But there are others

File:Lucas Cranach d.Ä. (Werkst.) - Martin Luther und Philipp Melanchthon (1543).jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Sunday is the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, and names like Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, and Katherine von Bora (Katy Luther) will surely get the major share of attention.

But there are others.

There are others like Justus Jonas who was dear friend to Luther, and Bugenhagen, and Frederick the Wise of course, without whom none of us would remember Luther except as another heretic committed to the flames. And there is John the Steadfast who became the Elector of Saxony after his brother Frederick and stayed the course despite its ultimate cost. (Saxony was defeated by Emperor Charles V in 1547 and the lands, title and privileged vote as Elector were stripped away and given to the Duke of Saxony who had betrayed the Protestant cause.)

But there are others.

Luther and his colleagues in Saxony were protected by Elector Frederick. So, too, those in other sympathetic German states. But the emperor had direct control in the Low Countries and enforced his Edict of Worms declaring Luther outside the protection of the law, forbidding anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther, and authorizing the confiscation of the property of any sympathizers, supporters, patrons, or followers.

Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn were among the monks in the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp arrested for supporting Luther’s ideas. The prior and others recanted, but these three refused. On July 1, 1523, Esch and Voes were burned at the stake. Thorn died in prison.

So we will read these wonderful texts for Reformation Day, this Sunday, and sing with trumpets the stirring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and for some it will be like singing the old college fight song – a stirring tribute and remembrance of our team. But it is not about our team. It is about this compelling and dangerous word of Jesus that sets free and makes true disciples. It is about the promise of God through Jeremiah to establish with God’s frail and corrupt humanity a new covenant. It is about this message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is about the work of God to fashion a new creation and our trust in and allegiance to that work.

Even when it may lead to the flames.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALucas_Cranach_d.%C3%84._(Werkst.)_-_Martin_Luther_und_Philipp_Melanchthon_(1543).jpg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

The stone the builders rejected

File:Heart-shaped stone.JPG

Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The song of all creation

 

File:Western Meadowlark singing.jpgI started writing yesterday morning at my dining table with a cup of fresh coffee. Maybe it’s because I was writing a sermon that I was so mindful of what a privilege it is to have a cup of good coffee. Coffee beans don’t grow here. The label on my coffee says it is from small family farms in Nicaragua, Peru and the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Between those family farms and the cup of coffee on my table there is a vast network of people. It is not just about those who harvest the beans and whoever roasts them, but there are people who must transport those beans, and people who arrange for those beans to come to my Trader Joe’s. There are people who make the cans the coffee comes in. There are people who design and print the label. There are people who build the trucks or ships or planes or however it is that it gets here – and people who drive them. There are people who are loading and unloading boxes. There are people who are filling out orders and stockings shelves and running registers. There are people who made the bags I bring to the store in which to carry it home.

Somehow there is water in my kitchen sink that is clean enough for me to use for coffee. And I know there is a host of people involved in building the dams and infrastructure required to bring that water to me – and cleaning up whatever gets dumped down the drain.

Somehow, too, there is electricity so that I can heat the water with which to make my coffee. And that means there are people running power stations and tending power lines and growing trees that can be chopped down to make utility poles. There are people digging the copper out of the ground for the wires, and others who refine it and shape it.

Someone made the coffee filters I use. Someone made the little plastic device that holds the filter for my coffee. And to make that plastic thing, someone had to find oil and get it out of the ground and ship it somewhere where it got processed somehow to make whatever it is that becomes plastic.

Someone had to make the grinder I use to grind the beans. And there are people working in that little store on Main Street where I bought it. In between those makers and that store there are more trucks and drivers and all that goes with it – the gas stations and the truck companies and the road builders and the police officers to patrol them.

There are also people who will pick up the coffee grounds when I am through with them and take them somewhere to compost them. And there are people who make those trucks, too, and keep them repaired and running.

And, of course, all these people need clothes and food and health care to do all that needs to be done so that I can have a cup of coffee when I sit down to write this sermon.

This is so hard for us to remember, so hard for us to acknowledge, but we are all part of a vast, intricate, interconnected web of life. John Donne was right when he wrote, “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We didn’t come into the world alone and we won’t go out alone – and we certainly don’t live alone.

My life is connected to all those people. Unless they prosper, I cannot prosper.

Every now and then something in the system goes wrong. Some field worker who doesn’t have access to a bathroom pees in a field and a plant from that field ends up in a salad bar thousands of miles away and suddenly all kinds of people are sick. We are connected for good or for ill. What we do affects others. What they do affects us.

