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This “Essay” was presented at The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter here in St. Petersburg on Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017—the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.  Frank Casario portrayed Luther and Jack Clark portrayed Henry VIII.  Pastor Bill Roen wrote and narrated the “Essay.”  




Well, beloved, we might all have been–if we had played our cards right. But what might have happened–what perhaps should have happened got sidetracked by two dominating, indeed overwhelming personalities—a king and a monk—King Henry VIII of England and Brother Martin Luther of Wittenberg. They were almost exact contemporaries. But they never met—until today at least—and that is probably a good thing, because if they had they would not have liked each other.

They belonged to two different worlds. One looked backward to the medieval world, the other looked forward to the modern. On the most fundamental things they did not agree. But they both were possessed of an almost unlimited self-confidence and a sense of their own rightness. And their egos fill the enormous rooms in which history has placed them.

There are many events that have set the world on its ear—wars, crusades, and revolutions have altered the flow of history. Most of them were initiated by the great men and women—by kings, queens, generals, popes, dictators, presidents. This year, however, marks the 500th anniversary of an event arguably more important than any of them. And it was initiated not by a king, but—rather appropriately–by the son of a miner. Martin Luther came from a middling background. The Luthers were folks on the make, economically and socially.

And Luther’s revolution—for revolution it was—was a middle class movement. Nevertheless, it altered the very way in which Europeans of all classes would understand themselves ever after. And it informed the way modern people comprehend themselves, not as a community of believers, parts of a vast whole, but as individuals standing before God. And all of us, Protestants, Catholics, believers, unbelievers, searchers alike—are its heirs.

How do you know that something is true, beloved?

For people before Luther’s Reformation the answer would have been easy–someone in authority, someone higher than you on the spiritual or social scale, told you that it was true. And furthermore that it had always been true. In spiritual matters that authority was likely to be a priest, a bishop, or the pope—in ascending order. Authority in matters of faith and morals came down, through a hierarchy of the Church to the ordinary believer, woman or man.

In the same way secular authority and secular power descended from on high, from kings, ordained by divine right, through their nobles in a complex, interconnected system of sacred vows we call feudalism, to the vast majority of ordinary folks who drew the water and hewed the wood. For the medieval person truth and power came from above, ultimately from God himself. Those who did not accept that divinely established order were heretics and rebels—dry fuel for the burning.

Of course, there are still are medieval people out there in our world—fundamentalists of all kinds, citizens of totalitarian states and their fearless leaders. They can appear frightening and dangerous, but they are essentially fossils of an earlier time.

But how do you know that something is true?

For modern people when you ask them–How do you know that something is true?—they—and by this I mean we–are more likely to say–I experience it that way. We have faith in our own feelings, in our own conscience—such as it is–in our own reason—or lack of it—to guide us toward the truth. Authority comes up from the hearts of ordinary women or men. For the modern person certainty arises from individual experience. It comes from the self. That is the genius of modern democracy—authority and power ascend from every single enfranchised citizen to our elected leaders, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory they may be.

The Lutheran Reformation heralded that change. Therefore, it is not just something that happened 500 years ago. It changed things that are still changing and evolving. It gave us the idea of the sovereign self, of John Wayne riding off alone into the sunset, of the New Adam and the New Eve in the concrete and asphalt Eden of the modern world.

That is the legacy of Martin Luther—though not Luther alone, of course. But Luther was the first to think like a modern person in this way and get away with it. He began a movement that prophesied the modern world of individualism and democracy, and also of fragmentation and alienation, of disregard for any authority but the self.

(Incidentally, if you are looking for the seed of the disrespect for authority in our society, you need to look back at least as far as the Reformation and the new sense of self that it fostered.)

But back to Brother Martin. “Cometh the hour,” the scriptures say, “cometh the man.” Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Germany, before there was a Germany. He was a likely lad and his father hoped he would be a lawyer and sacrificed to send him to the university. As a student Luther liked to drink beer and made good company. But he was bored by the law.

His fellow students nick-named him “The Philosopher,” and as a young man he was tormented by deep questions—Is there a God? And if there is a God, is God a loving father or a God of wrath? The problem for young man Luther was first and foremost the personal problem of deep-seeded dread and profound terror. Luther feared the Almighty God to the bottom of his being. He lived in terror of judgment and hell, and he did everything he could think of to please God, but nothing worked….

