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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.”

File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

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.”

File:US Navy 090418-F-7923S-023 A Haitian woman waits her turn for treatment at the Killick medical clinic site during a Continuing Promise community medical service project.jpg

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.

+     +     +

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


Above every name that is named

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Watching for the Morning of May 28, 2017

The Sunday of the Ascension (The Seventh Sunday of Easter).

I have always chosen Ascension Day hymns to begin and end this last Sunday in Easter before Pentecost, mostly because they are nice hymns and without an Ascension Day service there’s no opportunity to sing them. Ascension Day had little meaning for me as a child. Lutherans aren’t all that interested in adding extra weekday services once you get past Christmas Eve and maybe Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Early in my ordained ministry Ascension Day was something to note in passing. Maybe even something of an embarrassment when taken literally. Like with this picture:

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We don’t live in a three-tiered universe anymore. We don’t imagine that Jesus needs to go “up” after he has been raised from the grave. So Ascension Day seemed vaguely awkward.

In Detroit it provided a defined date we could remember each year for our special joint service among all the city parishes when we set apart deacons at the end of their yearlong training. It was easier than trying to coordinate the calendars of multiple parishes.

But the narrative of the ascension is the closing event of the first volume of Luke-Acts and the opening narrative of the second volume. It gets told by Luke as the natural end of Jesus ministry, and again as the natural beginning to discuss the mission of the church. Matthew makes the same connection of ascension as the culmination of Jesus’ story and the beginning of the Jesus mission. Even John in his rich and complicated way weaves those threads together. What the disciples go to do after the outpouring of the Spirit is tied not to Jesus resurrection, but to his place at the right hand of God.

The “good news” announced to the world isn’t that Jesus isn’t dead anymore. It is that he reigns. He is the world’s true lord. He is the true emperor whose wishes shape every land and life.

To put it crudely: if the Jesus story is about the cross and resurrection, then death is defeated, the redemption price paid, and we get to go to heaven when we die. But if the story culminates in the ascension, then the point is not about our trip to heaven, but a new governance of earth.

If the story is about going to heaven, then being good or accepting Jesus becomes the important element in Christian life. If the story is about Christ as lord (the confession for which Christians have died and continue to die), then the important element is living God’s “kingdom” (which Jesus describes as “justice and mercy” and love of God and neighbor) until every earthly power is dethroned and the reign of God arrives in fullness.

Again, if the story is about going to heaven, then the purpose of the church is to call people to be good or to accept Jesus. If the story is about God reigning over the world, then the purpose of the church is to proclaim the good news that the world has come under new management (and inviting the world to live in that grace and life: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”)

The creation around us and all its people are not the sinking ship from which we must be saved into the lifeboats. The world is the lost and misdirected ship that has received a new captain.

So we are celebrating this Sunday as the Sunday of the Ascension. It means letting go of the prayer of Jesus that we might be one. But maybe in this time that seems to be an era of triumphant greed and neglect, it is worth bringing to the forefront the notion that this Jesus, the shamed and denounced and crucified, has taken the captain’s chair. He was tossed overboard as worthless and misguided, but God has lifted him out of the waters and raised him to the bridge.

And we are his crew.

The appointed readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017, and comment on them from 2014 can be found here.

Preaching Series: Genesis 4: Violence

We come this week to the outbreak of violence. Offerings are made, divine favor granted unequally, and the first religious war breaks out between brothers. God speaks to Cain before the terrible deed is done, but the words do not prevent the coming violence. Cain goes on to found cities, the realm of the landless, the place of creativity that leads to weapons and Lamech’s boast of murdering a man who wounded him and his promise of seventy-seven fold revenge.

The turn away from God in Eden throws dark shadows across the human landscape. Yet still there is grace.

The Prayer for May 28, 2017 (for the celebration of Ascension)

Almighty God,
before whom all heaven and earth shall bow down
to acknowledge your gracious rule,
send forth your Spirit upon us,
that with our eyes upon Christ Jesus, risen from the dead,
we may proclaim your praise to all the world;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 28, 2017 (for the celebration of Ascension)

First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” – The ascension account that is the culminating story in Luke (our Gospel for today) and the opening account of the Book of Acts.