Part of the pain in Puerto Rico is what happens when that complex and intricate web gets so profoundly disrupted. Which makes it all the more necessary to remember that what happens to the least of these happens to me. We are connected.

And what is true of human society is true of the whole interconnected web of life on this planet. We are not alone; we are connected.

We are here today because it’s Sunday, and on this first day of the week, in the early morning, the women came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Every week we remember Easter. Every week we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every week we remember the whole sweep of the world’s history from its origins in the heart of God to its destiny in the heart of God. We come to hear the story and, with the sharing of the bread, enact the promise of a world made new, where the lion lies down with the lamb and all people are gathered at one table in peace (Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 25:6-8).

We are here, today, because it’s Sunday. And we have brought our pets today not just that they might receive a blessing, but that we might remember that they share with us in the blessing. They share with us in the goodness of the creation that God has given, and they share with us in the promise of a world made new, a world made whole, a world set free from our brokenness. They share with us in the promise of a world brought under the reign of God’s Spirit – the world where swords are beaten into plowshares and there is none to make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

We bring our pets to receive a blessing, but the truth is our lives have been blessed by them. Something deep and profound happens with the animals in our lives. In our shared lives there is something of the goodness of the Garden in the world’s first morning. And because there is a taste of the goodness of the creation, there is a taste also of the promised fulfillment of a world renewed and restored.

St. Francis is remembered for far more than pets. He is remembered for seeing this profound web that binds all things together. And so, in our first hymn this morning, he sings of the sun and moon praising God. He sings of the wind and clouds singing God’s praise. He sings of the sunrise and the waters and the earth itself as part of that great chorus that proclaims God’s praise.

What we hear from St. Francis is a reminder of what we find in the scriptures – that all creation draws its life from God and for God. The song of the meadowlarks is beautiful to our ears, but it is also beautiful to God’s ears. The rhythm of the waves speaks God’s praise. The sound of a mountain brook. The strange sound of the wind over the sands. The chorus of frogs early in summer and crickets late in summer. The wind in the Aspens. It all sings God’s praise. It testifies to the beauty and wonder and majesty and marvel of all that is around us. It testifies to the intricate web in which all life is united.

Francis not only showed love and faithfulness to the wild creatures of the earth, but his love and faithfulness to the poor and needy was cut from the same cloth. We are connected. We are meant for lives of compassion and generosity, kindness and faithfulness. We are meant for lives of praise to the one who is the source of all life. We are meant to join the song of all creation.

The love we have for our pets is a small portion of that great song that vibrates through all of creation. And the love they have for us is part of that song. So we come here week after week to remember the song. And on this day we bring our animals to remember that they, too, are part of that song.

As torn as the world is by false and discordant notes, as torn as we are by anger and greed, as torn as we are by killing and sorrow, these are not our true song. These are not our final song. Christ is risen. Christ is present among us. And Christ will bring the fulfillment of God’s promise of a world renewed, of every heart beating in rhythm with God’s heart, of every voice in harmony with God’s voice.

Amen

A print version of this reflection from Sunday, October 1, 2017, is available here.

The text and pictures from Psalm 104 from Sunday is available here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWestern_Meadowlark_singing.jpg  By Alan Vernon (Western Meadowlark singing,) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boundless mercy

File:Messenger of Milky Way.jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

164,383 years and 205 days – that’s how long it would take the servant in Sunday’s gospel to pay back his debt if he received the standard daily wage, worked 7 days a week and never spent a penny. Since this would include something like 41,095 leap years, but also 411 leap centuries, he would have this debt worked off sometime around August 3rd, in the year 166,286. It’s hard to think of that as an actual date. It’s 164,269 years from now. All of human recorded history is a mere 5,000 years.

It’s an unpayable debt.

If we tried to convert 10,000 talents to an 8-hour day at $15.00/hour, it would amount to some $7.2 billion. The hundred denarii debt he is owed, by contrast, would be a mere $12,000. $12,000 is a lot of money to people working for $15 an hour, but these are not common laborers. This is a story about a king and his agents plundering the colonies for taxes and tribute – and to be short $7.2 billion means we are probably talking about friends placed in power who live too large and pay too little attention to the running of a province.

There is hyperbole here, of course, but it’s closer to reality than we might expect. Ancient empires were talented at bleeding their dominions. Modern ones, too. And the wealthy houses were talented at spending.

