Memory is a funny thing.  No one is exactly sure how it works.  For centuries, philosophers and physicians, artists and scientists, have investigated and debated what it means to remember.  Does the mind retrieve memories like documents in a filing cabinet or bits of information in cyberspace?  Does the mind re-create memories; do we mentally relive the experience?  (That’s an unfortunate reality for those suffering with PTSD.)  Or is something completely different involved?

This business of memory has become more personal for me in these past years.  No doubt some of you have stories to tell about memory, or the loss thereof: that is, if you can remember them!  In my case, the story is about a potential loss of memory.

1 He 13During my treatment for the brain tumor discovered in November 1995, my doctors warned me about possible loss of short term memory.  Having one’s head cut open twice, and having one’s brain zapped with radiation, would likely have some detrimental effect!  Fortunately, my problems have been minor: like trying to identify certain actors.

Of course, memory is much more important to us than remembering a certain celebrity’s name.  In a very real sense, memory helps to define us.  Any of us who’ve known someone with amnesia, maybe an Alzheimer’s patient, understands what a tragedy the loss of memory is.  So much of such a person is gone.

It really isn’t much of an exaggeration to link memory with life.  Memory certainly has a crucial role in the life of faith.  For example, think of how we celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We “do this,” as Jesus said, “in remembrance of [him].”  Still, there’s more involved than simply having a mental recollection of Jesus—but I’ll mention more about that later.  (If I don’t forget!)

In the epistle reading, the author of Hebrews is insistent on having the people remember certain things.  Chapter 13 begins with a stress on the importance of continuing to love one another and showing hospitality to strangers.  As a matter of fact, our writer indicates by receiving outsiders in a Christlike way, you may even be entertaining angels in human form.  (That’s something for all of us to consider the next time we get an unwanted knock at the door!)

Having established that love should guide our relationships, our author starts giving examples—examples that portray a love which you probably won’t find on a greeting card!

Verse 3 contains the first of two commands to “remember.”  “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  It literally says, “as though you were in the body” or “as though you were in their body.”  Love can make some pretty serious demands!

We’re not sure who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, but there is one thing it seems safe to say: the letter is addressed to a church that has undergone persecution.  That makes it all the more important that they love one another, that they really care about what happens to each other.

In recent years, our own relationship with torture, both as Americans and as Christians, has been what we might call “conflicted.”  Of course, that’s something plenty of us would rather not remember!

The next three verses give more examples of what love looks like.  Marriage is to be “held in honor by all,” and “the love of money” is to be avoided (vv. 4-5).  The phrase “the love of money” is a single Greek word (αφιλαργρος, aphilarguros) which literally means “not a lover of silver,” or “not mercenary.”

2 He 13

It’s the word used in that famous verse in 1 Timothy, reminding us, in King James language, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (6:10).[1]  So the moral of the story is: don’t be a heartless mercenary!  Don’t focus on wealth while your brothers and sisters are in danger.

Verse 7 contains the second of the two commands to “remember.”  “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  If this is indeed a persecuted church, then their leaders paid a high price for their faith.  It seems that to “consider the outcome of their way of life” means to remember at least some of them were martyrs.

Earlier I promised to say more about the role of memory in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  I’ll do that by mentioning one of the twentieth century’s most famous leaders of the persecuted church, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.  (By the way, the movie Romero, starring Raul Julia, is well worth watching.)  The remembrance of Romero is especially appropriate for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent; this was when he preached his final sermon.

In that sermon, which was broadcast on radio nationwide, he made a direct appeal to the military.  “In the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”[2]

He got his response the very next day.  Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, in the very act of celebrating the Eucharist.  While calling the people to remember the body and blood of Christ given for them, Romero himself became a martyr.

Jesus instructs his disciples to observe holy communion “in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  The word for “remembrance” is αναμνησις (anamnēsis).  As I’ve already indicated, this is more than what we today usually mean by remembering.  It’s “not a mental exercise but the making present of a past event.”  Maybe the idea of memory as re-creating or reliving the experience has something to say here.

“In the ancient church, the word anamnesis had the effect not so much of a memorial, as one would call to mind the dead, but rather of a performance,” of something happening right then and there.[3]

Jesus invites us to the table, not to reminisce about some long-ago event, but to quite literally “re-member” him.  We’re invited, and challenged, to be members of the body of Christ here and now.  And because, as verse 8 puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” our invitation to the table involves us not only in the past and present, but points us to the future, to the full coming of the kingdom of God.

3 He 13
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

In the collection of his writings entitled The Violence of Love, we hear these words of Oscar Romero: “The eucharist makes us look back to Calvary twenty centuries ago…

“But it also looks ahead to the future, to the…horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth.

“The church does not ignore the earth, but in the eucharist it says to all who work on earth: look beyond…

“That is why I say: all the blood, all the dead, all the mysteries of iniquity and sin, all the tortures, all those dungeons of our security forces, where unfortunately many persons slowly die, do not mean they are lost forever.”[4]

All this talk of torture and dungeons might have you wondering how we fit into the picture.  We don’t exactly fit the profile of a persecuted church.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t suffering among us.  Sometimes suffering is self-imposed, by the bad choices we make.  But at the end of the day, suffering is a part of life.

As we accept the invitation of Jesus, we have the honor of bringing that remembrance, that anamnesis, into every shadow, every hidden place in our world: as the scripture says, to love one another, to show hospitality to the stranger, to honor marriage, to not be mercenary in our dealings with money.

I want to conclude with a reflection by a man who was a prime example of what it means to remember Jesus.  He was abducted in May 1984 by terrorists in Lebanon and held for sixteen months, twelve of them in solitary confinement.  His name was Benjamin Weir; he died in 2016.  Weir and his wife Carol were serving as Presbyterian missionaries at the time.  Here is a meditation he wrote while in custody:[5]

“Sunday morning in captivity I awoke.
In my mind’s eye I could see Christians all waking and proceeding to places of worship.
There they gathered at the Lord’s Table.
My mind moved westward with the sun.
I envisioned people of various cultural backgrounds gathering.
I was part of this far-flung family, the very body of Christ.
I unwrapped my piece of bread held back from my previous meager meal
and began the Presbyterian order of worship.
When it came to sharing the cup I had no visible wine,
but this didn’t seem to matter.
I knew that others were taking the cup for me elsewhere at this universal table.
As others prayed for me, so I prayed for them.”

4 He 13
Rev. Benjamin Weir (1923-2016)


[1] Harold Attridge, Hebrews (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1989), 388.


[3] William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It?” Theology Today 58:2 (July 2001):  182.

[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, 2003), 153.


denying the best within us

Everyone’s heard the saying about “biting off more than we can chew.”  Well, in John 18, we see the result of it.  This is the passage in which Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him.  In fact, Peter is quite adamant in declaring he has no connection with Jesus.  “Wait.  Jesus who?  Can’t say the name rings a bell.”

