“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the man who ran up to Jesus. And Jesus responded with some of the Commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” 

It’s worth noting two things. First, that “You shall not defraud,” isn’t one of the big 10. In the Greek Bible the verb translated here as defraud means the act of keeping back the wages of a hireling. The reference is about economic exploitation

Jesus’ response was to tell the man to pay attention to the commandments, especially those commandments that have to do with maintaining the health—the vitality—of the neighborhood. As Walter Brueggemann says, the last six commandments make the neighborhood safe from theft and murder, enhance family integrity, curtail gossip and greed. To which the man responded, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 

The other thing that Jesus affirms is that only God is good. You may not have any egregious sins in the book of your life, but as good as you are, it’s not good enough to earn your way into eternal life.  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

“Follow me.” 

What a difficult thing it is to follow Jesus. Just look at him. Born in a stable, raised in a small town off the beaten path, baptized by a wild man, driven into the wilderness, followed by a ragtag group of Galilean peasants who rarely understood him and who abandoned him in his hour of need, and in his last hours endured the cruel capitol punishment of crucifixion. “Come, follow me,” he says.

What can I do? I want to inherit eternal life? Show me the way.

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go thru the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible . . . .” 

The larger point here is that salvation is not to be earned. How do I inherit? It’s not about strategizing, conniving to position oneself in order to get into the good graces of the Father—so that you’ll be remembered in the will. One inherits simply because one is a child of God. 

The problem with wealth . . . money wealth, spiritual wealth, educational wealth, wealth of IQ, wealth in ego, wealth in virtue and righteousness . . . the problem with wealth is that when we have something out of the ordinary . . . we tend to think that we did something grand. Hey world, look at me, my ability, my skill, my wisdom, my widget, my acumpucky . . . my whateveris better, shinier, broader, faster, more remarkable, glitzier than anyone else’s. The more wealth I have, the more difficult it is to be humble, the more tempting it is to believe that it’s all a result of my own effort. 

As the old saying goes, some people were born on third base and think that they’ve hit a triple.

So if wealth doesn’t get you saved—if virtue and faith aren’t enough for eternal life, then what? Basically, to worry or focus on my salvation is just another form of self-centeredness. It’s a preoccupation with what’s going to happen to me. Jesus invites us, instead, to give our attention to God and to our neighbor . . . especially the neighbor who is poor, un-wealthy. “Give away your wealth and follow me,” he says. “Take care of your neighbor and walk in my footsteps.”

The footsteps are those of one who was willing to empty himself . . . willing to live for others.  

Along Interstate 70 between here and Columbus is a large sign that asks, “If you die tonight, where you will spend eternity?” We hear the question in some form or another all the time. But Jesus says it’s a selfish question—because it’s a question about me. 

  • Better that we ask where God’s homeless children are going to spend the night tonight, now that the temperatures are beginning to drop and the utilities are being shut off?
  • Better to ask where God’s children are going to get healthcare today when their fevers spike and their flu goes into pneumonia and their mom has no money to buy the over-the-counter fever medication? 
  • Better to ask where our neighbors are going to find a meal when the food bank’s shelves are bare? 
  • Better to ask what we can do to teach Johnny and Sally to read?
  • Better to ask what we can do to make sure that God’s children have clean air to breathe and safe water to drink? 
  • Better to ask what needs to happen so that they can play safely at the neighborhood park, grow up in a world where there are jobs, affordable housing, and a shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Better to ask what we can do to ease the burden for those whose homes and livelihoods were blown away or drowned in the recent hurricanes. 

“And you’re worried about your eternity?” Jesus asks the man.  Jesus instructions to the man’s question can be summarized in this way: “Love God . . . love your neighbor. Leave eternal life to the Eternal One.” 


In today’s Gospel we hear two of the disciples, brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee the fisherman, make a specific request of Jesus. They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free of Roman occupation, establish his kingdom’s capitol on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. They thought of Jesus as this kind of king. They were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign as this new king of Israel. And they were saying, “Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne.”

They imagined themselves to be at the top of Jesus’ cabinet—chief advisors in the new administration: James and John, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. 

But the problem with James and John and the other disciples as well—the problem with many of their successors among the followers of Jesus, right up to the present day—is that we’ve all got some of Zebedee’s DNA. We, too, would like to have some power and authority and some recognition.

In one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, just five weeks before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this same text in a sermon he titled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  

The drum major instinct, he said, is “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it’s something that runs the whole gamut of life” from the infant who demands to have to have her need for milk or a clean diaper to be met before all other’s needs are given attention—to the desire to win the weekly Bingo game in the nursing home. 

So before we condemn James and John, let’s understand that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. 

But before we rush out to join the Jesus’ parade, let’s pause to listen and try to understand what he’s saying.

Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

What James and John and the rest of the disciples didn’t understand is that the kingdom that Jesus came to usher in wasn’t simply the restoration of the kingdom of David or a replacement for the Kingdom of Caesar—but the realm of God that is a whole alternate reality.

