Hawk Calling from the Cross

Refreshed. Wine and bread, blood and body. Coffee and hugs, chatting and loving.

We then stepped out into dazzling light and wakening breeze to hear the shriek. And then another, and another.

This dramatic shriek is the same they put with TV clips of eagles soaring. But real eagles don’t need counterfeit calls to make them noble.

Look up and around. Where is this courageous comeback, red tailed hawk? The roof, the tree, the belfry?

There she is, on top of the cross! Another was perched on our utility pole at Heatherhope, on the way to church. Another will swoop and soar deliciously around our car on the way home. Are they trying to tell us something?

On the cross. Did you feel the drama? Will you take the time to hear my cry? Will you awaken and look? Will you see me?

Red tailed hawk calling from the cross of Salem Lutheran Church, Sycamore, IL. Photo by John

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Burying My Hatchet with the LC-MS and Biblical Inerrancy

This morning I grew nostalgic and Googled my old Pilgrim Lutheran congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, which is now Resurrection Lutheran.

This was the congregation I was part of as I came to an awakening of faith and a quickening of calling into ministry. It fell into disrepair in the 1990s, I think, at least partially, because of the theological disputes within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and because of a specially heartless orthodoxy and exclusiveness of at least one pastor. This was a man who would not bury my father because he could not make assurances this lapsed Catholic would go to heaven, and who wouldn’t do another member’s funeral because he hadn’t attended church because of medical issues.

Between the 1990’s and today, after Pilgrim became Resurrection, a former philosophy professor of mine, named Curt Peters, faithfully served the church for many years; it began a vibrant ministry to feed the hungry around the world; and another to draw Sudanese refugees into its membership.

I looked at the statement of faith of Resurrection and found there, after the Apostle’s Creed, other statements opening with this one about Scripture:

The Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God to the world that He created. The Bible’s primary purpose is to bring God’s love and powerful presence so that people will be reconciled to God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

First of all, I must rejoice that Resurrection has indeed seen a gracious resurrection of its ministry as a church of Christ. Second, I must say I agree wholeheartedly with every word on that extensive faith statement.

Yet that single word, “inerrant,” troubled me deeply, because I have lived with the Battle for the Bible for years, and that word “inerrant” often is used as a battle cry. And, being a life-long student of the Bible, honesty prevents me from claiming inerrancy for the Bible. From the thousands of manuscript variants to the intentional diversity of theologies, the Bible is both divine and very human. It is comprised of concepts that are necessarily our mental tools that wear with time and cannot be studied without all the exasperation and bewilderment that is part and parcel of the constantly changing flux of human language. So, I don’t know what an “error” is in this human-divine mix. I am therefore inclined to believe it is a word-choice motivated by a mistaken attempt to make the Bible less witness and more argument—less a confession of trust, and more a defense of the reasonableness of propositions.

Yet today I feel simpatico with the words of the immortal Dylan, “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” So, I gave my reaction to “inerrancy” another thought, prodded by what the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians,

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (1 Cor. 1.10).

That mind that we are united in is the mind of Christ. And that Christ, whose mind and purpose we are charged to channel is the one who died on the cross to win the proper battle—not against, but for those who differ from us.

I want therefore to bury my hatchet against the LC-MS and fundamentalist Christianity. I want to wince less, and smile more when I hear and discuss that word, “inerrancy.” I want understand what makes people fear losing the struggle to share God’s love. I want to witness to them about how we can be more confident, and more loving still, because of God’s faithfulness to us (1 Cor. 1.9). I want to confess that God’s faithfulness to us includes God’s trust that we will love best when we strive for agreement rather than division. I want therefore to witness first and always to the love of God, and afterwards to the Bible’s holiness and faithfulness. And if others worry about giving up that word “inerrancy,” then I want to remind them of our own shared, human fallibility; and meanwhile, to be patient with their worry.

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Spot and a Still Small Voice

In my early days with sheep herding dogs, I thought the only way of getting through to them was through my voice….and the louder the better.

You see you train dogs in a big open field; and the sheep start running and so the dog starts running, and how do you get to that dog? You yell, of course.

That’s what I did. “Away to me! NO, AWAY to me. COME BYE!”  And especially, “Like down. Lie DOWN!!! LIE DOWN you so and so.”

It’s taken me ages to understand that Border Collies are just like people. They all have strong points, and they all have weaknesses. But above all they all have a strong will to herd sheep and please their handler–that is, unless that will is broken.

So, the worst thing you can do is to get into a battle of wills with a Border Collie. They are driven to control sheep. In the process of discovering their zone of effectiveness—the place to be in relation to the sheep and to you the handler–they will make all the young dog mistakes. But, while Border Collies can quickly learn the words and whistles for their directions, they get confused when their handler is putting up a wall of sound. So when they are working themselves into a frenzy herding the sheep—perhaps scaring the sheep, and inevitably chasing rather than moving the sheep where you want them–the last thing you want to give them is a war cry and a battle of  wills

So, no butting heads. In fact – that’s just why you have a Border Collie in the first place. That’s why you wanted your dog to be bred from a long line of dogs that have a huge, powerful will to herd sheep.

So, don’t fight it.

Instead, the only right thing—the wise thing—is to aim at forming a partnership—a team. Work at meeting the dog halfway. Work with, not against its youthful exuberance. Work with the dog’s unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.  Get out there with the sheep and the dog, position your body in the right place, and let the dog get in the zone where she or he is bringing the sheep to you. Then you can speak softly and the dog will hear you and respond. The key thing is, if you learn to understand your dog as your dog is learning to understand you and the sheep, you will win. If you get locked into a battle of wills, you will lose.

So, here’s the story of how this lesson came powerfully home to me.

About a dozen years ago I had a dog named Spot, bred from my two best herding dogs, Cap and Abbie. Spot was a powerful dog, able to move the most stubborn sheep with ease. He was tremendously athletic and could outrun our ATV at top speed, jump onto it at a clip, and jump off going 25 miles an hour. I couldn’t stop him when he got the urge. I winced, but he took each jump in his mighty stride.

Trouble was, Spot loved to bite sheep. I could work him on sheep for half an hour and he would look like a champ; but when the session was at an end and I was calling him off, he would look at me, look at the sheep, and then rocket in to grab a tail or a hind leg.

Spot shows his power and intensity. Photo by John

Then Aled Owen came to the farm. Over the years I had some of the world’s best dog trainers and handlers visit on the farm and give lessons to people. Aled is a Welshman who has won many International and World Sheepdog Championships. Our stock dog club had arranged for him to judge one of our big herding trials up in Wisconsin for the price of his flight here and back. But for him to make a little money, and make his trip worthwhile, he  gave lessons here at Heatherhope farm.

So, while he was here, I asked this great trainer of dogs to watch me work Spot. Sure enough, Spot showed of his style and power for a while, and then it. He started to dive into the sheep. I could see it coming, and, as was my habit, I growled. “Grrrrrrrr,”  I roared….to absolutely no avail.

I looked back at the great Aled Owen, and do you know what he said?  “You are just telling him to bite harder.”

Aled Owen of Wales giving lessons at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Just telling him to bite harder! As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. Spot was turned off by my inconsistent commands, and when his adrenalin was spiking, my blast of sound drove him on. I had gotten locked into a losing battle of wills with Spot, and was just teaching him to misuse and squander all his power and ability. Like an addict I had growled the same way to no avail, but kept thinking this time it might have better effect.

Incidentally, I learned later that Aled Owen himself had a “Spot” dog himself—one with a very similar attitude that he called his “little bulldozer.” He sold a video of him training this little hooligan, then, later sold him to another Welshman who promptly won the International Supreme Championship with this dog.

My experience with Spot has made me more sensitive to the battles of will among people, and the way the Bible depicts God’s personality. The Bible shows us God and godliness in humans from two contrasting perspectives. Sometimes it seems all God values is growling. But, in the end, God prefers the whisper.

A great place to notice this contrast is 1 Kings, chapters 18 and 19. Chapter 18 is all about God’s fiery side. Yahweh, the God of Israel, and his prophet, Elijah are furious that  many of the people of Israel can’t make up their minds where their loyalties lie. They are hedging their bets. Yahweh, their God, may have been with them from the time of Abraham, through Moses, to their entrance into Canaan. Yahweh had been a good bet in the past; but what about now when a drought is going on? What will make the crops grow? Better lay some of our money down, and devote some of our sacrifices and worship to Baal, the god of thunderstorms and rain.

So, chapter 18 is about the prophet Elijah and the 450 priests of the Canaanite god, Baal, having a contest on top of Mount Carmel. Who can bring down the lightening and fire on the sacrifices? Of course, Yahweh wins, so the prize is that the people of Israel are moved to say, “Yahweh indeed is God! Yahweh indeed is God.” What do the priests of Baal lose? Their lives. Elijah shouts, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Don’t let any of them escape!” And all 450 of them are marched down to the stream in the valley; and there they are executed.

That’s one way of looking at God. God is a growler. The Bible says “The Lord your God is a zealous God;” and that might seem a good and holy thing for God to be, and for us to emulate: smiting those sexual deviants of Sodom and Gomorrah, blazing and smoking in the pillar of fire and on top of Mount Sinai, and filling up the Temple with holy smoke.

