Named and known

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Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

What did the ancients think they were seeing when they looked up into the night sky? I marveled at the vast canopy of the night sky a few years ago, standing in awe when camping at ten thousand feet at Great Basin National Park. Yet, wondrous as was the night sky, my eyes saw what I knew: these are bright shining suns, some new, some old, some red, some blue, some galaxies of stars – all massive fires of primal matter.

But what did the ancients see?

They know there are creatures of the sea, and creatures of the earth – so these must be creatures of the air. And if creatures of the air, they must be made of light. These are the spirit-beings who meddle on earth – some in service of God, some not.

God’s place in the pantheon of heaven is revealed by this simple phrase: “he gives to all of them their names.” Who has the right to name? Only the one who called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’, who called the expanse ‘sky’ and the dry land ‘earth’, the one who fashioned all and reigns over all.

Is it just metaphor when the poet of Job says that at the creation the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Is it only imagery when Deborah sings her song of victory and declares that: The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera? And in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says that heavenly bodies are different from terrestrial ones, he is not referring to planetary bodies, but creatures with bodies of fire. He doesn’t mean they have different degrees of luminosity when he says they have different degrees in glory; he is speaking of the ranks of angels.

For the ancient world, the sky is filled with these embodied spirit-beings even as the earth and seas with mortal beings. Officially, Israel refutes that notion. The creation story in Genesis 1 refuses to use the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ since they are the names of deities and simply refers to them as greater and lesser lights. The stars are mentioned as if an afterthought. But this is, by no means, the only reference in scripture. There are others that speak of these stars as gods or “sons of God” or blessed or malevolent forces.

So what does it mean to our psalmist and his hearers when he says God gives them their names? Is God simply naming objects in the sky – Betelgeuse, Sirius and Alpha Centauri – or is he naming living things?

For us, the stars are just stars – not gods, not angels, not powers working weal and woe upon our lives. But we do know that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, ideas and ideologies that govern our lives, working for good and for ill.

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

All these powers and realities that shape and govern human existence, from the lies and deceits that are taken for truth in politics and economics, to the ugly terrors of racism and tribal violence, God names them, knows them, and has ultimate authority over them.

There is something reassuring in such affirmations. The racism and rage that show up in Ferguson, the hate and fear and hardness of heart that burns a man to death, the injustices that are named just, the greed that is blessed as righteous, the violence done in a home or elevator because “You just make me so mad, baby” – and the violence that is accepted as if it were love. God has named it, identified it, exposed it.

Maybe the psalmist doesn’t mean all this when he sings. Maybe he has in mind only that God knows the angels by name. Maybe he sees the stars as he sees the mountains and trees, cattle and creatures: just part of a creation born in the heart and will of God. But even this has its power: Everything is named. Everything is known. No secrets are hid. And no power surpasses God’s own.

It’s a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day, when tragedy befalls, when war rises, when all manner of human suffering persists. They are all named and known. And God yet reigns – he who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” “he who lifts up the downtrodden [and] casts the wicked to the ground,” he who bids us follow where he has led the way.

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Image: By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

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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.

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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:’une_glaci%C3%A8re_-_persian_cooler_(9246947525).jpg By Jeanne Menj [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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Last Sunday took us to the fourth in our Sunday preaching series on the sweep of the Biblical narrative and how it points to the truth of sacrificial love embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who called a good and beautiful world into being by his word (week 1: Creation), who breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit and set them in a garden (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship and continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall). Now God speaks with Cain about the murderous jealousies of the human heart, urging humanity to choose reconciliation over revenge.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, Pentecost, takes us to the Holy Spirit that is our first breath and ultimate life.

Image: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888  William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 4

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.

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One of the oldest divisions in human society is between ranchers and farmers, those who tend flocks and those who till the ground. The mere mention of this brings a haunting note to the opening of the narrative. Photo by: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

Each offers the first fruits of their labor to God. The story says nothing about the qualities of the two brothers. There is no discerning of the heart, no judging of moral worthiness. God picked the aroma of the roasting lamb over the roasting grain. God smiled on Abel’s gift, but on Cain’s gift he did not smile. It does not say that the gift was defective. It does not say that the gift was rejected. It only says that God favored Abel’s gift.

