Archive for October, 2013

Prayer and Relentless Engagement

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Luke 18:1-8
October 20, 2013
Mary Hammond

There are some stories that assume the proportions of MetaStory, the longer we ponder them. They are Big, Universal Stories, whose characters are inter-changeable throughout the ages. The parable of the plucky widow and the unjust judge in Luke’s Gospel feels like this.

In an attempt to watch something on television besides the countdown toward government default, I happened upon the PBS Frontline documentary, “Outlawed in Pakistan.” It chronicles the story of a 13-year old Pakistani girl named Kainat. She is kidnapped by four men, sexually assaulted, drugged, and forced at gunpoint to sign papers she later learns are a marriage certificate. Tragically, this scenario is not uncommon in her country. What is uncommon, however, is Kainat’s response and that of her family. Her family shuns the advice of tribal elders, who blame Kainat and advise the family to put her to death if she will not go through with the marriage. Instead, Kainat presses charges.

The documentary chronicles the jailing of Kainat’s abductors before the trial; the exoneration of the men in the courts; and the murder of her brother, ostensibly in retaliation. At the conclusion of the story, still unfolding, Kainat is 16 years old. She does not leave home without armed guards by her side to prevent another kidnapping by the man who considers himself her husband. She is taking the case back through the courts, a process that could take ten years to resolve.

Kainat’s story is a living example of the parable before us today. It is the experience of countless, often nameless, individuals and communities who stand up to evil and injustice and just won’t go away.

In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are longing for a warrior-king to deliver the Israelites from the Roman occupation. They hope that Jesus is their guy. Meanwhile, Jesus is preparing them for harder days to come. He’s encouraging them to remain steadfast and vigilant amid trials and temptations. His followers have no idea what the future holds.

How shall these disciples pray and not lose heart when their dreams for military victory turn upside-down? How shall they keep seeking justice when it seems so long delayed? How shall the people of God hold on in the midst of turmoil, catastrophe, and disillusionment?

In usual form, Jesus tells a story. It’s a tale about the ways of the world his followers inhabited. There are two main characters–a widow who has been wronged and a judge who could care less about justice and what God or humans think of him.

In first century Palestine, judges are appointed either by King Herod or other Roman officials. These arbitrators hold vast power and are notoriously corrupt. William Barclay (quoted in mentions that these appointed judges are officially called ‘Dayyaneh Gezeroth,’ translated “judges of punishments.” In a play on words, however, the common people call them ‘Dayyaneh Gezeloth,’ translated “robber judges.”

The aggrieved widow’s life stands in marked contrast to that of the unjust judge. In race, class, gender, and economic status, the two characters are starkly different. Everything is stacked against the widow. Yet, she still expects justice to prevail.

For years, I read this story and imagined that plucky widow, entering the courtroom day after day, demanding her rights. This week, I realized how deeply I had super-imposed my western views of “going to court” on this first century story about occupied Palestine. Women, what alone poor widows, were not allowed to represent themselves in courts of law during the times of Jesus. If any woman even attempted to enter the courtroom, she would be summarily dismissed by the Roman guard at best, or–worse yet–thrown into prison for her defiance.

How could a powerless widow gain access to a diffident judge? Such a scene could only be realized if the widow studied the judge’s comings and goings and made a scene on the public streets as the judge entered or exited the court. Her persistent, creative, nonviolent response ultimately led to transformation of the injustice for which she sought redress.

Does the widow convert the judge? No! Does she wear him down with her incessant badgering? Yes! Eventually, he realizes that it is in his own self-interest to grant her request, if for no other reason than to get her to leave him alone.

I think back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. While hearts were not always changed, laws eventually were. This happened through blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice. It happened through community, prayer, strategizing, and mobilizing. Multitudes rose up and proclaimed, “We are not going away.” Many were mistreated and jailed; others died. Yet their tenacity was not in vain.

Jesus does not compare the unjust judge to God, but contrasts the two figures. If a selfish, corrupt judge can eventually be persuaded to offer justice to a poor widow, how much more does God care for God’s own, who “cry to him day and night”? This phrase employs traditional language used throughout Israel in the context of community lament and prayer. It is a cry for liberation from oppression, a yearning for social transformation and the establishment of the Reign of God.

This parable does not provide a “how-to” set of instructions for securing our personal wish-lists from God. Far from it! The story is so much bigger than that. It encompasses the aching prayers and deepest longings of a people under occupation, crying out day and night, year after year, “How long, O Lord, how long?” It embodies the lament of a people who hope Jesus will bring a swift military solution to their dilemma.

Not all stories end as well as that of the widow in this parable. The global chorus, “How long, O Lord, how long?” is deafening. Victims continue to rage and weep across cultures, down through the ages. During the apartheid era in South Africa, grandparents admitted, “I may not be alive to see this society change, but it is enough if my grandchildren witness that change.”

Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a timeline for relief or a blueprint for action. What grows within the plucky widow and within ourselves, with persistence and faithfulness, is vision, courage, hope, and resolve. Like Kainat and her family, we hang on to the conviction that right ultimately prevails, if not for us, then for generations to come. We trust a God who is on the side of justice and goodness, even when those in power are not.

Jesus concludes by asking his followers the haunting question, “How much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Humanity find on earth when he returns?”

His question dangles before us. Will we be among those who, in the words of our song today, “are not going away”? Will we be the nonviolent hecklers, societal irritants, and reckless lovers that point the way to the Reign of God, away from the machinations of Empire? Will we speak truth to power and stand faithfully on the side of the victimized? Will we persevere in the hard and difficult callings we have been given, even when the obstacles seem overwhelming?

These are the questions posed to us this day. May they blaze in our hearts like a fire that will not be put out. Amen.

Exodus and Exile

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1-7
October 13, 2013
Steve Hammond

“Maybe this time Jeremiah will finally have something good to say. He was right. There was something dreadfully wrong with what we had allowed Israel to become. But we’ve learned our lesson. What good is it going to do God or any of us to languish in Babylon? We can’t survive here in the midst of these pagans much longer. The prophet Hananiah did say that God was going to crush Nebuchadnezzar and destroy the worthless Babylonians. Maybe Jeremiah has finally gotten over his hissy fit and is hearing the same thing from God. Only one way to find out. Somebody open and read the letter.”

So they began reading the letter and quickly discovered that it was the same old Jeremiah. Instead of a promise from God that the elite of Israel who had been exiled to Babylon would experience their own deliverance and make an exodus back to Jerusalem, he said settle in for the long haul. “This”, Jeremiah wrote, is the message from God to the exiles. “Build houses and make yourselves at home. Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away. Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare.”

They were going to see their children and their children’s children grow up in that place. Instead of taking the grandkids to the Temple in Jerusalem, it would be to a picnic at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. How could that be? Couldn’t Jeremiah be wrong just for once? All the others prophets missed what God was saying. Now maybe it was Jeremiah.

They knew, though, that Jeremiah was probably right on this one, too. But build houses there. Marry off our children here, maybe even to Babylonians. Plant our gardens and trees here? Make this place our home? How are we going to be God’s people here? How are we going to sing God’s song in this foreign land, especially since we weren’t doing such a good job of it when we were home?

Exile is hard no matter what shape it takes. It isn’t necessarily being dragged off or fleeing to a new land, though there is plenty of that in our world. Some have been exiled from their families, their churches, their friends. Exile is when we find ourselves in hard territory and what has been home seems so far away. On the blog Daniel B. Clendenin writes this. “We know that sometimes things don’t work out as we wish, or as we think they should, or as we pray. History can take a bitter turn. Catastrophe can overtake us, sometimes of our own making, other times for no apparent reason at all.” But we do end up in exile and wonder if we will ever be able to sing God’s song in that place.

As hard as it is, though, sometimes all we can do is build a house in that place, raise our children there, and work for that place’s welfare. I call it shaloming the exile. What the exiles in this story learned, and what all exiles learn is that we have to find a way to sing God’s song in that land. Those captives of Babylon thought God’s presence ended at the borders of Israel. It never occurred to them that God would be with them in that hard place that was so far from the home where God had been so close by.

They had to find their voices again in that foreign place. At first, others had to sing God’s song for them. They had to sing through the tears and the confusion and the disbelief and the incredible pain and loss. But the songs came. And they were able to sing them together. It still wasn’t home. But it felt more like home. God had crossed that hard boundary with them. There were homes to built and families raised. Gardens had to be planted. They were exiled, but not abandoned.

The exile was a big event in Israel’s life, like our own exiles are. One of the other big events in Israel’s life, though, was the exodus when the exile in Egypt ended. Exile and exodus. Captivity and liberation. Leaving your home behind like Abraham and finding your way back home like the Prodigal Son. These are all of our experiences. Exile isn’t forever. You get to go home. Sometimes you return to a different home. Sometimes you have an exodus in place because you have found God in a new and good way and the exile has ended around you.

Some people look at this story of Israel’s exile in Babylon and forget it was situational. Homes should not be built in every exile. Some of those places are not fit figuratively, or sometimes literally, to raise children. The exodus, the liberation cannot come too quickly. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to sing God’s songs in those places, but we need to help people who are being battered, abused, and neglected find a new place to sing God’s songs.

I think it’s also important to let this story remind us that we have real exiles and refugees in our midst. Many of us have known emotional, spiritual, and psychological exile. But there are others who have known physical exile. There are people who frequent this establishment who have been exiled from their homes or former churches because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We are surrounded by people who are economic exiles who have left their countries to find hope, to find a way of singing God’s song in the U.S. But we have political leaders and movements that don’t want them here, don’t want to hear God’s songs from them. It feels like this country has shifted from the war on poverty to a war against the poor. Instead of comforting the exile and afflicted, we seem more concerned with comforting the comfortable. We’ve turned things upside down to where Joan Jett sings that we believe the poor are too rich and the rich are too poor.

I’m sure many in Babylon didn’t like the idea of all these foreigners living in their country. But I hope enough of them were willing to welcome those strangers into their midst, those folk who had lost everything and were now starting over far from home and family. It’s the kind of thing I hope I would do. It’s the kind of thing that Jesus would hope I would do. And Jeremiah reminds us all that our connections to each other are important. “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

That wasn’t the letter the folk in Babylon were hoping to get from Jeremiah. The exile was going to continue. But isn’t life often lived between exile and exodus? Sometimes we have to build homes in the land of exile and help others build homes there. Sometimes we have to gear up for the exodus or help others find their way back home. And even if we are in a place where it’s too hard to sing God’s song, we can keep listening for it.

Small is enough

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Luke 17:5-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 6, 2013
Steve Hammond

You ever told a tree to uproot itself and go find a new place to replant in the ocean? I’m not sure that even if you had that kind of faith, that’s what you would want to do with it. And I doubt that Jesus did what he did so we could obtain this kind of bizarre power over trees. And then there is that whole slave thing going on in this story as well. This sure seems to me to be one of those passages in the Bible where it would be really easy to get caught up in the details and never get to the larger point. Not see the forest because of the trees, the ones that you haven’t sent to the ocean, that is.

The disciples do set the agenda for this story when they ask, or some translators suggest demand, that Jesus increase their faith. And I think its helpful for us to think a bit about exactly what that request or demand was about. I actually got some help with this from what we read for this past week’s study group. In the chapters we discussed, Diana Butler Bass had written about the difference between the what of faith and the why and how of faith.

In her analysis of why the church seems to be losing ground both in numbers and influence she suggests that in too many places and for far too long, churchfolk had made faith much more a matter of what, rather than why and how. The question has become too often what do we believe than rather why do we believe and how do we believe. She suggests the why and the how questions resonate much more deeply and personally than simply the what questions. The church, though, seems much more ready to answer the what questions in spite of the fact that’s not the question being asked.

The disciples seemed to be getting to the why and how questions with Jesus rather than the what question. When they came to Jesus they weren’t looking for a concise statement of faith, some creed, or a list of dogmas from Jesus.

It’s funny how the lectionary works. This request by the disciples that their faith be increased did not come out of the blue. If you read the whole story by starting up a few verses earlier you realize it comes in response to something Jesus said. Anybody know what they were responding to?

He had just talked about forgiveness. “Be alert,” Jesus said. “If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.”

The disciples are trying to figure out what on earth that has to do with faith. “Why should we forgive like that? How can we forgive like that?” There is no creed that answers those questions, no statement of faith that tells you how to keep forgiving. But the disciples have figured out that it is the why and how questions that are the important ones when it comes to following Jesus.

So Jesus talked about herding trees into the ocean and the duties of slaves. This is not an endorsement of slavery, though it would have been helpful if Jesus had used a different example. Helpful for us, that is. But to the people he was talking to, though, it helped make the point Jesus seems to be getting at.

There were certain expectations concerning slaves that everybody knew about. One of them was that it wasn’t an eight hour day. When a slave got done working out in the fields, the master didn’t say, “Go take a nap while I fix supper for us.” The slave knew that after plowing the fields or tending to the sheep, he would have to get supper ready for his master. That’s just the way it works with slaves and masters.

And the way it works for his followers, Jesus suggested, is that they take their little bit of faith, no bigger metaphorically than a tiny seed, and do amazing things with it. Faith is what Christians do, like working hard is what slaves do.

For Jesus a little bit goes a long way. Every step we take toward loving our enemies, doing good to those who treat us badly, welcoming the outsider in, lifting up the low and bringing down the high, treasuring God’s ways above all other ways is a whole lot more miracle and way more important than telling a tree to plant itself in the ocean. And Jesus was telling the disciples, and us, that we’ve already got that faith. It’s the little stuff that matters.

We can miss all of that, though, as Diana Butler Bass says by thinking that faith is what we believe rather than how or why we believe.

It’s one thing, for example, to have many, many volumes of books written about what Communion or the Lord’s Supper. We can ask all kinds of questions about the what of communion. And believe me they are asked all the time. There are churches, even in this town, where even though I am a pastor I can not take Communion with them because I don’t can’t articulate the what of communion in the way they do. But the more important questions to me seem to be ones like why did Jesus want us to do this, and how do we share at the Lord’s Table in a way that seems to get at why Jesus said this would be a good thing for us to do.

And fortunately, we have an example from the scriptures about this very issue. Read through 1 Corinthians 11 sometime for a clear example of the problems of elevating the what questions above the why and how.

“Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you.”

We read the opening of the Second Letter to Timothy this morning. Whoever wrote that letter, and it most likely wasn’t the Apostle Paul but one of his students, wasn’t commending Timothy because he had gotten the what of faith down so well. You can tell that the writer appreciates that Timothy has been asking the why and how questions of faith. It showed in the power of his ministry. And where did he learn to ask those questions? From his mother and grandmother.

Butler Bass also points out in the chapters we read this past week, that it’s our families, and our church community that can help us learn the how of faith. What Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother in how they lived their faith offered him something that no long treatise on faith from the likes of the Apostle Paul himself could have offered.

And, finally, Butler Bass reminds us of what many scholars, including Harvey Cox have been pointing out lately.

The word that is translated most often faith or belief in the New Testament should probably be translated as the word trust. And I think that makes a big difference. It is likely that what the disciples were asking Jesus to do that day was increase their trust. “Help us, Jesus, to trust that you are right in saying we should keep on forgiving. Help us Jesus to trust that God loves us and that we can love each other, including people who we or others call our enemies. Help us to know why you say we can trust you, and help us to learn from each other how to trust you.”

Some people believe the Apostles Creed or believe what their pastor says what faith is. But I don’t come across many people who tell me they trust the Apostles Creed or the Statement of Faith printed in their church’s constitution.

We can trust that the why and the how questions are more essential than the what questions. When we see what happens when we trust Jesus about the way of life he showed us, even just a little bit, suddenly things like trees taking up root in the ocean seem like child’s play.

John Bergen’s September 29 Sermon–With reflections by Judy Riggle and Lynn Powell

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Job 28: 12-28
September 29, 2013
John Bergen

But where will they find Wisdom? Nobody has the slightest idea where to look.
Earth’s depths say, ‘It’s not here’; ocean deeps echo, ‘Never heard of it.’
It can’t be bought with the finest gold; with silver, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, or fancy jewelry.
Pearl necklaces and ruby bracelets—why bother? None of this is even a down payment on Wisdom! Pile them up as high as you want!
It can’t be found by looking, no matter how deep you dig, no matter how high you fly.
If you search through the graveyard and question the dead, they say, ‘We’ve only heard rumors of it.’
God alone knows the way to Wisdom, the exact place to find it. After God got the wind and rain started, Wisdom was set up and tested.
Then he addressed the human race: ‘Here it is! Fear-of-the-Lord—that’s Wisdom, and Insight means shunning evil.’”

In the beginning, there was darkness. God’s breath moved across the waters.
And God’s breath formed the Word – let there be light, good light. And sky – call it the Heavens, the let the air above the earth be filled with the breath of God.
And speaking of earth – land and ocean. A dry place to call home and a deep ocean from which to draw life. And God saw that it was good.
Next, we need plants – seeds and fruits of all kinds. Each one shining with the life of God.
And next, two lights – one for the day and one for the night, marking days, seasons, and years.
And now animals – birds, and huge whales, and tiny mosquitoes, and pigs, and eels, and kimodo dragons, and finally people.
Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature, in every culture and gender and lifestyle, to be responsible leaders and stewards.
Hey folks – I’ve given you every sort of plant, tree, animal, ecosystem, and culture. There it is. It is good. It is so good.

This is a familiar passage to many of us here. I don’t know about y’all, but growing up I had this first chapter of Genesis told to me over and over again, retold many times in a way that made it feel like God was unpacking the toy cupboard – setting up little plastic plants, and some tiny plastic cows, and then bringing out the Barbies (though I have my doubts about Barbies being made in the image of God). I could easily imagine, “and on the ninth day God brought forth the model train set and built a track with tunnels and bridges and loops. And God saw that it was good.”
Or maybe it felt a little more like God was at the beach – a vast formless void (growing up in Kansas this is how I imagined beaches) until God got out the rake and the shovel and the cups and started building a sandcastle with little starfish and stones paths until God gets pissed and brings in high tide and starts over. Which raises the question – is God the kid who runs around giggling and clapping her hands when the sandcastle is washed away, or does God plop down in the sand to pout and cry? When creation is destroyed, how does God respond?

But now that I am not seven and don’t break out the model train as often as I used to – I’m pretty sure my family sold it last month to help pay for going to Ghana – the story of Genesis 1 looks more and more like a dinner party, but a dinner party that is simultaneously grand and elegant beyond our wildest dreams and also so simple and beautiful that it can be described in a few short verses, even a phrase – God saw that it was good.
God has laid out a dinner so vast that entire ecosystems have been invited, entire continents have been laid over with fine tablecloths of forests and mountains and farms and communities of people who maybe have not realized that they are guests on a planet that is loved so deeply that “After God got the wind and rain started, Wisdom was set up and tested” so that we could learn about this world, find out how it works, and appreciate it in its infinite, evolving complexity. That’s the fear of God.

I have a friend who studies soil microbes and she says sometimes, when she walks through a park barefoot, she is forced to stop and grapple with the reality that there are millions of living beings in each square foot of soil underneath her, and vastly complicated communities of living things that literally turn dead and decaying material into the building blocks for new life. Every ounce of soil is transforming death into life as she stands there. Every second of every day, resurrection is happening under our feet. That realization there – that’s wisdom. And that’s the beautiful and complex world that has been created and that we put on this earth to enjoy, as guests.

And sitting around this tablecloth of farms and forests and communities, some folks have realized that they are the recipients of hospitality far grander than we can imagine. And so they start to meet together just to say “Thank you” – to each other, to the Creator, to the host, and to the great cloud of witnesses that supplies the food and drink on the table and who resurrect themselves through the soil and through these communities. And when these people meet on Sunday mornings, or Sunday or Wednesday evenings or other times, we call it church.

I have heard the suggestion before that prayer should be less like a renter talking to a landlord, and more like you are crashing on your friend’s couch for the weekend – “Dear God, thanks for letting me stay at your place this weekend – I love the art you have hanging in the kitchen. I drank one of the beers in your fridge, and I apologize for breaking the handle on your mug. I left money on the counter for the beer and will send you a new mug once I have some time in the pottery co-op. Much love, John.”

My housemates and I may or may not have a non-college-approved fifth resident in our house this semester, who may or may not be a friend of ours who is taking a year off to figure out what he wants to do. And we could treat him as a renter – he actually offered to pay us rent, even though he doesn’t have a job or stable source of income – or we could treat him as a visiting friend. Which is to say, he doesn’t pay rent but we make him do most of the dishes and vacuum the living room. A renter has different obligations than a housemate.
And every one of us is a visitor to God’s apartment, or a guest at this dinner table. When I was younger, in preparation for guests coming over for dinner on Saturday nights or for the grandparents visiting, my parents, and by my parents I mean my mother because my father couldn’t have cared less, berated me and my sister about our table manners. I would sit there, with my elbows on the table, chewing with my mouth open, talking while chewing with my mouth open, talking while chewing with my mouth open and simultaneously wiping my dirty hands on the chair, and my mother threatened to send me away to etiquette camp for the summer. Which I thought was completely unjustified – everyone else at school ate like this! If everyone else acted like this, couldn’t I act like this? Wasn’t it unfair to demand more of me just because “important people” were coming over for dinner?

Now, I still have my doubts about the actual existence of “etiquette camp,” I was never really convinced that it existed. But at God’s dinner party, I’m not sure “everyone else is doing it” is an adequate defense. Its certainly a popular defense among Christians, it has been for centuries, but it never wins the logic contest. We who realize the immensity of the hospitality being offered to us, who have been crashing on God’s couch and joining others at God’s dinner table, have new responsibilities. Like my hypothetical fifth housemate, we can’t just crash here, eat the food, strip the land bare, abuse the other guests, and then leave. For Christ’s sake, we aren’t just being neglectful, we are killing other guests at the dinner party! Murdering unarmed teenagers in Florida because of the color of their skin, arresting and deporting individuals, tearing apart families because they don’t carry the right paperwork (and making money through private prisons the whole time!), barring gay, lesbian, queer, and trans people from our churches, from our homeless shelters, and from our health care centers as if we can somehow keep them away from God’s love and hospitality. What sort of dinner guests are we? We don’t just need etiquette camp, we need a complete conversion.

And we are offered grace beyond our comprehension. Which is good, because this is clearly not a dinner party we control – ask Job! Later on in that book, God asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

How can we pay back God for this hospitality, for the gift of being in this world and seeing its beauty. Job again: “Pearl necklaces and ruby bracelets—why bother? None of this is even a down payment on Wisdom! Pile them up as high as you want!”

I’m trying to imagine a down payment to God on Creation, and I’m guessing it would sound like the time a few weeks ago when I went to The Feve for dinner with a friend from Cleveland. I realized that I didn’t have very much money on me and didn’t feel like spending more, so I was looking down the menu and decided that I’d save by just having tots for dinner – good college student dinner. And then at the end of it, I was still hungry but feeling like a smart manager of my money, he takes the check and pays the whole thing! I asked him and he said, “no, the organization I work for his paying me to come out here and talk. Its on them.” And I’m thinking, I could have gotten the biggest, fanciest burger in the whole world AND tots on the side, but instead I thought I was in control of this situation, and so am still hungry AND feel like an idiot.

When thinking about the ethics of being a dinner guest of God’s, I’m reminded of all the dinner parties Jesus went to. So, endless wine and wine often enough that you get called a drunkard and a glutton, expensive perfume, prostitutes and tax collectors, and always taking the lowest seat at the party. Which sounds to me like I need to up my partying. Because when I think about being a recipient of such hospitality, I immediately want to offer hospitality to all the other guests – can I get you a drink, do you need more mashed potatoes, etc. And Jesus invites the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the homeless to these parties and then says that anything you do someone in need, who is hungry, thirsty, in prison (and I think of the multiple ways in which our society imprisons people – in jails, in immigration centers, in ghettos, in poverty, in sexual violence, in debt) – anything you do to one of these guests, you do to me.

God prepares this table for us in the presence of those in need, and also in the presence of our enemies. And some of them, it seems, have brought guns. Because that’s the rhetoric I’ve been hearing around the folks who have been protesting these last few weeks – “gun nuts,” “gun-toters,” “2nd Amendment lunatics,” “no respect for the constitution.” Really? They want to carry guns in parks and some folks, including church folks in town, sound like these people are evil.

After the City Council meeting two weeks ago, I went up and talked with one of the folks from Ohioans for Concealed Carry. He was a big guy, much taller than me and built like a tank, but he had his eight-month-old son with him, and as we talked about the comments that he and I and others had made during the Council meeting, it was clear that he wasn’t a nefarious lunatic out to demand that everyone carry a Glock at all hours. What he was was a very concerned new father who didn’t want anything or anyone to be able to hurt his son or his wife. I may not agree with his method of defense, I may not share his nervousness, I’ve never been a parent and I don’t know what that feels like, but I don’t think he’s evil. And the more that we refer to those we disagree with as “lunatics,” and “gun nuts,” the less and less we reflect the hospitality and love of God.

They are guests at the table of God’s creation. We are all guests at the table of God’s creation. We gather today to witness to the amazingness of God’s hospitality, the impossibility of making sense of it all and finding wisdom through our own efforts, and the resurrection that takes place all around us. As guests on this Earth, we also must practice the hospitality of God and the demand justice for all other guests. God’s Kingdom is nothing less than the world’s biggest party – everyone and everything is invited, its been going strong for millennia, and the wine still hasn’t run out. Our enemies have been invited, and if we offer them some wine, we might just see the face of Christ.



I am drawn to this passage because of its poetic beauty, its catalog of wonders and mysteries of this world. From the watery depths to the horizon of the heavens to the mountains and the very dust—isn’t our planet a marvel? How can we not rejoice and delight and revel?

My first response was not of these marvels, but of the wonder of the nine infants we fostered. Each newly arrived, whole and perfected down to the tiniest of fragile fingernails. Nothing on earth is more softly tactile than their downy hair. Surely a gift to be celebrated and nurtured. Yet most of these children already bore the mark of neglect, even just for a few weeks or months, in their slower physical and mental development. And amazing what a few weeks or months of physical and mental stimulation could restore! Progress in which to rejoice and delight and revel! Each of us is precious in God’s sight.



I have always found odd comfort in the Lord’s response to Job’s anguished questions about human suffering. Instead of meeting Job on his own human terms, the Voice From The Whirlwind flings out not answers, but fierce, exquisite questions that assert the mystery and power of creation:

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt . . . ?

Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens . . .?

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high?

Humanity is hardly mentioned in the litany of creation’s scope and wonder, ferocity and beauty. In my most receptive moments, I find that cosmic perspective thrilling and calming and liberating.

But the Lord speaks late in the ordeal of Job, and late in the Book of Job—another ten chapters after Job 28:12-28. In this chapter, Job, who has lost everything and is suffering in rags and boils on an ash heap, is responding to the self-righteous lectures of his alleged friends: the smug ones with conventional ideas and small, untested hearts. They have been dispensing their own “wisdom” with great self-confidence. But Job knows that a pronouncement that blames the victim and aggrandizes the speaker is not wisdom.

Thus, Job’s musings here: that wisdom is difficult to find and cannot be accumulated like other precious commodities. This a hard-won insight, and an insight not shared by the Know-It-Alls around him who feel sure they have cornered the market on wisdom.

But Job has come harrowingly close to a wisdom he cannot reduce to platitudes. And he now intuits that wisdom is what God discovered in the creative acts of giving weight to the wind, decreeing the rain, making a way for the thunderbolt, and setting the morning stars singing together in the sky. Job intuits that there is something larger and more wondrous, more creative and searching than his own suffering. And it is that intuition that the Lord will honor with a response in a few more chapters.