The image for that is captured in a scene that we can imagine from Palm Sunday.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that there were two processions that entered the holy city of Jerusalem that day.  (Or if not on the same day, they were very close in time.)

The one we don’t hear about very often entered from the west gate of the city. Heading that procession was Pontius Pilate, riding a warhorse, leading 600 mounted and foot soldiers, all fully armed and carrying the insignia and trappings of power and empire, domination and control. They were from the Legio 10thFretensis, Legion of the Boar, that occupied Palestine in the time of Jesus. Their symbol was the head of a pig that they proudly flew as they marched into the capitol of the Jews. They came to Jerusalem in order to reinforce the local garrison for the Feast of the Passover.

Coming in from the East gate of Jerusalem was another procession . . . a counter procession . . . led by Jesus riding on the foal of an ass, with a ragtag crowd of Galilean peasants and other poor folk, waving and throwing palm branches . . . proclaiming, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Two contrasting processions: dominion, empire, wealth and power on the one hand; freedom, justice, humility, and love on the other. It was a form of guerilla theater.

Another contrast: Caesar sitting on a golden throne and wearing a gold crown. And Jesus, a crown of thorns on his head, his throne a hard wooden cross, a sign above proclaiming “The King of the Jews,” and his companions, one on his right and one on his left, both thieves. Not exactly the scene that James and John were imagining when they asked Jesus to be on his right and left when he came into his glory.

‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

There are different ways of being in the world. There’s the way of the powers and the principalities of this world and there’s the path taken by Jesus. He said to his disciples: 

‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

When Dr. King preached his sermon on “The Drum Major Instinct,” he asked:

What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You’re out of your place. You’re selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”

But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. 

But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do.” 

The church is called to this alternate reality. The test of the faithful church is never about our personal priorities or aggrandizement. By the standards of the world, Jesus was a dismal failure. The test of the faithful church isn’t whether we can make a show of power and strength, but whether we are servants of one another—and servants of those that Jesus brings to our attention.

Who are you serving today? This week? It may be a member of the church. Perhaps a personal friend. Or someone in your neighborhood or at the grocery store. Stand up for them. Comfort them. Seek for their wellbeing and their peace.

And you will be a Drum Major for Jesus.


In the wider Protestant tradition this last Sunday of October is observed as Reformation Sunday. It commemorates the day—the 31stof October, 1517—when Martin Luther affixed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. 

There were many forces at work that brought about the Reformation. But the presenting issue for Martin Luther—the straw that broke the camel’s back, if you will, was the sale of indulgences by the papal representative in the German states, Johann Tetzel.  An indulgencewas a free pass from performing whatever penances a person might have been given in order to obtain forgiveness of sins. 

For example, you might go into the confessional to confess, and then be given a penance—if you said a certain number of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s and, perhaps, apologized to your mother, you’d be absolved of your transgression.  But if you possessed an indulgence, you didn’t have to perform the penance and your mother never had to know.

It was during the 16thcentury that the popes were engaged in expensive renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. It was the time of Michelangelo. The sale of Indulgences was used as a fund-raising mechanism for the Vatican’s Capital Improvement Fund. 

In the hands of a Johann Tetzel, priests were told to issue impossible penances to the wealthy (for example, learn Greek and read the entire Bible in Greek). Many of these folk were nearly illiterate, and so they were moved to purchase one of Tetzel’s indulgences for an exorbitant sum of money.

Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of New Testament, was a tortured soul who did every penance and even tried self-inflicted suffering and pain to rid himself of overwhelming guilt for the most minor of infractions. But despite all of his efforts, he never felt clean and righteous and worthy of the love of God. 

In preparation for teaching a class on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther, read in his Bible, Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to his grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” 

That passage caused a revolution in both Luther’s soul and in his understanding. We’re justified, we’re at peace with God, not by our works, not by our own efforts, as wonderful as they may be, but by trust in God who saves us by his free gift . . . the gift we call grace. 

Tetzel and his indulgences represented to Luther the very worst of the old understanding that it’s up to each of us to achieve our own salvation, even if we have to buy it. We’re at peace with God, he claimed, because God desires it, and God gives it to us freely. So Luther devised 95 theses against indulgences for debate in his classes and posted them on what amounted to the University of Wittenberg’s bulletin board. And the Reformation was off and running. 

What needs to be emphasized here is that although there may not always be a Johann Tetzel character around, the deeper meaning of the Reformation was a tremendous paradigm shift. Tetzel’s sale of indulgences was built on a hierarchical model of church. I relate to God through the sacraments, mediated through the priest, who relates to the bishop, who goes through the archbishop and cardinals, who are connected to the Pope who is the only one who has direct access to Jesus. 

It’s a system of control of thought and behavior by the threat of ex-communication. If you cannot be forgiven (because you’ve not performed your penance or obtained an indulgence—or if you cannot have access to the other sacraments) then you, in effect, have been cut off from God.