We get ensnared in the symbolism of things. That God liked Abel’s offering more than Cain’s becomes in our minds –and apparently in Cain’s mind – that God liked Abel more than Cain. Children think they can read this in the faces of their parents. It’s a pretty universal sentiment that the parents favored one over the others. It often leads to petty vindictiveness, sabotage, striving for attention. But we have no reason to say that God loved Abel more. Maybe Abel taunted his brother. Maybe he claimed that God liked him more. The text tells us none of this because the emphasis is not on Cain or Abel but on God’s choice and how Cain will respond.

All the conversation in this story occurs between God and Cain. This is a story about these two, God and Cain, not Cain and Abel. It is not a story about a good man and an evil one; it is a story about choices, and sin, and redemption.

“Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?”

There are so many resentments born out of the randomness of life’s favors. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,” observes the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There are inequalities to life. Injustices. Randomness. One prospers another fails. One is born to privilege another to poverty. And what shall we do with life’s vicissitudes. Resentment, bitterness, revenge is one choice. It is not the only choice.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do what is right. If you do goodness. God’s favor roots in the choices we make not the sacrifices we offer, not the liturgies we sing, not the customs we follow. If you do right towards your neighbor, if you show justice and faithfulness, if you care for the sick and comfort the afflicted, will you not be honored?

“Sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

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The death of Abel is not inevitable. Neither are any of the other woes we inflict upon one another. The angry word. The hateful speech. The stolen chances. The cheats and deceits. The crimes of passion and despair. The decisions of war. They are choices. The dragon crouches like a tiger waiting to pounce. But we must master it.

A Lioness (Panthera leo) in Serengeti By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out to the field.”

The field is Cain’s space. He is a man of the soil. He knows dirt. He knows what it will hide. What he does not know is that blood soaked ground will turn against him. The words of God are ignored in his anger, resentment, envy. Perhaps it is even God with whom he is angry. God chose his brother. God favored his offering. He cannot bear the presence of the favored one. And now there is violence.

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There is a weight on Cain, a burden, a crushing burden of resentment. Cain is the firstborn. To Cain belongs the privilege. But God has chosen the second born, the unlikely.

God has a troubling habit of choosing without regard for the rules. He chooses the younger Jacob over the elder Esau. He chooses Abraham and promises blessing for no apparent reason. Moses was not the only child cast into the Nile, but he is the boy who lived. God takes up the cause of the foreigner, the outsider. Elijah provides for a widow of Zarephath, not Israel. Jesus invites himself to banquet at the home of Zacchaeus the tax-gatherer. He rescues the woman caught in adultery and treats the shunned Samaritan woman as a woman of his own house. And God has favored Abel’s gift.

Sculpture Abel by Karl-Heinz Appelt; Gera, Germany, 1983 By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze sculpture Cain and Abel , Bernau bei Berlin, sculptor: Michael Klein, 1994 By Catatine (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Then the LORD said to Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”

God keeps asking this question, “Where?” He asks our first parents “Where are you?” when they have eaten the fruit and are hiding in the bushes. And now he asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

These are the two most fundamental questions God asks of the human race: “Where are we?” and “Where is our brother? Where is our sister?” If we cannot speak the truth of ourselves we will not be able to care for others. They will be “others” rather than brothers. They will not be part of us. Women will be trophies and toys not sisters. Children will be seen and not heard. The poor will be “the poor” rather than people whose names and stories we know and whose lives matter. Then it will be “every man for himself,” rather than strength in numbers.

And if we cannot speak the truth concerning our neighbor, we will not know the truth of ourselves. We were made for community, but community is broken.

He said, “I do not know;
am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yes. It is what brother means. You are created to belong. You are bound together. You are made to care and be cared for.

your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

God’s statement to Cain should be punctuated with a colon not a semi-colon. The cry of his brother’s blood is what Cain is summoned to hear, the consequences of his deed what he must see.   The sufferings of the abandoned, the sorrows of the neglected, the cries of the wounded: Listen!

