have to choose whom to follow and serve. And the One entitled to be served is the Christ who died to bring people together, not drive them apart.

Today we must renounce the Big Lie that America was built on nothing but personal freedom and individual rights and responsibilities. We must admit that this nation and all decent human life is built not on personal freedom or autonomy, but freedom from the sin of self-centeredness and for a culture of service of one another.

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Pentecost 25 B: Beyond Dystopia

The readings for this 25th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Daniel 12:1–3

Psalm                    Psalm 16

New Testament     Hebrews 10:11–14 (15–18) 19–25

Gospel                   Mark 13:1–8

Christians have a wondrous asset to share with the world. It is the confidence that God’s love is so strong that it will carry us beyond the waiting dystopia.

We anchor ourselves anew in this each year at this time. Our Scripture lessons in church force us to think of the death of us individuals and the death of our secure institutions. This Sunday is a lead-up to the bridgework days of Christ the King and First Advent, which follow in quick succession. If we go with the flow of trying to skip these days of dark thoughts and rush ahead to the glitter of the Santa and his reindeer, then we miss the profound insights.

And, in my soon-to-be-marked 74 years on earth there was never a foreboding of impending dystopia like today’s. If we survive the political nastiness and racial divide, our democracy will collapse to be replaced either by state or tech-giant oppression and it’s “surveillance culture.” And if we can withstand that, the climate crisis will surely make life on earth a living hell.

But the first few verses of Daniel, which start off our readings for this week mark perhaps the most profound shift in spiritual thinking by the people of the Abrahamic religions. The people of our Bible were used to thinking of a God who cares for everyone. Psalm 82 pictures their uniqueness. In a world where people thought about gods as a bunch of mob bosses dividing up the world into pieces of turf, and where gods thought of little than their own power, the faithful who prayed Psalm 82 insisted those gods were now dying off to make room for the One True God of compassion.

But, still, the people of Israel, and of Psalm 82, thought the best we could hope for from this guardian God was long life and lots of children. If people are faithful to the Israel this God protected, then things would go well for them and their kids, right up to the day they died and went to Sheol, or the underworld.

But by the time of the last six chapters of Daniel were written this hope for a comfy life were shattered. Things didn’t go well for good people. In fact, under the reign of Antiochus IV, the Hellenized King of the Seleucid empire that ruled Israel, many Jews suffered death for simply trying to keep to the laws of Moses. The faithful were dying young.

So, God revealed a profound new insight. The author of Daniel may even have been influenced by some of the ideas of Persian Zoroastrianism, and the thought experiments about eternal life and immortality coming out of Greek philosophy and religion. (God is not hemmed in by our parochialism, and is big enough to do that sort of thing.) But wherever that new thought comes from, it is surely right there in stark form in Daniel 12:1-3.

No, it doesn’t matter how hellish life on earth gets, there is still hope. Why? Because God is still our Guardian. Here in Daniel God does it for Israel through the “great prince protector” angel assigned for the purpose. And God is able to raise people to exercise that guardianship in the form of judgment. The very good become shining angel-stars themselves. The very bad, who succumb to pressure, renounce their faith, and go along with sacrifice to other gods, will be relegated to shame and contempt.

It does sound like a vindictive idea, but it is an idea that gets the ball rolling. Full-fledged ideas of heaven and hell will be worked out later. But here, in Daniel 12, a New Worldview arises.

And worldview is everything.

Imagine how our lives change with worldview. I look around and think the bedrock of our American dominant worldview is entitlement. The elite feel entitled to have the world in the palm of their hands through apps that make things run like clockwork. Their overloads hand all this over to them exacting the mere price of profiting obscenely from the control they now possess of people’s identities. The denizens of the underclass then resent that arrangement, but have no means to resist it other than to assert their entitlement to do as they please with what little they have—their guns, their rights to their own truths, and their ability to say no to vaccines, face masks, and any rules or authority they dislike.

This entitlement worldview seems new, but it is very old because it is just as constricted as Israel’s before Daniel. It’s all about long life and, perhaps, children. There are no consequences beyond tomorrow for the worldview of entitlement. There are no consequences for forgetting the wider picture of human community or the fullness of creation.

The New Worldview God gives us in Daniel 12 is about a life beyond the horizon of tomorrow and beyond the horizon of me.

Daniel’s idea of resurrection being a gift to Israel from her special guardian angel seems crassly ethno-centric. It’s easy to get ethno-centric when your ethnic group is being ethnically cleansed. But “all the nations of the earth” belong to the God of Psalm 82, and this God is a compassionate guardian of all ethnicities and their planet–especially of the favoring the “weak and needy.”

The sheer idea of the resurrection is necessary, but not sufficient, for the Christian worldview proclaimed in the church now through Christ the King and early Advent. The God we worship does not call us as entitled, self-centered selves to share the life among the angels. It is the God who delivers the weak from the wicked, and who has compassion for all vulnerable people, who has the power to carry us beyond the ugly dystopia that awaits us. We will meet this God in a manger, fleeing persecution, pounding the pathways of Palestine, and dying on the cross of Calvary.

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Pentecost 23 B: The Cost of Love

The readings for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 6:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 119:1–8

New Testament     Hebrews 9:11–14

Gospel                   Mark 12:28–34

October 31 is Reformation Sunday. Though many congregations of many denominations do not observe this festival day that Lutherans cherish, the Gospel lesson for the regular 23rd Sunday after Pentecost is very apt for this time of the church on earth. It is a time for a Reformation of fresh revival of what it is to be Christian. It is time to bring the church back to centering itself on love. But love costs.

Behold the attack that the church is suffering today! All around the world people are fighting against such things as mask mandates, vaccine mandates, the teaching of inclusion and racial equity and fairness, common sense gun safety laws, and even the saving of the planet through environmental protections. And the ones fighting against all these things see themselves as super patriotic, super traditional, and especially super-religious.

Of course they love. They love country, family, and God. And so they label all of the above things that are intended to care for others and planet earth as socialist, liberal, deep state, Marxist, and, anti-God, and perhaps worst of all, democrat.

Baptist pastor and college professor Ryan Burge, in his analysis of recent surveys, has pointed out that the word “Evangelical” used to mean people who believed in the divinity of Jesus, the importance of a “born again” experience. But today a very high percentage of those who have opted to call themselves Evangelical don’t even go to church; and many of them aren’t Protestant, and aren’t even Christian at all. So “Evangelical” has become just a brand or an identity that people assume because they ascribe to the kind of conservatism that Donald Trump proclaims. For these people Jesus isn’t nearly as important than political unity of thought and power.

This trend has empowered people on social media, in churches, at school board meetings and raging at Congress this past January 6 to claim to be on a crusade for Christ even while they deny the true cost of love.

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday of the Revised Common Lectionary—the one I claim as very apt also for Reformation purposes, is one about two ways of looking at cost. It is a lesson of reconciliation, because Mark notes that the scribes and priests of the Temple religious establishment were ones who opposed and eventually hated Jesus enough to kill him. But this scribe, who comes perhaps to trap Jesus in a religious faux pas, wisely shows himself  not far from the Kingdom of God.

One kind of cost is the heart of Temple worship: burnt offerings and sacrifices. But the scribe in question must face the bare fact that Jesus answers rightly when he says there are not one but two commands that are the of ultimate importance. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. And these two are truly only one single thing. “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

In other words, ritualized worship has its place—but it is actualized worship that is fundamental. We show our true hearts not when we say “Lord, lord,” but when we live out love for God by loving all those people God loves.

And actualized love costs us in ways that sin tempts us to avoid at all costs.

The way people today renounce, defame, and fight against diversity, equity, inclusion, and efforts to save the planet and save lives from Covid-19, are nothing new. They are just the latest manifestations of the same old sin—the sin of hating the pay the costs of repenting, taking responsibility, and turning to the Lord who says “Love me by loving your neighbor.”

To learn more we must turn to another version of this dialog about the love command in Luke 10:25-37. Here an expert on the religious law is said to be testing Jesus by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus parries by saying, “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer is again forced to admit the truth of what Jesus always teaches: Love God with your all, and your neighbor as yourself.

But like every foolish student who asks not “what do I get to learn,” but “what’s on the test,” the lawyer wants a short list. So he asks, “But who is my neighbor.” Jesus wants the lawyer to know love costs. Jesus gives no list. He gives no handy criteria that will allow the lawyer to parcel out his love sparingly—perhaps by protesting “charity starts at home.” Jesus describes a circle. “God is in the center, and you are part of the infinite circumference of the circle. Your job is to act like a neighbor to everyone else, including the ones you want to exclude, like the hated Samaritans.”

The Devil today, as always, seeks to destroy the reputation of Christ. He drives people from Christ by inventing a new pseudo-religion of “Evangelicalism,” which has nothing to do with the “Evangel” or the Good News of God’s universal love in Christ. And, at heart of the Devil’s method is the truth that love costs us something.

So,  now the Devil is arming people with the big lie that everything that is for the common good, whether it is climate commitments, environmental activism, social justice of any kind, mask or vaccine mandates—all of it is to be rejected because it takes from us our freedom. And the Devil is aided by this by our human frailty—our sinful tendency not want to pay the cost of love, not to repent of our wrongs, not to take responsibility for one another and for the common good.

The true church is not in decline. It is not weak. It may look like few, but the true church has always been a mighty minority in this world. It knows Jesus’ gift of salvation to us came at great cost for him. And by the same token our faith means we let go of our liberty to put ourselves at the service of others. We let go of our own rights and privileges so that we can receive life in abundance as we become part of God’s circle of all humanity.

But the church must always be reforming—always returning to its best angels—and make a stand. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have always been at the heart of the church’s identity. Love of God and love of neighbor are not two things but one. They describe the Circle of Life.

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Pentecost 22 B: Daily Resurrection and the Plague

The readings for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Jeremiah 31:7–9

Psalm                    Psalm 126

New Testament     Hebrews 7:23–28

Gospel                   Mark 10:46–52

I resolve to recite to myself the last three verses of Psalm 126 every time I recover from watching PBS Newshour and the heartache going in the world:

      Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5     May those who sow in tears

reap with shouts of joy.

6     Those who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

The Covid plague; the hypocrisy of government actions on climate change, one party’s synchronized sabotage of voting rights, the way despots use sickness and starvation as weapons, etc., etc. All of it buries me in grief.

The first four verses of Psalm 126 address the BIG PICTURE of Zion and the nations.  It is not easy to translate some of the verbs in the Psalm; so it is not possible to be certain of the historical perspective. Is this joy over the Lord’s restoration in the past, or hopeful anticipation of future salvation? But Psalms are like that—purposely vague so that anyone at any time can pray them.

Then, the last few verses turn to the quotidian. That’s a fancy word from the Latin. In the Lord’s Prayer in that language there is the petition, “Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, which means, “Give us this day our daily, or quotidian, or daily bread.”

If we feel buried in grief over what is happening in our world and to our loved ones, then we are human. It is proof we are alive. But, then we have the potential of the new growth that is a daily dose of resurrection.

Luther had the insight that this is the way baptism keeps working in our lives. In our daily repentance we die to our old selves and rise again to our new.

But the emphasis in this psalm is not on our repentance but God’s. The most common word for the act of repentance in the Hebrew Bible is shoove which has the basic meaning of “turn.” In the first verse of this psalm it is the Lord who turns around the fortunes of Zion, or Jerusalem, so dramatically that people can’t keep from laughing and screaming out loud.

But it is everyday turning that God does that makes it possible for our tears to turn to joy. One image of this regular restoration is the “watercourses of the Negeb.” It’s an arid landscape, but when the rain comes the desert blooms! And it is predictable. The dead land becomes fruitful.

But the image that makes this come alive for us who aren’t desert dwellers, is the one that goes on all the time here on the farm. It is going on right now with our winter wheat that looks so gorgeous at twilight—golden hues cast on the brilliant green. The seeds were buried, they burst forth, they will sleep through the winter, and then bless us with a crop to feed countless people. We can count on it.

“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

The Russian author, Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky was marched out in a freezing Siberian winter’s day and lined up with others to be shot. It turned out to be a cruel lesson from the Tsar; so a messenger stopped the mass execution and told the prisoners to be grateful to their master who was now giving them the “reprieve” of four years hard labor followed by four years of service in the army.

Dostoyevsky survived the eight years of misery, but a friend died along the way. So Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the widow of that friend. In it he said that life entails living grief over and again in memory. In the process “one can test the true gravity of what one has endured, gone through, and lost…[And] in such moments, one does, “like dry grass,” thirst after faith, and that one finds it in the end, solely and simply because one sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy.”

In his final great novels, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky works through what death and resurrection mean in daily human life. Hopefully few of us will ever have trauma like a death squad in Siberia to deal with. But we all have the unhappiness that illuminates truth. And today we have it in great heaps because of the viral plague and the plague of irrational political divisions that are running rampant. The Devil is on the prowl!

Let us all, with the Psalmist, open our eyes to the ways of winter wheat–to the ways the Lord turns things upside down and inside out–to the ways darkness has us searching for the light, to the ways we experience both quotidian death and quotidian resurrection.

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Pentecost 21B: Disarm with Subservience

The readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       Isaiah 53:4–12

Psalm                    Psalm 91:9–16

New Testament      Hebrews 5:1–10

Gospel                   Mark 10:35–45

Years ago I heard a young woman describe a tense encounter she had just had. After cooling off at a public pool she was rinsing off before dressing for home. From a shower stall next to hers she heard a loud commotion. It sounded like a young child was being defiant, and her mother had lost her patience and temper and was shaking and spanking the child while spitting out threats through her clenched teeth. “If you don’t shut up and stop making a scene, I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

The dilemma? How to intervene without adding to the mother’s embarrassment and the child’s panic?

The young woman pulled back the curtain to the adjoining shower stall, peeked around the corner, and whispered, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

And that was that. No more spanking or tears. Things just settled.

In his masterful The First One Hundred Years of Christianity, the German Bible scholar Udo Schnelle describes the early community behind the Gospel of Mark, and the sayings common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. He notes how these early believers chose to shape their lives around a very radical set of teachings of Jesus that included renunciation of possessions, renunciation of violence and coercion of any kind, and dedication to the service of all people, regardless of background. Schnelle points out that all around this community of faith a firestorm of resentment, hatred, and brutal revenge was brewing. Then he notes:

Despite danger and hostility, the societal situation should be positively changed through the power of love that overcomes boundaries. The creator God is the model, and the promise of becoming “sons of God” functions as a motivation (Luke 6:34–36). The basic issue is to rely on the principle of reciprocity (Luke 6:32: “When you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”) and to do what is extraordinary: not to judge and first to pay attention to one’s own blindness or limitation (Luke 6:37–41)…In a society shaped by hate and violence, the followers of Jesus proclaimed the message with credibility because they practiced nonviolence and the abandonment of possessions and cared for nothing other than the kingdom of God.

Central to the idea that emptying oneself makes one powerful is the even deeper idea that people can suffer on behalf of others. The prophet Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year to dramatize the possibility  that he, as a righteous one, could absorb the sins of the people around him. In our Old Testament reading for this day from Isaiah 53 we hear the most famous expression of this:

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;…

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

            But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

This is a new thought for Israel, and the world—that one person’s suffering can absorb the sin and pain of those who surround her, and can even serve to heal. It will be what changes disciple’s hearts centuries later when they see a completely innocent man die willingly on a cross. And at the moment of this one man’s death graves are opened, an enemy centurion’s eyes are opened, and the world changes.

Jesus in Mark 10 says that actions of voluntary servitude  form the greatest power on earth. The attitude that produces such actions is what truly makes a person great and first.

Certainly this thought can be dangerous. If we preach voluntary subservience to people who have been bullied and coerced into servitude by their rulers or husbands or bosses, then we only lend support to the sinful ones among us who love to lord it over others. But used wisely this strategy can turn the world upside down. It is counter-cultural resistance. In American culture today self-esteem is the number one virtue. But we then suffer because we can’t all be the greatest. We can’t all be in the spotlight or the center of the circle of life.

From divorce to intractable, centuries-long conflicts that tear whole nations apart, we see the same old pattern: people want to sit on the left and right hand of glory, and damn anyone who gets in their way. People want keep playing at life as though it’s a zero-sum game.

But something magical happens when someone peeps around the corner and asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

It disarms. It defuses. It de-escalates. It takes the wind out of the sales of umbrage and rage. It gives everyone permission to throw away the scorecard of past insults and injuries.

From the congressional battle over the debt limit and Build Back Better, to the street battles over racial justice, to the global battles over Covid and COP26, to the battles in our families about who we are and what we stand for, I pray for more and more people who will empty themselves and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?

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