What is disturbing in the parable is the hypocrisy or callousness of receiving great mercy and giving none. It makes a mockery of the faithfulness of the king who does not treat the servant as he deserves, but as a friend. It brings shame upon the king. It makes him look as though he has been played. He is made the fool. Honor requires mercy – but honor also requires that he throw the merciless servant into prison.

As a parable it works brilliantly, drawing the crowd along in mockery of the corruption and folly of the powerful. But then, suddenly, the light shines on our own lives and the dire warning about making mockery of a generous and merciful God.

So we should shift in our seats, a little this Sunday, as we hear Joseph forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery, as we sing the psalm of praise to God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” as we hear Paul remind us of the practical realities that must flow from our “continuing debt to love one another,” and as we hear Jesus tell us to live boundless mercy.

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

Holy and Gracious God,
you choose to deal with a fallen world by your Word of Grace.
Wrap us in your mercy
that, abiding in your Grace,
we may live the forgiveness we have received;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 17, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’” – Doubting the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness, his brothers concoct a scheme invoking their father’s name. But Joseph reassures them and declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-13
“[The Lord] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” – A hymn of praise for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” – Paul speaks of life in the community.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” –
The parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMessenger_of_Milky_Way.jpg By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

File:Iran, désert - Yakhchal inside - intérieur d'une glacière - persian cooler (9246947525).jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 3, 2017

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Faithfulness, suffering, deliverance – troubling truths rattle through the texts for this Sunday. Jeremiah, who experienced great opposition, shame and humiliation for his message, cries out against God at what feels like God’s betrayal or abandonment. The poet of our psalm declares his innocence in his call for God’s deliverance. And Jesus lays out the path before him through torture and crucifixion, asserting that all who would be his followers must also take up the cross.

What does it say about us as human beings that we should be so resistant to the voice of the eternal? Why does a simple call to love God and neighbor evoke such passionate hostility from a nation’s leaders? Why do we so clutch at privilege, power or position that we would throw a prophet into the mud at the bottom of a dry cistern? Why does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to nonviolence end with a bullet? How is it possible to wish to purge Europe of its Jewish citizens and enlist nations in the enterprise, driving the trains, guarding the gates, issuing the orders, carrying them out?

Why does the call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked evoke scorn and derision? I remember my stepfather exploding in derision and anger after I related a high school church retreat that involved a trust walk. Would I let a black panther lead me? He would lead me out into the street before a speeding car. I was a fool for imaging there was goodness in others, that they wouldn’t harm the vulnerable. Maybe I was. It’s quite clear that we as human beings have the capacity to plunder the weak. It might be hard to do face to face; but not so hard from a distance. Yet even still, consider how many men, women and children are bruised and battered by their most intimate companions.

File:Colina de las Cruces, Lituania, 2012-08-09, DD 12.JPG

So there is a cross to carry for those who would live compassion and faithfulness to neighbor. There is a scorn to endure. There are cisterns waiting. There are Golgothas. It is sweet to hear Paul say: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” but he doesn’t stop there.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is a noble life. But it is not simply a noble ideal; it is our true humanity. It is the life for which we were created and the life of the age to come. It is what Jesus means about being born from above. But there are hammers and nails waiting for those who dare to be so “weak.”

Only this is not weakness. It is courageous and difficult work to live such a life. We do so – or try to do so – because of the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We do so because this life is eternal. We do so because we have felt the breath of the Spirit. We do so because, on the third day, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty.

The Prayer for September 3, 2017

Gracious God,
the mystery of your redemption is revealed
in the life, death and resurrection of your Son.
Grant us the will and desire to follow where you lead
and to give our lives in the service of your perfect love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 3, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
“Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
– Faced with persecution and imprisonment for his prophetic word, Jeremiah cries out against God, and God answers with a promise: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth…I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you.”

Psalmody: Psalm 26:1-8
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity.” – The poet prays for deliverance and declares his innocence.

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” – Paul continues his exhortation to the community in Rome, urging them to faithfulness in their life together.

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed of God, Jesus begins to teach them of the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem. His followers, too, must be prepared to take up the cross, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIran%2C_d%C3%A9sert_-_Yakhchal_inside_-_int%C3%A9rieur_d’une_glaci%C3%A8re_-_persian_cooler_(9246947525).jpg By Jeanne Menj [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AColina_de_las_Cruces%2C_Lituania%2C_2012-08-09%2C_DD_12.JPG Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies, June bugs and the Kingdom of God

File:Lewis Mountain Negro Area.jpg

Shenandoah National Park

“So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.”