“When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength.”

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The strength of Cain over his brother has planted blood into the ground. Now the strength of the ground will profit him not. There are no riches to be harvested from this field; the dirt itself resists him. There are no riches to be gained from the destruction of Aleppo. There is no strength to be gained from weapons of mass destruction. There is no life to be gathered from ground that is ravaged or the community plundered. By Agronom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”

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“Punishment is not quite the right word. These are consequences, the harvest of violence: alienation, exile, shame, isolation, a lost ground, a lost life.

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France    By Alex E. Proimos ( [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

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The ground was Cain’s life. Now he is cutoff from it. And he is cutoff from the face of God. He is rootless. He is without community. He is vulnerable in a world made dangerous.

Tuareg on the dune of Timerzouga, place named Tadrart in the town of Djanet, wilaya of Ilizi 20km from the Algerian-Libyan border (Cultural Park of Tassili). By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD put a mark on Cain,
so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

It is not a mark of shame; it is a mark of protection. He wears no scarlet M for murder; he wears a reminder that even Cain the killer bears the image of God. God will be his family to protect him. God will be his redeemer to save him. God will be his advocate to avenge him.

So why do we dance at the death of the murderers? Why do we boast of the death of Bin Laden? Ought we not weep that those for whom God weeps have perished so far from God’s presence?,_Tigray,_Ethiopia_(15363919671).jpg By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Ashenda Girl, Tigray, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons. [cropped]

Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD,
and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

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East of Eden. Away from the garden of God. Away from the rich and abundant soil, the life-giving rains, the well watered garden. Away from the sacred forest. Away from the tree of life. Away from the community of family. Away from the fellowship of the familiar. Away from the presence of the Lord.

And there he builds a city. Cain builds the first city: a gathering of the scattered, a place not of soil or pasture but iron and fire. A place of creativity and life but also destruction and death, human inventiveness for good and for evil. By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Syrian Desert) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Zillah bore Tubal-cain,
who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.

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In the city tools are made. Smithing. Bronze. Iron. Tools to plow the ground and weapons to wound.

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File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg   By 枫彩 ( [CC BY 2.5 cn (, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Age swords By Dbachmann
M1A2 on the streets of Baghdad.  By Lukethornberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.

The world’s first poetry is a celebration of violence, a trumpeting of strength and power, a vaunting of the self even over God, a fearless disregard of God’s command not to kill.

“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

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Violence multiplies. Fear and intimidation become part of the social fabric. Overwhelming revenge becomes the rule. “Hit me and I’ll hit you harder.” It’s not yet Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is the path. At least until Jesus dares to answer Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” by saying “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

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At some point we run out of words for the sorrows that we wreak on one another. The pictures could multiply of the bodies of children neglected in the streets, the triumphant march of military parades, the weeping mothers, the angry fathers, the disconsolate siblings, the shocked neighbors who never had a clue, the bombastic threats of politicians seeking to profit, and the lawyers running to claim a prize.

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows of the world where bones creak and diseases waste and drought devours. At some point we run out of words for the favelas and slums and the distorted bodies of the starving. At some point we run out of words for the raped and abused. At some point we run out of words.

We can understand if God should desire to wipe clean the face of the earth. It is the way the ancient cultures around Israel told the story. But our story tells us of a child: Seth. There is no great saving destiny appointed to Seth. He is just a child. Babbling, cooing, clinging, crying, sweet with the aroma of newness, abounding in curiosity, smiling, laughing, tasting everything with his mouth, studying faces, clinging to fingers, sucking feverishly at the breast, gazing into his mother’s eyes, tender, warm, connection, grasping for language, striving to crawl and then to walk. A child. New life. Image of God. Child of sorrow. Hope of tomorrow. By Dolat khan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons By U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Stratton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth,

for she said, “God has appointed for me another child.”

God is not done with us. God continues to give life. This is not a replacement for Abel or for Cain. But he is new life. He is grace.