Psalmody: Psalm 93
“The Lord is king…majestic on high is the Lord!” – A hymn of praise celebrating God’s reign over all the earth.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” –
A portion of the author’s opening salutation and prayer for the Ephesian community. It references the notion the ascension, and prays that they may know and live in the hope to which they have been called.

Gospel: Luke 24:44-53
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” – The ascension in Luke when once again Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures and declares that his followers will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Image 1: By Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave us alone, Jesus

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A look back to Sunday

Luke 8:26-39

37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

It was a simple thing we did on Sunday. I printed 49 copies of a list of the names of those who were killed in Orlando, and went through the list highlighting a first name on each list. I then passed the lists out at the end of the sermon asking each person in the congregation to take one and, in the prayers of the people, name the name that was highlighted on their list.

It was simple and moving to hear these names rise up from many different voices in the congregation. It is customary for us to offer individual prayers from the congregation when the assisting minister has finished the more general prayers he or she has prepared for those people and concerns that are on the heart of the whole congregation. Typically, there are individuals named who are dealing with illness or grief – and an occasional prayer of thanks. Having different people in the congregation each lift up a name had the effect of making audible that the people we named each have their own families and networks of friends.

These are not the only ones whose lives have been cut down by violence this last week. The world is too full of sorrow from the hates and callousness that divide us. I do not know what the answer is. I do believe it has something to do with this Jesus who went to the region of Gerasa, where even now violence bears its terrible fruit, and there delivered a man from the legacy of rage and despair.

When the townspeople see the man restored to his right mind, they are filled with fear and ask Jesus to leave them alone. There is a terrible truth in their request: we have lived with our demons so long, we choose the familiar and the known over the possibility of true healing.

So go away from us, Jesus. Don’t ask us to surrender our hates and fears, our passions and desires. Don’t ask us to surrender the sweet satisfaction of self-righteousness. Don’t ask us to consider why we are alienated from others or ourselves.

Don’t ask us to see the hungry at our gate or the wounded at the side of the road. Don’t ask us to see the log in our own eye. Don’t ask us to sell our possessions and give alms. Don’t ask us to bless those who curse us or forgive those who sin against us. Don’t ask us to beat our swords into plowshares. Go away from us Jesus. We choose what we know. Egypt is fine. There are melons and leeks.

The healed man begs to go with Jesus. But Jesus sends him home. Home to all those he has cursed and wounded. Home to make his confessions and mend his relationships. Home to tell what God has done. Home to live the peace of Christ.


Image:  Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

The warring drums are silenced


Watching for the Morning of June 12, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 7 / Lectionary 12

It is hard to hear the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday of the man consumed with rage, alienated from civic life, and dwelling in death’s shadow, and not think of those young men who have taken up assault rifles and become servants of death. Jesus has just calmed the storm at sea (an assault by spiritual powers) and now he calms the storm within this anguished man among the tombs.

There is irony, even mockery, in the story. The demons do not wish to be sent into the abyss so they beg to be sent into a nearby herd of swine. But what they fear, they find – for the pigs plunge themselves into the deep.

The story is set against the background of warring armies, the rage of earthly kingdoms. Gerasa was founded by Alexander the Great on his march to conquer the world. And the demons are legion – as in the legions of the Roman Empire that enforce the Emperor’s will on a captive people. But the oppression and chaos endemic to the rulers of this world are cast out by the command of Jesus who brings the peace and reconciliation of God’s reign.

Sadly, the people of Gerasa choose the familiar world of violence and beg Jesus to leave.

The cry for deliverance – and the cry of God to a people who will not receive it – occupy our readings this Sunday. In the first reading from Isaiah, God reaches out to a people who will not draw near and perish in their idolatries. The psalm is the familiar cry for deliverance uttered by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry God answers. The possessed man among the tombs cries in anguish as the evil within is confronted with the presence of God in Christ, but deliverance comes. And in Galatians we hear Paul exulting in the new creation that has come in Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

There is a battle raging in the world – not the battle between competing human empires or ideologies, but the battle between humanity’s wars of domination and God’s work of liberation, between our rage and God’s peace, between the forces of chaos and the grasping passions of the human heart, and the passion of God who suffers for the redemption of the world. For those who come together to hear these stories on Sunday, the warring drums are silenced, and we are brought together in peace at God’s table.

The Prayer for June 19, 2016

Gracious God,
like the man who lived among the tombs,
we are bound by our fears and wounds, sins and failings.
Restore and renew us by your word of Grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 19, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9
“I was ready to be found by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.” –
Through the prophet God cries out against a rebellious and idolatrous people.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:1, 16-28 (appointed, Psalm 22:19-28)
“For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
– This psalm associated with the passion of Jesus, that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” cries out to God for deliverance form affliction and becomes a song of thanksgiving.

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Paul describes the Mosaic law as the servant/slave charged with escorting a child to school and correcting him with a rod, but now in Christ we have entered God’s new reality

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39
“Then Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.”
– A man possessed by a legion of demons (as in the Roman legions) – consumed by rage, cut off from society, and dwelling among the dead – is restored by the dawning reign of God in Jesus.


Image: Master of the Furies [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He shall be the one of peace

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Jesus and the Apostles. (Note that the weapons they carry are the instruments by which they were martyred.)


Micah 5:2-5a

4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5and he shall be the one of peace.

The cries for war seem to persist through every generation. We are like children squabbling over toys. Kings, queens, rulers, ruling councils, governing bodies, senates, parliaments, economic powers, or whomever stands to gain by plundering the possessions of another cries “Foul!” and raises the rabble to march to slaughter. Our faith in the use of force is very deep. Our trust in our righteousness quite blind. Fear and hate so easily sown.

Tribes raid tribes. The poor pilfer from the rich. The rich plunder the poor. Graft is the order of things through most of human history. We ask only one question, “What’s in it for me.”

And then we wake up after years of warring and grieving and wonder how to escape our madness.

He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD.

Peace seems beyond us. Beyond our nature. Beyond our will. Beyond our reason.

But there is one who comes. One whose rule is just. One whose reign is faithful. One who feeds the flock rather than fleeces them.

There is one who comes. One who comes in the name of the LORD. One who comes in the majesty of the LORD. One who brings true security to the ends of the earth. One who is our peace.

We don’t follow him very well. We use his name as an instrument of war, as a justification for violence, as an addendum to hate – though he revealed that we are all members of a single human family and commanded us to treat one another so.

We don’t follow him very well. We claim him as a partisan in our causes. We pick and choose his words to support what we want to believe and do. We even murdered him in the name of God.

But he lives.

And beyond all imagining he bears no grudge. He loves. And he continues to bid us to follow.

He is the one of peace.


Image: St. Mary’s, Gdansk.  credit: By PawełS (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Every beastly empire

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Saint Michael, the Archangel, slaying the dragon


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.

The artists of the medieval church gave us graphic and frightening images of the last judgment. Christ and his apostles sit over a scene where demons drag the condemned down into the fiery pits below, while angels escort the righteous up into the heavenly city. It is an image repeated often. On the town clock in Prague a skeleton turned an hourglass at the tolling of the hour to remind us all we were one hour closer to death and judgment. The ministrations of the church were required to save you from the pits of hell and, even then, we were not ready for bliss without the millions of years required to purge us of our sinfulness.

It is a vivid image, now mostly forgotten. We live in a society where there is either no afterlife, or the afterlife is a blissful reunion with loved ones open to all. The notion we are all destined for peace is not shaken by texts such as this from Daniel – for the scripture has lost its authority. We know better. Or, at least, we prefer our own sentiments to those of the ancient world recorded in the holy books.

We think we are so much wiser than the ancients, though we still do not know how to build a pyramid. Humility is called for. And some care and caution – for most of humanity has believed for most of human history that there is accountability in the life to come for the way we have lived this life.

But careful reading of the scripture is also called for – for here, in this vivid imagery from Daniel, it is not the individual life that is called to account; it is the beastly kingdoms of the world.

The author of Daniel had very specific kingdoms in mind, writing as he did while Antiochus Epiphanes IV was seeking to “modernize” Israel’s ancient faith. In typical imperial form, he imposed his will on the people, slaying those who refused to eat pork or secretly circumcised their children. When rebellion broke out, he cleverly attacked on the Sabbath, slaughtering the mass of Judeans who refused to break the law by lifting the sword on the Sabbath.

The human imperial impulse manifests itself again and again in death. There are no end to wars, no end to the slaughter of innocents, no end to the stirring of hate and shutting of hearts and doors to those in need. And empire follows empire. The author of Daniel looks back upon Babylon, Medea, Persia and Alexander and his generals. Since then we have had Rome and Caliphates and the Imperial powers of Europe who have left such a devastating inheritance to Africa and the Middle East. We have had Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the American corporate empire. And, in the small spaces in between the great empires, many small terrors of every political stripe. The Arminian Genocide. Rwanda. Idi Amin. South Africa. The Congo. Isis.