LUTHER:   “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man was that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.”

Luther always did have a problem with any authority other than his own. He defied his own father’s desire that he become a lawyer, and instead became an Augustinian friar in 1505. But despite the austerities of the monastic life, despite constant confession and self-punishing acts of penance, Luther found no peace of mind in the monastery until he experienced a life-shattering revelation which himself later described….

“As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless, I felt I was a sinner before God. My conscience was restless, and I could not depend on God to be appeased by my satisfactions. Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. . . . Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives—namely faith—and that . . . the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and entered Paradise.”

He was teaching New Testament at the University of Wittenberg at the time of his epiphany.  It happened while he was in the Tower Room, and reportedly in the WC. And it came as a tremendous sense of release. What can you say? It was the triumph of his own self-awareness. It was his born-again experience.

It was his reading of the letters of St. Paul particularly that brought Luther to this new understanding of the individual’s relationship to God, that that relationship does not depend upon the hierarchy of the church and its sacraments, but it comes to the individual heart unmediated and is received through grace alone by faith, which was Luther’s word for trust. We are saved by trust.

This set Luther thinking critically about other elements of the church’s teaching. What Biblical authority could be found for the seven sacraments that followed the Catholic believer from the cradle to the grave? Luther could find Biblical support for only three at the most—baptism, confession, and the Lord’s Supper. And where did the teaching about papal primacy come from? Not from scripture surely.

All this might have remained a purely academic issue if it had not been for the building of a church. Oh, beloved, nothing causes as much of a brouhaha as the building or remodeling of a church. And the rebuilding of the biggest church in Christendom caused the biggest brouhaha of all. It cost money—big money. In 1517 Pope Leo X authorized a new sale of indulgences, papal grants that were supposed to free souls from purgatory, in order to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica at Rome. The cost was staggering. This called for the biggest capital funds appeal of all time.  And a Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel, master snake-oil salesman, was entrusted by the Holy See with the job of raising money in Germany through the sale of these indulgences, which Tetzel undertook with real style….


“It is incredible what this ignorant and impudent friar gave out. Tetzel said that if a Christian had slept with his mother, and placed the sum of money in the pope’s indulgence chest, the pope had power in heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and if he forgave it, God must do so also… As soon as the coin rang in the chest, the soul for whom the money was paid would go straightway to heaven. The indulgence was so highly prized that when Tetzel’s company entered a city the papal proclamation was borne on a satin or gold-embroidered cushion, and all the priests and monks, the town council, schoolmasters, scholars, men, women, maidens and children went out to meet him with banners and candles, with songs and in procession . . . In short, God himself could not have been welcomed and entertained with greater honor.”

Brother Martin, who through his reading of St. Paul’s letters had come to believe that salvation depended upon the grace of God alone, was appalled by the sale of indulgences. And he made his views known in 95 Theses–95 subjects for academic debate–which he posted on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago this Halloween.  Reading them they don’t sound that earth shattering to us, but no one had dared to say anything like this before. And here is a sample….


“21. Those preachers of indulgences err who say that a papal pardon frees a man from all penalties and assures his salvation . . .

  1. It is certain that avarice is fostered by the money clinking in the chest, but to answer the prayers of the church is in the power of God alone . . .
  2. Those who believe themselves made sure of salvation by papal letters will be eternally damned, along with their teachers . . .
  3. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences he would rather have St. Peter’s church in ashes than to have it built with the flesh and bones of his sheep . . .”

Luther’s great insight into salvation through grace alone by faith alone does not sound like a big deal to us. We are used to hearing it as a formula. In order to really “get” Luther, however, you have to experience the self-doubt and fear that brought him to it. In order to share his soul-freeing insight that the believer is saved by faith alone and not by indulgences or by any other good work you have to pass with Luther through soul-shattering suffering and personal anguish….


“God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and those who have been brought to nothing.”

For Luther God is the God of those who have nothing else to hold onto. But once Luther had come to that life-transforming realization based upon what he understood as the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures nothing could shake him from it. In the matter most crucial to the individual soul, its relationship to God, Luther would not accept any authority but his own. Venerable tradition, inherited wisdom, closely reasoned argument—nothing mattered to Luther but the Word of God and his own insight into it, often subjective, but fiercely held.

The 95 Theses were a world-changing, revolutionary document because of what they implied about the individual. They were a declaration of spiritual independence. They rendered meaningless a church hierarchy that forced ordinary people to find divine grace through the mediation of a priest. Now everyone could be his or her own priest, approaching God directly and ministering to the spiritual needs of others. Luther turned everything up-side-down and placed the individual in direct relationship to God. From now on every plowman and housewife would be his or her own pope.

But no Protestant Reformation, no Lutheran revolution–nothing would have happened, had not been for a new invention. The printing press of Johann Gutenberg in 1456 produced the first book printed in Europe with moveable type. By 1517 the presses were hungry for fresh meat, and Luther was just the man to feed them. Again–“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” In his lifetime Luther never received a penny from any work he wrote, but he published more than any other human being ever has. The Lutheran Reformation was carried forward by an avalanche of books and pamphlets. Martin and his wife Katie, a former nun, had six children together, but one wonders when he had time for that considering his output.


“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”

The problem is that everything that Luther thought, he published. And those of us who admire him, devoutly wish that some of his thoughts had never seen the light of day. But they did. Volumes on volumes on volumes. Commentaries on the scriptures, political diatribes, hymns, theological works, his great translation of the Bible into German, and sermons, sermons, sermons. Throughout his career Luther preached constantly, and his sermons went from the pulpit directly to the press. His works are not only vast but revealing, at times painfully so. Luther leaves us a record of his complex, profoundly individual self—extremely stubborn–as only Germans can be–unbelievably courageous in the face of the massive authority of church and state ranged against him, at times tender and sentimental, and at other times virulent and bigoted and profane and just plain nasty. To say that his style is “earthy” is a ridiculous understatement. But he was always what Matthew Arnold called him–that “Philistine of genius in religion—Luther.”

We don’t know exactly how it came about. Apparently no one wanted to debate the 95 Theses when they were posted on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, but the printers got hold of them, translated them from Latin into German, and they went viral–as we would say. They struck a patriotic note in their readers; Germans of all ranks were sick and tired of being used as a cash cow for the papacy. Suddenly Luther was a celebrity and a local hero.

His works sold like hot tamales. By 1520 he had become pan-European phenomenon. In that year, Luther published his “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” a pamphlet in which he attacked Papal authority and the doctrine of the seven sacraments. And in that same year, alarmed by Luther’s growing popularity among his subjects particularly among the students at Oxford and Cambridge, King Henry VIII—then 29 years of age–published a reply called the “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” in response to Luther, and it ends with these scorching words….


“Do not listen to the Insults and Detractions against the Vicar of Christ which the Fury of the little Monk spews up against the Pope; nor contaminate Breasts sacred to Christ with impious Heresies, for if one sows these he has no Charity, swells with vain Glory, loses his Reason, and burns with Envy. Finally with what Feelings they would stand together against the Turks, against the Saracens, against anything Infidel anywhere, with the same Feelings they should stand together against this one little Monk weak in Strength, but in Temper more harmful than all Turks, all Saracens, in short, all Infidels anywhere.”

Henry had a medieval mind dressed up for the Renaissance. Henry VIII was never a protestant, even after his break with Rome. He continued to believe in transubstantiation in the mass, priestly celibacy, and other Catholic doctrines. What he wanted was Catholicism without a pope, or rather with himself as pope. Henry was an equal opportunity tyrant. He had both Protestants and Roman Catholics executed in his reign—an astonishing 76,000 of them—anyone who did not acknowledge his spiritual authority as supreme head of the Church of England was dry fuel for the fire.

But in 1520 he was still a Roman Catholic, still anxious for the pope’s approval. For his “Defense” the pope awarded him a golden rose and the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title English sovereigns still carry. He was the first English King to be called “your Majesty.” He thought of himself as an emperor and not just a king. His pride was imperial.

That he looked down on the “little monk” as a social inferior is obvious throughout the “Defense.” Luther’s father was miner. Henry was a sovereign of the richest country in Europe.  He represented something old, the medieval system of feudalism built upon class and authority—“the divine right of kings.” But a new idea was abroad. Luther had given it birth. Henry VIII did his best with blood and fire to stop that idea, but it was unstoppable.  And Luther the monk gave back to Henry the King as good as he got. In his “Reply to Henry” Luther went overboard. He called the king a pig, a dolt, and a liar, who deserved, among other things, to be covered with excrement….