Chapter 18 is all about the Lord on fire…Yahweh, growling. Here we see God zealous for justice. Perhaps more deeply we can see God as getting emotionally engaged. God sees his precious people messing up their lives because they can’t decide, and their loyalties are divided, and their thoughts, words, and actions are tearing them apart, all going in different directions. So, God lashes out in fire and thunder because God cares so much.

But Chapter 19 of 1 Kings is something quite different. The fire and the killing and the growling killed the 450 priests, but Israelites still bend toward Baal, Queen Jezebel taking the lead; and all of them are now after Elijah. Just like with me and Spot, Elijah’s and God’s  growling simply made Jezebel and the people of Israel bite harder.

Elijah, in turn, loses his zealous nerve, forgets his triumph, and sees only failure. It doesn’t even faze him that Yahweh is now caring quietly–following him all over and sending angels to give him water and food. Driven by fear and self-pity, Elijah runs away from the contest over the hearts and minds of the Israelites.

For that moment with Spot and Aled Owen, I could feel just a bit of what Elijah felt. My growling got me nowhere. The futility of it all left me feeling humiliated in front of a famous dog trainer. I wished the earth could swallow me up; and I wanted to quit the field.  

But then, this famous, glorious story. Elijah is sulking in a cave and running from the Lord, but the word of Yahweh comes to him and says, “Stand on the holy Mountain, because I’m going to pass by.” Then the wind, so strong it shatters the rocks; but the Lord isn’t in the wind. Then the earthquake; but the Lord isn’t in the earthquake. Then fire; but the Lord isn’t in the fire.

No growling. No snarling. No blazing zeal.

Instead, the Lord is in the sheer silence—the famous “still small voice.”

Yes there is fire and brimstone and a growling God in the Bible. But there is also Elijah who fails to turn things around on the lesser mount Carmel, and comes to a deeper truth on the premier Mount Horeb or Sinai.

And there is also Jonah.  God said to Jonah, “Go and call the hated enemy of Israel to repentance. God to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians—the very people who have starved your people, burned down their towns, taken them captive, raped their wives, and taken their children into slavery. Go there and call them to repentance!”

 Jonah says, “No. I want to hear you growl, God. I want you to burn the Assyrians to a crisp. I want to see your zealous side. I know if I preach repentance, Nineveh will repent and you will forgive, because you are a God who whispers peace and forgives. You are a God who prefers steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Jonah runs from Yahweh. Yahweh won’t give up, swamps Jonah’s boat, sends the giant fish to swallow Jonah, carry him back toward Nineveh, and spit him up.

When Jonah does call Nineveh and the hated Assyrians to repent, they do it, and God forgives them.

Like Elijah, Jonah has a downward spiral of anger, humiliation, and self pity. He  goes out into the wilderness, again like Elijah, and sulks. “I want God’s growling, not forgiveness! If I don’t get it, just kill me.”

Instead, Yahweh makes the castor oil bush grow up to shade Jonah. Jonah likes it. Snoozes a bit. Then Yahweh appoints a worm to eat up the bush, and Jonah gets even more pouty.

Finally, Yahweh scolds Jonah for his brand of zeal, which is pure hatred: “”You care more for the bush than for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

So, what connects my sheepdog, Spot, the prophets of Baal, and the Assyrians?  I say it’s the same lesson about our strategy in life for dealing with people or animals. If we get into a battle of wills, we lose. If we growl, we just tell them to bite harder.

People, like Border Collies, are all different, and all have a will of their own. Because they are all made by God, that will is born good, and it’s only ignorance that spoils it—ignorance that comes from discouragement and disbelief about our good will—born into us by God. The original sin is discouragement and distrust about the original blessing that God has designed into us: to help, to belong, and to do a good job.

We can’t win the battle of wills no matter how many of the prophets of Baal or unbelievers we kill. We can’t win the war no matter how many battles we seem to win. When we growl and fight, we just teach the other to bite harder.

The God of the Bible knows that.

No matter where we stand, we, like Jonah and Israel, don’t fully know our right hand from our left. We too are learning. We make mistakes and slip-slide away on our good intentions.

But growling and getting into battles of the will is the biggest mistake we can make.

Long before my willful dog Spot, I had many run-ins with my willful son, Jeremiah. One of the longest running tussles biggest was over his favorite music I thought of as noise. He would crank it up and I would shout, “Turn it down.” Now the advice I heard from James Dobson, and the program called “Focus on the Family” that was rising in popularity among so-called “Evangelicals,” was that, as a parent, I was to stand in for God, and as a child, Jeremiah was the sinner, naturally wanting to rebel from my authority. The most important thing for “Focus on the Family” was I had to fight to win.

But the funny thing was that when Jeremiah would crank up his playlist he would always ask me, “How did you like that, Dad? Isn’t that great?”

I had to admit: my son was not willfully trying to rebel. His will was to belong in the family, but as his own person, with his own tastes in music and his own personality. He truly wanted to offer up something that he thought would please his father. And it was very much the same with Spot, so many years later. I’m sure he bit the tail of the sheep thinking, “The very best thing I can do for my partner is teach that sheep that it can’t get away with anything.”

Another top sheepdog trainer, and my friend, Gordon Watt, has taught me the most about quiet handling of dogs. And he helped me come to the conclusion that Spot had so much power that he would be better herding cattle than sheep. Gordon gave Spot the opportunity to work with cattle, and helped me sell Spot to a Missouri ranch where he became a prized part of that operation.

Gordon Watt leading training clinic at Heatherhope. Photo by John

It was a steep learning curve with my son. Indeed, the more we faced off in a battle of wills, and the louder I got, the harder Jeremiah would retaliate. The louder I got the harder he would “bite” by acting out. For years now I have told young couples that they should raise and train herding dogs before having kids. And it may not be a sheer coincidence that the further I advanced in understanding Spot and my other dogs, the better I got using a “still small voice” with my kids, and the more they started talking in gentle tones in return. Gradually I learned my son’s strong will was a key part of all his good talents and traits—the very ones he has used for years, to start several companies, marry a wonderful woman, and raise two fantastic children.   

So, whether it’s Baal worshippers, Assyrians, or our own children or loved ones, or the people we work with, or the people we deal with in politics and civil life, if we only growl we just cause them to distrust more, resent more, hate more…and bite harder. Indeed, it would do us well as a nation to see that the crucial divide today is not between liberal and conservative. It is between those who insist on the battle of the wills, and those who admit to the futility of such conflict.

If we remember God’s still small voice, and try to use it to build and grow in our teamwork with the other, we will all be winners.

It is seductive to fix on God’s fire and fury at Sodom and Sinai, and think our own loyalty to the Lord is proven by flexing our muscles and acting the same way. It is easy to think we must be filled with zeal to be true to the zealous God. But surely that is not God’s preference. Surely it is not the way that wins hearts and minds. We must remember Elijah and the still small voice, Jonah and the call to repentance. We must remember the One who was filled with zeal for his Father’s house, and expressed that zeal by teaching, welcoming, teaching and healing. We must remember how the Word of God came to us whispering from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I will try to remember Spot always: Growl and he just bit harder. Remember his God-given good will, speak softly, and he learned.    

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Nothing Wasted

I notice those two dead spruce trees. Should I cut them down. They take up space. They are untidy. But, the mourning dove is there now, cooing. And the red winged black bird trilling; and armies of ants up and down feeding how many spiders and titmice.

Are these dead spruce trees truly wasted space? Photo by John.

I see shadows in my mind, of my days as a single parent, and the PhD that never materialized, and the painful decision not to teach Greek; because could I keep the family together and change careers with all those distractions?

Distractions. Wasted time. Torpedoed plans.

No, children are not distractions. Never distractions. Trees, even dead ones, and untidy ones, have absolute value in the great oneness of being. In the great community of life, even death has purpose.

Nothing is wasted where all things are loved.

Not distractions, but life lessons to be learned, again and again.

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Starling Feathers

On the tall maple tree on the south side of our house hangs several bird feeders. Every morning I stand at the window and watch the swarming.

My eyes search for the downy woodpeckers, the chickadees, and the flashy male cardinals. But just now none of them are there. Dozens of house sparrows, birds my dad used to derisively call “spotsies,” are fluttering everywhere. And hogging all the suet feeders were the starlings.

What a disappointment. Black blobs. Stubby tails. Screechy voices. I have a visceral dislike, perhaps even hatred, for starlings. Busy springtime nests of them in the cover of the propane tank regulator, and in my barn cupboard, annoy me no end.  And they are black. Just black.

I resent the senseless band of women who introduced them to America because they wanted to enjoy every bird mentioned by Shakespeare.

More than once in my life I have taken aim at starlings with air rifles, because they are good for nothing. Waste of space. Ugly. They come in gangs of thugs, scaring the other birds off. There goes the neighborhood.