A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

Several summers ago, as I drove over interstate 80 on my way to my Father’s house in Colorado, I came to a section of the road near the crest of the Sierras where the air was thick with butterflies. It was amazing to see, except that the poor creatures were splatting across my windshield. I was saddened that so many of these creatures were meeting their demise on my car. But there was nothing I could do. There was no way to avoid them, no way to get across the mountains without going through this cloud of butterflies.

Driving across Nebraska at night, on the other hand, I don’t feel any regret about the bugs that splat against my windshield. I wish they didn’t because my windshield wipers just smear the goop around and it takes forever to clean them off the windshield when you stop at a gas station.

So what’s the difference between the insects at the top of the Sierra’s and those in Nebraska?

We think of butterflies as pretty, and June bugs and grasshoppers as pests. Fireflies are lovely on a summer’s evening. Mosquitos are not. The praying mantis we saw in my father’s yard in Virginia were cool. The horde of bugs occupying a Louisiana gas station bathroom late one August night was disgusting.

If a butterfly landed on your hand, you wouldn’t feel an impulse to wash your hand. But if a roach ran across, you probably would.

Some things are ‘clean’ and some things are ‘unclean’.

We’ve talked about purity rules before. And I can’t remember what stories I have told, so I hope you’ll bear with me. But this notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, is deeply important. And it is very instinctive. It seems automatic within us. We care about butterflies. We don’t care about June bugs.

But this is important to recognize: although the notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is instinctive, the things we identify as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are cultural. They are learned. When I was a kid and loved to fish, I wouldn’t think of eating a rainbow trout raw. That’d be disgusting. But I love pickled herring. Pickled herring is part of our family tradition. It is part of being Danish. It connects with big family dinners and special lunches with my dad. It connects me with my father’s parents, Farmor and Farfar, and all those memories of Uncle Erik and Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan and cousin Jim – and my daughter, Anna – who loved it. They are all gone, now, we have laid them all in the grave, but the pickled herring is part of us. We are all still connected.

The ideas about purity are about our identity. It defines who we are. It declares to whom we belong. Megan came home from school in the third grade distressed at having learned that people in China ate dog meat. “What kind of people can do that?” she wailed. They are not us. They are them. And we are not even sure they are human. “What kind of people can do that?”

What kind of person can drive a car through a crowd of pedestrians? Our president said he’s “an animal.” He isn’t really human. He’s not one of us.

Of course, the whole thing in Charlottesville was about who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’. Who are ‘clean’ and who are ‘unclean’. Who are ‘acceptable’ and who are not. And the problem is that we are not talking about whether certain behaviors are acceptable; we are talking about whether the other side shares in our humanity.

Rules of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ define us. They convey a sense of identity. Sometimes there is goodness in this. Having a Saturday lunch of herring and sardines and aromatic cheeses with my father touches something deep in my dad. And the Danish cookies and the frikadellar and the hakkebøf and the cucumber salad and the red cabbage and the pickled red beets they are all part of my connection to my family.

So when you marry into the family we set before you the family foods. We teach you how to make the toasts and drink the akvavit. It makes you part of us. When you’re born into the family we set before you all these things. When Anna was two years old, at the end of a big family dinner, she was sitting on her mother’s lap and reached out to the table, grabbed an empty akvavit glass, and stuck her tongue in to lick its last drop. When she did that everyone laughed and cheered: Anna was truly one of ‘us’.

For Israel, all those purity rules about foods and blood and dead bodies – they not only reflected the culture, but they helped to preserve Israel from the idolatry of the cultures around them. If pigs are a sacrificial animal in the cultures around you, but you think pork is unclean, then you won’t participate in the worship of those gods. You won’t lose your identity as a people who have been brought out from bondage in Egypt and called to live justice and mercy.

But there’s a dark side to purity rules: it’s when we think that people who don’t share our rules aren’t really human. “What kind of people can do that?”

We turn our enemies into animals so that we can kill them. If Nazi’s are animals, then we don’t have to care about them. It’s why slavery was defended as an institution: these people aren’t really people. It’s why Jim Crow laws were enacted: these people are unclean. We can’t share a bus seat. We can’t share a water fountain. We can’t share a swimming pool or a public park or a hospital – or our neighborhood.