To Seth also a son was born

And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.

At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.

The LORD. The name that will be revealed to Abraham as the one who gives a future. The name that will be revealed to Moses as the one who delivers from bondage. God is not just creator; He is redeemer.

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A reminder about the nature of the Biblical text: There are problems if you read the text literally. How can Abel offer a sacrifice of a lamb when humans have not yet received permission to kill? (This doesn’t happen until after the flood.) Why is Cain afraid of being killed when there are yet no other people? But the narrative is not history; it is commentary on human existence. And it is preaching. It bears to us the voice of God who asks these terrible, haunting questions: “Where is your brother?” Where is your sister? “What have you done?” What have you failed to do?

But this God of the haunting questions is also the God who does not abandon his troubled creation. God is faithful and continues to provide and protect and call us into the life and love for which we were created.

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

An unending jar of mercy



1 Kings 17:17-24

18“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Some translations at least make it a question: “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son?!” Of course, others put it more bluntly, “that you should kill my son?”

It’s a remarkable turn for this woman, the widow of Zarephath, who has been sustained through the brutal drought and famine by the prophet’s promise that her jar of meal and of oil would not fail until the rains return. One moment she is the beneficiary of a wondrous divine mercy and now accuses God of petty vindictiveness. None of us are without sins, and the hazard of taking in a holy man, is that he draws the eye of God – and what may have once passed by in obscurity, is now revealed to the royal master. And he is swift to punish. Or so she thinks.

It is sad that she has not learned from God’s mercy that God is merciful.

I understand the fear that seizes her when her son stops breathing. I know these thoughts come. I know they blurt out in our frightful anxiety. But still, everything she has known about the God of Israel is generosity and compassion.

I have had these conversations, in the hospital, at a bedside, in grief. Years and years of worship, years and years of the word of grace and the feast at God’s holy table, yet in fear comes the question, “Why is God doing this?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

We do not learn well. God is not robbing us of life’s goodness; he brings true goodness. He brings true life. God heals. God delivers. God forgives. God rescues. God transforms. God brings new birth. God brings his kingdom. God brings the Spirit. God brings the New Jerusalem. God opens the grave.

And so now, when my child lies breathless, my cry is not about guilt and shame. My prayer is for mercy, yes. My plea is desperate, yes. But my cry is for God to show God’s goodness because I know God is good. Like the widow, I want my child to live, I will cry out for my child to live – but I know God will bring goodness, even if the price is tears.

There are things that happen because of choices I have made. I endure those as best I can. And there are things that happen because of choices the world around me makes. And I endure those as best I can. And there are things that just happen. I praise God for the times I am protected. And I look for God’s goodness in those things I suffer. For I know that the God who provides our daily bread from his unending jar of meal is the bringer of a true and imperishable life.


Image: by Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A balm for Detroit


For Wednesday

Revelation 7:9-17

17for the Lamb at the center 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.

In a world with as much sorrow and destruction as ours, these words are a sweet balm. When my daughter, Anna, was small and we were living in the inner city of Detroit, she used to wish that money did grow on trees so that no one would have to be poor. Her other solution was that everything should cost a penny. I started once to explain economic theory to her, but it was the wrong enterprise. She was speaking a child’s instinctive vision of the kingdom of God: no one should suffer.

One night at bedtime she offered: “I wish there was a balm for Detroit.” It took me a moment before realizing that in worship that week we had sung “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The words of the hymn echoed through her soul and she wanted a balm for Detroit.

I want a balm for Detroit. I want a balm for Syria, for the parents of Sandy Hook, for the schoolgirls of Chibok, Nigeria. I want a balm for little Alan Kurdi in the red shirt and blue pants lying in the surf. I want a balm for those who have lost their homes near Fukishima, and those who witnessed Hiroshima. I want a balm for the families with whom I stood as they buried their children. I want a balm for the widows and widowers of my parish, for those who face grim diagnoses, and for those whose steps have grown frail and pained.

It matters to me that on these Sundays in Easter we sing the song from Revelation that declares “the lamb who was slain who has begun his reign.” I appreciate that our second reading in worship throughout this Easter season is from the visions of worship around the throne of God in the Book of Revelation. In the communion liturgy we sing the Sanctus – from Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim singing God’s praise – and in this season we sing an adaptation of the ancient Eucharistic prayer “As the grains of wheat once scatter on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you.”

It is not just a hope of a peaceful world; it is a promise. All creation shall be gathered, the lamb on the throne lives, the world is being born anew. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares and the reaper overtake the sower. Everything shall cost a penny. Tears will be wiped away.

It is not, as we are often accused, pie in the sky. It is pie on every table. It is every heart made new. It is every sin forgiven, every debt wiped away. It is a world as joyful as Eden, and as full of compassion as Anna’s heart.


Image from the Bamberg Apocalypse:  By Deutsch: Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally made whole

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Philippians 3:17-4:1

21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

One of my early experiences in ministry was with a woman who died of cancer. I remember few details now, only that it eventually spread to her brain. She was a lovely young woman with children at the end of high school and beginning of college.

I watched as she slowly deteriorated, and knew that the end was drawing near. But the doctors in those days were all geared to keeping spirits up rather than telling the truth, and she slipped into a coma before her parents or children could make their goodbyes. I alone had that chance.

There have been children in my parish who struggled with cancer, an infant who died from a ruptured appendix, many who have struggled with deteriorating joints, failing hearts, livers and lungs. And then there are those who struggled with dementia and mental illness. I can still feel the distress of one woman in a nursing home who begged me to help her escape, certain she had been kidnapped, and others for whom the room swirled with voices.

Paul lives in a world without any of the benefits of modern medicine. The bones of archaeological digs show people suffering from numerous afflictions. Life was painful and short. But even though physicians can now do wondrous things, our bodies are frail, limited, failing.

It sounds fanciful, perhaps even delusional, to say that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” that our frail bodies, lying under the sentence of death, shall be transformed into resurrected bodies like that of Christ Jesus. But you cannot deny the power of such a hope.

We tend to settle for a kind death and an end to the pain. And/or we adopt the Greek notion of an immortal soul free from a body altogether. But Christian faith persists in the notion that the world was not intended to be suffering and sorrow and that the author of the universe will fulfill the promise of delivering his creation from death’s dominion. I cannot conceive what this means except by metaphor. It’s why I appreciate the remark by the elder in 1 John: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

I don’t know what we shall be, but I live in the light of the promise that the work is begun in us and shall be brought to completion, that we shall be like Christ risen: finally made whole, finally made fully and truly alive.


Photo: By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Life even in death

File:Voronet murals 2010 64.jpg


Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.


Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Answered and unanswered prayer: Two thoughts on Psalm 116


Psalm 116:1-9

File:What will the day bring? (5124379114).jpg1 I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice
and my supplications.

There are many for whom there is no deliverance. Many whose loved ones perish. Many whose pleas fall to the ground. Many whose days are spent in want. Many whose nights are spent in darkness. This is the problem with answered prayer. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those whose prayer has not been answered.

It is bittersweet when the friends of the childless become pregnant. It is bittersweet when the unloved see couples kiss. It is bittersweet when the abandoned see others embraced.

Perhaps bittersweet is all we can hope for, trapped as we in a broken world, trapped as we tend to be inside our own selves. “I am glad for you” even as I feel the pang of my own disappointment. Maybe this is why we find it easier to speak our needs in church rather than our thanksgivings; we don’t want anyone to feel badly when the prayers of another are answered.

But isn’t this what the rite of confession means when it says, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”? We are prisoners to our selves. I filter your good news through my own bad news, and it robs you of your joy and God of the glory due his name.

Grace happens. Some prayers do get answered. Some are healed. Some are saved. Some are given work and families and joy.

And to whom shall we give credit? Luck? Fortune? Chance? Is God not the author of all grace? Is it right to be silent when such a gift is given? Is it right not to praise the one who is the author of such sweetness?

No, the problem is mine, that I am trapped within myself. I need a deliverer to call me out of myself into the joy of God wherever the world is touched by the life and grace of God.

Psalm 116:1-9

3The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

I don’t know whether this translation carries enough emotional power for the poet’s complaint. ‘Snares’ and ‘pangs’ and ‘Sheol’ make it all seem a little distant, a little abstract, a little theoretical. I wonder if we shouldn’t be talking about the bony hand of death dragging us down. The fearful shadows swallowing all hope. Drowning in despair.

There are moments when you get tired of fighting, when you are ready to surrender, ready to give up and slip beneath the waves. And then comes the fear, the fight, the will to live, the desperate prayer for help, and the hand plunging beneath the water to haul you up again into the air.

The poet’s song is a deep and profound praise. God is not a god who helps those who help themselves; God is the LORD who reaches down to snatch us back from the grave. God is not the patron of the privileged who do not have to wrestle with demons; God is the LORD who joins us in battle. God is light – not so much the radiant peace as the flaming sword to deliver us from the eternal night.

There are people who fight terrible spiritual battles. Some survive. Some do not. But all are saved. And if some did not survive to give God the praise, then we would not know this God who empties the grave, this God who yanks us back from the realm of sorrow into joy, from the realm of shame into grace, from the realm of death into life.

It is because of the testimony of some, like this psalmist, that we can see light upon our path and the joy of surprising grace. It is because of those whose prayers are answered that we know that all such prayers shall ultimately be answered. Healing awaits us.


Photocredit: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (What will the day bring?  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

There are no pyramids in Judea

File:Sphinx and pyramids of Giza panorama.jpgSaturday

Psalm 123

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

If we stop and pay attention to verses like this we will understand something important about Biblical faith and the scripture: it is, for the most part, written by the conquered not the conquerors. It is an exilic faith, a diaspora faith, a faith born out of human suffering rather than success. For all the glories of the kingdom of David, it was not an empire to compare with Egypt or Babylon or Assyria. There are no pyramids in Judea. No magnificent temples on the acropolis. No ancient works of art like those of Persia that ISIS is looting and destroying. What remained of Israel was a book. A book written by those who had seen their nation crushed, their temple destroyed, their king blinded and led away in chains. All the boots of tramping warriors had marched again and again through their land. They had known the contempt of the proud.

The struggle inside Israel and Judah was a struggle for its character. Some aspired to glory. Others aspired to justice and mercy. Kings built altars that matched Assyria. Prophets spoke on behalf of the poor. Moses commanded a Sabbath that they not be a nation of slaveholders and slaves. The wealthy sought to discard such archaic ideas. Moses spoke of shared bread. Isaiah excoriated the lavish feasts of the rich and promised a day when all would gather at God’s abundant banquet.

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

Whether the psalm prays for relief from foreign oppressors or their own home grow elite, the truth of the prayer remains. It is the cry of the poor, a cry God hears.


Photo: By kallerna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the crucified

A sermon/reflection on Good Friday

Isaiah 53

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

The texts for Good Friday are Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (He was wounded for our transgressions) and John 18:1-19:42 (The passion according to John)

Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character. Some years the desolation of the cross speaks to a desolation in our lives. Some years it’s the mystery of redemption that overwhelms us. Some years we are struck by the strength, courage and nobility of Jesus and he becomes an example for us. Other times we are disturbed by the hatred of the crowds or the abuse of power by the leaders and see our own times in that light. Some years we see the majesty of God’s love and are filled with awe and wonder. Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character.

We used to vacation at the beach when I was young. For a few years, we were part owners of a condo over in Aptos. I don’t remember as a child being overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean; I just saw the waves. And when we were there after a storm and the storm had rearranged the beach and changed the course of the river, I wasn’t thinking about the power of the sea, only the novelty of what had happened and the new possibilities it meant for our play.

In those days, I didn’t see beyond the waves. I didn’t see the mystery and wonder of the sea. When we walked out on the pier to the sunken ship I didn’t comprehend the power of the ocean to break a concrete ship.