Daniel’s vision is not a threat that our lives will be judged; it is a promise that kingdoms will be judged. Every tyranny shall be thrown down, every beastly empire. And, in the end, shall come an empire like “a son of man,” like a human being. An empire from God (thus the clouds) not out of the remnants of the primordial chaos (the sea). A reign of justice, faithfulness and peace. A reign of grace and life.

Daniel saw this promise embodied in a vision. We have seen this promise enfleshed in Jesus. For he brought a reign of healing and life. And he has given us his Spirit. And the day shall come when the beasts are judged and the crucified and merciful one alone shall govern. Every land. Every heart. A world made new.


Image: By Bourgogne, second quart du XIIe siècle (Neuceu) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Let us hold fast


Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

Ryssby Church 223Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There are too many bodies in the streets of Paris. Too many bodies in the towns and cities of Syria. Too many bodies in the streets of Iraq.

There are too many hungry children, too many infected with curable diseases, too many without clean water.

There are too many who live in fear, too many who face violence, too many imprisoned by hate.

There are too many.

We should be better than this. That’s part of it. We should be better than this. Our most fundamental humanity is the ability to love, to share, to laugh, to sing, to dance, to break bread together. To form bonds of friendship and fidelity. To show compassion. To help, to heal, to teach. To pray. To touch and be touched by what is holy and beautiful and good.

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” writes the author of Hebrews, “for he who has promised is faithful.”

Let us hold fast. When bodies lie on the ground, let us hold fast. When fear runs rampant, let us hold fast. When anger stirs towards vengeance, let us hold fast. When outrage turns towards hate, let us hold fast.

For he who has promised is faithful. God is faithful. God has promised. God has born witness to the world he creates – a world of life not death, of mercy not revenge, of truth not falsehood, of love not hate. God is faithful to that promise. Let us hold fast.

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Let us consider how to call one another into this world God creates. Let us consider how to prod one another to do the right thing, to be the right thing. Let us consider how to encourage one another to generosity, to compassion, to kindness, to care and to truth. Let us consider. Let us provoke.

And let us not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some.” For it is in meeting together, in seeing faces, in shaking hands, in sharing prayers, in singing praise, in breaking bread, in hearing the Word, that we are held fast in him who is the world’s true life.

I have also written a reflection on Paris, Jesus, violence, and the human heart entitled “With twelve baskets left over” at Jacob LimpingAnd I am part of those who meet together at Los Altos Lutheran Church. You are welcome to join us in body or spirit.



Drinking the cup


Mark 10:32-45 Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr of the Church. He was from the first generation after Jesus, born near the time of Jesus’ death and dying at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he was taken to Rome to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters to the churches in the region through which he passed. Seven survive.

The word ‘bishop’ has gathered a lot of extra weight traveling through the centuries. Ignatius would have been the head of the household of faith – spiritual leader, teacher, symbolic representative of the whole community – but also a link to the beginnings. He had been formed in the faith by John the Evangelist.

The value of such an historical link has not always been recognized in American society. Yet we often will convey the chain of custody for some eyewitness account. “Bill heard it from Mary who heard it from Jean who saw it happen.” And though we have all played the telephone game and know how messages can get distorted, the first generation wasn’t playing the telephone game. They were sitting at a teacher’s feet, learning the stories, learning their significance, reading the letters of Paul and – by the generation of Ignatius – writing down the narratives as Gospels.

Ignatius was a witness carefully taught by the witnesses. And that chain of teaching continues through the centuries. But authority in the church is not from that chain of succession alone. It is a balance between the tradition handed down through the office of the elder, the text of the Scriptural witness, and the living work of the Spirit.

Ignatius had all three.

It is hard to imagine the violence of a society that makes sport out of feeding people to the lions, watching people die in innumerable creative ways. Crucified upside down. Dressed as enemies and cut down by gladiators. Buried up to the neck in the track of the chariot race. Limbs chained to each of four horses set running in opposite directions. Dipped in pitch and set alight as torches.

It evokes the image of lynching when towns came out to vent their hate as if it were a Sunday picnic – and went away with souvenir pieces of the body.

Into this world came a teacher who yielded himself to violence in the name of peace. John heard him. And Ignatius sat at John’s feet. And we sit at their feet, a people learning to be faithful to the one who taught us to love all people – even, and especially, in the face of hate.


Image: Ignatius of Antioch By Иоанн Апакасс (?) (File source Official museum page) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  Page:,_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.,_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg

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.




Jonah 3

File:Prophet Jonas in Augsburg Cathedral.jpg

Prophet Jonas in Augsburg Cathedral, stained glass window, early 12th century

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

It was incomprehensible to Jonah that God could pardon Nineveh. Nineveh was the city at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was the city that sent its armies to smash the northern kingdom of Israel and subject Judah. Nineveh was the city whose policy was the extermination of subject peoples: the people of Israel were scattered across the empire and others brought in to take their place. It is because of Nineveh that there are ten lost tribes of Israel, lost to history, lost among the nations. Nineveh was renowned in the ancient world for their cruelty and brutality – rare fame in a cruel and brutal era.

It was unthinkable that they could be forgiven. And yet Jonah knew God would – if they repented, if they turned and changed. It’s why Jonah would rather leave his home and people and flee to the furthest most end of the earth than deliver God’s warning to Nineveh. And it is why Jonah would rather be tossed into the sea than go back to deliver God’s message.

But God, in this beloved and delightful tale, does his fish trick and three days later Jonah is vomited onto the land. Three days and life is given, again. Jesus will talk about the sign of Jonah. But there, in the muck on the shore, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is determined.

When Jesus talks about loving our enemies, it’s not a new thought in the Biblical tradition. It’s not like hate and violence were okay and then God changed his mind. God reasoned with Cain before he murdered his brother – and God guarded Cain’s life from the threat of revenge after his fearful deed. Vengeance was not permitted to Israel – it was God’s to avenge. Tubal-cain, the father of modern weapons, is not a hero of the text. The prophet speaks of swords beaten into plowshares because we were not created for swords. David is forbidden to build the temple because he was a man of blood – necessary blood, the blood of those who sought to destroy Israel – but still blood. Before Israel entered into its struggle against the corrupt cities of Canaan, every man had to make an offering, a sacrifice. Even though they were on a divinely authorized mission – they needed to atone for the violence they were to commit. It was not until Noah that God even conceded to humanity the right to kill animals for food – but with that concession, he still required that humans not eat the blood, the life. They must pour it on the ground, a gesture to acknowledge that only God has the right to take life – even when he permits it of us.

Jonah is afraid that God will show love to the Ninevites. And he is right. What he fears comes to pass: the unforgiveable enemy turns and is forgiven.

We are not far from Jonah. We all have enemies we will not forgive. It is why God says through the prophet “My ways are not your ways.” God will do what we will not. For God’s work in the world is the redemption of the human community, not the defense of ‘his people’. ‘His people’ are the voice like the prophet, instruments to bear witness to God’s redemption of the earth. We are Jonah.

And we are like Jonah. The teacher who hurt us, the boss who ruined us, the friend who violated us, the spouse who betrayed us, the enemy from forgotten wars, the terrorist with a bomb, there are plenty of people we have good reason to hate. But God does not share our passions. His passion, his suffering, is for all, to be reunited with all, to reclaim his lost planet hurtling through hate and greed towards destruction. We made a bomb by splitting the atom, for heaven’s sake, a bomb that poisons the sea and air and land, and twists the genes in those who survive to kill them later. Whether it was necessary is not the point; the existence of such weapons of unspeakable violence points to the dark reality of the human heart.

But, truthfully, we don’t want the god made in our own image, the god Jonah wants, the god who fights on our side. We need the God who loves the whole world – even those we must fight, even those we don’t and ought not trust. We need the God who loves them all, because otherwise we have only endless war: us and our god against you and your god. To this there is no happy end. It is the world of Tubal-cain who exults: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, I am avenged seventy-seven fold.”

Jonah cannot stand the thought that God would do anything but destroy Nineveh. We have all prayed those prayers. Thankfully, God does not answer them they way we desire.

And the story of Jonah, delightfully and teasingly told, now haunts us with the truth that we are the called and sent messengers of the God who loves all, the God who would forgive all.

Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”


By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons