The scalpel of God

File:Syriske flyktninger (8184618433).jpg

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As you treat this child

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Watching for the Morning of September 23, 2018

Year B

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus is back in Galilee. His journey beyond the margins of Israel near Tyre and Sidon and the region of the Decapolis is over and they are headed back to Capernaum and then on to Jerusalem. Jesus is still teaching them that he will be rejected in Jerusalem. The leadership of the city will rise up against this threat to civil order and his heretical notion that the reign of God is at hand and that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, that God is looking for faithfulness rather than ritual purity. So he is teaching his followers, trying to open their eyes.

But still his followers don’t understand. They are looking for victory in Jerusalem. For them, the reign of God is full of images of Rome cast out and Jesus on a throne. So as they head to the city and that glorious day, the scramble for power and influence begins. Who among them is greatest? Who will serve at his side? Who will share the reins of power?

But Jesus is trying to teach them. So, again, he gathers a child into their midst, a child who lacks all status and significance. Surrounding him in his embrace he says simply “As you treat this child you treat me.” The kingdom of God is upside down. It is not honor and privilege that matter but compassion and service.

In our first reading on Sunday we will hear that the people of Jeremiah’s hometown plot to kill him for his prophetic message. He challenges their power and privilege as a priestly community. In their eyes, he is a traitor for saying that God is coming to judge the nation. In the psalm we join in the words of an ancient petitioner who cries out “the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life,” yet confesses, “But surely, God is my helper.” The author of James will continue his exhortation, upending social norms by saying, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” and warning that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

The word of Jesus about taking up the cross lingers. The summons is to embrace the reign of God fully, to let the new world and it alone be our hope and path.

The Prayer for September 23, 2018

You see, O God, the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 23, 2018

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
“I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” – The prophet Jeremiah discovers a plot against his life by members of his own priestly clan who want to silence his message.

Psalmody: Psalm 54
“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
– The poet prays for deliverance from murderous enemies.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:8a (appointed: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
– The author speaks to the Christian community about the chaos that comes from their passions and desires, urging them to “resist the devil” and submit themselves to God.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” – Jesus is again teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but they are arguing who will get the seats of power when they get to Jerusalem.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184617191).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Religious violence

Watching for the Morning of September 20, 2015

Year B

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

treasuryx-largeMurder is in the air in the readings for Sunday. The people from Jeremiah’s hometown – a priestly community – are out to kill him for his message. The writer of Sunday’s psalm is also battling murderous enemies, calling out to God for deliverance. Jesus is talking about his pending death in Jerusalem. And even our reading from James speaks of the conflicts that derive from our warring passions.

It’s not what we hope for from religion. We hope for peace. We hope for comfort. We dope for strength and courage for the coming week. But we are reading about tough realities – and the passions that drive them.

Jeremiah’s message that God is ready to judge the nation, even to destroying the temple, sounds to his countrymen like heresy and treason. In righteous rage they are prepared to defend God and country with religiously cloaked violence. God has revealed their plot to his prophet, but the prophet does not respond in kind; he puts his trust in God’s judgment.

The poet also entrusts his cause to God: “He will repay my enemies for their evil.” Nor does Jesus call his followers to arms; he is teaching the way of the cross. And when his followers argue about greatness, he puts a child in their midst. We are servants not masters. Our relationship to Jesus is revealed by the way we treat the least in our midst.

The Prayer for September 20, 2015

You see, O God, the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 20, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
“I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” – The prophet Jeremiah discovers a plot against his life by members of his own priestly clan who want to silence his message.

Psalmody: Psalm 54
“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
– The poet prays for deliverance from murderous enemies.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:8a (appointed: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
– The author speaks to the Christian community about the chaos that comes from their passions and desires, urging them to “resist the devil” and submit themselves to God.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” – Jesus is again teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but they are arguing who will get the seats of power when they get to Jerusalem.

Image: Cloisters Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55094 [retrieved September 14, 2015]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterjr1961/4124100780/.

A more profound revolution

Watching for the Morning of September 13, 2015

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

File:Christ Sculpture, Cambridge (7063878723).jpgWe have reached the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Now Jesus begins to talk about his destiny in Jerusalem – to be crucified and raised.

It’s not hard to foresee that he will be crucified. He is challenging Rome’s claim to dominion over human life. He is denying that Caesar is the savior of humankind. He is announcing the dawning reign of God – and even his followers think of the kingdom of God in terms of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the nation’s deliverance from all foreign oppression. Rome meets all such claimants with the torture and shame of the cross.

But Jesus has a much more profound revolution in mind.

The prophet, in the reading from Isaiah on Sunday, is rejected by his community – but the LORD is the one who has given him the message to speak and will be his vindication. It is an appropriate choice for Jesus who will also be rejected by the leadership of the nation but vindicated by God.

The psalmist sings of God’s deliverance and uses words in which the Christian community finds hints of resurrection: “you have delivered my soul from death…I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Though the disciples do not yet grasp what Jesus is talking about – though they do not yet see fully – the hints of God’s remarkable work are sprinkled like Easter eggs through the Old Testament for those with eyes to see.

So we begin our Gospel reading on Sunday with the story of the blind man. Jesus heals his eyes but, when asked, he says “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” It takes a second act of healing to help him see clearly. So it is when Jesus speaks with his disciples – they can see that he is the anointed, the Christ/Messiah, but they do not yet see clearly. They do not understand the cross and resurrection.

The prophets like Elijah or John boldly challenged the evil they saw in their society, but Jesus is more than a prophet. Jesus is on a mission not to combat evil but defeat it forever.

The Prayer for September 13, 2015

Like Peter, O God,
we recognize Jesus as your anointed
but stumble over the mystery of the cross.
Grant us your Holy Spirit
that we might not seek to gain the world,
but to be found in your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 13, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” – The prophet is rejected by his community but it is God who has called him and will deliver him.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-9
“The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”
– The poet praises the LORD who delivered him from death.

Second Reading: James 3:1-12
“No one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
– The author warns the community about the power of the tongue and reminds them that we cannot bless God and curse others.

Gospel: Mark 8:22-38 (appointed: 27-38)
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus begins to teach his followers about his destiny in Jerusalem and calls for them to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.”

 

Image: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Christ Sculpture, Cambridge  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Around a single table

Lutheran Altar

Altar at the Castle Church in Torgau

Sunday Evening

Mark 4:35-41

38 They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know whether it was the mood of the whole worshipping assembly today or just mine, but the tragedy in South Carolina seemed to hang over worship. It rattled around in the sermon about Jesus stilling the storm. Perhaps I should have spoken directly about the violence that invaded Emanuel Church where nine laid down their lives – or had them stolen away – but I was not ready.   Nevertheless, it was there when we talked about the power of God’s word that brought order, beauty and goodness out of the chaos of the primeval waters – a word that Jesus had authority to speak. It was there when I talked about the storm at sea through which God obstructed Jonah’s flight from God’s command to bring God’s word to the hated Ninevites. Jonah would rather perish than carry to Assyria a message that might save Israel’s enemy. It’s a comical story with a profound message – a message Jesus takes up when he declares:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

We don’t really want to hear that God loves everyone. And, like Jonah, there is a part of us that runs from that assignment. Who wants to bear witness to skinheads and white supremacists? Who wants to challenge bigoted and prejudicial speech? The safety of our like-minded churches is much to be preferred. Or, at least, what we thought was safety.

All hate is linked. We need to get this through our heads and hearts and souls. All hate is linked. We cannot disseminate vitriolic emails about Muslims, Obama, Democrats or Republicans, or climate change supporters or deniers, without adding to the level of hate and intolerance in the country. We cannot oppose the building of a mosque without adding to the desecration of all religious traditions. We may enjoy the snarky remarks, exaggerations and falsehoods on the news channel of our choice, but we are adding to the spiritual pollution of our time.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We are not far in time from lynching as a public festival, with children in their Sunday best watching a body in flames. We are not far in time from segregated schools and segregated buses and segregated workforces. We are not far in time when persons of color died because a white hospital would not treat them. We are not far in time when a white woman’s word sealed the fate of a black man, any black man. We are not far in time when white sheriffs picked up black men for ‘vagrancy’ and ‘hired’ them out to work in the orange groves. We are not far in time when a black child with a toy gun is shot on sight.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We have hated “Commies”. We have hated the Japanese before them. Interestingly, we tended to hate Nazi’s rather than Germans, but made no such distinction about imperialist Japan. We have hated the native peoples who occupied this land. We have hated the Irish when they first came to this land and, at various times, Italians and Jews and most other migrant groups in their time. We have allowed our hates to morph and shift rather than choose the path that Jesus’ proposed – well, actually, commanded.

The sin lies in all of us. And repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilt. It means changing our allegiance, changing our path, changing our loyalty from self-interest to the well being of our neighbor. It means changing from the spirit of our age to the Spirit of God. It means truth telling about our story and listening with care to the stories others tell. It means restraining our greed and considering well the welfare of the whole community. It means restraining our speech. As St. James records:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (1:26)

It means taking to heart what James declares when he says that the tongue is

a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (3:8-12)

All hate is linked. But the eternal source of life, who commanded the sea to be still and brought forth the world of beauty and goodness, has come among us in this Nazarene. And he gathers us still, week after week, around a single table to remind us of his promise to gather all nations into the banquet of perfect peace. And he has made us his witnesses that our lost humanity can be restored.