The part about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew happens earlier, in chapter 13.  It comes after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and after the meal which has come to be known as the Last Supper.  Peter boldly says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (v. 37).  That is some pretty big talk!

Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed.  He comes back at Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (v. 38).  Peter, you’ve done the easy part; you’ve done the talking.  But before sunrise, before the rooster crows, three different times you will claim you don’t even know me!

Tragically, as we see in chapter 18, the prediction of Jesus comes true.

What about Peter’s big talk—that he will lay down his life for Jesus?  In one of the ironic twists of history, Peter does indeed lay down his life for Jesus.  Tradition holds that Peter is crucified by the Romans (in the year 63 or 64), but they do grant him a last request.  He wishes to be put to death on an upside-down cross, because he feels unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

(Satanists have stolen the upside-down cross and claimed it as their own, but it’s still a Christian cross!)

1 jn 18

So maybe we should revisit that comment about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew.  Sadly, he winds up choking on it!

The subject matter he deals with is pretty grim, but John is a wonderful story teller.  I like the way he throws in little details.  A good example is when Peter is lying and saying he is not a disciple of Jesus.

A woman at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard is questioning him.  “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (v. 17).  As we’ve seen, Peter says, “No way!  You’ve got the wrong guy.”  Here’s a nice detail: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (v. 18).

Why add the bit about the charcoal fire?  What’s the point?

It does add color.  It invokes the senses.  Can you smell the smoke of the burning coals?  Can you feel the chill of the pre-dawn cold as Peter huddles with the others to gain warmth?

Lutheran bishop Craig Satterlee talks about Peter joining “the very ones who came to the garden to seize Jesus as they warm themselves around a charcoal fire.”  He compares him to “the junior high kid who abandons a buddy to hang with the cool kids.”  He is the “bystander who does not intervene to oppose abuse because to do so is just too dangerous.”[1]

Have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever betrayed someone, especially someone we care about very deeply?  Have we ever been too scared to stand by someone?  I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been in that position, at least once in our lives, maybe more.  It’s a horrible feeling.

At various times, I’ve had dreams in which somebody is being picked on or someone is being mean to an animal, and I haven’t stepped in.  I haven’t said anything.

I’ve heard that when we dream, we do so in order to learn, to practice different scenarios.  We see what happens when we do or don’t do something.  So maybe I’m learning some lessons!

Fortunately for Peter, he will find himself once again standing next to a charcoal fire.  They’re on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast.  This is after Jesus has been resurrected.  He asks Peter three times, once for each denial, “Do you love me?” (21:9, 15-17).  John makes sure to include this act of restoration, because it is such a powerful part of the story.

I’ll ask again, have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever experienced the overwhelming, humbling, and heart wrenching moment of being forgiven by someone we have betrayed?

2 jn 18

Have we ever been in Jesus’ place?  Have we ever granted to someone the awesome grace of forgiveness?

If we follow this particular thread of the story of Jesus and Peter into the book of Acts, we see something marvelous.  Along with John, Peter is teaching the people about Jesus, and “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees” are upset about it, and they have them arrested (4:1-3).  The leadership is interrogating them, and we have this remarkable comment: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (v. 13).

Companions of Jesus.  After being filled with the Spirit of Christ, there’s no way in the world Peter is denying that anymore!  He now has a true knowledge, a holy boldness.

Still, what does it mean to deny we are disciples of Christ?  What does it mean to deny we know him?  Does it mean giving in to the voices of fear and selfishness and apathy?  Does it mean settling for karma when grace is so abundantly present?

A few years ago, the lead singer for the rock group U2, Bono, did an interview in which he talked about the difference between karma and grace.[2]  He said that “at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma.  You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one.  It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.  [I’m not so sure of it, but I still like what he has to say!]  And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic.  Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…

“I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge.  I’d be in deep s___.  It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.  I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Karma is what we deserve.  Grace is what we do not deserve.  Let me transition from a rock star to a Benedictine sister.

3 jn 18
Sister Joan blessing Bono at the 2008 Women’s Conference in California

Joan Chittister comments on a chapter in the sixth-century Rule of Benedict that deals with “serious faults.”[3]

“Each of us is capable of betraying the best in us.  We cut corners in the office, we stop cleaning the house, we let the study and the reading and the praying go.  We sit around in life letting the juice turn black in us.  We let the family down.  We let the business slide.  We let our minds and souls go to straw.  We fight the call to growth and goodness with everything in us.  We let the world carry us instead of carrying our part of the world.”

To return to our story, while his dear friend and Lord is being mistreated, Peter denies him.  How often have we denied Jesus?  How often have we denied the best within us?  What is to be done?

Chittister continues, “The problem, of course, is that a human being needs help to be a human being.  At our worst we seek the solace of another’s hand.”[4]

When the cock crows, Peter wonders, “What have I done?”  This is the very thing he swore he would never do.  He is gripped by intense remorse.  He can’t believe he has done such a thing.  This is Peter at his worst.  And yet, soon the time will come when Jesus offers him his hand.  He sets that as an example for us.

We need not sit around in life letting the divine juice spoil and turn black in us.  Our very best self is being transformed into Christ-likeness.  We need to seek it and hold on to it, because that is where we find life.

By the grace of God, we do not deny, but we express the best within us.




[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 97.

[4] Chittister, 98.

wait, every living creature?

When I was young, for a little while we went to church—a couple of years or so.  My Sunday school teacher had one of those billboards covered with felt material.  (The kind that images can stick to.)  She would use it illustrate the Bible stories for us students.

Of course, one of the favorites was always Noah’s ark.  There would be all manner of critters obediently marching to the giant boat.  Natural enemies would behave themselves, or rather, they would not behave as nature designed them.  The lion would not tear into the lamb.  The eagle would not swoop down and snatch the rabbit.

1 noah

We can think about how we first learn the story.  “Here come the animals, two by two.”  That sounds nice!  However, reading Genesis 7:2 gives us a slightly different take on it.  The Lord tells Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate.”  It’s about ritual purity.  So maybe it should go this way: “Here come the unclean animals, two by two.”

Anyway, that’s how we first learn the story.  But if we leave it there, we’re reduced to asking rather cartoonish questions.  How did every species find its way to the ark?  Where did they store enough drinking water for the entire time?  Did anyone take a bath?  (You get what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, no story in sacred scripture has such a limited meaning.  The central idea of this story is covenant.

Sometimes there’s confusion between a contract and a covenant.  With a contract, terms are spelled out.  If one party does not abide by the terms, the contract is broken, and sometimes penalties are levied, punishment is meted out!  In addition, we’re always warned about reading the fine print before we sign on the dotted line.  (But who actually spends half an hour with six-point type?)

However, a covenant is quite different.  This is an agreement entered into which oddly enough, is still in effect even if one party doesn’t observe it faithfully.  It’s a statement which says, “I will honor this, even if you don’t.”  It’s “for better or for worse,” though that “for worse” in a marriage covenant can finally reach the point where it’s unsustainable.

2 noah

In the Bible, God makes numerous covenants.  We’ll look at the one in our scripture reading in a few moments.  Here are a few notable ones:

In Genesis 15, a covenant is made with Abraham—and Sarah, though she doesn’t get proper credit (v. 18)!  One who has no children is promised a multitude of descendants.

In Exodus 19, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  They are promised to be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (v. 5).

In Psalm 89, we see the covenant made with David, who receives the promise, “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.”  What if his progeny—what if a king in the Davidic line—becomes unfaithful?  No matter, the Lord will still honor the covenant (vv. 3, 34).

And of course, we have the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which applies to us.  Even when we fail, and fail we do, the covenant stands.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.[1]  It makes sense that this would be one of the readings for Lent.  Consider the number forty.  It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the result was the great flood.  Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.  Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  The number forty appears many times in the Bible.

Oh, and then there’s sin!  Sin a’ plenty.  We see the Israelites falling into sin in the wilderness.  They even long to go back to Egypt.  After all, they did have food to eat.  And talk about job security!  Sure there were chains, but who wants to fend for themselves in this terrible freedom of the desert?

Then we have Jesus in the desert.  What happens after he is baptized?  St. Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Jesus is weakened and vulnerable, in body, mind, and spirit.  Come on Jesus, just give him a try.  The devil has some interesting offers, and besides, nobody has to get hurt.  Sin is dangling before him, juicy tidbit it is—but Jesus doesn’t bite.

And now we have a story of universal sin.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5).  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts.  And what is the remedy?  Complete annihilation (well, with the exception of Noah and his family).  That doesn’t sound like a loving God, does it?

One way to come at this would be to realize in ancient times, many of the gods just didn’t like people!  They found them irritating, and they constantly demanded obedience, or they would lower the boom.  That was the environment of the ancient scriptural stories.  The difference here is that this God shows mercy and establishes the covenant—the one I mentioned earlier.

Still, the portrayal of a God who unleashes fury isn’t so strange as we might think.  Isn’t the image of a God who hurls lightning bolts still with us?  I think there’s something within the human psyche, regardless of belief system, theology, or life philosophy, that knows we have done, and sadly still do, wrong.  And so, there’s an expectation of punishment, which can lead to all kinds of scenarios.

Of course, we also have that new covenant.  We have the covenant which says in Christ we are forgiven.  Period.

If we can agree the flood wasn’t a historical event—if we can’t point to it on a calendar—I think we can still say it was, and is, a reality.  The flood is still with us, the flood of evil thoughts and evil doings!  However, we haven’t been destroyed.  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).  That’s the promise.

So here we go: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (vv. 12-13).  The rainbow is the reminder.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16).

There is a covenant with every living creature.

3 noah

In ancient times, the rainbow was imagined as a bow, a divine weapon used to shoot the arrows of lightning bolts.  But now, the bow is being laid down in the clouds.  God is laying down the weapon.  We’re told God “will find a way of defeating evil without waging war.”[2]

Timothy Simpson wrote an article called, “The Politics of Saving Everybody.”[3]  If you think about it, this rainbow covenant is an extremely radical thing.  Think of it.  This is one of the stories told by those who say they are God’s chosen ones, the treasured possession out of all the peoples.  These are people who believe they’ve been set apart from the other nations.  They have special status.

At the same time, this story told by the Israelites has “the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant.”  No living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere.  That’s quite a sweeping statement.

I find his phrase interesting: the politics of saving everybody.  There are always political divisions.  There are always differences in how people want to accomplish certain things.  Still, maybe we can notice how, over the past couple of decades, divisions have gradually become hardened.  Too often people are questioning, not only the intelligence of those with whom they disagree, but also their character.  Not only are they wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.  In the past couple of years, that seems to have dramatically escalated.

It can be a tricky proposition to recognize how the rainbow covenant applies to everyone and everything.

But then, that’s why this story is so perfect for Lent.  We are reminded by Joan Chittister, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”[4]

God lays down the bow.  God buries the hatchet, so to speak.  Aren’t we called to scrape the sludge off our lives?  Aren’t we called to lay down our weapons?  To lay down the mistrust?  To lay down the hostility?  To tear down the walls we erect?  To stop praying for a flood to wipe out our enemies?  Isn’t that what this season of Lent is calling us to do?

I find Henri Nouwen’s prayer for Lent especially insightful.  “I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me.  The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  There are not times or places without choices.  And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.”[5]

It is difficult to accept God’s throwing down the bow, God’s extending the rainbow covenant to every living creature.  It is difficult to escape lazy either-or thinking, to reframe the discussion, to creatively imagine a third way or a fourth way.

When the flood comes, don’t worry.  God will not let it destroy you!


[1] Obviously, this sermon was posted well afterwards!



[4] Joan Chittister, Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


may our faces shine

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, she met through a mutual acquaintance another young woman from Istanbul, named Nilgün.  According to Banu, one time early on in their friendship, Nilgün made a comment about me to her.  She apparently said my face has nur.  That’s a Turkish word which means “light,” but it’s light in the sense of celestial or heavenly light.  I don’t have to tell you that was a gross exaggeration—no, a gross misunderstanding!

We do speak of people’s faces as shining, don’t we?  We think of someone’s face lighting up for a certain reason.  On this day, the Transfiguration of the Lord, we consider the appearance of actual nur, the true shining of heavenly light.  And we’ll consider what that means for us.

1 ex and mk
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Notice Michelangelo’s sculpture entitled “Moses.”  Is there anything about it that strikes you as odd?  Could it possibly be you never knew Moses had horns?

There’s a word in Hebrew, קׇרַן (qaran), appearing three times in the Old Testament reading in Exodus.  The word for “shining,” it means to “send out rays.”  However, it can also be translated “to display horns.”  It comes from a word that literally means “horn” ( קֶרֶן, qeren).

For centuries in western Europe, the version of the Bible most people read (at least, those who could read) was a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.  In this version, we have a different picture of Moses after he speaks with God.  Instead of “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone,” it says, “and he did not know that his face was horned” (v. 29).

Instead of Transfiguration, we get something we might expect on Halloween!  So, in his own way, the Italian master is paying his respects to the Moses of today’s scripture.

Horns or not, Moses is the first person in the Bible to be transfigured with the light of God.  This is after his second trip up Mount Sinai.  Remember what happens after his first encounter with God on the mountain—when he receives the Ten Commandments the first time?  There’s the incident with the Golden Calf.  The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and they pressure Aaron into devising some physical symbol of the divine they can see in worship.  Plus, they just want to have a really wild party!  Moses appeals to God to not wipe the people out, and he is summoned back up the mountain.