The new paradigm introduced by the reformers can be summed up in the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” Here is radical egalitarianism. Everyone has access to Jesus! No hierarchy stands between you and your Lord. You are a priest, just as I am a priest. 

The first thing the reformers did was to dismantle the old paradigm. 

  • They translated the scriptures into the language spoken by the people. 
  • Then they started worshipping in the vernacular rather than in Latin. 
  • The sacraments became windows into the presence of God rather than doors that could be closed to keep one outside the community of faith. 
  • The pope became simply the Bishop of Rome and not the keeper of the only keys into the kingdom of God. 
  • And on these shores, even our bishops are elected—where lay votes carry as much weight as clergy votes. 

A fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit blew through the crusty old church and created new life!

As (Jesus) and his disciples were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

Bartimaeus is discouraged from seeking Jesus . . . from getting to Jesus. The in-crowd see it as their duty to protect him. But the cry of the blind man breaks through to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!”

“Have mercy,” is the cry of all people who want to be in touch with God. The Bible is full of folk, from all walks of life—Kings, generals, centurions, governors, notorious sinners, priests, outcasts, prophets, beggars, lepers—all seeking to get close to God, to be blessed, to experience the mercy of God. 

Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he’s calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

We had a Reformation for a reason. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus, hearing the cries for mercy, says:“Call him here.” Let the women come to me. Let the children through. Open the doors. “Come unto me, all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

As one person has observed, “The words on the Church sign should never say, ‘Be quiet! Stay away!’ Two words conspicuously absent from the sign are ‘except’ and ‘unless.’” 

For us children of the Reformation, the word on the sign and in our practice is simply and profoundly, “Welcome!” God has created you and has a dream for your life and for our world. Come, let us explore it together.

Amen.

The Beatitudes. They form such a poetic and wonderful introduction to Jesus Sermon on the Mount. Beatitude means blessing.

These blessings form a list of qualities, virtues, and actions that frame a Christian life – and we’re encouraged to adopt them and live them out in our own lives. Poor in spirit, mournful at the plight of the world, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, makers of peace, willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness. One way to think of these is as blessings for those who are able to practice them. 

But what if we approach these Beatitudes from another angle? Imagine what it might be like to see the Beatitudes practiced and lived. What would it be like to stand outside of and behold a Beatitudinal community?

We’ve seen glimpses. There was the convent of sisters led by Mother Teresa ministering to the severest illnesses among the poorest of the poor in India. There was the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King, Jr. whose non-violent movement led to the collapse of the first Jim Crow.

I recently became aware of another example. Throughout 1988 and 1989, every Monday night people gathered in St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany, to pray for peace and freedom. Leipzig was in The German Democratic Republic, what we in the west called East Germany. These folk lived behind the wall that divided Berlin and the two Germanies. The prayers for peace began to attract larger numbers of people. State authorities set up roadblocks, arrested participants, and tried to cancel the peace prayers altogether. But the crowds kept coming and growing to the point that the two-thousand seats in the church were insufficient.

On October 9, 1989, some 1,000 Communist Party members along with Stasi (state police) were ordered to go to St. Nicholas Church in an attempt to take the majority of seats before the peace pray-ers arrived in early evening. 600 of these representatives of the state were in the church nave by 2 pm. What many haven’t considered is that these folk were exposed to the word, to the Gospel. At each gathering the Beatitudes were read. 

One of the clergy from St. Nicholas has written: 

I always appreciated that the Stasi members heard the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount every Monday. Where else would they hear these? So these people heard Jesus Christ’s Gospel, which they didn’t know, in a church they couldn’t do anything with. They heard from Jesus, “Blessed are the poor!” Blessed are the meek!” “Blessed are the persecuted!”

The prayers for peace that particular night ended with the bishop’s blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands – an un-forgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred. Jesus’ spirit of non-violence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power. 

Within a month, this movement caused the party and the ideological dictatorship to collapse, on November 9, 1989.

Horst Sindermann, a member of the Central Committee of East Germany, said before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”[1]

People who had never heard the Gospel, standing outside of the Christian community, heard the words of Jesus and watched as they were practiced in deed. And they were blessed. The world was blessed.

The passage we heard from the Revelation to Johnspeaks about a vision of heaven where there was a group that were following Jesus, a group that was 144,000 strong. But John, in his vision then sees a far larger group.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,

   and worship him day and night within his temple,

   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

   the sun will not strike them,

   nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,

   and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’[2]

I like to think that the Communist Party members and the Stasi are among those multitudes that were too great to number. Looking at the Beatitudinal community, from the outside, they found themselves transformed. 

The part of Germany near and around Leipzig was the area where Martin Luther lived and worked and witnessed almost 500 years earlier. Luther, early leader of the Protestant Reformation, was strongly opposed and resisted by many religious and secular authorities of his day. When Luther was feeling alone and oppressed, consumed by self-doubt, he would remind himself, “I am baptized!” It was a way of affirming that he was not alone – he was a child of God, and he was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: the saints of God.

All Saints’ Sunday is a family reunion. Barbara Brown Taylor[3]says that all of these saints are our relatives. This is one of the traditional Sundays for baptism. And although we don’t have any baptisms today here at St. Christopher’s, the reason that this is a baptism Sunday is that we want the new saints to meet the old ones. We don’t want them to miss knowing and connecting with their ancestors.

When we hear of the awful things that are happening in our world—racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of immigrants attempting to escape horrific circumstances, pipe bombs sent to politicians and news agencies, we remember Jesus, unjustly persecuted and killed on trumpted-up charges. We remember the saints who have followed him. And we take courage from their witness.

I conclude with these words from The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, a native American of the Choctaw Nation, retired Bishop of Alaska and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School: 

“They are watching over us, all those who have gone before. They are our ancestors and they have seen enough in their own lives to know what we are going through. They have survived economic collapse, social unrest, political struggle, even great wars that raged for years. Now from their place of peace they seek to send their wisdom into our hearts, to guide us to reconciliation, to show us the mistakes before we make them. Their love for us is strong. Their faith in us is certain. When times get hard, sit quietly and open your spirit to the eternal grandparents who are still a part of your spiritual world. Receive their blessing, for their light will lead you home.”[4]

Amen.



[1]The Rev. C. Fuhrer, St. Nicholas At Leipzig.

[2]Revelation 7:9, 13-17.

[3]Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way.

[4]Facebook, Episcopal Intercultural Network, October 25, 2018

Cinderella in the Bible

Esther and Ruth are the Bible’s only books dedicated to the stories of women and named after them. Coming out of a heavily patriarchal, male-dominated world, the surprise is that women got any books at all. To my mind, Ruth is the most memorable biblical woman. 

The context was a particularly strong nationalist and xenophobic period in Israel’s history where people circled the wagons, so to speak, and focused very much on the purity of the Hebrew religion and people. The Second Temple period, beginning about 500 years before Jesus, marked the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon—rebuilding the City of Jerusalem and especially the Temple—on the very spot—the Temple Mount—that’s so much in the news today—a holy site for Jews and Moslems.

Among the new laws that were passed were statutes banning intermarriage with foreigners. Men who were already married to foreign wives were required to divorce them and send them away. Foreign menwere also deported.

So it was in this context that the Book of Ruth was written to express a very different point of view. In a sense it was a very early historical novel, purportedly taking place at least 600 years before it was written. Ruth was a Moabite. The ancient kingdom of Moab was located on the Eastern shore of the Dead Sea and is part of the modern Kingdom of Jordan. 

The story is that Ruth married the son of a Jewish couple who were living in Moab. Her father-in-law, brother-in-law, and her husband all died, leaving only Ruth, her sister-in-law, and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi decides to return to her Jewish homeland and to the City of Bethlehem where she has relatives who might care for her. Ruth promises to go with Naomi, in those memorable words:

Where you go, I will go;

   Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

   And your God my God.[1]      

As we discover in the final verses of the story, Ruth the Moabite, Ruth the foreigner, was an ancestor of the great king David. The obvious argument was that if someone so completely Jewish as David could have a foreign great-grandmother, then who are we to treat the strangers among us so harshly and with such contempt?

On one level, the story of Ruth is that of a biblical Cinderella. The outsider, the least, the lost, the nobody is “discovered”, lifted out of her poverty, brought into the home of the wealthy and powerful Boaz. She marries her prince charming.

Writer, pastor, and blogger Carol Howard Merritt recently reflected on Ruth’s story from a very different perspective—as the difficult experience of many women, past and present.

Ruth travels with her mother-in-law after a devastating tragedy. They’ve lost everything. Naomi is mourning the death of her spouse and two sons; Ruth has lost her husband. We can assume that, without a man, they’ve also lost their property, income, and savings. But they do have a few resources. Ruth has her youth, Naomi has family connections, and they hold a covenant with each other. So they set out for Judah.

Much has changed since Ruth’s day, but too much stays the same. In this country, we’ve developed incredible wealth—but we still haven’t learned to share it. Even though we’ve mastered so much technology, we still haven’t learned how to make sure that working people receive a living wage.

Carol Merritt continues:

I’m afraid for Ruth. I’ve read this story since I was a little girl, but it sounds so different now. There are many things not quite mentioned in the text, but it’s easy to fill in the details from Boaz’s words. “Keep your eyes on the fields,” he instructs her. “I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you,” he says. Then, to the workers, “Do not humiliate her” and “don’t scold her.”

I set down the scripture. Now it’s not just these two women passing through my mind but scores of women I’ve met on the streets and in shelters, women who’ve been abused in their struggle for survival. Boaz’s words suggest either that Ruth has already been assaulted and humiliated, or that it would’ve been customary for a woman in her position to expect abuse. Too many things haven’t changed.

When I read the book of Ruth as a child, I didn’t understand how susceptible her body is. I didn’t grasp the nature of her submission when she says, “All that you tell me I will do,” or the sexual euphemisms of the threshing floor and the uncovered feet. I did not apprehend what it means for her to be redeemed, with all its overtones of ownership and property. I did not—I could not—know how vulnerable, resilient, and courageous women could be.

Now I worry about Ruth when she goes to Boaz. Is he gentle with her? I imagine that he is, since he marries her. But then why does Ruth hand her baby over to Naomi to nurse? Why do the women say that Naomi has a child? Can’t they see that the child is Ruth’s? It’s her submission, her womb, her flesh that saves them. Is she still an outsider, still a Moabite, even though she made a covenant to Naomi’s people and her God?

There are so many things in this story that sound all too familiar.[2]

This morning we heard about another woman. She’s the poor widow in the Gospel text. There is no suggestion of a reversal of fortune for her. She’ll never be mistaken for a Cinderella. 

Jesus was telling his followers to 

‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. 

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ 

This text is almost always used as a stewardship text. “Give everything you have, be generous, don’t just tip God out of your abundance.” Now don’t get me wrong—that’s not a bad message, and I might want to use it again like that sometime! 

But there’s something here that I’d never noticed before. How do those wealthy scribes become wealthy? “They devour widows houses.” 

Could this widow, putting her last two coins into the offering plate in the presence of those who’ve robbed her blind, watching them place their bags of money in the plate—bags of money that contain, in part, the proceeds from her stolen home. Could this woman not just be “giving joyfully out of her poverty” – but instead throwing her last two coins into the pot as an act of defiance? 

“Here, you missed these. Take them, too! So there!”

Of course, we’ll never know. But one thing is certain. Jesus noticed her, just as we’re invited to notice Ruth and Naomi, a nameless widow and all the poor widows, orphans, the displaced, the refugees, the broken ones. Some of them are here in Fairborn and close at hand. Others are floating through dangerous Mediterranean waters, crossing desserts, fighting horrible diseases, seeking shelter, safety and some semblance of hope.

Their futures may not be ones of living happily ever after. But God notices. And holds them in his heart.

Let us not despair. But be grateful that we, too, are able to notice and to respond as we are able. 

Amen.


[1]Ruth 1:16

[2]Carol Howard Merritt, Lectionary Column: Living By the Word, Christian Century, October 27, 2015


The First Sunday of Advent

Well, here we are on the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. Happy New Year!

Thanksgiving has come and gone . . . or mostly gone, depending on how many leftovers you still have. Black Friday and Cyber Monday has come and gone. And now we’re seriously into the Christmas season and Christmas spirit  . . . except when you go to Church. 

Here there are no carols playing . . . no Christmas lights shinning . . . no Santa Claus . . . no manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. O, we’ll be adding these things over the next weeks as we prepare for Christmas. What we have here at the beginning of Advent are our blue altar hangings and an wreath with a lonely candle burning and these lessons about the coming of the Lord, apocalyptic texts about the Second Coming of the Lord of Heaven, judgment, and righteousness.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21: 34-36)

I dare you to read this at the office or neighborhood Christmas party. It would be kind of hard to make a carol out of it or to put it in a Christmas card. 

The disconnect here is that culturally, we’re preparing for a celebration of the first coming of Jesus . . . the one described in the beginning chapters of Luke’s gospel that speak of angels singing sweetly to shepherds watching their flocks by night—about the baby to be found in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloths. 

But the Church is drawing our attention to the Second Coming that is forecast for the end of time when 

 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:25-28)

So Advent is preparation for two comings of Jesus. The first is well taken care of by the culture. But the Second Coming is the one to which our attention is drawn today. And as one writer has observed:

Luke wrote with a deep and growing sense that Christian discipleship is a kind of living in between—aware of Jesus, waiting for Jesus, and coming to know this Jesus for whom we wait in the midst of an eventful, unpredictable, even tumultuous world, waiting to stand before him, yet not always knowing where he is.[1]

Living as we do, in between the first and the second coming—we live with uncertainty. Oh, we try mightily to have everything nailed down and wrapped up. But God is always on the move. Out ahead and beyond our formulas and descriptions. 

Our Jewish brethren refuse to speak the name of Yahweh, for to do so would somehow limit, confine, define the Holy. The great sin is idolatry. The commandment is to not make unto ourselves any graven images, to bow down and to worship them. 

And whether the idol is a crèche scene and Christmas as we’ve always known it, a church building and worship done in a certain way, the Bible understood as the immutable, unchangeable word of God—God is always moving on. 

Here in Luke, chapter 21, the verses for today’s gospel are set in the context of the destruction of the Temple.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Luke 21:5-6)

In fact, by the time that Luke penned these verses, the Temple, the center of Jewish life, culture, and identity had already been destroyed by Roman legions in the year 70 C.E. So once again God’s people were set adrift and forced to rediscover life, culture, and identity without the sign and symbol of God’s presence among them—which now lay in ruins, along with the city that had contained it.

As the destruction and desecration of previous temples and multiple defeats and exiles had proven, time and again, present arrangements and current understandings will end, God cannot be contained, and in the words of the old hymn, “time makes ancient truth uncouth.”

Famine, wars and rumors of war, genocide, peoples in exile, signs in earth and seas of environmental catastrophy are still very much a part of our world—along with the greed, and poverty that we never seem to avoid. 

And so we begin a new year. As we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, these four weeks of Advent remind us that we people of faith are called to stay awake, be alert, to look for signs of the divine in this in-between time. The Jews of the late first century had to reinvent their religion—to find the dwelling place of God when the temple was no longer. 

The Christians had also worshipped in the temple—so they, too, came to realize that the dwelling place of God wasn’t in stone—but in the one they called Emmanuel: God with us. 

Where is Emmanuel today? Certainly not confined to a child in a manger, not limited to Jesus of Nazareth who is no longer physically among us, and not to be so until he comes again with power and great glory. So where is the Holy to be found in the meantime?

Be awake! Be alert! Be on the lookout for signs of Emmanuel. This is the task of God’s people as we enter this new year of God’s time. Let me give you a hint of where to start: look around you, and see the Body of Christ. 


[1]Wesley D. Avram, writing on this Luke text in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1,David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22

Gospel in a Blue Note

Lord Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi in Great Britain. He opens his most recent book with these words:

. . . . God weeps. So the book of Genesis tells us. Having made human beings in his image, God sees the first man and woman disobey the first command, and the first human child commit the first murder. Within a short space of time ‘the world was filled with violence’. God ‘saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth’. We then read one of the most searing sentences in religious literature. (Genesis 6:6) ‘God regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.’[1]

Nothing was different by the time of Jesus. He was born into a world of mass murder (the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem), beheading (John the Baptist), and crucifixion (Jesus himself and thousands of others in the first century). This wasn’t the world of Hallmark cards and prosperity Gospel, sugar plum fairies and red-nosed reindeer, but a world of evil and pain.

In the reading this morning we heard John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, describing the world of “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”[2]

Some years ago there began a movement to hold “Blue Christmas” services for people who couldn’t bring themselves to participate in the happiness and joy of the season—folk who were recently bereaved, depressed, wounded in some fashion. But there has always been a sense in which Christmas is blue, and we should never forget that there’s a contextual gloom. 

This contextual gloom is so much a backdrop to our world as well. It seems that there’s a new report of evil, of carnage, of mass destruction in every news cycle . . . punctuated by natural disasters and pending disasters. Place names, formerly known and unknown, now carry a punch: names like Columbine, Nichel Mines, Sandy Hook, Ferguson, Paris, Paradise, California and so many others.

In his 2014 Beecher Lectures at Yale University, The Rev. Otis Moss, suggested that in this context, the Church must learn to speak the Gospel in a Blue Note. The blues combined African rhythms with the experienced pain of slavery. The result was the emergence of the spirituals that spoke of struggle in a way that sustained the slaves in their darkness.[3]

Many Christians speak of Jesus as savior and liberator of those who have their backs up against the wall. But before looking at Jesus as savior of the oppressed or as victor over the power of death—we need to pause and see Jesus as a victim—a victim who understands what it means to be terrorized, diminished, and demeaned.[4]

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

According to Flannery O’Connor, Christians . . . are burdened by their knowledge of an alternative world because they have encountered a God of grace and love. But the world that they look at does not fit the alternative world. . . .  They see “the grotesque,” who are out of synch with God, as well as characters who demonstrate the grace of God even though they (too) are distanced from God. Through this tension (we are) drawn to the grotesque of blues and find that God is loose in the world.[5]

I think of Mother Teresa who felt separate from God—abandoned by God—but demonstrated God’s love every time she wiped the face of a leper—which of course was the face of Jesus. 

Moss says that “Blue note (theology) is a way of knowing. We refuse to turn away from the beauty in the ashes; neither shall we turn from the ashes that were once a bouquet of beauty.”[6]

I think of the provost of Coventry Cathedral, England. On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, the City of Coventry burned to death. Wave after wave of Nazi bombers spewed destruction from the heavens. It was the first attempt in the history of warfare to totally destroy a city by indiscriminate bombing in a single operation. It was not the last: Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But Coventry was the first.

The next morning’s dawn revealed the full horror of a dying city. The silence was the silence of shock and terror. A small group of people gathered in the smoldering ruins of their beloved cathedral and caretaker Jack Forbes took two charred 14thCentury roof timbers and fashioned them into a rude cross and drove it into the rubble, making it another Calvary, identifying human suffering, brutality, and pain with the Crucifixion of Jesus. 

Provost Richard Howard then etched two words in the ashes at the foot of that rude cross, words from Jesus’ own lips when he hung on his cross: “FATHER FORGIVE.”

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

Otis Moss tells the story of learning about the Gospel in a Blue Note from a six-year old girl. His parish, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was going through a stressful time. 

My predecessor had been unfairly lifted up and attacked in the media because a person who’d been kissed by nature’s sun was running for the presidency. 

As a result media were outside of our church everyday. There were a hundred death threats every week: “We are going to kill you. We are going to bomb your church.”

The stress was so painful that it was very difficult to sleep at night. One night I was half asleep and heard a noise in the house. My wife, Monica, punched me and said, “You go check that out.” 

So I did. Like a good preacher I grabbed my rod and staff to comfort me. I went walking through the house with my rod and staff that was made in Louisville with the name Slugger on it.

I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again. I made my way back upstairs and peaked in my daughter’s room. There was my daughter Makayla dancing in the darkness—just spinning around, saying, “Look at me, Daddy.”

I said, “Makayla, you need to go to bed. It is 3 a.m. You need to go to bed.”

But she said, “No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.” And she was spinning, barrettes going back and forth, pigtails going back and forth.

I was getting huffy and puffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me. “Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it is not in her!”

Makayla reminded me that weeping may endure for a night, but if you dance long enough joy will come in the morning. It is the job of preachers to teach the Blue Note gospel, the gospel that sends this word to us in the hardest of times: do not let the darkness find its way in you. Dance in the dark.[7]

Don’t let the darkness live in you. No revenge. No hatred. No sense that getting even is part of our response to great evil. The only retort that does not encourage more evil is forgiveness and love. 

The next time you hear of monstrous evil, and the pundits and politicians start their hateful rants, turn them off. Listen, rather to the angels. “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid.” Listen to the child dancing in the dark. 

Amen.


[1]Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Schocken Books: New York, 2015, p. 3

[2]From the Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79. Quoted text is from Luke 1:79.

[3]Article in The Christian Century, Nov. 25, 2015 adapted from Otis Moss, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, Westminster John Knox, 2015, based on his 2014 Beecher Lectures at Yale.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

The preaching of John the Baptist is hard to take. As one writer put it, “The words of John the Baptist go down sideways in the throat.” (Elizabeth Kaeton).

The full impact of John’s words to the crowds is still somewhat muted by the

biblical language. Here’s a freer, paraphrased, rendition by Eugene Peterson.

“When crowds of people came out for baptism because it

was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes!

What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?

Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect

God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin.

And don’t think you canpullrankby claiming Abraham as

‘father.” Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor

there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make

children from stone if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it

green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the

fire.”

The crowd asked him, ‘Then what are we supposed to do?”

“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the

same with your food.”

Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what

should we do?”

`He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is

required by law.”

Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be

content with your rations.”

The interest of the people by now was building. They were

all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river.

The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand,

will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you,

changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean

house—make a cleansweep of your lives. He’ll place everything

true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out

with the trash to be burned.

There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to

the people, words that put heart in them.”

Or as our more traditional text puts it: “So with many other exhortations he proclaimed Good News to the people.”

To whom is the message of vipers, judgment, and chaff being thrown into the unquenchable fire—to whom is this Good News? 

After 2000 years it’s easy for us to be oblivious to the context. John the Baptist and Jesus were followed primarily by people who were on the edges of first century society. And that was just about everyone, because there was no middle class to speak of. Either one was in the upper ranks of the Temple elite or a high official of the Empire (the top one or two percent), or you were among those who had to go along to get along.

The tax collectors, soldiers, and other folk in the crowds that came out to the Jordan were basically powerless. For most of them, life came at them and they either endured or succumbed. Some got a leg up on their fellows by collecting taxes and adding a little bit on top for themselves. Soldiers sometimes shook down or blackmailed the people of the land in order to supplement their rations. And many in the crowds hoarded clothing, food, or other commodities against the almost certain time when their fortunes would take an ugly turn. 

John exhorted people to return to the basic principles of their religious tradition by sharing what they had, by treating others fairly and with dignity. And then he went a step farther. He told them that God was now ready to do a new thing. God would save them from lives without meaning. He would fill them with Spirit and fire. And they would be enrolled as citizens of the realm of God. They would be the beloved of God. And God would remember their sins no more.

This is the heart of the message of John the Baptist. It’s not what the people doto earn / win / achieve salvation. Rather, the focus of the Baptist’s message is what Godis doing.

The same is true of the other prophets. Today we heard Zephaniah proclaim:

            I will remove disaster from you,

              so that you will not bear reproach for it.

            I will deal with all your oppressors

              at that time.

            I will save the lame

              and gather the outcast,

            And I will change their shame into praise . . . .

One of the realities of downtrodden, abused, and repressed folk is to feel hopeless . . . and to experience shame. Shame isn’t just guilt. And it’s not the simple “Shame on you!”, guilt-inducing, comment known to escape the lips of parents, teachers, and other adults from time to time. No, shame as a psychological phenomenon is taking the blame for one’s own abuse . . . . shame tells us not only what we have done is wrong, but we are wrong.

The battered woman begins to feel that she’s at fault. The victim of sexual assault is often made to feel as if she were responsible for the attack. The abused child begins to believe that he’s to blame for dad’s tirades. The prisoner of war and the kidnapped journalist start to think that their captors are righteous, and that the suffering they’re experiencing is somehow deserved. (Please don’t misunderstand. Sin is real. We all do, or not do, things that hurt God and others and ourselves.) But not all hurt, pain, and diminishment result from, nor are the just deserts of our brokenness.

Even religion doesn’t escape. There’s a theology that claims that all the bad that occurs in our lives is a result of our sin. It’s the theology of Job’s friends who relentlessly try to convince that righteous man that all the disasters that befell him were the outcome of his sinfulness. 

What a contrast to hear Zephaniah proclaim: “I will . . . gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise . . . .” Isaiah: “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” And John the Baptist, announcing the advent of the Messiah . . . despite the sinfulness of God’s people. This is good news, indeed. Salvation is a gift, not a reward!

But what then should we do? Throughout the text, the crowds and tax collectors and soldiers are asking, “What should we do?” If salvation—if being in God’s favor—is not dependent upon us, but upon God, then is there anything we cando? Besides sharing our excess, refraining from taking advantage of others, respecting the dignity of everyone— what can we do? 

We can rejoice! We can give thanks! We can say, A-men! We can break out of the self-blaming, we can leave shame behind, and we can claim the blessing that God intends for us all!


It seems that the older I get the more rapidly the holidays arrive each year. Time seems to speed up. It’s not so for you younger folk as you’ve been counting down the days and hours—wondering if Christmas would ever get here. For some of you, this may the longest day of the year.

Of course, the excitement and anticipation have been building since Black Friday and Cyber Monday and those other innovative ways to get us to shop and buy and spend. We can easily go too far over-the-top with the number and expense of the presents under the tree. Consumerism is rampant and addictive. But that’s a sermon for another day. You will hear no bashing of gift-giving from this pulpit . . . because Christmas is all about gifts.

Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts in the 1890’s, Phillips Brooks, wrote the carol 

O Little Town of Bethlehem. The third verse begins, 

How silently, how silently, the wondrous giftis given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

In the Nativity story is the beautiful announcement of God’sgiftto us all. The Angel of the Lord to “the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night: ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’” Then the shepherds went into the town to visit the manger.

In the Gospel of Matthew is the story of the Wise Men, Magi, foreign and mysterious men who traveled from afar, bringing to the baby Jesus their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

To my way of the thinking, the greatest gift that the visitors to the baby in Bethlehem—shepherds and Wise Men—their greatest gift to Jesus was the gift of themselves. They left their homes and flocks and fields to greet and honor the baby in the manger. 

Some of my own children and all of my grandchildren live far away in Nevada and Switzerland. Every time they come here or we go visit them, we exchange gifts. But do you know what? I can barely remember those presents. But I can recall almost every precious moment we spend together, because the greatest gift we can offer to others is the gift of ourselves. The greatest gifts we ever receive are those of the company and love of others. 

So what can we offer to Jesus? What does Jesus need? 

Socks, a chocolate sampler, a plastic toy, a digital assistant? No, he needs us—ourselves, flesh and blood people. He invites us to give him our hearts and minds and strength in order to continue to serve him and take care of him. When he’s sick, hungry, cold—when he comes to us disguised as a bag lady or a homeless man—when he arrives on our doorstep as a complete stranger or as a dear friend—we can offer ourselves as God has offered himself. 

There once was a little boy who woke up screaming from a nightmare. His mom came into his room to reassure him that everything was OK and that he could go back to sleep. She left the room only to return a while later to find her son still fearful and wide-awake. She sat on the edge of his bed to console him, saying that God would be with him, looking over him. The little boy replied, “I know that God’s here, Mama. But sometimes I need a skin-face, too.”

Jesus is God’s skin-face to the world, just as we are his skin-faces to one another. 

My friend Fred Plummer recently wrote on his Christmas blog:

I particularly remember one Christmas evening when I was in my teens. My Granddad was across the table from me and was staring into my eyes, while smiling. I had a sense that he was looking past the teenage boy and seeing the heir to his story. It felt like he was seeing my soul or possibly seeing the infinite. I have never forgotten that moment or him.

Tomorrow will be Christmas again. Yes we will eat, drink, laugh and open a few more presents than I might have had when I was a child. I think that sometime tomorrow, or on a Christmas to come, I will have a grandchild who will smile and look me in the eyes and realize that she is the heir to my story. She will always remember that Christmas. She will have experienced the Infinite Mystery.

May the Infinite Mystery of God bless you this Holy night. May you receive the gift graciously and may you give it lavishly without restraint. 

Merry Christmas.