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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Life inside the Trinity. John 16:23-33

The risen Lord says to his followers—and to us, by the way: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Because the national news has been so disquieting lately, I often find myself taking refuge further back in the paper. Here in Florida the homegrown stuff is liable to be rather bizarre and garish—but that somehow seems reassuring in troublous times. It usually consists of the familiar litany of opulent drug busts, alleged vampire attacks, and naked liquor store heists. Just business as usual here in the Sunshine State. Then every once in while a local story comes along that is in its own way even more troubling than the national news, because it represents such intimate, recognizable human suffering. You feel as if you might well know the people involved personally, and you are forced to grieve for them.

For instance in last Sunday’s paper there was the story of the murder-suicide of a St. Petersburg couple. They belong to a type familiar to us here–Florida has more than its share of such vigorous, affluent senior citizens living out their dream down here where everyone knows that 60 is the new 40. The husband was in fact 69, a longtime, much-decorated St. Petersburg police officer who had reinvented himself and found a lucrative and interesting second career as a financial adviser. The wife was 72, a business consultant and guest columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Over the years she had contributed over a hundred articles about business and career development. She was the president of Strategic Communications, a consulting firm she founded in 1985 that specialized in public relations, marketing, and employee motivation. The husband was an associate vice president for investments at Raymond James. He told a friend that did not intend to retire for another six or seven years. He loved what he was doing. They were prosperous, well-liked and much-admired–poster children for “the new old.”

Then almost overnight everything fell apart. The husband suffered an accident at the gym that left him unable to walk without a cane, and then only haltingly. The wife learned that a hip injury she had suffered would eventually leave her dependent on a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything,” the husband had told a friend back when he was still “a picture of health.” So when their vigorous good health abandoned them, everything else they had meant nothing. They experienced what all of us will if we live long enough—they went from being healthy and independent to being feeble and infirm quite suddenly. It was the greatest shock of their lives. They had always expected their bodies to obey them, and then all at once their bodies declined. They felt betrayed, empty, at the end of their rope. They had no other life. The husband was especially depressed by their declining physical condition—he was very “down the dumps” the friend said afterwards. It had occurred to the friend to suggest professional help, but he hesitated, as we all might. They were such self-sufficient people. They had never needed any help.

Then one day last week, their daughter in San Francisco tried and couldn’t get in touch with them, so she called a neighbor. When his knocking was answered only by the barking of couple’s dog, he called the police. The husband’s body was found dead in the front hall. His wife’s in her home office. He had apparently shot her, and then used the same handgun to end his own life.

I repeat this story not to sadden you, beloved—although it is a very sad story—but to give us both pause. It is a story the demands our attention. As someone with a firsthand knowledge of depression, I can never bring myself to pass judgement on those who come to such a terrible place as those people did. I pray for their souls, but I don’t venture to pronounce sentence on their actions. None of us are really that much stronger than the rest of us, beloved. And no one knows the darkness and emptiness of the hell into which people not so unlike ourselves can sink. Only Jesus knows.

But at the same time we have no business judging, we also have to say clearly that this is not where we are intended to end up, driven to a despairing act that repudiates everything good that has gone before it. Our end should offer us and those who survive us peace and resolution and a sense of balance. It should be the part of our lives that makes sense of their whole.

Because in every part of our lives—but especially at their ending–the difference between hope and despair, between order and confusion, the distinction between purpose and meaninglessness depends upon where our souls are situated. We have to have another life—the one we live in these fragile bodies is not enough. Either we are also living inside the Trinity of Three Persons, as part of the eternal life of God, or we are in trouble.

But it isn’t a simple matter, living inside the Trinity. Some people talk about “being saved” as a once and for all, cut and dried arrangement they strike up with God. They accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, confess and receive forgiveness, and then ride off like Judge Roy Bean to condemn the rest of humanity from the saddle of their high horses. But their self-righteousness and unkindness reveal the truth. It just isn’t that simple. The judge is just as guilty as the defendant. As sinners we are condemned to complexity, beloved. Life inside the Trinity can never be reduced to a tract entitled God’s Plan of Salvation with four points and a prayer.