As we come to today’s reading, Moses is on the way back down the mountain, completely unaware he is literally beaming.  But the looks of terror on the faces of Aaron and the others clue him in that something strange is going on!  How is it that the face of Moses is shining?  The scripture says, “because he had been talking with God” (v. 29).

2 ex and mkEliezer Segal, teacher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, speaks of the Jewish legend which goes into a little more detail.  It says after God finished giving the Torah, “Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people.”[1]

He’s speaking of the way Moses gets actively involved in this second trip up the mountain.  Remember, he’s already interceded on behalf of the people.  Now, as opposed to the first time, it’s Moses, not the Lord, who provides the stone tablets and then writes on them.

Segal sees a lesson to be learned here, as he wonders, what is it that can make our faces radiate light?  He speaks of the spiritual energy flowing from the face of Moses and looks for a comparison.  He says it’s “not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source.”

The connection is also made to us.  “Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and [we] creatures.  When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.”

In our epistle reading, St. Paul makes a similar connection.  He says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Co 4:3).  It is veiled; the radiance of the gospel doesn’t shine through.  Those traveling the vale of tears who reject the light of life fall stricken by the wayside.

Of course, it’s our gospel reading (Mk 9:2-9) that tells the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  That’s why it’s on the calendar.  And for our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s not only his face, but his entire body radiating with the light of God.

3 ex and mkOn that fateful trip up the mountain, Peter suggests dwellings be built for Jesus, as well as for Moses and Elijah, who also appear with the glory of God.  In effect, Peter wants to hold on to the experience—he wants to trap that light.  He, not surprisingly (because wouldn’t we?), wants to capture the moment.  But the moment is gone.  And as the scripture says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He needs to be quiet and listen.  The power and energy of God can’t be treated as something static, like something engraved in stone!  Like love, it increases the more we give it away.

Like Peter, we’re often guilty of trying to trap the light.  How often do we avoid letting our own light shine?  How often do we avoid letting light shine onto the paths of others, so they can see for themselves?  And it’s not like there’s some false choice between living the life and saying the words—they go together.  If letting our light shine is our heart’s desire, the opportunities will arrive.  Actually, we won’t have to wait very long—opportunities abound.

It may be asked why Transfiguration is observed on the last Sunday before Lent.  Right before the Transfiguration story, Jesus has just predicted the passion, the suffering headed right for him.  That is, unless he keeps his mouth shut and stops being such a headache for the powers that be!

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the disciples he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:31-33).

The light of Transfiguration helps to illuminate the sometimes dark road of Lent.  And if it’s not exactly dark, Lent is still to be a time of reflection, of renewed repentance and reconsideration.

I think we all know that light is not an entirely benevolent force.  After all, it can cause us to go blind!  That’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life.  My eyes have always been sensitive to light.  Especially when I was a boy—and especially if someone were taking my picture in bright sunlight—it would be no time at all before I would start squinting.  During winter, I’m given a reminder of that when sunshine is reflected off a field of snow.  (I think I would make a great vampire!)

Still, much more than simply not being benevolent, light can be positively destructive.

4 ex and mkAs I said, we celebrate Transfiguration on the final Sunday before Lent.  Traditionally however, it was celebrated on August 6.  Tragically, the 20th century provided August 6 as the anniversary of another kind of light.  It, of course, was the day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one of the most horrific events in human history.  Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn!  (On a bitter side note, the first atomic bomb test was actually nicknamed “Trinity”!)

Let’s return to light as a spiritual reality, not just a physical one.  Just as with the light from the sun, the light from God can also be blinding.  Exhibit A: the veil needed to cover the face of Moses!  Faulty, frail creatures that we are, we can only take so much light at a time.  We often resemble cockroaches, who when exposed to the light, scurry off into dark corners!

We are indeed exposed, uncovered by the light.  Our shadow side is revealed.  Our shadow side isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the stuff about us we suppress and repress.  It’s the stuff about ourselves we find embarrassing; it’s the stuff we want to hide.  But guess what?  Even as painful as it is, God wants to shine the light into those deep canyons.

If we believe what the psalmist says, it’s for our own good that we just go along with it.  Speaking of God, we hear “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12).  We can’t hide from God—we only hide from ourselves.

God is good.  God understands our weakness, and graciously provides a veil until we can handle more light.  God sends a cloud, as with the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration.  God lovingly protects us.

So in the end, we need not fear the light.  We can share in the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can trust the light that shines on the dark places in our lives—the places we are ashamed of.  We can help others, especially those who have plunged into darkness, to let their own light shine.  We don’t have to hold on to the light; we don’t have to hold on to mountaintop experiences.  Jesus says we are the light of the world.

5 ex and mk

May our faces shine.



Job, the enlightened one

My previous sermon dealt with Job.  And here we go again!  We saw how Job poses some angry—and anguished—questions to his God.  God’s response to Job is very unsatisfying if we’re looking for answers to questions like: why does Job suffer?  Why does evil exist?  People often get irritated at God’s so-called “answers,” which consist of questions about creation Job can’t possibly grasp.  It seems as though it’s but a way of putting Job, and us, in our places.  It seems like the Lord is just being evasive!

I wouldn’t say there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Still, we can see God’s revelation to Job about his place in the cosmos as a healing revelation.  To limit it to reward and punishment puts Job, and us, into artificial constraints.

And so, here we are at chapter 42, the end of the book.  The long section of poetry is wrapped up.  We’re back to the ancient story of the suffering, but innocent man.  It very much has the feel of: “and they lived happily ever after.”

1 Job

The Lord lets Job’s dearest friends know they didn’t get it right; they need Job to pray for them.  And as for Job, he’s blessed with double the amount of livestock he lost, but with the same number of children—seven sons and three daughters.

Clearly, this is where the legendary nature of the story needs to be emphasized.  People can’t be replaced.  Period.  Full stop.  The last thing the scriptures do is to devalue human life.  Something we can take from this is that the joy of one so bereft as Job has now been restored.  However that happens, the children he lost are not forgotten.

And now, back to the legend!  He gives his daughters poetic names, and we’re told, “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and [with an act unheard-of in the ancient world] their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers” (v. 15).

It looks like he truly has become an enlightened fellow.  He doesn’t want any of his daughters to be dependent on some man!

Right now, I want to focus on a single verse.  It has a number of different nuances, and in some ways, it affects how we understand the entire book.  It’s verse 6, which contains the final words we hear spoken by Job.  This comes right after he admits his ignorance.  As I said before, God shows him scenes throughout creation and asks him the “hows” and the “whys.”  All Job can say is, “Heck if I know.”  (Which in many ways is the beginning of wisdom!)

In verse 5, he says he’s known God by means of hearsay, so to speak.  “I’ve heard about you, but now, I have seen you!”  Something has happened.  Job has had a direct experience of God.  He has caught a vision.

After Job—after any of us—has had an experience like that, nothing is the same.  We are forever changed.  In Christian terminology, we recognize ourselves as a new creation.  The old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine the future and life itself are erased.  Liberation is at hand.  Something wondrous has happened.  Of course, frail creatures that we are, we need to revisit that time and again!  And so, here’s verse 6.

In the NRSV and the NIV, the verse reads, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  The King James Version says, “I abhor myself.”  This is strong language!  It suggests at least a deep sense of remorse, and some might say it even goes to self-hatred.

The Good News Bible takes a slightly different slant: “I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.”  The focus here isn’t on Job himself, but on what he considers his foolish talk.

Whichever of these we go with, it still seems to contradict the claim that Job is innocent, that he doesn’t deserve the horrors he’s had to face.  In fact, we read in the very next verse God saying to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.”

Two Hebrew words might be the guilty parties in the confusion.  The first one, מׇאַס (ma’as), means “reject” or “despise,” but it can also mean “melt away” or “dissipate.”  The second one, נׇחַם (nacham), means “repent,” but it can also mean “to comfort.”

Earlier, when referring to God’s message to Job—when he’s asked all those magnificently irrelevant questions—I said I don’t believe there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Well, the same thing is true here.  Does Job repent?  If so, of what does he repent?

In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez, looking at those Hebrew words, sees the verse this way: “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind about) dust and ashes…[being] an image for groaning and lamentation.”[1]  So by repenting of “dust and ashes,” Job is turning away from—he is rejecting—his whole attitude of complaining about his fate.  He figures he’s grumbled long enough.

2 JobBut beyond that, Gutiérrez says, “Job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that God was a prisoner…”[2]  He has thought of God as a machine, without any control.  Be good, and you get a cookie!  Be bad, and you get an onion!  (As you might guess, I don’t like onions.)  It’s only after God steps in—only after God intervenes with the storm—that Job is liberated; he’s able to see beyond all of that.

Earlier, I referred to Job as “enlightened.”  Many might assume that means he has the answers, even answers to the questions of the universe.  One thing the book lets us know is that its title character has very little in the way of answers!  Still, by repenting, by turning from “dust and ashes,” Job declares he is in a new relationship with God.  Job doesn’t need to have the answers.

Indeed, Job accepts and embraces who he is.  He is without a doubt “dust and ashes.”  Stephen Mitchell sees that as the meaning of verse 6.  “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[3]

We can see the book of Job as a story of conversion.  Despite the claims of God’s being irrelevant or evasive in responding to him, I suggested God gives Job a new vision—a healing vision.  By admitting the past is gone and by looking forward to a new way of being with God, Job invites us to do the same.

This is a call to be the change Christ would have us be.  It’s a call to accept ourselves as a new creation; otherwise, we’re like those friends of Job!

In the liner notes of his album, Silence, Night, and Dreams, Zbigniew Preisner includes a sort of meditation:[4]

3 Job“Why are the poor so stricken by despair? / Why do the rich feel ever more alone? / It embraces everything, night and dreams, Silence that arouses anxiety. / Night that envelops sadness and despair. / Dreams of hope for a transformation. / Let us take heed of Job. / Then maybe we’ll prevail against / The slogans, the labels, illusions and indifference, The cradles that surround us.”

Job is a model for transformation, for getting out of our cradles!  He is a model for growing up, as painful as it is.  We must literally be dis-illusioned.

There was a book on Job published in 1900 by Robert A. Watson.  I like some of his closing thoughts on our hero.  “Job has passed through the furnace of trial and the deep waters of doubt, and at last the way is opened for him into a wealthy place.”[5]  As we’ve seen, that’s wealthy in every way.

“‘Now mine eye seeth Thee.’  The vision of God is to his soul like the dazzling light of day to one issuing from a cavern.  He is in a new world where every creature lives and moves in God…  In the microcosm of his past dream-life and narrow religion he appeared great, perfect, worthy of all he enjoyed at the hand of God; but now, in the macrocosm, he is small, unwise, weak.”[6]

Small, unwise, and weak—and that’s just fine; in fact, that’s awesome!

I spoke of the vision God grants Job, the vision that brings healing and enlightenment.  I spoke of the old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine life, and how we play the game of life.  Those old, tired, dead rules govern the judgments we make of others.  Job’s friends said he had done wrong, that he was wrong.

Are there people, groups of people, who we believe do wrong because they in themselves are wrong?  Even though we would never say it out loud, are there groups we believe are unworthy, despicable, even (using a less charitable word)?

That final understanding, the vision God grants Job, changes his world.  He no longer feels the need to justify himself, but he has been vindicated.  And he has traveled a long and painful road in the process.  He’s been a laughing stock, an object of disgust, and one whose words of wisdom have been rejected (12:4, 19:13-19, 29:21-30:1).  He’s been the object of fear and loathing.

But that’s not the end of the story.  We’re told, “After this Job lived one hundred and forty years [remember, this is legendary!], and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations.  And Job died, old and full of days” (vv. 16-17).  Full of days.  In the final chapters of his life, this good and just man is blessed like never before.

4 Job
“So the Lord Blessed the Latter End of Job More than the Beginning” (William Blake)

I won’t claim to have more than the tiniest, teeniest taste of what Job went through.  For me, it’s mainly ideas.  Some of you have felt it.  But if there’s any truth at all in this book, we can say beyond the pain, there is a sort of freedom.  It’s freedom from intolerance, freedom from cruelty, freedom from fear.  There truly is an immense opening to enlightenment, an opening to kindness, an opening to love.


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1987), 86.

[2] Gutiérrez, 87.

[3] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.


[5] Robert A. Watson, The Book of Job (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900), Kindle edition, Chapter 28, section 1, paragraph 12.

[6] Watson 28.1.15-16.

ask the questions!

Today I’m using a reading from the book of Job, the beginning of chapter 38.  It actually appears in the lectionary in October, but I can’t wait!  I can almost hear you saying, “Job.  Oh goody!  That’s my favorite one in the Bible!”  It might seem strange, but I love the book of Job.  There are all kinds of good stuff to be found in it.

Obviously, in speaking of “good stuff,” I’m not talking about the numerous disasters that are visited upon our title character!

There is chapter after chapter of beautiful poetry.  The poetry is bracketed by prose narrative at the beginning and at the end.  This narrative is thought by many to come from an ancient legend—the story of a man who was wealthier than anyone else in the land.

1 job

But more than that, he was “blameless”; he “turned away from evil” (1:1).  He was a good and righteous man.  In fact, he was so righteous he would offer sacrifices to God just in case his children had done something wrong!

Of course—just his luck—an argument breaks out in heaven, and the Lord points him out to the Accuser.  This creature is “the satan.”  He isn’t yet considered to be the evil Satan of later centuries.  A bet is made that Job can be forced to curse God.  (I don’t think I would want any part of that wager!)

He loses all of his wealth, then his children, and finally, he loses his health.  We are told “that his suffering [is] very great” (2:13).

Does he break?  Does he curse God?  According to the scriptures, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  Understand, there’s no comment on what must have been going through his head!  As we see in the poetic chapters, Job does have some questions.  He has plenty of questions—plenty of soul-baring, agonizing questions!

If the saying, “the patience of Job,” applies to the Job we meet in the prose section, it definitely does not apply to the one we meet in the poetry.  This Job is anything but patient!

Job still has some friends, though: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  They have traveled a great distance to exercise what we might call the “ministry of presence,” albeit with mixed results.

(On a side note, understanding that some here in the congregation have an interest in science, I wonder if that reaches to archaeology?  I mention that because of some recent discoveries.  Among them was a surprisingly well-preserved fragment of pottery.  It seems to have belonged to Zophar himself.  Etched on it is Zophar’s second name.  Apparently, it was “Zogood.”)

Actually, for Job’s friends, it really is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They’re actually being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s simply been with a suffering friend or family member knows that it isn’t fun.  It requires a sacrifice of self.

It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving advice that Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is forced to undergo the tragedies that have come his way.  And they can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is asking the questions they hear.  After all, everyone knows the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

“So Job, you must have done something wrong.  Why don’t you just repent?  All of this terrible stuff will go away!”  Job’s friends have to say that, because the way they look at God, and at life itself, is being challenged.  And they aren’t able, or willing, to question themselves.

2 job
"When the Morning Stars Sang Together" by William Blake

Questions sometimes associated with the book of Job are, “What is the origin of evil?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that question: maybe not with those exact words, but the unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still quite young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  And part of what that means is we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.  How we act on it is an entirely different conversation.

If we approach the book of Job seeking the answer to that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—we may come away feeling…unsatisfied.  We never see one secret formula or one explanation that solves the puzzle.  Instead, in today’s reading, what do we see when God begins to answer Job?

Things certainly are dramatic.  We see that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (v. 1).  The whirlwind, the storm, the tempest—aside from any literal meaning in the text, all of those are pretty good descriptions of what Job’s life has become.

As I just suggested, the answer might be unsatisfying.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (vv. 2-3).  If I were Job, I don’t think I would like where this is going!  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4).

In his book on Job, Stephen Mitchell makes it sound even more abrupt.  “Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?  Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me.  Where were you when I planned the earth?  Tell me, if you are so wise.”[1]

Job is presented with questions to which he either can’t possibly know the answer, or the answer is obviously “no.”  Here’s a quick sample from later in the chapter: “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (v. 19).  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (v. 31).  “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?” (v. 35).

This goes on for four chapters.

Our poet seems determined to point out Job’s ignorance.  There seems to be a concerted effort on demonstrating this whole business of the unknown.

So, does that mean Job is wrong in asking the questions?

In the final chapter, here’s what the Lord says to Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  Eliphaz and his friends have positioned themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy.  They are the defenders of the faith, and there are some questions you just don’t ask!  Apparently, the Lord disagrees.

Could it be that questioning faith, provided it’s not done in an insincere, disingenuous way, is actually a good thing?  It must be so, that is, if we follow Jesus when he says in Mark 12 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 30).

Job asks some angry, demanding questions of God.  And his friends are horrified.  As I’ve suggested, if Job is the good, honest, even holy man they’ve known him to be, then something doesn’t compute.  Their worldview begins to collapse; it’s in a state of free fall.

What about us?  What about our questions?  Have we been trained to not ask the anguished, soul-searching questions?  Have we been told to not admit it, when honestly, we doubt some stuff, maybe a whole bunch of stuff?  Has that defender of orthodoxy told us that to do so is wrong?

In her book, The Psalms for Today, Beth LaNeel Tanner talks about this kind of thing.  These aren’t “the nice salutations contained in [our] Book of Common Worship…  [She’s a Presbyterian; that’s why she mentions it.]  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[2]

She continues, “To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something, speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[3]

It is only the voice of faith that can ask those sacredly brutal questions.  I think a lot of us here are in that category.

Job is the role model: loss of wealth, loss of children, loss of health—loss of identity.  And loss of friends!  There are friends who no doubt mean well, but you just want to say, “Please keep your opinions to yourself.  I beg you.  I don’t want to be harsh, but please, shut up!”  Has anyone here ever felt that way—or sadly, been the one who needed to hear it?

Of course, questions need not be about suffering.  When we ask questions with sincerity and love, we can be accountable the way a community of faith should be.  We help to bear each other’s burdens.  That especially happens when we don’t have the answers.

4 job

In fact, learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  Too often, the church is ready to give answers, but less ready to ask questions—and much less ready to simply listen.  So I’ll pose some questions for us to consider, as we continue our journey together.

“What do you mean by that?”  That’s one I’ve posed to Banu many times.  I’m not trying to be obstinate or difficult; it’s just realizing the same word can mean different things to different people.  We too often use labels as shortcuts into thinking we really know what the other person believes.

“How do we fail?”  This brings us back to Job and his friends.  Do we fail with dignity?  Are we too defensive about our failures?

I’ll finish with a quote by Richard Rohr, in his reflection on Job.  “When we are feeling overwhelmed by our guilt, on those days we feel inadequate, when our littleness and brokenness seem too much to live with, when we may even get to hating ourselves, that is when we should get in touch with the humble Job within all of us.

“When you are feeling abandoned, pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.”[4]

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions!


[1] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York:  HarperPerennial, 1992), 79.

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 61.

[3] Tanner, 64.

[4] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 93-94.

anarchy to order

“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25).  That’s how the book of Judges ends.  That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel.  The judges were regional authorities.  Today we might call them local chieftains.  The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place.  So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.

“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  There was no king.  They were running wild!

Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy.  That was the world in which Samuel was born.  Here’s one minor example.  I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice.  In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked.  But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”

1 1 sm

In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible.  There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child.  It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive.  We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child!  I wonder why that is.  Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible.  Then again…  But I’ll leave that for another day!

In any event, here, the woman is Hannah.  Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God.  Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1.  That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.

Look at how chapter 3 begins.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare[1] in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord.  Almost no one had any vision.  It was a drought of creativity.

That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people.  When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us.  That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes.  It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.

2 1 smSpeaking of loss of vision, here’s verse 2.  “At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.”

Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition.  Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye!  We could say he’s blind as a bat.  Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved.  There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.

That theme continues in verse 3.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil.  But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  There’s still a flicker; there is still hope.  There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.

By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant.  It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.

3 1 sm

I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4.  It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice.  And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything.  Now go back to bed, young man.  Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”

Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord.  He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant.  It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons.  Their wickedness has come back to haunt them.  Eli demands the boy lay it out for him.  “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18).  Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.

We can see this as a baton being passed.  The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel.  This is more than a function of age.  It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young.  There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside.  And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.

This is about maturity.  This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Okay, I stole that from someone!)

This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing.  Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.

There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs.  It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago.  It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19).  That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led.  It’s the vision we ourselves have.

Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew.  “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).  So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.”  And what’s the result?  The people cast off restraint.  They are unruly.

[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]

As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  What does this spiritual anarchy look like?

Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets.  It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours.  No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!

One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness.  It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored.  It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That also happens in the church.  There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go.  At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control.  That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings.  It brings anarchy to order!

Back to the original point.  A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.

4 1 sm

Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet.  Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God.  Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.

King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition.  I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions.  Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic.  Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure.  And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.

So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?

Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation?  We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us?  We are unable to imagine new things?

Perish the thought!  We need not look for the grand and glorious.  It begins with one.  Jesus was one, and the word spread.  With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying.  There was a rejuvenation.  Anarchy was brought to order.

That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.


[1] יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”

water bonding

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  Have I ever mentioned that I like all of the Star Trek series, as well as the movies?

I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people that it has influenced my theology!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And reflecting that, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman who is killed leaves a son who already, at a very young age, had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 baptism

As the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Okay, are you still with me?  Watching that show, I realized how very important ritual is to the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in our universe.  It helps in many different aspects of life.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Still, I think we all can agree that various rituals have various levels of value.  Some rituals are good.  They communicate life and strength and courage.  Some rituals do the opposite; they are bad.  Some rituals reinforce fear and oppression and bigotry.  They should be fought against; they should be resisted.

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord.  This year the gospel reading is from Mark.  Later on, we’ll look at Jesus’ participation with John in the ritual of baptism.  Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the church.  But before we get to all of that, I want to tell another story.

After Banu and I graduated from the seminary, the first church we served was in Nebraska.  One of the members was a lady in her seventies.  After we had been there for a little while, she asked us if we would baptize her.  But she didn’t want to do it the usual way, in a worship service.  She wanted what was basically a secret baptism, on a Saturday afternoon when no one would be around.

We explained that baptism isn’t a private matter.  It’s a joyful act of the church.  After the sermon, during the baptism, the congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenant.  For there to be a covenant, there has to be more than one person—more than one party involved.  When there’s a baptism, we promise each other things, in the sight of God.

My impression was her request came from a sense of embarrassment.  This lady had probably lived her entire life in the church, but without ever being baptized.  I tried to reassure her that’s okay; this is a cause for celebration.  She wasn’t persuaded, so Banu and I compromised.  Besides the presence of some of her family, we arranged for a couple of the session members (representing the congregation) to attend her baptism.  She was okay with that.

One thing I never found out, though, was how she was able to join the church to begin with.  “Have you been baptized?” is one of the first things to ask.

At any rate, I find interesting what I figured her underlying feelings were.  Somehow, it was communicated to her—probably many times and in some unintentional ways—that baptism is, in some way, a sign of merit.  It’s an accomplishment!  And if you haven’t undergone it, then there’s something wrong with you.  At some point in her life (and I admit this is speculation), raising the question of baptism became uncomfortable.

Again, I can’t say for sure that was part of her life story, but it does happen.  When it does happen, it turns baptism, and the entire Christian life, on its head.  It’s not an occasion for pride; it’s a matter of humble, loving gratitude.

UCC minister Bruce Epperly sounds like a fellow Star Trek fan when he says, “Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.”[2]  Baptism is about love and healing.  It’s not about jockeying for position; it’s not about grandstanding.

2 baptism

He continues, saying that “baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism.  There is salvation—and revelation—outside the church.”  The mystical, invisible body of Christ is larger than the visible church.  “While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love.”

Earlier, I spoke of the Klingon ritual of R’uustai.  I added that Lt. Worf explains its meaning to the boy Jeremy.  This enables him to benefit from it.  It becomes more than a series of actions involving candles and strange symbols; instead, the ritual becomes a way for him to experience a whole new dimension of life.  Losing his mother and becoming an orphan means the end of life as he’s known it.  The ritual of R’uustai offers the promise of new life.

New life is what the sacrament of baptism is all about.  But just as with the Klingon ritual, if there is no understanding and no intention of embracing that new life, then the waters of baptism do little more than simply get us wet.

Our Book of Order says this about baptism:

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).  That’s what I was saying earlier about it being the sacrament of entry into the church.

Sometimes people get an impression about baptism.  It may sound like, “Hey that’s a pretty good deal!  I can get baptized, and totally forget about it!”  Not exactly!  There’s still that bit about the covenant.  There’s still that bit about loving, healing relationships.  As we continue with the Book of Order, we also hear this:

“Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.”

The body of Christ is one.  We are one!  Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.  The community of the baptized is not bound together by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, and all of the other junk we come up with.  Christ liberates us from that.

There is another reason for being baptized, but I hesitate to mention it, because it involves a concept that has too often been abused and distorted.  But here it is: we are baptized because we are obedient.  We obey our Lord, who says, as part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).

I hesitate to mention obedience, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about it.  Obeying the Lord isn’t the obedience demanded by one who’s just waiting to smack us down.  It isn’t blind or mindless obedience.  It’s the mutual, loving obedience of one whose eyes are wide open and has come to serve.

In our scripture text, Mark says that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  (I said we would look at Jesus getting baptized.)  So why is Jesus baptized?  Does he need to be forgiven of sin?

In Matthew’s gospel, John is reluctant to baptize him.  He’s wondering about this, too.  “But Jesus [answers] him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (3:15).  Or as the Revised English Bible puts it: “it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

Remember, “all that God requires” is not satisfying the whims of a bully or a tyrant.  It’s not dealing with one who says, “On your knees!  Kiss my boot!”  It is, however, working along with one who lovingly chooses us in bringing all creation to a glorious fulfillment.

Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus is baptized as directly as Matthew does.  He does tell us that “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (vv. 10-11).

Baptism is a public identification with the people of God.  It is expressing solidarity!  Of course, Jesus’ identification—his bonding—with God’s people receives quite a dramatic display of acceptance.  The “heavens dividing” doesn’t occur every day!

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

3 baptism

There’s something that Matthew in the Great Commission, and Mark in today’s reading, tie with baptism.  Luke does the same in Acts 2.  On the day of Pentecost, after Peter tells the people about Jesus, they ask, “What should we do?”  His response?  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

All of them link baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the greatest gift of God.  The Spirit is God, constantly being given to us—constantly being poured into us!  The Spirit is everything good and wonderful that we can imagine—and everything that we cannot imagine.

We are baptized once, but repentance is a lifelong journey.  We are called and invited, over and over again, to repent.  That means to have a change of mind, to turn around.

(Speaking of turning around, turn around right now.  Look at everyone here.  Do we welcome each other?  Have we locked horns with anyone?  Is there anyone we ignore?  The Spirit of God calls us and helps us in fanning the flames of holy love, and if need be, lighting the spark!)