In the same way, as a child, I didn’t understand this story about Jesus. I hadn’t had any experience with evil, with tragedy, with grief, with guilt, or with the kind of courage and strength of Jesus’ sacrifice. But with each passing year the story becomes more real.

The story also became more troubling.

When I was about 16, the daughter of dear family friends was killed in a plane crash out of LAX. I remember being sad, but I didn’t yet understand anything of the devastation her family was feeling. I saw racism and war on TV, but didn’t yet understand the suffering they inflict.

As we go from one Good Friday to the next, it is not only the story of Jesus that becomes more real, the connection between the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of the world becomes more real. The story of Jesus’ suffering is not simply about his suffering; it is about all human suffering.

God has entered into the world, and we have done to him what has been done – to some degree or other – to every human being. We are all, at some point and to some degree, shamed, taunted, tortured, mocked, wounded, and crucified. And we have all, at some point and to some degree, done the shaming, taunting, torturing, mocking and wounding.

In the grand scheme of things, what happened to Jesus is not unusual. We can think easily of extreme examples like the death camps or the killing fields. We can think of very mundane examples like school yard taunting. We have heard, recently, young men singing a racist chant on a bus. We have seen the photo of a noose left outside a minority student building. We have seen policemen shoot children and beat suspects and scream at a driver for honking.

What happened to Jesus happens to all of us. We have tasted abuse in our homes. We have witnessed it between a parent and child in a store. We have all comforted children who came home from school or a party crying. We listen to the hate in public speeches. We have seen the violence against women and against gays. We hear the graphic testimony against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the brutal consequences of his actions. We are haunted by the thought of an airplane full of people listening to the pilot pounding on the cockpit door and screaming at his copilot, while the plane plummets towards the ground. And we know that sooner or later some news program will play the tape.

We have seen the bodies of university students lying in the street, singled out and killed by Al-Shabab because they were Christians. We have seen Christians in the Central African Republic killing Muslims.

It’s not that there isn’t kindness and mercy and generosity in the world. It’s just that what happened to Jesus is such a universal story.

And where is God in this universal story? The answer to this is very important. We tend to think God is above it, somehow, looking down. We tend to think God could stop it, somehow. Give a command, summon his angels, silence the cacophony of the world in one great roar.

But God has become one of us in Jesus. God has come to us in this Jesus. Not only that we might see the face of God, but that God might dwell with us and we with him in this world he created to be good and holy.

God has come to us. And we need to be sure we understand this: the God who comes isn’t sitting in the seats of power. God isn’t seated on the throne of Pontius Pilate. God isn’t seated among the council of Chief Priests and Elders. God isn’t a member of the board of Exxon-Mobil. God isn’t taking a role in the White house. God isn’t in the councils of Al-Shabab or ISIS. God is hiding under the bed while gunmen go door to door. God is walking with refugees towards the Turkish border. God has become a victim of violence. God makes himself present, and is found among the broken and beaten, neglected and abandoned. “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

God is present as the crucified. God is present among the wounded. But God is not here as a helpless victim. He is present as the Lord of all. He is present as the truth Pilate cannot see. He is present as the Holy Name before whom the soldiers fall to the ground. He is present here as the one who is lifted up for the healing of the world. He is present here as the one who is the resurrection and the life.

By his presence among the crucified, God speaks a word of judgment against all our violence. Exposing it. Naming it. Revealing that such violence is not on the side of God. God is among the crucified.

And by his presence among the crucified, God speaks a word of promise that our lives and our world are not bound by their suffering. Our lives are not bound by guilt. Our lives are not bound by shame. Our lives are not bound by sin and darkness and lies. Our lives are called into the divine like the branches to the vine. Our lives are called into the freedom that comes in Jesus’ word. Our lives are called into the life of the age to come by him who summons Lazarus from the grave.

Each of us experiences this day in our own way. And each year this day has, for each of us, its own character. But each year we are met here by the Lord who transcends time, the one in whom and for whom all things were created, the one who is not bound by the tomb, the one who stands among the crucified and calls us into his way, his truth and his life.