It is complicated because we have to live it out in the world, and the world is a complicated place. We may want to love God single-mindedly with our whole heart, mind, and will, but our desire for him is constantly being muddied by our all-too-human lack of concentration. We are easily distracted. We get confused. We waffle. We get angry, and then we get sad. We chase our own tails. Then our tails turn and chase us. We worry about ourselves, and when we tire of that we worry about other people. Then we just worry. We get so caught up in what Jesus in the Gospel calls “the world”–which is roughly half gorgeous spectacle and half ghastly nightmare—that we lose our focus upon what is Really Real.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly we stumble upon that Really Real again, because it is prevenient, always there, and grace enfolds us like the cloud of glory enfolded Moses—but not for long and never permanently. The grace of God never leaves us, but we are constantly leaving it to dwell in our own selfishness. We step in and out of that magic circle of grace–the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is better imagined as an endless circle of being and loving rather than as an equilateral triangle as it is often pictured—every day of our lives and sometimes several times each day.

But it is always there–that’s whole the point. The life of eternal grace is there for us to step into. The fullness of joy is always possible to those who ask. “Ask, and you will receive,” the risen Lord says, “that your joy may be full.” Our goal in life is not to understand the Holy Trinity, which would be an exercise in futility, but to experience it from the inside. And the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that possible for us. “I have overcome the world,” the risen Lord says to his followers. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again that he might offer us those worlds of light that live inside the Trinity. It did all that so that we might have another life.

And that’s what makes the tragedy of that murder-suicide in St. Petersburg so heart-rending. That couple, who had everything else, only seem to have had one life, the life they lived in their bodies. That is not to say that that life meant nothing–no love or compassion is ever wasted, beloved. Whatever was good in those people survives. I believe that. But when push comes to shove—as it always does—life in the body is not enough.

It lets us down. In the end our bodies always leave us alone, even when we are surrounded with an admiring crowd, even when we are in the arms of those who love us best, we are abandoned. That is our condition. Jesus calls it “tribulation,” the confusion of ordinary human life. “In the world you have tribulation,” he says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace versus tribulation–that is the conflict in which we have to live out our lives—in the tension between the chaos and confusion of life inside our bodies and the calm and stillness of life inside the Trinity. It isn’t always a very comfy place to be—pulled as we are in two directions. We know that, don’t we, beloved? But as my dentist said to me recently in a moment a considerable discomfort—“Don’t worry now. This isn’t going to last forever.”

 

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Thomas, Our Twin….John 20:19-31

Actual Proofs     John 20:19-31

“Then Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

Faith in Jesus as Lord and God only comes through experience. There’s second-hand knowledge of the risen Christ to be gathered elsewhere. We can hear the Bible accounts of how his pathetic, cowering disciples were transformed into daring, confessing apostles when they saw their risen Lord. We can read the lives of the various saints who in the past met the Living One in ways as many and different as they were from each other. We can hear the testimony of people alive today who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and God through some epiphany and found life piled on life in him. We can gather all that, beloved, but for each one of us there is literally no substitute for a personal encounter with Jesus. And without that encounter, our awareness of who Jesus really is will never reach our hearts, let alone our fingers and our toes. We will never come to recognize him as the only really real thing in a world of shadows and illusions.

So the demand that Thomas makes is not really as presumptuous as it might seem at first. He wanted hard cash as the price of his soul. He knew that it is not enough to simply wish something were true. It has to be. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he told the other disciples, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The unspoken yet operative word here is actually –unless I actually see the mark of the nails, and actually put my finger in the mark of the nails and actually thrust my hand into his side, I will remain an unbeliever. Actual faith is the only kind that deserves the name, and actual faith always comes from a personal experience of God’s faithfulness. So Thomas places the entire weight of responsibility for his believing or unbelieving solely upon the Lord—where it should be, because you and I are incapable of generating that kind of faith in ourselves.

Yet you and I still hesitate to demand that God reveal himself to us concretely, and too often we settle for a disembodied faith, for pale wishes and frail hopes. There are things we each need to make our faith lively and complete, but we have trouble asking for them. Challenging the Almighty seems so risky, like using a hairdryer in the bathtub. But the old saying is still true–if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It really isn’t presumptuous to ask the Lord to disclose himself to you. Indeed he waits for us to ask him to prove himself with actual experiences of his saving power. God does not resent an audacious demand—the Bible is filled with the stories of people like Thomas who tested the power of God—and with miraculous consequences.

What is different about the story of Thomas—whom the scriptures call Didymus, “the Twin”—is that he laid out such very specific requirements. Unless I see. Unless I touch. The operative word here is unless. And for a week we are told his “unless” hung in the air unanswered. He had to wait. But the next time Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was present, and he acceded to Thomas’s audacious demand to touch his wounds. But did Thomas actually do it, or was the offer enough? If we read this passage carefully, we notice that it does not say whether or not Thomas actually put his finger in the nail prints or thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. But if he didn’t, he could have.

So to return to our original point, beloved–All of our knowledge of God comes from direct experience, and that experience is available to each of us if we ask. And having asked, we wait for him to do it in his own time and in his own way. If there is one single thing to learn from accounts of his appearances to others it is this—they are never the same. The Lord will not appear to you and me in the way that he appeared to Thomas, as body with still gaping wounds. He will appear as he actually is, as what we need–a concrete answer to an otherwise unanswerable question, a faithful guide through the labyrinth of life, a partner in our great loneliness. How and when he manifests his presence is up to the Lord and not to us. But he will. All you have to do is ask, and then wait.

It took a week for the Lord to appear to Thomas. But when he did—Boy Howdy!—he really did. Thomas is overwhelmed. “My Lord and my God!” he cries out, almost in pain, as if his confession were being wrenched from him. But Jesus asks—“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then he turns away from Thomas and toward us—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In other words, not having seen like Thomas did and still having come to believe, you are blessed and so am I. And that is an encouraging thought, beloved. I don’t know about you, but these days I’ll take whatever encouragement I can get, because it is so easy to become downcast. I have all I can do not to slip into sullen despair, and no one likes being around that. The forces of brutality and vulgarity are riding pretty high at the moment, and the menu of the choices of those we are offered to lead us is unappetizing to say the least. When I read the news, those lines written the Irish poet W.B. Yeats keep recurring to me–

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

            Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

            The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

            The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst

            And full of passionate intensity.

 

Yeats was writing in 1919, with the horrors of World War I still fresh in his mind. But his words are as crisp and current as this morning’s paper. These days the worst really are the worst, you must agree, and they are filled with nothing if not passionate intensity. And watching things fall apart, I myself have to struggle hard to keep myself from becoming sullen and despondent and short-tempered.

So it occurred to me when I heard the Story of Thomas in church the other Sunday that now is an excellent time for us to put the Lord to the test. He is the One who wants, who desires, who thirsts to reveal himself. So if faith comes only through experience, then we experience the Healer in being healed, the Savior in being saved, the Prince of Peace in that deep peace which passes all understanding. And having that experience of Jesus as Lord and God, in a dissolving world we will be able to claim the blessedness of those who have not seen him but still believe.

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Our Bizarro Twin. Luke 24:1-12

“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but [the two men dressed in dazzling clothes who met them at the empty tomb] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. ”

That little flock of women who first spread the message of the resurrection were, of course—in their own time and place—the very ones least likely to be believed. But God gives us the good news and tells us to share it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not we are believed. It is the telling that matters. And predictably the disciples who first heard the story regarded it as “an idle tale.” The resurrection news is just so bizarre, going as it does against all expectation and all common sense, and in so many ways so unsettling and so uncanny.

No wonder Easter is still, from the commercial point of view, such a hard sell. While each year the goblin market of Halloween, Easter’s “bizarro twin” at the other side of the calendar, continues to break its own records for the consumption of its wares—costumes, candy, cards—Easter lags far, far behind. And it is worth asking just why exactly. Shouldn’t the news that death is dying be easier to market?