Then I remembered a bird I thought to be beautiful. I snapped a picture, and looked it up. I first thought it looked different because it was immature. But then I learned starlings change colors without changing feathers. Dark and glossy in the summer, they turn white-spotted in the winter. And they are not all screech. Many times I hear meadow-larks, killdeer, and even robins, I’m being fooled. It is really just the virtuoso mimicry of starlings I am enjoying.

Immature adult starling with new fall, white-pointed feathers. Not so monochrome. Quite beautiful. Photo by John.

Then I remembered the funeral for my brother-in-law. After all the testimonials and the tears as we remembered this saint of a man married to his farm, I was turning home and witnessed the miracle of murmuration: synchronized swimming of thousands of starlings in the dusk. No one knows just why they mob dance just this way. Is it joy? Are they saying something? And, did they know at that moment that they were telling me God was laughing at the puny power of death?

Starling murmuration.

Now at the window, I try to go beyond looking. I try to behold. I bow my head to invite God to turn me around.

Like young David in John Updike’s story, “Pigeon Feathers,” I take a closer look, to work to notice the glory God lavishes on humble creatures, to breathe in the sacred, and breathe out the bacteria that infects my senses with ignorance, arrogance, and doubt.

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Cooper’s Hawk Spices Our Day

While our children and grandchildren live in warmer climates, and live lives that are filled with many adventures, life here on Heatherhope Farm, in the frigid winter months, can get quite boring–even more so now that, for the first time in twenty years, we have no pregnant ewes to tend.

Yesterday morning the greatest excitement was our very skilled workman, Lee, finishing up the drywalling and painting needed to patch holes in the wall and ceiling of our bathrooms left from a burst pipe that came with the “cyclone bomb” and 35 below zero wind chill just before Christmas.

Until! Until we glanced out the window to check on our scores of birds at our feeders. And there was one very singular bird. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, perched on a branch, only feet from our window. It was big enough to be a female–the larger of the species; and she was surveying her domain.

Is our Cooper’s Hawk perching on one leg to limit heat loss on a below-zero day? Photo by John.

Of course, all the woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, juncos, sparrows and finches of various sorts, had wisely disappeared for the time.

From time to time I have wondered if birds around our feeder are all programmed to take an occasional recess. But now I realize it may not be that they need time to digest. They may all clear out and go to their respective corners when this champion of agile and muscular flight comes to hunt up her meal.

Well, it made our day to see this majestic Accipiter perching and posing so near to our window. So we just wanted to share our photos with others.

Why are the Cooper’s Hawk’s eyes to bright? Experts guess that it helps nestlings attract attention from their parents so that they are sure to be fed. We think it makes them very handsome and very entertaining in any event. Photo by John.

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Epiphany 4 A: God Chose What Is Not to Destroy What Is

The readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany are…

Old Testament      Micah 6:1–8

Psalm                    Psalm 15

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Gospel                   Matthew 5:1–12

This is my last pandemic blog post.

Why my last? Because the people of the world are tired of the pandemic. Because I’m tired of my pandemic exercise of using each Sunday’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary to reflect on the madness of the world.

And I found a good excuse to end this exercise because a very wise man, and a very serious committee, have declared that we are “turning a corner” from pandemic to endemic. This was the declaration of Dr. Ofer Levy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist of Harvard University Medical School, and part of an advisory committee which is now recommending to the Food and Drug Administration that we move toward single annual vaccinations against Covid-19. (Reported in the January 26, 2023 New York Times)

This then is my excuse to move from weekly reflections on the Sunday readings to more occasional blog posts, and ones that draw wisdom from many sources, especially life here on the farm, and hopefully from the godly wisdom of insignificant people. I might call it blue collar wisdom and spirituality.

Of course, I am inspired by that mischievous apostle, Paul, in the most provocative verses from our New Testament reading for this day. All through the Corinthian correspondence Paul has in mind the challenge to his ministry presented by some very, very important people. These critics of him and his gospel see themselves as more authentic missionaries than Paul himself. Paul has no official credentials, no charisma or charm, and no strength of personality that one would expect of a great leader.

Paul makes no defense of himself. Instead of doing what a certain ex-President does, and talk always about himself, Paul makes the case for the revolutionary thing that God does in this world, centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Paul doesn’t seek to persuade people to choose him as leader. He makes his case instead about God’s choice. His argument punches through with three expressions of that choice that God has already signed, sealed, and delivered:  God chose the world’s foolish  to shame the wise; God chose the world’s weak to shame the strong; and God chose the things that are not to abolish the things that are.