John baptizes with water.  We baptize with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.  The Spirit is the one who makes that bonding in water effective.  The Spirit is the one who gives it power.  The Spirit is the one who takes a bunch of dripping wet people and fills them with faith, hope, and love.



light unexpected

“O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them.  We are wasting the resources of the earth in our headlong greed, and they will suffer want…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.

“…Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy…”

1 epiphany
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

Those are words from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; they date back to 1910—over a century ago.  They’re in a book published in 1917, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith.[1]  It was published during what came to be known as “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”

Human knowledge and technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as we might know all too well, knowledge and wisdom rarely progress at the same rate.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Fosdick calls “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[2]

So far, the twenty-first century has amply demonstrated that lack of wisdom in dealing with conflict, at the international level and elsewhere.  To the unknowns of this unfolding century, the impulse to respond with fear is always present.  The future can be seen as a void, filled with darkness.  We have to be cautious of morbid or despairing outlooks that expect disaster and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like the “law of attraction,” which can go under various names.  It’s the idea that whatever we project into the world, the universe, the ether, is what we attract.  I’m reminded of the verse in Titus which goes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (1:15).

To this vision of darkness, we need something that’s light.  Literally.  Epiphany, which falls on Saturday this week, is all about light.  It’s all about the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the appearance, or manifestation, of Jesus to the Gentiles—to the world.  Our word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek term επιφανεια (epiphaneia), which appears in several places, such as 2 Timothy 1:10, where we learn that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing [or through the epiphany] of our Savior Christ Jesus.”

Our gospel reading, the visit of the Magi, is the primary image of Epiphany.  The Magi were more than likely Zoroastrian priests, the ancient faith of Persia.  They’ve been called “wise men,” “kings,” “astrologers.”  But whatever you call them, they’re the first Gentiles in the Bible to see the Christ child.

They notice a star which they interpret to signify a special birth.  So off they go to Judea, asking questions about “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2).

2 epiphany

The guy currently claiming that title, Herod the Great, gets nervous when he hears about it.  (His campaign pledge was “vote for me, and I will bring you cruelty and paranoia.”)  Learning from the religious leaders the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he wastes no time and sets up a secret meeting with the Magi.  Herod wants to know two things.  When did you first see the star?  Will you find the child and let me know where he is?  “After all, I want to pay my respects, too!”  (Wink, wink.)

The Magi, upon finding the young Jesus and offering their presents, have a dream telling them, “Don’t go back to Herod.”  So they leave for home, taking the bypass around Jerusalem!

Herod tries to stamp out the light that the Magi found.  Not simply a light in the sky, the light they found is the one who enlightens all of humanity.  The deeper we go into the epiphany of Jesus, the more wonders we find.

There’s another meaning to epiphany, which I imagine we know.  It has the sense of a sudden awareness of truth, a flash of understanding.  It’s when the light goes on.  Eureka!

I want to tell you a story.  It didn’t happen to me, but I think I can identify with John Artz, the one it happened to.  It’s the story of a personal epiphany.[3]

He says, “I suppose that most people never bother themselves with questions about the meaning of life.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to think of much else.  One day as I was driving home, I filled the empty moments with musings about the possible meanings of life.  As the car bottomed in a dip and began to pounce over the next rise, I turned the wheel to the left and leaned into the turn to overcome the centrifugal force.

3 epiphany

“Then it came to me in a flash.  There were four principles basic to all aspects of life.  These four principles could be combined in various ways to explain everything—why we are here, what we should do, why we are the way we are—every nagging question I had ever pondered.

“It was an epiphany.  It was one of those two or three seconds in your life when it all makes sense.  When you are one with wisdom and understanding.  When there is no more asking, only doing.  I raced through examples in my mind to come up with something that these four principles did not explain, but I could find nothing.

“‘Well,’ I thought. ‘I’d better write these down before I forget them.’  I had had moments of insight before and knew how quickly they could evaporate.  I steered with my left hand and rummaged through the glove box with the other, looking for something to write with.  I looked through every cubby hole in the car but there was no pen to be found.  I looked around and realized that I was just minutes from home and that I could preserve the insight by just repeating it to myself for a few minutes.  Once in the door, I would head to my desk and jot down these ideas before they decayed.

“I pulled into the garage, turned off the ignition, pulled up the emergency brake, left the car and headed for the door.

4 epiphany“When I opened the door, the kids were fighting over a [video] game.  The cat was tormenting the fish.  And my wife started rattling off a list of everyone who had called and left messages.  Then she asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chased the cat away from the fishbowl, tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the kids, and then turned to my wife and said, ‘What are the choices?’

“By the time I got to my office only a few minutes had passed, but the inspiration had disappeared like a dream upon waking.  It left a residue of that feeling of understanding, but nothing to hang that understanding on.

“Many times I have reenacted that car trip in my head trying to recall the four principles but the muse of understanding never returned: until yesterday.  As I drove home yesterday the insight returned—not the four principles, but the understanding.  The significance was never in the four principles, but in the story about them.”

For our friend, what were most important weren’t the particular ideas he came up with; it was the process itself.  It was the experience of having the light come on, of experiencing an epiphany.  Returning to the biblical understanding, what matters is experiencing the light—the glory—of God in Jesus Christ.  And when that happens, the principles, the insights, the vision—all of that comes with it.  We’re changed for the better.

Thinking again about the Magi, we know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report the location of Jesus.  Instead, as the scripture says, “they left for their own country by another road.”  I believe they did just that.  But I wonder if that statement isn’t true at another level.

These men had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey.  The Magi were accustomed to associating with those in positions of power.  Surely the star they saw promised a change in regime, perhaps one who would bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Who could know that the king of the Jews would turn out to be the humble child of a poor family—a family which soon found themselves fleeing their homeland, fearing their rulers, becoming refugees?  And who can say how meeting this family effected these wise men from the East?  Perhaps in leaving “for their own country by another road,” the Magi also were choosing another path in life.

5 epiphany

Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ is for the entire world.  And it’s also an experience of light that’s deeper than the words we use to describe it.  Our words, our language, about God and Jesus and life in general give us a picture of reality.  We talk about things; we use names, but that’s not the same thing as actually meeting them, experiencing them.

The light sneaks up on us; it takes us unaware.  It’s such a joyful, shocking, unexpected source of grandeur.  The darkness of Fosdick’s warning loses its gloom.  Our poor, stumbling lives are radiantly exposed by something wondrous and holy. 

When we encounter the humble, holy child, we are changed—and we’re challenged.  We see, by the light of the Epiphany of the Lord, our own lack of humility; we see our own arrogance.  But thanks be to God, into the darkness that wants to enshroud us, Jesus says, “Let there be light!”


[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), 60.

[2] Fosdick, vii.


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

2 xmas eve

Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

3 xmas eve
“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

4 xmas eve