One of the pictures I considered for the bulletin cover was a photograph of a large, elegant sign from Shenandoah National Park – built in that handsome style of all the other national park signs indicating entrances, park boundaries and special areas. This sign reads “Lewis Mountain” and beneath that, in large letters, it says “NEGRO AREA”. The next line says “Coffee Shop & Cottages” and beneath that “campground picnicground” (sic). At the bottom is the word “entrance” inside an arrow pointing the way.

It’s a nice sign. And I’m sure it’s a nice area. But what the sign really says is that “you people are unclean.” “You are less than.” “You can’t mix with us.”

I read an article about the life of James Fields, Jr., the young man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I felt sorry for him. His life has been troubled for a long time. It doesn’t make his actions any less hateful, any less a crime, but his story makes him a human being instead of an animal.

We shouldn’t do to them what they do to others. We shouldn’t forget their humanity. We should be trying to help us all remember our humanity.

It’s so easy to forget. So easy to fail. We curse an idiot driver on the road. We look away from a homeless person on the street. We look disapprovingly at a mother who has taken her young child with her to the grocery store at 11:00 at night. We roll our eyes at a clerk in the store who is moving too slowly. We yell at family members. It is so easy to forget the humanity of others. So easy to abandon our own humanity.

Jesus’ attack on the purity system in Judea was fierce. What renders you unclean, Jesus declares, is how you treat other people, not whether you have done the proper ritual pouring of water over the hands before you eat. The good Samaritan is willing to touch the bleeding body of the victim at the side of the road because – unlike the priest and Levite – he isn’t concerned with outward ritual purity but with the well-being of the wounded man.

Jesus is willing to heal on the Sabbath because mercy and compassion are more important than an outward purity. Jesus is willing to touch a leper because true purity is fulfilling our obligations to one another rather than protecting our own purity. Jesus touches the dead girl to lift her up to life. Jesus touches the bier of the dead young man to give him back to his widowed mother. Jesus eats at the home of Zacchaeus because he sees his humanity. He sees him as a brother.

Jesus is willing to forgive your sins because he sees your humanity.

In the world of Jesus, we are the outsiders. We are the ‘them’. Few, if any of us, are descendants of Abraham by blood and soil – but we are the descendants of Adam and Eve.

We have become descendants of Abraham because we are descendants of Abraham’s faith. We are descendants of Abraham’s trust in and allegiance to the God who fashioned us all, and redeems us all, and calls us all to lives of compassion and faithfulness to one another.

So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.

She’s not just a gentile; she’s one of those people God warned the Israelites about. One of those people who polluted the land twelve centuries ago and made the land vomit them out. One of those people that Israelites were not supposed to marry lest their hearts be led astray to worship the Canaanite gods. One of those people like Jezebel who would teach greed and injustice in the name of her gods. And, if you are offended by what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, you should be. It is deeply offensive. It is tribal. She is one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. God owes her nothing. She has no right to ask. You cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs – the dirty mongrel dogs scrounging the wastes of society.

The woman is unclean. But she understands that God is a god of mercy. She sees that God is a god of all. She clings to the confession that God is god who will show faithfulness to his whole creation. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understands that what renders you unclean is what you say and do, not what you eat, or what you touch – or who your parents were.

And Jesus says, “Here is faith.” “Here is great faith.” Here is true allegiance.

And lest we miss the implications of this encounter: if what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is clean. None of us is pure. None of us is deserving.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then all of us are dependent on God’s mercy.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is welcome at God’s table – except that God has welcomed us in his love and mercy.

And maybe that’s our avenue back to our humanity. It’s when we think we are clean and others are unclean that lines get drawn. It when we think we are “better than” that others become “less than”. It’s when we think we are the good people and others are not that evils happen.

But when we can see that we are welcomed only by God’s mercy – maybe then we can see others with mercy.

Sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017
Proper A 15, Lectionary A 20
Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALewis_Mountain_Negro_Area.jpg By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/shen/images/20070117113507.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do we laugh?

File:Donkey and Villager 0744 (508121161).jpg

Friday

Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

I wonder if the people laughed at the voice of the prophet. I wonder if they looked around at the city built from rubble, subjected to a foreign power, and plagued with a poor economy, and laughed. No king is coming. No king will raise this backwater to the heights it once enjoyed. No king can arise in this feeble country to fight off the might of the Persian Empire.

We know from scripture that the prophets were not generally received with favor. King Ahab calls Elijah “you troubler of Israel” because he only has bad news to speak about his idolatrous and corrupt leader. Nor did he want to consult the prophet Micaiah ben Imlah when plotting war against Syria because “he never prophesies anything favorable about me.” King Jehoiakim burned the prophetic words of Jeremiah. Ahaz made a pious show of refusing Isaiah’s message.

The resistance of the ancient elites was certainly in part because the prophets of old stood in the way of the wealthy and powerful. They challenged the neglect of God’s law, the abandonment of the poor, the failure of justice and compassion, the loss of faithfulness. But was it any easier for Israel to hear a message of hope? When Isaiah announces Cyrus as the LORD’s anointed (the LORD’s ‘Messiah’) to throw down Babylon, when he proclaims a highway through the desert for a new exodus, did the people turn away from him as a starry-eyed dreamer? And do we, too, dismiss such words of peace? Do we smile benignly at the promise that swords shall be beaten into plowshares? That Jerusalem shall be a city of peace? Do we ensconce the words of Jesus in a pious frame rather than build our lives on the notion that the poor and peacemakers are the blessed and honorable ones in God’s sight?

The prophet promises a king, a king who will “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem,” who shall “command peace to the nations,” and whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Yes, the prophet may well have meant, “from the Euphrates to land’s end” (i.e. the shore of the Mediterranean), but we recognize the big brush with which the prophet paints. He is not just talking about a new king for Israel. This is a new reigning power for all creation.

So do we smile benevolently like listening to a child’s dream? Or do we dare put our trust, hope and allegiance in this promise of a dawning reign? And do we see this dawning reign in the one who healed and forgave and taught us to treat all people as members of our kinship group then rode up to his fateful destiny in Jerusalem on the day we have come to call Palm Sunday?

“Lo, your king comes to you,” says the prophet, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Do we laugh or bend the knee?

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADonkey_and_Villager_0744_(508121161).jpg By James Emery from Douglasville, United States (Donkey and Villager_0744) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like children in the marketplace

File:Mayan girls playing sack race on the market of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.JPG

Watching for the Morning of July 9, 2017

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

There’s a sweet word coming in the Gospel text for Sunday. Jesus is going to say those familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And God knows, we are weary: Weary of the cacophony in Washington. Weary of the rush of modern life. Weary of the challenges of health. Weary of the press of finances. Weary of the drumbeats of war. Weary of the fear that seems to seep into every corner of our lives.

But before we get to that promise, there is a rebuke: we are like children in the marketplace pouting that we don’t get our way. Maybe Jesus is quoting something like a nursery rhyme. Maybe he is just acknowledging the taunts that get made when people won’t go along with the game. But it is clear Jesus is rebuking those whose excuse for not listening to John the Baptist was that he was too rigorous and demanding. But they won’t listen to Jesus because he isn’t rigorous enough. He laughs. He tells jokes. He teases. He dines with sinners and tax collectors. They mocked John because he lived on locusts and wild honey and Jesus because he didn’t.

Hypocrisy comes pretty naturally to us. Trump makes a career of denying the validity of Obama’s birth certificates and then accuses the media of being “fake news”. McConnell says his highest priority is to deny Obama a second term and then accuses the Democrats of being obstructionists. I tell my children they can only have two cookies but, when they go to bed, I help myself. Jesus did say something about not worrying about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I have a log in my own – but we do.

Hypocrisy is pretty natural to us. It allows us to do and say what we want without the work of self-examination or amendment of life. It’s comfortable to make excuses for ourselves but grant no grace to others. So Jesus has blunt words for the self-righteous before offering rest to the weary: If Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what you’ve seen, they would never have been destroyed.

The ‘righteous’ are hard to reach; it is the poor and burdened who can see the joy and freedom of serving Christ.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Zechariah speak of the coming king who comes humbly on a donkey and sets prisoners free. And we will sing with the psalmist of God’s gracious deeds. And we will struggle to understand the latest section of Paul’s letter to Romans – but resonate to the word of thanks to God for delivering us from the bondages of our human condition. And we will hear Jesus welcome the weary and speak of the yoke of service that is not always simple, but lifts the heart.

The Prayer for July 9, 2017

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message,
that following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 9, 2017

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – In the weary years after Babylon has fallen but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire, comes a prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promising a king who shall arrive like the kings of old and command peace to the nations” and reign “from sea to sea.”

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond-service to sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMayan_girls_playing_sack_race_on_the_market_of_Quetzaltenango%2C_Guatemala.JPGright By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons