Pentecost 10B: Maintain the Gift of Unity

The readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament       Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15

Psalm                    Psalm 78:23–29

New Testament      Ephesians 4:1–16

Gospel                   John 6:24–35

I will focus here on the Ephesians reading, and especially the first four verses:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

It doesn’t matter whether you accept the traditional view, that the Apostle Paul wrote Ephesians, or someone a generation or two later wrote in his honor and with his theology; the urgency and emotion is the same. The author is on his knees, begging the people to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

A recent pre-marital counseling session I conducted reminded me of a set of insights I have accumulated through the years: marriages start with love, they falter when that love is questioned, but couples can surmount any problems when they do it together.

The couple I counseled at my home this past week was ideal in every way. They both were mature. They both cared deeply for family. They shared many interests, including a farming life they hoped to pursue, and a love for the out-of-doors, and caring for animals. As I took notes I filled a couple of pages of legal pad paper with their enumeration of the reasons they love each other.

Then I reminded them that life, and married life in particular, is full of challenges. Challenges bring on disagreements, and the temptation is to start taking all the things on your “things you love list,” and start keeping a mental list of disappointments and wounds.

But, I assured this couple, as I have done everyone I married, that if they could but remember why they loved each other in the first place they could fight that temptation to give up on their spouse, and they could handle every problem.

I think Paul, or whoever wrote Ephesians in Paul’s name, had the same basic ideas in mind. “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” is the heart of the exhortation and prayer. Maintain what you were given as a gift.

This letter to the Ephesians is all about “together.” Ephesus is Paul’s baby. He spent more time and effort in Ephesus than he did any city. This letter has his name on it, and it may or may not have been written by him—it could have been written in the next generation or two – but it certainly expresses Paul’s hopes and prayers. All of his letters say the same thing: “We can handle anything if we stick together.”

And if Paul was doing marriage counseling with this congregation he would have the people talk about all the ways they love each other—and he would plead with them:  “Don’t forget—don’t take this inexpressible for granted.”

“Maintain the love and the unity it nourishes!” And then comes the words that very likely came from the baptismal liturgy of Paul’s day: At the very beginning of your life of faith you are told this faith, and this unity of believers is a great good gift:  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

The same holds for us today. It matters not whether you were baptized as an infant or as an adult, you started with the Spirit’s gift of faith and love for your fellow believers. You did nothing to deserve your baptism. But with the water there was a promise given: “One body, one Spirit, one calling, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, all held together by one God and Father of all who is above all, through all, and in all.”

But oh how easy it is for the devil to wheedle in there and make you neglect and forget this gift. One of the most common themes of the New Testament is that Satan is working overtime to lie and confuse and delude people. Today we call it disinformation.

Of course there are the BIG divisive issues of our day: race relations, politics, inequality and poverty, sexual identity, and global pandemic. And the devil is having a wonderful time spreading disinformation about all of these things to keep us all polarized and mistrustful of each other.

And, believe me, these were big tools for the Devil in Paul’s day too. But he fought back by insisting that in Christ there is a New Creation: No longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female. We are one. God gave us this gift—now maintain it (Galatians 3:27-28)!

But the devil doesn’t need these big, dramatic tools to divide us, does he? Though Sunday mornings remain the most segregated time of the week, and churches seem amply segregated with blacks here and whites here and Asians there, and the poor well sealed off from the wealthy, and increasingly the liberals from the conservatives, the devil can still divide even the most homogenous church in many ways. We don’t need to fight over racism when we can fight over the kind of light bulbs or toilet paper we buy, or where the AA groups who use our buildings  put the coffee pots away and extinguish their cigarettes.

The devil can also cannily use the “big little things.” What happens when the pastor leaves? When the congregation’s bank account runs dry? When we have to decide how to worship during this new wave of the pandemic?

Any one of these things can cause us to leap from thinking “That person has a completely different approach to this problem;” to being quite sure “That person doesn’t love my church, probably doesn’t love God, and definitely doesn’t belong here.”

Soon the unity you had begins to fray at the edges, and then is torn apart. Why? Because we didn’t maintain the gift of the unity we once loved so much. We forgot one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We let the devil trick our eyes and our hearts and we began to see other people not as bringing a wealth of new ideas—but as enemies who just don’t belong.

The reason the writer of this letter gets down on her or his knees to beg the people to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, is because this is the way the world comes to know God’s love.

When Paul first came to Ephesus, on the Western edge of what is now Turkey, nobody had heard of Christ. Nobody could imagine that God could love them, much less the whole world, so much that God would send his son to die for them.

By the time someone wrote the Letter to the Ephesians in Paul’s name and with his spirit, the number of Christians may have grown from the thousand or so of Paul’s day to about 7,500 in the whole of the Roman Empire or Mediterranean region. But they were still a miniscule fraction—maybe 1 or 2 out of ten thousand!

How would the world know of God’s great, self-sacrificing love if Christians couldn’t love? How could these Christians survive in world of hate and shine the light of peace and justice and love?

So, today. Think we must all think of our  great-grandchildren, our grand-children, our children, our brothers and sisters,  and husbands and wives. How many of them live their whole lives feeling they don’t belong—feeling no one understands or accepts or loves them. How many of them don’t go to church because they are told they will find nothing but guilt and judgment and bigotry there?  How many of them don’t know yet how much God believes in them and loves them?

It is for the sake of all of these people we love, and for the billions we don’t even know. For their sake we must maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We take courage because we don’t have to create that unity, or earn it or deserve it. It is given to us as a gift of one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

All we need do is maintain it. We do that by remembering why we love Christ, and the people here at Grace.

Make a list. Call it the Creed: We believe in God the Creator, in Christ the redeemer and lover of our souls. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  The Spirit has gathered us together in faith and helped us through countless generations to do great things for the world.

We have these things as gifts. It makes us love each other though none of us are perfect.

Now maintain this unity. And remember, there is nothing we can’t do—no problem we can’t solve, when we do it together.  

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Pentecost 9B: The Surpassing Beauty of Us

The readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       2 Kings 4:42–44

Psalm                    Psalm 145:10–18

New Testament      Ephesians 3:14–21

Gospel                   John 6:1–21

My focus in these reflections is on the prayer contained in the reading from Ephesians.

The greatest tragedy of our time is that, nationally and globally, we have failed to think in terms of “us.” If we had been pulling together for the past 40 or so years that we have known of the destructive force of climate change, we would have lived less wastefully and saved the lives of millions of people and billions of animals. If we had pulled together for the past two years, we would be done with the pandemic and laughing in each other’s arms without endangering risk, and there would be no delta variant.

We have failed those tests. But there is hope that we can turn things around. In their book, The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney amply document how the United States recovered from the downward spiral of selfishness and the destruction of community spawned by the robber baron days of the late nineteenth century to enjoy the great benefits of the days of the “Greatest Generation,” the winning of a war, the overcoming of the Great Depression, the defeat of polio, and many, many other benefits. Since the late 1960s we have gone in reverse as liberals have “turned on” to drugs and self indulgence, and conservatives have championed free enterprise and personal freedom at the expense of all else. But all we have to do is rediscover and rededicate ourselves to more “us” and less “me” in our lifestyles and public policies. Do this and we will thrive.

How we get from the seeming default human mode of “me,” to the sublime of “us,” is the subject of the prayer of Ephesians. Be it the apostle Paul himself, or someone a generation or two later who ministers to the believers of the urban centers of western Asia Minor, the prayer he has for believers is heartfelt. He gets down on his knees.

The first thing he emphasizes is that he or she is praying to the Pater of all the patria as it says in Greek. That is, this God the author addresses, is the Father of all fatherlands. Later he will invoke glory to “all generations,” which again draws our attention to the universal. All gens – all kinship groups of all generations of kinship groups forever.

Again, the prayer uses the plural all the way through. You all may be strengthened as Christ is dwelling in you all, etc.

The author uses a vocabulary of words and concepts from both the very particular tradition of Judaism, and those of Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. “Whether we are Jews or gentiles, we all have one common aim in life—to find our true meaning and purpose.” So the author prays that the Christians of Roman Asia might find power and strength with the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwelling within them. He prays that they might come to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” These are words used by Stoic philosophers—the wisest men of the times—and also by magical texts and esoteric Gnostic Christians. In other words, all sorts of people used the same language for their quest for ultimate meaning and fulfillment.

And then the author says all of this fulfillment is in knowing the love of Christ. In fact, all of Ephesians overflows with love language. Love is what God is all about (see 1:4–6; 2:4; 5:2, 25; 6:23); and when Christ dwells in us in the church, it binds each individual with all others (1:15; 5:28; 6:24).

The prayer ends with a doxology—a yearning for glory “in the church and in Christ Jesus (3:21).” Ephesians doesn’t see Christ and the church as separate things. They have permeated each other to form a new thing. Christ is in us and so Christ’s love is in us. If we miss this point the Book of Ephesians, and indeed the entire Bible is distorted. Christ becomes a new victor—a new Lord—in a triumphalistic way. We can think then that we Christians have the answers and everyone else is wrong. We are here to save the world, but what the world is here for we haven’t the foggiest idea. That sort of “us vs. them thinking lingers on in passages such as 4:17–22; 5:5–8, 11–12. But this prayer makes it clear: it is the “love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge,” and fills us with the fullness of God.

We as a nation and as a world have, so far, miserably failed the tests of climate change and pandemic. But we can get back on the right track when “us” becomes more than “me.” Keeping individual rights and liberties dear, but thinking more and more of the common good—thinking more and more of love—will save us.

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Pentecost 8B: Tucker Carlson, Vaccines, and the Gathering God

The readings for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Jeremiah 23:1–6

Psalm                    Psalm 23

New Testament     Ephesians 2:11–22

Gospel                   Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

Well, the latest, is that Tucker Carlson has told his loyal followers that the Biden administration’s plan to have health care workers go door to door to encourage people to be vaccinated is the “greatest scandal in my lifetime by far.” “Be afraid of vaccines, and of government, and not of Covid-19,” says Mr. Tucker.

Wow, can you imagine a greater scandal than trying to unite a people in fighting a virus? Can you imagine a greater threat than from a government that works to save lives? Don’t you just hate people who do that sort of thing?

I know, my prose is dripping with sarcasm; but Tucker Carlson is surely what we would call an influencer, and what the prophet Jeremiah’s divine oracle described as the kind of shepherd who scatters. In my book the very definition of evil is the work of scattering, dividing, and sowing false fear.

Jeremiah’s good news is that while the powers of evil heighten fear and scatter, God gathers. God’s love drives out fear. God raises up faithful, caring influencers. And, for the healing of the world God will raise up for Israel a Righteous Branch—someone who’s very name will say, “The Lord is our Righteousness.”

Psalm 23 then gives us the picture of how that righteousness is to be given to us. The dividers of this world may lead us into dark valleys where we are surrounded by enemies; but the Great Good Shepherd fills our cup to overflowing, and sets a table that has the power to make friends of our enemies.

Ephesians proclaims the work of the Gathering God in the most soaring terms. Christ, the Righteous Branch has come. His death on the cross, and resurrection from that death, breaks down the walls the evil influencers have erected, and puts hostility itself to death. We who were so divided are made one in the living body of Christ.

Finally we have the feeding of five thousand men by Jesus. Of course the Good Shepherd fed the women and boys as well, but Mark and his sources had much to learn. But we have this Sunday’s  same over-arching lesson here: the Gathering God. Jesus’ tool of gathering is the feast of life. Jesus does not discriminate. As the Good Influencer, Jesus doesn’t check credentials, question worthiness, or cast aspersions. He gathers them all. Here in chapter six it is all about five loaves, five thousand fed by 12 disciples and 12 baskets of leftovers. We are meant to think of the five books of Torah that bind together the 12 tribes of a restored Israel. But then, in Mark’s second feeding in chapter eight, it’s seven loaves and seven baskets of leftovers and four thousand people. We might remember that seven is the universal number; and that four points us to the  four cardinal directions or corners of the globe. Jesus is that Righteous Branch making the whole vine whole—the Good Shepherd restoring the wholeness. It’s not either Israel or the world, but both/and.

Of course, here on Heatherhope Farm, we see this lesson of the beauty of gathering played out every day. Just today I thought of how we have so many animals looking to us to see if we will gather or scatter. The mother robin tending her nest. The Border Collies looking to me to calm things down now that the boys are so stirred up over a bitch in heat. And especially, the sheep. The cardinal virtue of any shepherd is the ability to gather. The sheep are prey animals without claws or fangs to protect them. Their eyes can be full of anxiety. My wife, and everyone who has seen me work the dogs and the sheep, know  how much of a mess I used to make by losing my cool, and yelling, and just adding to the confusion and fear in every sheep handling or herding situation. Sorting, vaccinating, trimming feet, and all the rest, took ten times as long as it should have. I still have much to learn, but I’m much quieter now. My own calm patience, and the priceless help of dogs who move quietly around the sheep, have helped in the task of gathering.

Gathering is good. Scattering is evil. And the world, like the animals on Heatherhope, is watching to see if the church has learned that lesson. What will the gathering God’s people say to the Tucker Carlsons of this world?

And one thing we must surely be saying today is, “Come together! Fight the virus and not each other! Get vaccinated!”

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Pentecost 7B: Repentance is Healthier than Denial

The readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Amos 7:7–15

Psalm                    Psalm 85:8–13

New Testament     Ephesians 1:3–14

Gospel                   Mark 6:14–29

The Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel Readings all tell us that repentance is a much healthier stance to take in life than denial. This time of pandemic has also been a time of the exposure of much to repent of.

We need to turn from denial and to turn toward the God of equity and justice.

Our nation is hearing many prophets’ voices pointing out that much in our American history and much in our present has been wrong. We have ravaged those we have defined as “other.” A privileged few have prospered by killing indigenous peoples and stealing their land; by exploiting the labor of Africans we kidnapped and enslaved, by abusing and denegrating the Chinese and the Irish who built our cities and our railroads; by refusing full voting franchise to women and blacks; by making union organizational treacherous, by putting citizens of  Japanese-ancestry into concentration camps; by picking winners and losers and discouraging investment in whole sections of our cities through redlining. And the tainting of our criminal justice system festers on.

Today the prophetic voice is distributed through academia, the media, and our city streets. Thousands are saying, “It’s time to turn back to the highest ideals of democracy and justice for all. It’s time to undo our nation’s mistakes. It’s time to repent!”

But, as always, this call to repentance causes many to say, “Silence! Get out of here! We can’t stand to hear the prophetic call!”

Our former President initiated action to silence those who said there is such a thing as systemic racism in this country. In recent weeks, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and Texas have all passed legislation that places significant restrictions on what can be taught in public school classrooms and, in some cases, public universities, too. Though the wording of these edicts is often vague and general, they all obviously seek to prevent people from hearing too much about the sins of racism, or feeling any kind of guilt or responsibility.

The New York Times opinion columnist, Ross Douthat, sought to express what he considers legitimate conservative criticism of what he considers the extremes of antiracist education. His primary complaint is that “…there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins” (NYT Week in Review, Sunday, July 4, page 9).

Well, I don’t know if such a theory is proper social psychology, but it sure sounds exactly like what prophets have been crying out to us for centuries.  All the framers of these new state laws, and perhaps Ross Douthat, say they don’t want any people of any race to be singled out for discomfort. But it is a plain and simple fact that it has been white people, and almost exclusively white men, who have been privileged throughout American history. And our white male privileged has hurt people.

And that history has been built into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So when the Texas Bill 3979 forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States,” it is a blatant attempt to cover up the guilt and responsibility of white privilege built into the foundation of our nation. And that privilege has been sustained by too much of what has been built on that foundation.

The Declaration didn’t mean to include black men, the first peoples of this land, or any women of any race in the “Created Equal” clause. It’s signers had the temerity to call the First People “savages.” And if any Texan would take the time to actually read the “founding” Constitution they  would only get to the second article of the very first article to find that racism was built into the nation: slaves and “Indians” didn’t count when  a state’s  representation in the Congress and the amount of taxes paid were calculated. The second section of the fourth article neatly requires that escaped slaves who make it across state lines be returned to their owners.

So, are the Texas Republicans right in saying it is a crime to point out that  the founders built racism into our sacred documents? Is Ross Douthat right that it is an excessive and destructive theory that would say those who benefit from the long, long string of racist laws and structures should feel guilt and turn from their sins?

Are these voices not like that of the corrupt king and priest of Israel who said of Amos “The land is not able to bear his words—and who tried to silence him, saying, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Aren’t these voices, as they wax in their desire to silence the reminders of their sin, following in the tradition of Herodias who called for the head of John the Baptist when he persisted in calling out her guilt? Are not those who, out of political expediency, go along with such foolish denial of the truth, like Herod who had John’s head severed just to preserve his own image?

Psalm 85 says that God will speak peace. But God does not pronounce peace where there is no peace. He does so for those who are faithful. For those who “turn” to God in their hearts. And that word “turn” is of the utmost of importance in the Bible. It is the Hebrew word for repentance—changing direction in our lives.

If America is to be great it must repent and change direction. No legislator, no political party, and no political pundit should defend us when we stick our heads in the sand of our own long history of racism. We can and must, at the very same time, say we are proud and thankful to live in a democracy, but we also repent of our mistakes and work to repair our laws. We can and we must continue the great tradition of working towards a “more perfect Union.”

And every Christian who cherishes the sacred tradition of prophecy must open our ears and our hearts to every Amos or Christ-like figure who calls us to true peace and justice. We must do all we can to prevent the next prophet from having his head on a platter. We must listen, turn, and change our ways.

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Pentecost 6B: Boasting and Praying on a Pandemic Fourth

The Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 in which Paul demurs from boasting, says he could boast in his visions, but concludes that Christ’s refusal to remove his “thorn of the flesh” taught him to boast in his weakness.

What follows is a sermon I am to deliver this Pentecost 6/Independence Day weekend—a meditation on Paul’s lessons about boasting and prayer.

We can use these lessons this weekend because the Fourth of July is always a time of boasting, isn’t it. We wave flags. We set off fireworks. Why? Because we want to stick out our chests—we feel proud—we love our country, and we want the world to know. We are BOASTING.

But this Independence Day comes after a long, long time when this nasty pandemic has kept us alone—separated from friends and family. And when we are alone, with our thoughts, and with nobody but God to talk to, we want to pray. We have to pray to keep ourselves from going a bit crazy.

So, Paul’s first lesson for us is about boasting: 

  1. “It’s necessary to boast.”  Paul says he has been pushed in a corner by people who have come to Corinth saying he has no right—no credentials to be a missionary.
  2. “But nothing can come of it.”
  3. I could boast of my visions, but, instead, I’ve learned to boast only about one thing: My weakness.

I think I may have some personal insight into what Paul is talking about. Let me tell you two quick stories that shaped me.

The first happened on the railroad tracks that ran behind my house in Louisville, Kentucky. We kids hung out there a lot, and one day when I was about 12 or so, I had a run-on with Renee Butchel. Renee was a big bully from a nearby neighborhood; and he and I didn’t encounter each other that often, but each time we did, he humiliated me. He called me “chicken,” threw mud all over me, even pulled a knife on me and tried to cut me up. But this time, on the tracks, he pushed me too far. We fought with fists, and when one of his landed on my face, I thought, “He hits like a girl!” (no offence to you girls out there). So I clobbered him and wrestled him to the ground. And when I had him down, I started to beat his head on the railroad tracks.

Having him there I felt boastful. I had him beat. I was strong and he was weak.

But then I caught a glimpse of my friends – and even my own older brother—standing around. And their faces looked sick. They were stunned. They were appalled at what I had become.  And so was I!

That was one kind of boasting. “I’m stronger than you. I can dominate you. I can destroy you.”

Thank God there was another story.

The guys and I were now starting a baseball game on the field of my elementary school. We were happily choosing up sides with Bobby showed up on his bicycle. Bobby was too fat and too slow and he wore thick glasses and everyone was used to making fun of Bobby. He stood there stubbornly, wishing one of us would choose him for a side. But, instead, one of the kids went over, walked past Bobby, and spit all over his bicycle seat.

But I felt for Bobby. So I went over and I wiped his bike seat clean. 

I knew it was a risk. I was there with spit all over my shirt sleeve. I looked weak. And I had invited Bobby onto our side and nobody wanted him there.

But something told me I was weak, but some sort of new, different kind of power was coming alive in me. And I had made my choice—this was the strength and power I need to boast about.

Now, we Christians aren’t the first to discover this other kind of boasting and power. Philosophers down through the ages have pointed towards it too. For instance, at the same time Paul was writing his letters there was a famous philosopher named Epictetus—and he wrote this:

 So that you may see for yourselves, O people, that you are searching for happiness and serenity, not where they are but where they are not, behold, I have been sent to you by God as an example—one who has neither goods, nor house, nor wife, nor children—no, not even a bed, or a shirt, or a pot. Yet you can see how healthy I am. Make trial of me, and if you see me maintaining my tranquillity, then listen to my remedies and the treatment that cured me.

For Epictetus and the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of the day it was not brute power over others, nor was it wealth or prestige that people should be proud of – that would give them happiness—but it was inner virtue.

Good advice. But our teacher, the Apostle Paul, takes us much deeper. He takes us to Jesus Christ.

First, Christ shows us what virtue is for—love and respect of others. What good is it to go against the grain—to be counter cultural – to choose what other people look at as weakness?  And what is the true purpose of this power that the crowds around us miss?  IT IS TO LIVE FOR OTHERS – AND TO BE WILLING TO SUFFER AND EVEN DIE FOR YOUR LOVE OF OTHERS.

            Paul was on his way to punish Christ followers. He was feeling boastful along the way. He had all the right answers and those who believed in Jesus were just plain wrong. But when Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me,”  he began to have his eyes opened. What good is it to be right when all you do is hate?

            Paul learned how Christ emptied himself for us. How his mission was to be a servant to all people, and to give his life for others—even out of love of his enemies.

            Paul learned how Jesus didn’t hate anyone, but ate with sinners and tax collectors, came to the defense of an adulterous women, healed the servant of a Centurion – brought back from the dead a gentile boy.

            Yes, Christ looked weak and died a humiliating death as a criminal – but he did it out of love, and to bring respect for other people back into religion, and the human race.

            Jesus said – “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down…for others.”

            So, Jesus looks weak on that cross—but the Centurion at the cross knows, Pilate knows, Satan—the King of Death knows Jesus is more powerful than all of them.

            So, what about us? Sure, we too can simply live our lives as humble and helpless, and as perpetual victims. We can whine about it. We can even use it to get attention. But that’s not what Paul is calling us to today.

            Paul is saying, when you empty yourself to serve – to care—to lift someone else up—you have REAL POWER. Love, and caring respect for others is the most powerful thing in the universe though it can’t possibly be measured or proven by experimentation—no scientist or economist will possibly tell you about it.

            But, read Paul’s letters, and you will hear him saying to the people, “I can boast in only one thing—I’ve learned to follow Jesus. I pour out myself for you. And for breaking down dividing walls and pulling together—so there will be no Jew or Greek, slave or free,  male and female, but all one people in Christ.”

Paul’s second lesson about virtue:  Its source and its power comes from Christ.

Christ not only shows us the purpose, but Christ is the source of it in each of us. Paul had this power- but you can I have it too. It comes with faith in God, and being Christians. It comes with our baptisms.

So, Paul writes to us in Galatians 2:

 I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

And again in this next chapter of Second Corinthians that we read from today Paul writes that, though his critics say he seems too weak, he is actually sharing with the Corinthians the very power given by Christ:

[Christ] is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

No, when Paul recommends to us BOASTING IN WEAKNESS, this is no empty and resentment-filled martyr complex. It must never be a ploy by the church to keep women and minorities servile.   It is strength of the eternal kind. It is the power of Christ to change the world and to overcome death itself. And this is the strength that is our baptismal and apostolic privilege.

That is Paul on boasting in weakness.

Now we come to Paul’s lesson on prayer.

Back to my little story about how I learned not to be boastful and beat my antagonizers head on the railroad tracks, and instead to go over and wipe off the spittle from Bobby’s bicycle seat. I always would rather preach myself as sinner than saint. But what I want to say now is that I didn’t change myself. Christ did it.

Christ did it through my mother, taking me to church, and even more, by kneeling at my bedside  and praying with me, night after night.

We like to say “Prayer changes things.” Well that’s right, in a way. But what does prayer change? If we are doing it right, prayer changes us.

But, instead of keeping track of how much of our wish list is granted, and even how many words we pile up—we must listen for God’s reply. It may be “yes.” More often it is “no.” But it perhaps it is most often in silence when God is at work changing not stuff out there—but changing us.

Paul writes to us: “I was given (given by whom? By Christ himself?)  I was given a thorn in the flesh. Three times I asked that it leave me.  But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”              

So, now I can  boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Prayer changes things by changing us.

One last story:

Howard was a big strapping man with a booming voice, who had made a fortune selling car parts. He was a Christmas and Easter sort of Lutheran. Seldom seen. So when he asked for an appointment to talk to the pastor, it was quite an occasion. He came in and said, “I know this church is on the ropes. And you’re not the kind of pastor who knows the church is a business and should be run like a business. But I’m going to make a deal with you and the Lord. My son-in-law had a car accident, and the doctors said we shouldn’t expect him to live. Now, I don’t want him to die. I’ve been praying for him to live and come back to work. He is a great guy—he works for me and has been great for the business. So now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I’m prepared to cut a check for the church for $20,000 if he pulls through. And here, I’ve put it in writing so you know I mean business.         

Well, the piece of paper sat there in the pastor’s drawer for a long, long time, because the son-in-law died. No hope for the big check. But the pastor kept it there as a sort of life lesson.        

But then, a few years later, there was another chapter to the story.    Howard came by again. His chest wasn’t puffed out as much. And he spoke in much quieter tones.  He said he had been praying that his daughter find another good strong guy.  Well, she did marry again. But he was disappointed in prayer again because he thought this new husband was a good-for-nothing weakling. He thought the wrong things. He was an elementary school teacher—and who ever heard of a man teaching third grade?   He voted the wrong way. And he probably couldn’t provide.

But when he and his daughter had an argument about her weakling of a husband, she shared secrets he didn’t know about. Her first husband had been a good provider—but he was cold and brutal to her and the kids. But this new husband was kind, understanding. NOT AS STRONG LOOKING—BUT STRONG IN HIS BELIEFS AND IN HIS CARING.   So, Howard said he was going to give not $20,000, but $40,000 to the church.  

Prayer changes things if we do it right. It changes us.

We begin to give ourselves for others—respect them—see that we need them.

Love wells up in us and love is the greatest gift—the greatest power.

We have something to boast about—our weakness and God’s great strength.

Amen.

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Pentecost 5b “Giving under Pandemic Pressure”

Readings for this Fifth Sunday After Pentecost are:

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15, 2:23–24 or Lamentations 3:22–33

Psalm                    Psalm 30

New Testament     2 Corinthians 8:7–15

Gospel                   Mark 5:21–43

These lessons are about as disparate as any in the lectionary. They hardly come down on any one or two themes.

The lesson I choose to deal with here is 2 Corinthians, because, when listening for God’s Word in the Bible, it’s always best to listen hardest to the things that are most uncomfortable. God always prefers us not to stay in a rut, but to change direction for the better in our lives.

I don’t like 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 because they have had the life squeezed out of them by people who want money so badly they can taste it. They mine thee chapters for the stuff they can use to get more dollars, but they forget about the main points  Paul makes.

Paul is talking money here. He wants the Christ followers of Corinth to pitch into a collection he has been working on. But Paul’s reasoning is surprising and provocative to repentance if we read it correctly: surprising to those who are hit up regularly for money, provocative to repentance for the money loving ones who mine these verses for fund-raising leverage.

And, certainly, money-loving fund-raising pressure is one of the dominant symptoms of the present pandemic. If you are like me, every day your physical and virtual mailboxes are bursting with pitches. Every good cause is hurting. Everyone is in desperate need. “We need your money NOW!”

To get the full effect of Paul’s Zen-like pitch in our reading for today, it’s best to back up to the start of the chapter, and even before. Paul refers at several places in his letters to this collection. He believes it extremely important to raise money from the believers of the Hellenistic gentile and Diaspora Jewish communities of the western Mediterranean for the sake of the poor and hungry Jewish/Christians back in Judea who have been hit hard by a famine. It is important to bring unity to God’s people. Paul fervently believes God has opened up the time of salvation, when gentiles and Jews, male and female, slave and free, will be brought together. And this gift of the gentile world for the suffering Judeans, will be a gesture of good will that will wound many wounds.

Paul’s first move is to get at what real wealth is. The churches of Macedonia, to the north of Corinth, have given joyfully and generously out of their own “extreme poverty.” Up in Macedonia for everyone who has embraced Paul’s gospel of Christ there have been dozens of their neighbors attacking them. They have lost friends, jobs, and customers in their shops. But poverty of silver and gold has been outweighed by wealth of joy in faith and generosity of spirit. These Macedonians have begged for the privilege of paying the expenses of Paul, Silas, and Timothy in their missionary work, and now they are leading the way in the great collection for the Judeans. So, the Macedonians have exemplified spiritual wealth.

Paul has written previously in his first letter to the Corinthian Christ-followers that they had a dangerous understanding of spiritual wealth. They rightly cherished the emotionally powerful, charismatic fruits of the Spirit of God. They were blessed with knowledge, or interpretive insights into Scriptural truth, prophetic insights into current politics and events, ecstatic speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and dramatic eloquence. But these gifts, used wrongly, just puffed them up. It made some of them feel spiritually superior to others. Personality cults cropped up as people chose their own celebrity champions of faith. So, this spiritual wealth became a cause of deep divisions in the church of Corinth.

So, here in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is deadly afraid of using the money pitch to touch off another spiral of spiritual egoism. In verse 7 he uses irony: Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” His audience would have immediately remembered how Paul had condemned their boastfulness about their misuse of these same “gifts,” and counseled instead a love that is the greatest gift because it builds up the Body of Christ.

To this he adds two more points. The first is that he is not giving them an amount to shoot for—a giving goal derived from some formula based on the needs of the Judeans, or the bank accounts of the Corinthians. He simply says, in verse 12, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable…”

Then he adds in vs. 13, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you.” Instead he evokes the ideal of “fair balance.” And if you wonder what that looks like, follow Paul’s quote from Exodus 16.18: God schools the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. They think God is not fair, and life is not fair, because they are hungry. God answers by raining down manna; but this stuff is magical. Some gather more, some less, but when it’s measured out, it is all the same. No one had too much or too little.

For the pitchmen too little is simply too little. “You aren’t reaching your giving goal. You aren’t tithing.” For the fund raising pros too much pressure isn’t enough. They show you pictures and charts. They tell you stories. They say if you really had faith you would dig down and sacrifice,  and it will all come back to you double. But Paul is right for not pressuring. Some in Corinth will not be able to send a single mite to the collection, but may need to be encouraged to swallow their pride and receive help from the church. Gladness and joy is the only true measure of giving.

In or out of the pandemic we should always measure our giving by our gladness. When we give of our time, our talent, or our money, we should think, “What am I rich in, even in the midst of poverty? And how can I give until I feel joy?”

One more set of comments on the option A Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. Protestants probably won’t hear this read in church since it is among those books of the Greek translation of Jewish Scriptures called the Septuagint. Protestants call these books Apocrypha, or “hidden,” Roman Catholics refer to them as “deutero-canonical” and the Orthodox simply say they should be read.

The Wisdom of Solomon should be read together with the Gospel of John. More about that later. But it is a great example of the way many currents of many global ways of thought come together to form our religious thinking.

Its date is uncertain, but probably about the time of Christ, and from Alexandria, Egypt. It was originally written in the better Greek, with many words used only in the first century of the Common Era. And its thought is much like that of the Jew Philo, who himself was greatly influenced by Plato and Stoic philosophy. And the Wisdom of Solomon is famous for its affirmation of natural theology–that you can know the true God properly without special revelation, for the idea of the separation of the soul and body, and the idea of the immortality of the soul.

In 1.7 the Wisdom of Solomon says the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world and holds all things together. While Plato thought of a great, high, transcendent God, Stoicism thought in terms of an imminent God who fills the cosmos and each person, and holds all things together in the form of the eternal Logos. Then, in our reading we find that God and Logos creates life and not death. Death is brought in through unrighteousness, while righteousness is eternal life: “…for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.”

In the 11th chapter of John we hear Jesus prepare us for the raising of Lazarus. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Resurrection is one thing. Death is the enemy, and Resurrection is the great slap in the face of Death and the devil. But Life, in the Gospel of John, is clearly eternal life.

Talk of Resurrection affirms the seriousness of death–it is a great enemy that separates us from our bodies, from our loved ones, and from this world and all its complexity. But talk of Eternal life affirms that this biological and bodily life on earth is more than just a staging ground for what really matters. This life really matters because, through the enlightenment of faith we live the eternal existence. We love one another as Christ loved us, and this is life abundant. This is Eternal Life.

So, Jesus, and the Bible (including the Wisdom of Solomon), combine all these ideas. There is the enemy of death, the Resurrection, and the judgment day. But there is also Eternal Life that is with us through the gift of righteousness. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

As we minister to one another through the suffering of the pandemic–the suffering that passes all human understanding–we need to hold to Christ and to both affirmations. Though we die, we will live again through the Resurrection. And with Eternal Life, we will never die.

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Pentecost 4B: Lessons of the Storm

Option III Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament       Job 38:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32

New Testament      2 Corinthians 6:1–13

Gospel                   Mark 4:35–41

The first reading holds a wakeup call for Christians and modern society. Christians have operated on the basis of Genesis 1:28:   

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

That word, “dominion” is a troubling word. The the ecologically minded have tried to soften it to “exercise stewardship.” And that, indeed, is a good idea generally. God goes on to emphasize that all the wonders and fruitfulness of the earth are a gifts from God; and surely the Bible urges us to hold holy every such divine grace. But the Hebrew word used here, radah, has a basic meaning of treading on things like grapes. It does, indeed carry the meaning of domination, and that may well have been the anthropology of the author.

But the wisdom book of Job serves as a stark corrective. The Lord speaks from a windstorm: “Gird up your loins…where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Then the Lord follows up by asking the “who, what, when, where, why, and how?” of true dominion, knowing full well that Job doesn’t have any of the answers. So Job has no solid ground to stand on when he questions God’s disposition of justice.

And God means to say human beings are not in charge. They are not authorized or equipped to tread the earth like a vat of grapes. The human race carries much promise, and much responsibility, but desperately needs much humility.

Without humility we forget our heavy responsibility. We forget to reverence the gifts we hold in our hands. We spiral downwards from creativity to destruction.

Yesterday, about 35 miles from here, a fire and chain of explosions destroyed a chemical plant and sent a cloud of noxious chemicals into the skies for miles around. How many miles? No one truly knows. How many days will it burn? Who can tell. Will the chemicals leach into the Rock River? No guarantee one way or the other.

Less than two weeks ago a container ship laden with thousands of tons of nitric acid, fuel oil, plastic pellets, and other poisons, caught fire, exploded and sank along the pristine shores of Sri Lanka.

And, of course, all of this is happening while we try desperately to cover up the truth that our cavalier ways of encroaching on natural habitats, and dangerously crowding both human and non-human animals together, makes viral outbreaks and epidemics inevitable. When it is convenient, we swear by science, and count on it to clean up our mistakes. When it is not convenient, we vilify and blame our scientists for the messes caused by our collective greed and hubris.

In Mark’s gospel story the waves are beating into the little boat of the disciples. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” they cry out. They would rather blame anyone or Christ than learn the lesson of the storm. The waves breaking over the gunnels of the boat are the Word of God. They are the lesson. “No, you humans are not in charge. The wind and the waves don’t do your bidding. They obey someone much wiser, more caring, and more powerful. They obey the word of Christ the Lord.”

What I see happening throughout the fires, the shipwrecks, and the pandemic, is that we want to shut our ears and eyes to the shouts of God. All around the world people are trying to act as though the pandemic is over and done with. Cases and deaths have gone down. Millions have been vaccinated, and billions more jabs are in the freezer. So, at last we can party! Now we can get back to normal!

But normal has been lousy. Blacks and Latinos and all those serving in menial jobs in the US are still dying at an alarming rate. Still the bosses want them to return to work for below-subsistence wages. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and deaths are spiking in India, Africa, and South America. Variants are evolving. But we still want to pretend we have licked Covid, and so still have dominion over the earth.

Genesis is right that we are gifted by God’s Creation, but wrong if it means we have dominion. Job is right about our being most often clueless as to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of nature. We surely are working harder to destroy rather than to exercise faithful stewardship over our home planet.

Please, God, help us learn the lessons of these storms. Help us heed the waves breaking over the gunnels. Help us join the wind and the waves, be still, and obey.  Amen.

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Pentecost 3B: Growth Beyond Our Understanding

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Ezekiel 17:22–24

Psalm                    Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15

New Testament     2 Corinthians 5:6–10 (11–13) 14–17

Gospel                   Mark 4:26–34

Many years ago I was feeling very sorry for myself. My first marriage had come apart, and with it almost all of what I had considered proof of God’s goodness. God was good to me by giving me a loving wife and children, but now all that was in shambles.

Almost.

In my self pity I took a long walk. At the end of the sidewalk was the county fairgrounds, and I sat down, and hung my head. When I looked up there was a giant oak tree with a squirrel, curious as to what I was doing there, flicking its tail.

Instantly I awakened to the idea that the little rodent, the tree, and the grass and soil beneath it all were all there yesterday, and would be there after many tomorrows. I knew I was part of the sturdy whole of it all. Sometimes the sun shines. Sometimes the darkness falls. But God’s goodness is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ezekiel must have been outdoors with nature when he wrote chapter 17. The first 21 verses focus on birds and plants. The first great eagle is Nebuchadnezzar II of the mighty and expansive Babylonian empire who invades and carries away the “top of the cedar,” namely the Judean King Jehoiachin, and his family, into exile. He then plants a “seed” who is Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne as a puppet king. Then comes the second eagle, another superpower great man, we know as Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who renames Mattaniah Zedekiah. This vine of a man stretches out his branches to Neco, hoping for protection. He is weak, supplicant, and prone to rot away.

But Ezekiel sees this move by Zedekiah as rebellion against God, because Zedekiah has made a pact with Babylon and sealed it by swearing on the Lord’s name. Such cowardly politics of convenience may seem like it will get an edge for Judah, but Ezekiel sees it as gross faithlessness and apostasy that will be punished.

Of course the punishment for this and many other sins of Judah does come crashing down in the Exile. Ezekiel writes when Judah and all she had held dear as proof of God’s goodness were in shambles.

Then comes the following verses which give us our reading for today. “I myself will act,” says the Lord. Judah made a fine mess of things, now God will act. And there follows more meditation on nature.

“I will take a tiny, tender sprig from the top of the cedar, and plant it on the mountain height of Israel, and it will grow, bear fruit, and be a shelter for every kind of bird.”

And though, if you look around, you will quickly see that no mountain or tree in Israel can compete with the lofty heights and noble empires of Babylon or Egypt. Yet, God says, “I’m in charge here, and eventually all these other mountains and trees shall bow down.” Not to Israel, but to Israel’s God. Israel’s God shows power and goodness in bringing the high trees low and the low trees high. It happens often in history, and Mary will tell us that, in Christ, all this happens definitively.

Psalm 92 picks up on this same natural image of the tree. It must have been penned by someone facing the diminished quality of life that comes with age. Common sense says the older we get the dryer and less productive our lives become. But, in truth, it’s not a quantitative matter of age, but a qualitative matter of righteousness. Or should we say it is how close to the water of life our roots are, and that underground waterway is sure tenacious in seeking us out. The waters of new life in baptism are reaching to us, and if we reach out with our roots to the water that refreshes—roots of music and the singing of praise–then we are made glad and part of God’s working in the world.

Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, takes us back to the seed; and with the image of the mustard plant, to the notion that a healthy plant or tree spreads branches and becomes shelter for others.

But perhaps the most striking note the Gospel sounds is when Jesus emphasizes that the seed spouts and the sower does not now how. Growth goes on while we are sleeping, and while we haven’t a clue as to how it all happens.

In that scene at the end of the sidewalk—of  the ground, the grass, the squirrel, and the mighty oak tree–God caught me unawares in my self pity. I don’t know how it happened. And the pain of the divorce dissipated while I slept. And when I didn’t know what to do, wounds healed anyway. Even though my first wife and I divorced, we kept loving our children, and, even in a way, I believe, we kept loving each other at a distance, and in new ways. Years later we served the bread and wine of communion side by side at our son’s wedding, next to my present wife, Connie. I don’t know how she fell in love with me either, but it happened. Hooray!

God’s planting had grown while I slept.

Surely we feel sorry for ourselves as a nation and a world. The pandemic has exposed us all to anxiety, depression, economic hardship, and the harsh truths of our social inequities and injustices. The institutions we counted on have been strained, undermined, and mistrusted. In our self pity we are very likely to believe there is nothing to believe in. Our world seems in shambles.

But, look up! There is a tree with a bird in a branch. God has kept things growing while you were asleep, and while you hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. God is working in your heart every moment. God is speaking of love to you. And if you plant yourself close to the water of God’s love you will find your own branches growing. If you share your praise and gladness and confidence in the God of love, you will find others seeking shelter in your faith.

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Pentecost 2B: The Alternative Family as Racism’s Cure

Readings for the Second Sunday After Pentecost or Proper 5

Old Testament      Genesis 3:8–15

Psalm                    Psalm 130

New Testament     2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1

Gospel                   Mark 3:20–35

Let’s focus on the Gospel reading. Jesus goes home. He learns that his neighbors think he’s crazy. His own mother and brothers think the same, and they want to take control of Jesus and end this family embarrassment.

Jesus doesn’t take it lying down. First he charges that those who are scandalized by him lack imagination. They are not open to God’s Spirit that is moving him.

A crowd forms. These are people who want to give Jesus a chance to prove himself. They want to learn, and they draw tightly around this charismatic man. Someone alerts Jesus that his family is outside this tight circle asking for him to come out so they can take him away. Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? You are–you who have come to listen. Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Family forms ethnicity. Biological family is at the heart of racism. From time immemorial people have thought our birth determines everything important: our intelligence, our morality, our value, our base of all operations. Even charity begins at home—and usually ends there.

This time of pandemic our eyes have been opened to how destructive this idea can be. Someone turned over the rock, and racism, in so many rude and overwhelming ways, has squirmed out. This week we commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which most of us didn’t even know happened until recently. This past year rampant police abuse of people of color blipped like crazy on our radar, if we cared to notice. Suddenly we became aware of the extent of redlining.  And the ways Blacks are punished for their choice of hair styles. And the systematic prevention of Black farmers from benefiting from farm loans and subsidies. And the way major cosmetic companies make millions off of skin lightening products. Etc. Etc.

All this waking up has given us headaches. At the slightest hint of the need to repent of these blatant acts of racism, or to correct the systems that perpetuate them, or to allow vulnerable minorities to come to the table of power by making it easier to vote when they work two jobs, hackles are raised. Just enough people take umbrage and offense, and shoot all these efforts down. We hate being made to care for such a wide swath of people when its family that really matters.

What are we to do? What can move us past our kneejerk defensiveness? What can move us, as human beings, beyond our habit of making birth, family, and ethnicity into walls of separation and rigid reasons for oppression and the toleration of it?

Only a new way of defining family. Jesus, in the third chapter of John, says to Nicodemus, “You need a new kind of birth and family. No, you are not made fit for God’s Kingdom by virtue of your biological birth. You must be born from above.”

And here in our reading from Mark we are radically charged to reconsider family and ethnicity. Even the “holy family,” at one point at least, thought son and brother Jesus too radical—even nuts. In reply, Jesus says, “Here is the family that matters: Those who are willing to listen, to change, and to actually follow God’s will, are the New Family for God’s New Age.”

Diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, and tolerance, are wonderful values. But they aren’t enough to break down our walls of resentfulness. We must do as the New Testament does and develop feelings for this alternative family for a new age. Diversity for its own sake looks like a naïve way of claiming nothing matters. Inclusion for its own sake leaves us with nothing in racism’s place–nothing to bring us unity and meaning and purpose in our diversity.

The Apostle Paul’s letters call believers “brothers.” We rightly see that as inclusive of brothers and sisters. All are family—but family of a God who gathers and doesn’t scatter.

I personally love the idea that we say, “All are welcome” to our church and our worship. But we gather tight when we understand that our family consists of those who do the will of God—and the will of God is that we love one another, despite ethnicity or anything else—that we love one another as God, in Christ, has loved us.

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Fresh Blessings of Spring

In the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem–surrounded by the miseries of starvation and spiritual despair, the author of Lamentations wrote that the Lord’s mercies never end, but they are new every morning.

If this witness could see fresh mercy in such times, how can we not open our eyes to see and glory in the same.

Opening my eyes here at Heatherhope I see newly minted joy every moment these days. The grass in the pasture and winter wheat in the field are as green as green can be.

And the lambs–the lambs! So white. So innocent and pure! What shame that we so habitually spoil, neglect, erase? Here is the gift of life, prancing, running in joy unrestrained. Beholding it and exalting God for it, let us become ourselves more free.

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