The problem is with that very word. Because you cannot talk about the resurrection of Jesus without bringing up You Know What. Even papered over with the imagery of cute rabbits and drenched in the scent of spring flowers, Easter retains that tell-tale whiff of mortality. And in a time when pretty much anything can be talked about openly, death remains strictly off limits. For modern people death-talk has about it the same forbidden quality as sex-talk had for our Victorian great-grandparents. It is our big No-No. As far as humanly possible we have banished from our lives any mention of their Great Opposite, and we discuss it with our children only with the greatest reluctance.

That does not mean, however, that death has been banished entirely from the popular consciousness. I know this because every Halloween I act the part of the talking corpse at Honeymoon Island State Park. On the stage of this world some are given the great parts—King Lear and Prince Hamlet. I play the Dead Cowboy. My face is smeared with grease paint and fake blood. An open wound is carved in my bosom. Made up I present indeed an alarming sight—I have pictures to prove it. Then night falls and I lie down in a coffin of my own building, waiting for a gaggle of silly geese to come waddling down the haunted path. And when they do happen by, I sit up and speak in a hollow, sepulchral voice—like Lazarus returned from the grave to tell all. Oh, and you should hear them squeal and squawk when they spy me there in my coffin. I scare the ever-livin’ goose-poop out of that goofy gaggle. Still they must enjoy it, because each year they come back for more.

What is disturbing is that they often they bring with them their young offspring, who are genuinely terrified by what they see along the haunted path. They scream with real terror when I sit up and start to speak, and I hear their goosey parents saying, “It’s not real. He’s just an actor.” They say this because they want to believe it themselves, and they want their children to share that belief, that death isn’t real. That it’s all grease paint and pretend. That our mortality is a mere fiction, the Biggest Joke of All–but never, ever a reality, present to us at every moment of our lives. The gooselings, however, know better. They scream and cry because they know that there is a fearful reality hidden under all the silliness of Halloween.

In that regard that little flock of women who dutifully trooped off to the tomb on first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus with spices have it all over on us modern people. They never doubted that death was real. They knew it intimately well. They had seen and touched and smelled it. In their society it was always there, all around them, undeniable. In ours it is a deep, dark secret hidden even from ourselves.

But in order to experience the painful joy of Easter you and I have to stop pretending, beloved. In order to really hear the cheering news of his resurrection we have to acknowledge that Jesus really died—dead as a door nail—and so will we. If his cross drives home any point at all, it is that death is factual and personal to each one us. And only through that dark glass of that realization can we glimpse the eternal meaning of Christ’s rising, and understand why it was necessary for the women to find the tomb so absolutely empty, so totally vacated. Rising, he left the winding sheets behind him. Because the risen Lord was not a friendly ghost like Casper. When he arose it was as The Paschal God, naked and alive in an utterly new way, as no one had ever been alive before.

Sigmund Freud said that we human beings are fundamentally, constitutionally unable to imagine our own death, and he was probably right. Some have done their darndest to confront their death head-on. John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet and preacher, went so far as to sleep the last years of his life in his own coffin. Nice try, you must admit! But on the whole, we find it well-nigh impossible to picture a world in which we ourselves are not present. Even the boldest spirit among us is death-shy. The fear of nothingness is our deepest human dread, beloved, and we hide it from ourselves at all costs, papering it over whenever possible with nervous laughter and maudlin sentimentality. So the news that Jesus died and rose again must always confound and terrify us as much as it did that little flock of women who were its first witnesses.

But The Paschal God–bless him!—does not leave us in our terror and confusion. He comes to us, through the doors we close and lock behind us, in the upstairs rooms where we hide ourselves from reality. He comes still marked with the gristly signs of his own death and says, “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.” Not that there is nothing to be afraid of—there are still plenty of things in life to fear. But we are not left by ourselves to face its Great Opposite. Whatever lies before us, Jesus has been there already. He has gone ahead as “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it (12:2). Or as the Apostles’ Creed boldly puts it, “He descended into hell,” and then “on the third day he rose again.” The Lord knows where we are going and he knows the way back.

And his resurrection turns everything “bizzaro.” That thing that most frightened us has become the door to eternal life. And the universe, which had seemed dark and meaningless, has revealed itself to be chock-a-block with light and possibility. The Resurrection of Jesus makes everything possible. We will be all right. Better than all right. Therefore, beloved, let us keep the feast. Have an extra Cadbury crème egg on me. In spite of the shocking Trumpism of our time and its sometimes triumphant vulgarity, Christ is still risen. Nothing can alter that. And just as a thousand thousand candles can be lit by a single flame, the news of his resurrection continues to kindle human hearts with hope and courage. So to those of you who share that hope with me, I wish you great joy this Easter.

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Terrible Reckonings: Luke 20:1-19

The New Zealots and the Golden Carriage              Luke 20:9-19

“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my own beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”

What indeed? Jesus ends his parable with a question, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. He hastens to supply one himself —the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The Lord’s message is clear—upon those whose lives are motivated by hatred and violence a terrible reckoning is coming.

In Jesus’ time the Palestinian countryside was seething. Absentee landlords controlled most of the land, and they were fiercely resented by their tenants. Independent and proud of their labor, leaseholders found themselves denigrated into share-croppers, forced to render a portion of their produce to land-owners who had done nothing to earn it. Often anger with the establishment erupted into acts of violence. Revolutionary feeling burned hottest in Jesus’ own district of Galilee, which was the headquarters of the Zealots, a radical party responsible for numerous terrorist attacks upon the landed big shots. Jesus knew the situation first hand. There was even one of these revolutionaries among his inner circle. The gospels number among his disciples one Simon, called “the Zealot.”

Now that was long time ago and a world away, but the first-century situation closely parallels our own in some interesting ways. There are many people in our own country who fume and seethe with anger against the establishment—the government or Wall Street or whatever–and for many of the same reasons those Galilean tenant farmers did. They are the folks who complain about the size of the plates at the salad bar. They feel short-changed by the system that seems rigged against them, like share croppers in their own land. And certain media outlets—they hardly need to be named—have long fed their rage and resentment on a diet of raw meat.

There was a time when these New Zealots appeared to be just a bunch of wing-nuts. No one in either political party took them seriously. But lately their appeal has greatly widened and consolidated under the leadership of a certain charismatic if half-baked candidate for president whose name hardly wants mentioning. Donald Trump has arisen to become of the hero of those who feel themselves pinched by system under which the rich get richer and everyone else gets the shaft. And Trump, who has done as much as anyone to create that state of affairs, has succeeded in galvanizing these disparate malcontents into a movement, making revolutionary anger fashionable even among those who have no particular reason to feel it. Zealotry has become the new shabby chic.

This sort of thing is nothing new, of course.  In October of 1795 the gilded coach carrying King George III was surrounded by an angry mob as it made its way through the streets of London to the opening of parliament. It was a mixed crowd–honest, hardworking tradesmen as well as indigents, and even a scattering of the ladies–all united by their feeling of having been ill-used by the powers-that-were. Britain had for years been at war with revolutionary France, and as the conflict dragged on, it had become ever more unpopular because of the economic pain it caused to ordinary Britons. Some people, as usual, were making a lot of money from the conflict. But many others were hungry, and protestors called out for “peace” and “bread.” Others, however, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, cried, “Down with George! No king!” Stones were thrown at the carriage, and one shattered the window inches from the royal head.

It was a well-aimed shot propelled by popular outrage. The mob saw their corpulent, simple-minded monarch as the image of the bloated power of a state controlled by the rich and the well-placed for their own benefit. And his golden carriage provided for them a symbol of a government insulated by privilege and indifferent to the suffering of its subjects. The newspapers of the time expressed shock. Some hoped and others feared that the attack on the golden carriage might be the prelude to a British Revolution along the lines of the French. But no popular leader arose to lead it. Fervor drained away and no guillotine was set up at Charing Cross. Revolutions depend upon a charismatic leadership to kindle the blind anger that fuel them.

And anger really does deserve to be called blind, because those who are possessed by it are able to overlook almost anything in their search for a hero. Even so what I find hardest to figure out about the Trump revolution is its appeal for so many evangelical Christians. Here is man who can only be described as a moral leper—an unrepentant adulterer, an exploitative employer, a compulsive liar, an outspoken bigot, and God alone knows what else. So what exactly is his attraction for the twice-born? Could it be that bigotry, hatred of the outsider, and a shared love of bad music is what really musters and motivates them rather than love for Jesus? Could it be that Trump’s rhetoric connects with something deeper than their Christian faith–a deep-seated sense of having been wronged, a burning resentment of those different from themselves, and a self-righteous belief of their own version of the truth to the exclusion of all others? His is a Zealot message, aimed at those who feel themselves reduced to share-croppers in their own land, those who itch to pitch a stone at the golden carriage. It has already stirred them violence. Now I am no prophet and no prophet’s son, but even I can see that this movement is going to get even more vicious.

The attractions of evil, beloved, should never be underestimated. It is powerful because it calls out to something in each one of us. You can detect the presence of evil by the way that it brings out the worst in everyone with whom it comes in contact. Have you listened to any of these so-called debates I wonder? Well, it is always good to know what tunes the devil is playing, but I couldn’t advise it. But if you have watched them, however, you have seen how they degenerate into nasty, ill-mannered, irrational schoolyard free-for-alls. That is what is happening to our country, beloved. This man and his words are bringing out the worst in us, just as he brings out the worst in those other candidates with whom he shares the political stage, just as he brings out the worst in his supporters–and also in his detractors. He calls forth anger in all of us—myself included.

I know it, and I am afraid, beloved. Afraid for us all. It seems that a sizable portion of the American people, including a large number who call themselves Christians, would prefer to junk the democratic process and be ruled by a tyrant rather than by a duly elected government that does not share their particular cultural values. So does the rise of Donald Trump in this election year portent the beginning of the Anti-American Revolution? Who can say?

But our concern, yours and mine, must be for our own souls, first of all, to guard them against hatred. Because hatred is simply the ripened fruit of anger. Now there is certainly plenty for all of us to be angry about in this annus horribilis. But anger never moved anyone to make a righteous choice or gave anyone a peaceful night’s sleep after making it. It is the just the music the devil plays to make us dance. And from violence and hatred always come a terrible reckoning.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? Who knows? And what will be the future of Donald Trump–snake-oil salesman, unreality star, and would-be emperor? Well, we shall see, won’t we? But what you and I must do in the meantime is guard ourselves at all cost from the hatred he inspires and pray that God’s will be done in our nation and its political life.

From Book of Isaiah (21:11’-12) come these haunting words: “He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, but also the night.”

In other words the future is uncertain. There is cause in the news for both fear and hope. But to some degree what shall be depends upon each one of us and the degree to which we are able to banish anger from our lives and embrace decency, order, and tolerance. And whether in the face of evil we are able to stand up and tell the truth.

 

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Dodging the Bullet Luke 13:1-9

It was a shocker all right. But with no CNN or New York Times to carry the story, the news of those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” had to travel by word of mouth. That’s how it came to Jesus. Now Judean Jews of Jesus’ time had a pretty sorry option of Galileans generally, and knowing that he hailed from Galilee, and they were no doubt interested in hearing his take on this gruesome attack upon his countrymen. Probably those nameless Galileans—we aren’t even told how many–were killed by the Roman soldiery in the course of putting down a riot within the temple precincts. Otherwise, we know nothing about incident, or what they got up to that triggered such a violent response. But did they deserve such a terrible death? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks, and then answers his own question—No….

Then he poses a further question, also based on the breaking news of the day: “And those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It was probably an earthquake that caused the collapse of that tower. Or it may have been an act of terrorism. It was a time of terrorism, and the tower had some strategic importance. But again, apart from this brief notice, history tells us nothing more about its fall, though it was probably big news at the time. But did those nameless victims deserve to be buried alive in the rubble any more than those who dodged the bullet and lived to hear about it? Again Jesus answers—No…

Last week’s New York Times carried this brief notice: “At least 29 people died when an island in Fiji took a direct hit from a powerful cyclone, officials said on Tuesday. A government spokesman told Radio New Zealand that Koro Island had been ‘pretty much flattened’ by Cyclone Winston over the weekend and that very few buildings were left standing.” Nothing more. So much suffering and grief distilled into two brief sentences! But did they in some way deserve it? No…

But it happened anyway. Like most of the victims of political violence and natural disaster, those nameless Fijians were no worse than ourselves, beloved. Perhaps even better. Or at least they were good enough for all practical purposes, which is to say that they were human–a mixture of good and bad. So why did they have to die? What does their suffering mean in the great scheme of things? Well, that’s the million dollar question. If I had an easy answer to it, I’d sell it by the bottle. There isn’t a simple answer, however–just a difficult, partial one. But here it is….

As I am writing to you, beloved, our cat, Tiberius, keeps wanting to sit on my computer keyboard. Tiberius is a lovely cat, a good friend—if a sometimes annoying one–and I would do whatever I could for him. I provide him with food, attention, and a safe place to live. And I often tell him he is a very wonderful cat, which seems to please him. Tiberius trusts me, but I can’t save him from the fate we both share. We each have our own little tragedy to play out in a world that seems hell bent upon its own destruction. We see it all around. All things—suns, flowers, animals, our own selves–appear, mature, grow old, and then die, or are devoured by other things that are themselves devoured. The cosmos is always in the process of creating and destroying itself. And as infinitesimal parts of our vast universe we are pitifully vulnerable to its forces, both men and cats.

And its Creator does not seem to care a fig about what becomes of us. Towers fall. Cyclones howl. The innocent are swept away with the iniquitous. The ugly and the lovely perish alike. And our world hurdles on endlessly, heedlessly, toward its own ultimate destruction. Our great human tragedy is that we are aware of being carried along with it. And we recognize our shared anguish and sense of abandonment in those anguished words of Jesus upon the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But ironically, those of us who have been captured by the strange good news of the cross find in that despairing cry our deepest comfort. Because for us the cross of Jesus, the symbol of meaningless suffering, is what makes some sense of all those little tragedies we hear about–the bullets we dodge–as well as that last bullet, which none of us can dodge. The death of the one who was so like God he was God reveals what could never otherwise have known, that the creator is himself vulnerable to the destructive forces of his creation. In his own way he is at least as helpless and limited as we are. He—the male third-person pronoun sounds rather ridiculous to use in this context, but we have to use something—suffers with the world he is has made, and for those who think on it, there is comfort to be found in that. Something in the universe is tragically haywire–in the world we call it evil; in ourselves we call it sin–which the Maker is at any cost struggling to mend. So will he manage to get control of it all? Is the creation repairable? For three days, the scriptures tell us, that ball was up in the air.

And it would have remained forever up in the air were it not for the even stranger good news of the resurrection. Because those of us who have really heard and heeded it, the news that Christ is risen is an answer to the problem of suffering that is neither easy nor complete, but even for that still joyful and life-giving.

Horace Walpole, the eighteen century English politician and man of letters, wrote: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” For us believers in the good news the world will always partake of both. Oh, yes, there will always be the endless news stream about all those tragedies, great and small, that are being played our right now across the world and across the street, and planted in the midst of it all the cross still stands with Jesus still writhing on it.

But at the same time on the very same stage something else is going on. A comedy this time, buried in the tragedy. The crucified Lord appears from the wings to tell us that everything it going to work out wonderfully well in the end, that the universe, which so often appears chaotic and indifferent, is in truth both orderly and loving, and his appearance proves this to be true. There are gasps of wonder and even laughter, because the restoration of all things has begun.

And in God’s restoration comedy you and I each have a part to play, just as by our sinfulness we played a part in the tragedy of this world. In our lesson Jesus calls upon us to repent, to readjust our lives. We should work for order in our world and harmony in our relationships, seeking with love and good sense to overcome the chaos and malice around us. There is still so much that stands in the way of God’s happy ending. But it is coming, beloved. More surely than anything else, the restoration of all things is coming. I know it in the waters of my being.

What I can’t tell you is what that ultimate resolution will look like, beloved, how it will feel, and what part you and will have in it when it arrives. But it is coming, when it does, by golly, I know I will recognize it.

 

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