“The King of England, this Henry, clearly lies, and with his lies acts the part of a comic jester rather than that of a king. . . . I am speaking to a lying buffoon, hidden under a kingly title, and speaking concerning divine truths, which it is every Christian man’s duty to protect from lying abuse. If the foolish King so forgets his Kingship that he dares to come into public view with open lies, and does so while treating sacred subjects, why is it not a right and proper thing for me to throw his lies back in his face, so that if he derives any pleasure from lying against the divine Majesty, he may lose it when he hears the truth about his own majesty?  

Nor is this an occasion when I ought to consider being patient when this frivolous buffoon attacks with lies not me and my life (which I could have borne) but my teaching itself which I am very certain is not mine but Christ’s. Let him blame himself and his lies if he is compelled to hear things unworthy of his Kingly name. His wicked mouth has deserved this; for he has blasphemed my King, Who is the King of glory.”

He also called Henry, always vain of his virility, “effeminate.” Well, you can imagine how this went down. You don’t have to wonder any more why we are not all Lutherans. But to give him his due, in the years that followed Luther did try to make nice. Hoping to reform the English church along evangelical lines, he made several attempts to win Henry’s friendship, even going so far as to offer to write a book in praise of the King. But his Majesty remained cool, suggesting Luther give up his wife and go back to the monastery. So in 1529 Luther got some of his own back. When he was asked for his learned opinion regarding whether it was permissible for Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry to Anne Boleyn, Luther made a suggestion that was at least half serious:


“I would rather permit the king to marry still another woman and have, according to the examples of the patriarchs and kings of Scripture, two women and two queens at the same time.”

We don’t know what would have happened if Henry had taken Luther’s advice and committed bigamy. But he opted to divorce Catherine instead and marry Ann, and as they say, the rest is history. And here you are. And here I am. And here is the original question—Why aren’t we all Lutherans? Well, beloved, in certain ways we all are. As the poet says:

The Just shall live by Faith. . . . he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.

Not that we all experience Luther’s anguish. Not that we all come to the same conclusion that he did—that the just shall live by faith. We don’t. But our conclusion comes from the same place Luther’s did—from the Self. The religious rituals of the medieval world were public and corporate—pilgrimages, gorgeous masses, processions with candles and incense—the religious rituals of the modern world are private—silent prayer, individual Bible reading. Which is better? You tell me. I go back and forth.

Sometimes I feel very Lutheran, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have medieval moments.  Right now I am feeling very Lutheran. When other people criticize Luther I get more Lutheran. When I criticize Luther I sometimes get carried away. It’s easy to do. No decent person’s admiration of Luther can be unqualified. He could be coarse, boastful, bigoted, profane, and occasionally in the heat of rhetoric a violent anti-Semite. But with all of that you have to admit that he was the real, authentic Luther—both saint and sinner, as he himself said–and the change that he made in the world was enormous. To his credit, he didn’t take credit for it….


“I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, and drank Wittenberg beer with my friends…, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

But when you set him next someone like Henry VIII you realize how prophetic Luther was in the fullest sense. Henry was a medieval man. He believed that authority came down from above, from God to himself as king and Head of the Church. Luther was also a medieval character in many senses—superstitious, conservative in the fullest sense, in his prejudices fully of his time. But he also represented something new—The New Man–the Individual in the Modern World where alternative life styles, alternative sexualities, endless political and religious diversities are not only tolerated but taken for granted.

When you order a hamburger and get it “your way.” When you register as a Republican or a Democrat or a nothing. When you decide who to vote for or whether not to vote. When they play the Star Spangled Banner and you choose to sit or stand or kneel down or sing along, you are firmly in the Lutheran tradition. When someone asks you if you have been saved, and you answer, yes, or no, or I’ve decided not to be saved or I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling, you are with Luther. The triumph of self-awareness—that’s what we are celebrating, that and courage—the prehensive courage to take hold of you own truth and growl. Let’s never forget Luther’s courage.

In 1521 he appeared before the Diet of Worms, which had been summoned by the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to deal with the problem of the Protestants. The emperor sent Luther a safe-conduct in the hope that he could be persuaded to recant his writings and return to the Roman church. His Majesty was disappointed:


“Since your serene majesty and your lordships demand a simple answer, you shall have it, without horns and without teeth. Unless I am shown by the testimony of the Scriptures or my plain reason—for I believe neither in popes nor in councils alone, since it is known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—unless I am refuted by Scripture and my conscience is captured by God’s own word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against the dictates of conscience is neither right nor safe. Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. [Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me.] Amen.

And God help us all, beloved, in this time of commotion and chaos in church and society. God help us all to find a little patch a truth and take a stand on it against all forms of fundamentalism, both political and religious, and against every variety of totalitarianism with whatever courage we can muster. And we can take comfort in this, that whatever happens, if we are brave, we will not be alone, beloved. In spirit, Bother Martin will be with us.






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What Luck

Is there such a thing as luck? Or why didn’t the Puritans throw dice?


“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

We went out to dinner last night in part, my family and I, to celebrate the fact that we have electricity and air conditioning again and that our property and ourselves came through hurricane Irma pretty much unscathed. The waiter was happy too. He and his mother had decided not to evacuate, and they had come through just fine. “We got lucky,” he said with a smile. “We have light.” And that set me thinking about what lucky means.

Whatever it means some people clearly weren’t. As I write to you, Miami is still waterlogged. Naples is in ruins. Millions are still in the dark and a quarter of the houses in the Florida Keys were destroyed. Describing the devastation of Hurricane Irma there, New York Times reporter Frances Robles writes: “The landscape is a seemingly random mix of lost and saved—homes and businesses unscathed in the wake of a storm that appeared to pick and choose its targets, taking a roof here and a yacht there, leaving roads littered with random debris.”

We are so used to randomness that we take it for granted–it forms a part of the background of our lives. Chance seems to govern the circumstances in which we find ourselves, whether we prosper or founder, whether we are hale or sickly seems governed by fortune. But does luck exist? Is there such a thing as chance? Our Puritan fathers and mothers didn’t think so. Fervent and consistent Calvinists, they saw every single movement in the universe as the work of a designing and judging God. Every leaf that fell was foreordained to fall where it did.

That’s why they so strongly disapproved of games of chance. Because every shuffle of the cards, every throw of the dice was preordained by God. And games of chance were a way of playing frivolously and blasphemously with his predestining will. So on March 22, 1631 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony banned gambling from New England: “It is. . .ordered that all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or [gambling] tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.” And that punishment, though unnamed, would not be trifling, you can be sure, because this was a serious matter. It was not just the desire to keep anyone anywhere from having fun that motivated such legislation, but a sober and consistent understanding of divine providence. The Puritans did not believe in luck. Every event within their world had a meaning, and their sovereign God did not want to play silly games of dice and cards with mortals.

Our neighbor across the street feels the same way, though with less profound reasoning. She had big live oak fall in her front yard during the storm, but it missed the house. She says that was the will of God, not luck. She is very emphatic about this. There is no such thing as luck. But many trees fell on many houses here in Florida. Was all that the will of God? There is an apparent randomness in human suffering that is impossible to deny. We live in a universe where virtue does not necessarily triumph, and where goodness is not always rewarded. In fact, all of us, the righteous and unrighteous alike, are subject to time and chance, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says. There are times when it seems that effort and forethought and good faith mean nothing in the face of blind luck.

So is there room in the universe for chance. For a believer in an omnipotent and sovereign God it seems not. But is there another way of looking at the world and God’s relationship to it in which randomness does have a place. Those very first verses of the Bible describe how things stood before creation:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Before creation everything was a formless, random chaos. Then with the calling forth of light God began to bring order to the dark, watery mess, and each symbolic day new wonders are brought forth by his almighty Word. And each day he pronounces his work good—good but not perfect. And there is a way to think of creation is not a finished reality, but as an ordering process that is still going on, a process in which you and I, beloved, have a small but real part. There remains, however, a pre-creation chaos outside of God’s immediate control and ours.

Chance is part and parcel of that pre-creation randomness of the universe, the chaos with which God still struggles at the edges of the world and in the hearts and minds of human beings. Suffering is part of it too. And the symbol of that chaos is the crucified Christ, who made himself subject to time and chance. He was no more sheltered from the demonic forces in nature and the madness in humanity than we are. And he died a violent, unjust, and apparently meaningless death on the cross.

But on the basis on Christ’s resurrection we believe that God will ultimately triumph over the forces of chaos and his work—and ours– will be gloriously completed. There will be an eighth day of creation when the whole flawed composition will be perfected. But in the meantime the resurrection of Jesus is the pledge that order and harmony will triumph in the End. Until then there is work for us to do in overcoming the irrationality in ourselves and in showing concrete compassion for those who—for no apparent reason—did not “luck out.” Luck gives us an opportunity to proclaim that God is still at work, still struggling to bring order and concord to the formless elements and the discordant forces that shape and distort our lives. Luck enables us to say that we are struggling together with him, that we are on his side, as he is utterly and entirely on ours. “Peace be with you,” the risen Lord said to his disciples and so he still says to us, “Peace be with you,” knowing that peace is not only his gift but our task.


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Ruthless People


Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017


What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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Bad Attitudes

She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.

No, it wasn’t easy.  But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.

There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.

My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.

We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage.  They come and they go.

Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.

The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it.  If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.

Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.

But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.






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The Lord’s Prayer…Hallowed Be Thy Name

Right now we are watching Hurricane Matthew crawling through the Bahamas toward the coast of Florida and wondering what will happen next. And this is indeed a world of frightening uncertainties, beloved. Literally anything can happen here. Any day you can take a tumble in the garden, go to the doctor with a sprained ankle, and begin a terrifying medical journey that may lead you anywhere at all. Ask me if you don’t believe it. I know. No wonder you and I wake up in the night troubled by those endless, worrisome possibilities and asking the darkness–What next?

What next? Uncertainty is a terrifying thing. And that is the reason God has given us the name by which we can get hold of him anytime, day or night–Father. He is always there the way you thought your father always would be—ready to answer when you are afraid, doubtful, overwhelmed by those endless possibilities.

In this world the people who love us most can’t always be counted upon to answer. They get old and hard of hearing. Their minds wander. They get Alzheimer’s. They die. They always have their limits. But God the Father does not. His attention span is as limitless as the universe he created. And he is always with us—always ready to hear when we call out to him, always ready to calm our fears and to take us into his arms.

In a multitude of ways God is different from you and me. He never wasn’t and always will be. He is holy. We are not. We give our children names. He gave himself a Name. In the Book of Genesis we are told the story of the burning bush and how the Lord shared his own self-given name with Moses—“I am who I am.” And that became his sacred, mysterious, unpronounceable Name in Israel. To fervent Jews their God was “the Lord,” “the Almighty,” “God most high,” and as many other names they used to avoid profaning that holy Name by speaking it aloud. They walled the Name around with silence in order to protect it from being soiled by common use. They exalted the Name of so high that frightened, lonely people could never reach it.

But when God came down into our world in the person of Jesus, he shared with us another name for himself—“Abba.” In Aramaic it is the most intimate form of the word for a male parent—daddy. “Our Father” is a cold translation indeed of that bosom name that Jesus actually used. Jesus taught us to think of God as a father to us, as a warm, embracing presence scented with the smell of Aqua Velva. And when we face one of life’s terrible uncertainties, the Spirit of Jesus invites us to pray to God the way we called out when we got awake in the night—Daddy! I had a bad dream! I’m afraid!

That’s what he wants of us. God made us precisely so we could do that. Before we were, God already possessed everything–a whole universe of wonder and ineffable beauty. But that was not enough. He wanted children—the most basic human wish. And he made us so that we would call out to him as a child calls out to a loving father and take us into an embrace scented with the smell of the stars.

Oh, there is a dark hurricane blowing through the world tonight–a storm of endless possibilities, some of them very terrifying indeed. We hear it roaring away outside our bedroom window and we are afraid. But God is with us, beloved, closer than we are to ourselves, and all we need do is call out to him—Daddy! Daddy are you there? And he is. And we need not worry that we call out that name too often–the more we use the holier it becomes.

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The Lord’s Prayer….Who Art in Heaven

My wife has gotten used it, I suppose, after all these years—she’s had to–but I am always moving things in the house around—pictures, furniture, little objects—always searching for the right place for them. Consequently nothing in our house stays put. It must be annoying for her, but she doesn’t complain about it—just as she doesn’t complain about the many other annoying things I do. But I can’t help it. There is something in me that is always looking for the right place for things—because there just has to be one. In this world things all have a place, but not heaven.

Heaven is placeless. We have to really stretch our minds to imagine that, because everything else in our experience has a locality, a spot where it is and where it stays unless someone comes along and moves it to a different place.

But God is not in any one place–though we may sense his immediate presence in certain Holy Places. He is present in all places and in all times. He is present at your birth, at every moment of your life, and at your death. Heaven is right here. Right now. Everywhere. Because heaven is not a place, not even a spiritual plane or anything woozy like that. Heaven is the proximity of God to us—his there-ness. He is more completely where you are than where you are.

So when we think of heaven we should imagine a door with no lock and no hinges in a wall that isn’t a wall but the thinnest imaginable veil. And the door in that wall stands always open. You can step into heaven as easily as you step through your bedroom door, more easily in fact. Just say “our Father” and you are there. Because what we do when we pray is step through that door in the wall that is no wall into the place that is no place.

And this is not a just a game of words. Heaven is the profoundest reality of our lives. It is our profoundest comfort when we are struggling to be able to step in heaven. In the place where I am right now, the nearness of heaven is what keeps me going. I know I can step through the door at any time.

And perfect sign of the here-ness of heaven is that story in scripture which says that at the moment that Jesus died, the curtain of the temple that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, cut as with a knife. Heaven broke into our mortal world. God came near enough to suffer and die with Jesus. And now there is no barrier between us and him. There is no place holier than any other. Because of the death of Jesus Christ heaven is with us, equally and completely present at all times. And the door is always open.

People often talk about heaven as their “home,” and in the profoundest sense it is just exactly that. It is where we really belong while we live out our lives in all the other places. All the while we go from one place to another heaven enfolds us. And when we walk through that door for that last time in the light of God’s presence we will recognize heaven as the place where we always truly belonged.





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The Lord’s Prayer….”Our Father”


I say it with shame and great sorrow, some fathers aren’t worth the powder to blow. Scallywags! Nothing but! By their wanton neglect and their cruelties great and small they have succeeded in poisoning the name of “father” for countless souls, who as a consequence have lifelong problems finding their way to the One Jesus tenderly called “our Father.”

But for every bad egg there are a so many others who, according to the grace they are given, manage to present an image of God the Father here on earth. I am always being amazed at the fatherliness of fathers. I see those little incarnations of God the Father being transacted everywhere, scenes of men dealing tenderly with children. We all see so many examples of fatherly gentleness for us to begin to catalogue them.

But to take one example from close to home—the other day I got a call from my son Paul, who was on the road somewhere between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. I asked what he was doing to pass the time, and he replied that he was practicing the harmonica–all alone in the car. Of course, all alone is exactly where the harmonica should be practiced. But since he has never in the past shown any interest or aptitude for musical performance I Just had to ask—Why? And specifically–Why the harmonica of all instruments?

His answer reflected that marvelous, miraculous fatherliness we so often see played out in the lives of ordinary men. Paul’s nine-month-old son Clayton is delighted by harmonica music. Imagine that! So his father—who like all Roens is totally without any single ounce of musical talent—has determined that he should learn that most demanding of instruments strictly to delight his child.

I am still shaking my head with wonder as I write this. I can only hope was that Paul was keeping both his eyes on the road and at least one hand on the wheel while he is practicing “Turkey in the Straw.” And I also hope that Clayton never tires of harmonica music. But even if he does, whenever he hears it will always sing “daddy” to him.

So from this little example I return to my ordinal point—There are so many fathers who manage in so many small and inestimably precious ways to represent the image of God the Father here on earth. And God the Father was even willing to undertake of new skill for us—being human. That is the meaning of the incarnation we confess—God became like us in Jesus Christ and learned to live out our fleshly existence with all its highs notes and lows not just to delight us but in order to save us from despair and death. He didn’t just learn to play the harmonica—difficult enough–he learned to play the cross for us. And he more than performed for us–in Jesus Christ his only Son, who was himself the very form and likeness of fatherly love, God actually died.

Who can grasp that mystery!

It is the most astonishing demonstration of fatherliness of all. God died for our humanity without exception to make us his daughters and sons. That is the basis upon which we call upon him in the prayer we call “The Lord’s” as father, because he sacrificed of both himself and his own only begotten Son for us.

What a thought to ponder!

So God our Father sums up all the faithfulness and gentleness and sacrificial love of every single earthly father and then adds to it an eternal commitment to us his children. He says–I will love you even when you forget me. When you turn your back on me I will love you. I will love you when your body turn to dust. You will still be my own. And I will always hear your voice calling out to me—and upon that eternal commitment to hear and answer that we are able to pray—Our Father…..

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