This morning, just before I awoke, I dreamed a very familiar dream of trying desperately to get my things together for a trip home. As usual I was frustrated because the more I tried to get dressed, and pack suitcases, the more ridiculous the chaos become all around me. And, in this morning’s dream, I also could not get my memory together. Why was I here and not there? What was I trying to say to others? What tasks was I leaving unfinished? Ad infinitum. So, finally, just before I woke up, I had this sinking feeling, and said to myself, “I’m losing my mind.”

You see, I have had dreams of struggling to get home for decades, and frustration dreams for years and years. But I attribute this new fear of “losing my mind” to the creeping realization that I’m getting very old. When I was a young father, I had a months-long bout of existential anxiety. I thought of black holes. I thought of my young son dead and gone. My family doctor helped me out with a medication—thank you Lord—but he also advised me against reading obituaries in the paper. But lately I can’t seem to stop scanning those obituaries looking for birth dates later than 1947. There are way too many.

My time is coming. I can feel it. I now sing “Head and shoulders, knees and toes,” thinking they’re all letting me down.

It’s that last choice God makes, and Paul writes about, that jumps out at me today: “God chose what is not, to abolish what is.” God chose what is nothing!

It’s what the senile must think: “I’m disappearing.” It’s what the lonely feel: “I’m forgotten.” It’s what the women in Iran and Afghanistan say about having no rights, and knowing the “international community” is silent. It’s what the Palestinians said just today: “We are being killed off, but the world doesn’t notice.” We are nothing.

But when the Apostle Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, he realized that God is in the business of choosing nothing to overturn what is. And the greatest “what is” is death itself—the ultimate erasure.

Back when all I could think of were black holes and vanishing children, I learned that there wasn’t a damned thing I myself could do about it. That black hole of dread and anxiety had the power to swallow me up. I had to admit it to myself, and to my God in prayer. God answered when the darkness was lifted as surprisingly as it fell on me. God chose my weakness and foolishness to put me to shame, in order to resurrect me in Christ. I was nothing and could do nothing. But Christ does it all.

Now I will endeavor to be reminded of this good news, when I am dreaming, and when I am fully awake. When I’m losing my mind, my health, or my life, I will reach out to this comfort: God has chosen what is nothing. God has chosen me. And that makes all the difference.


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Epiphany 3 A: The Light of Jesus for Today’s Darkness

The lessons for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany are

Old Testament      Isaiah 9:1–4

Psalm                    Psalm 27:1, 4–9

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:10–18

Gospel                   Matthew 4:12–23

The first few chapters of Matthew have been overture. Now the action of the plot unfolds. Now it’s Light for the people in darkness.

This evangelist has used geography all along. God is already fulfilling old promises as the infant’s story begins to unfold. From as far away as the exotically foreign home of the magi of the East, the search is on for the promised King. They go to royal Jerusalem, but must travel to the insignificant Bethlehem of Judea to find this surprising Messiah. The Holy Family reverses, then retraces, the path of redemption between Egypt and Nazareth.

The geography continues as the plot unfolds as Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist is “handed over.” Jesus withdraws from the Jordan river banks, where he was anointed by his Father.  But he is not running away in fear. He is running to face humanity’s deepest misery in the place where it was perhaps felt most intensely. His new headquarters for his struggles with the demons is Capernaum, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

The years between 732 and 586 BCE were the time of absolute crisis that marked the death of Israel and the birth of Judaism. In 722 BCE the great northern kingdom of Israel would fall to Assyria’s war monster, Tiglath-Pileser III; and in 586 BCE the smaller southern kingdom of Judah would fall to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonia. But ten years before it all started, and before Israel as a whole would fall, the old tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali would be crushed, and its leading citizens scattered. Here were the first fruits of disaster—the heart of darkness.

But in Isaiah 9:1-4, the prophet passed on a promise from God: this first territory of darkness would also be the first to see the light of God’s salvation.

But the fulfillment of the promise was postponed. Isaiah saw the refugees from the North flood into and “multiply” the population of Judea and Jerusalem. Archaeologists have recently found evidence that Jerusalem’s population doubled after Israel’s fall. And Isaiah was full of hope that because of the spirit of prophetic humility, faith, and hope, that these northerners brought with them, the people of Judah would wake up and embrace the Light.

But it didn’t happen that easily. Indeed it would be centuries of exile and depression and the hard graft of inventing a new religion that would go far beyond devotion to nation or king or Temple. But the Light would come in the form of a new kind of anointed King. Jesus would be that counter-intuitive King who defies human reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:1-18) born in the stable of a humble home, a fugitive in his infancy, anointed in the trickling waters of the Jordan.

Matthew’s Gospel goes on to trace the Light through Jesus’ ministry. He will now go on to call followers to “fish for people.” He will proclaim good news and heal masses of people—among them the much-feared demoniacs and epileptics. He will declare to the world that happiness is not what we think it is. Jesus will say that ultimate blessing does not come to those who turn inwards, to protect, enrich or empower themselves, but to people who turn toward others. He will announce blessings for the peacemakers and those who love even their enemies. He will call his followers to pick up their crosses and be willing to even die in the service of others. Zeal for God is not expressed in fighting or killing others, but in serving and sacrificing for them.

The darkness we face today is the same old darkness that threatened to devour the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, and the crowds of people who came to hear the good news that Christ proclaimed. This demonic darkness calls itself Christian and patriotic, but it must be seen as the opposite of Christian because it denounces all the virtues that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified. While Jesus opened his arms to welcome those who were strange, foreign, and even threatening,  counterfeit Christianity says we should shut our doors to immigrants, arm ourselves against those who take to the streets to protest police brutality, and deny the right to happiness for those who identify themselves sexually different.

Darkness says to affirm others is to endorse their sin. The Light says to not affirm others is to surrender us all to the power of sin. Living forgiven frees us to forgive others.

Epiphany is the season of light. The days are lengthening. They will get warmer. The good news proclaimed this church year season alerts us to give thanks to God that Jesus Christ came to light our  way out of darkness and the shadow of death.


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Epiphany 2 A: Marching to a Different Drummer

The readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany are…

 Old Testament     Isaiah 49:1–7

Psalm                    Psalm 40:1–11

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Gospel                   John 1:29–42

Isaiah 49 sets the tone for this Sunday’s readings, describing Servant Israel as a hero who marches to a different drummer. The servant lives according to God’s just and compassionate order in a disordered world, and for the sake of redeeming that same world for God.

Guesses as to whom the prophet is writing about in the series of servant poems in Isaiah vary. Some say the Servant is Israel. Some say it is the ideal prophet. Some say it is the Persian King Cyrus. Some say it is Jesus. We can be safe in saying that there is some truth in all these possibilities.

In this text, verse 3 says unequivocally it is Israel, and yet, verse 5 says this servant’s mission is to bring back Jacob or Israel. We may then say that the servant here is a population within Israel who lives true to the nation’s calling to be the people of God. And the aim of living in this way is to be an example to others—to prick the conscience of others and move them to return to their true calling and authentic identity.

Key to the entire message of this text is the word translated as “cause” in verse 4, according to the NRSV. The servant is discouraged that it seems she or he has acted in vain, “…yet surely my cause is with the Lord…”

The Hebrew word for “cause” in this translation is mishpat. It is used 425 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated variously as decision, judgment, dispute, case, measure, justice, or law. But scholar Paul D. Hanson has described it as “The order of compassionate justice that God has created and upon which the wholeness of the universe depends.” (Hanson, P. D. (1995). Isaiah 40-66 (p. 129). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.) It is certainly an important idea in this portion of Isaiah, as evidenced by Isaiah 42:4, which declares that the Servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established mishpat in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

We could then say it is the demanding job description of a servant to live according to God’s order of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” while the world around is working within an order of “do unto others before they do unto you.”

When the Servant here complains about working in vain it is obvious that this Servant is not the Word made flesh, Jesus. This one, at least, is not a superhuman. In spite of discouragement this is someone like us, but one who lives by different rules, and marches to a far different drummer. This Servant lives counter-culturally, against the grain, within God’s order of compassionate justice, while those around do not.

This past week, after Kevin McCarthy was finally named as Speaker of the House, we have had a living example of how might makes right. Majority rules in Congress. Everything changes with the shift of a few chairs. All the priorities of the losers are swept away by the winners. We will stop protecting abortion rights and protect anti-abortion activists. We will stop investigating Trump and gear up for investigations of Biden. We will stop restoring funding to the IRS as they go after tax cheats, and start looking for ways of shrinking government altogether.

They say the golden rule is, “Those with the gold make the rules.” But it may be more accurate to say, “Those with the power…those who have wrangled the most votes…those who live according to the rule book of a fickle, self-serving, survival-of-the-fittest world, make the rules.”

In this way it seems Qoheleth was right when he wrote that “all is vanity—a chasing after wind.” It is the eternal pain of true Servants of God that to live for justice with compassion is like beating your head against a stone wall.

But true Servants do it anyway, knowing that, while their “cause” is with God, so is their “reward” (Isaiah 49:4). And God’s order is certain to win.

Meanwhile, as we wait for the ultimate “reward,” Servants do as the poet in Psalm 40 does, and celebrate those mini-triumphs along the road to social justice and perfect compassion. It is especially sweet and worth celebrating when a true Servant trusts God enough to resist the temptation to sell out by turning to the proud (Psalm 40:4).

Our Gospel reading from John lifts up Jesus as the highest ranking Servant of all. But even those of us who are easily discouraged, are called.

I for one would love to see more state officials in Illinois quit caving in to the proud  purveyors of fear who are attacking two vital changes to the laws of this state: one that ended cash bail and the other that outlawed the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in the state. Fear sells, and gets votes. And it has convinced a guy named Andy Sullivan that he is my sheriff in DeKalb County, Illinois. But he is not my sheriff when he tells people that only those who can afford cash bail deserve to be free as they await trial. And not when he tells people that we all need 50 caliber, semi-automatic weapons, and unlimited bullet capacity magazines, to defend our families.

Andy Sullivan is not a legitimate sheriff when he claims the right to decide which laws he will enforce. He is not my sheriff when he defends the right of gun dealers to sell, and others to own weapons of war, but will not defend my right, and the right of my neighbors, not to be mowed down by those same weapons.


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Baptism of the Lord A: God Shows No Partiality

The readings for the Baptism of the Lord are

Old Testament      Isaiah 42:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Acts 10:34–43

Gospel                   Matthew 3:13–17

When the author of Luke and Acts thought of the most important implication of Jesus’ baptism, he thought of this event as the inauguration of Jesus as Lord of all, who brings in a new order of universal respect: God shows no partiality!

The gospel proclamation that this author ascribes to Peter, comes when the apostle has had a revelation. Peter’s religion said that people should stay divided. Sex and diet have always been the heart of religious boundary maintenance. But Peter sees a net full of profane animals, and the heavenly voice says, “Forget your religious scruples. Eat these things, because what God has made clean you must not call profane.”  Then comes Cornelius, a gentile, pagan, Roman centurion onto the scene. The lesson of the vision is so fresh and vivid, that Peter understands it’s not just about food, but about people. It’s about people’s religious boundaries giving way to God’s greater purpose of bringing us all together. In fact, God does not respect divisive religious boundaries. Cornelius may be of a different faith, but he fears God and has such a good reputation that even the Jews speak well of him.

So, if God breaks down the barriers, so will Peter; and so will the church, when the church is at its best. Cornelius and his family will be baptized. In fact, Peter and the church have no real choice. They are impelled by God and God’s Spirit, to baptize. God has poured out the Spirit, and the church has no option but to respect it.

It is just before that spontaneous, instantaneous mass baptism, unencumbered by rules about catechesis, etc., that Peter gives this little speech about Jesus’ own baptism. And he prefaces the whole thing by saying this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Today we must restore this idea to its rightful place as the foremost truth of both Christian theology and ethics. God’s chief attribute is that God shows no partiality. Our morality has as its foundation that we think and live the same way.

This theology and morality is something we share with biblical Judaism. The Greek word the author of Luke-Acts puts in the mouth of Peter is a particularly biblical word, seldom found elsewhere in ancient literature. It is built up of a Greek word for taking, receiving, or grasping;  along with the word for the human face, the prosopon. In other words, God isn’t moved by the way a person looks.

The Old Testament is scattered with depictions of the rules of rank. One lowers the face to their “betters,” and lifts the face to demonstrate higher rank. Face is all about the timeless display of shame and honor. In this context, Deuteronomy ties the Jewish “sacrament” of circumcision with biblical equity. Israel bows to God alone to show that ethic to the world. As in Acts 10, the one important thing in life is to bow to and fear the LORD alone and then respect all people, especially the vulnerable among you. So, chapter 10 of Deuteronomy says this:

12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

And this very Jewish theology and morality, the early church emphatically takes to heart; and it is repeated not only here in Acts, but in Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25. It is a theology and ethic urged on all the elders of the church by the early church father Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians (Pol 6:1). These leaders should show compassion and mercy to all, but especially to the least advantaged.

Why is it so important to restore this principle to the top place in theology and ethics? Because discounting people is what rots society. When we ignore, disregard and discount anyone, it hurts us all. It is the virus that attacks all of our institutions. It destroys that which keeps us alive—the support each of us needs—because each of us is weak and limited and each of us needs the other to survive and thrive. There is not a single human on earth who has not relied on the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the differently abled, the refugee, the homosexual, the trans-gender person, the person of that other race or religion, or the sinner. As the sign said on the sheltered workshop I used to support many years ago, “God doesn’t make any garbage.” That means God never made anyone I don’t need.

God doesn’t show partiality. Neither should we. God doesn’t respect even our dearest, religiously justified boundaries. Neither should we.

And the Lord Jesus, anointed at his baptism, rules this best kind of world.


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