Lying Like the Dickens

John 15:26-27—May 20, 2018

In the Gospel lesson for the Day of Pentecost the risen Lord promises his disciples: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”

Pentecost, this third great feast of the Christian year, is a hard one to know how to observe. Christmas and Easter have their joyful greetings, their bitter-sweet stories, their winsome traditions. But what in the world should we do to keep the Feast of Pentecost?

Well, it seems to me that if you are going to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of truth, there could be nothing so appropriate as to try honestly to speak the ungilded, honest truth in a time when so many are lying like the dickens. Even if you make yourself unpopular in some quarters by it, tell it like it is, sister and brother. Because all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the struggle to tell the truth is always a sign of the Spirit’s presence, no matter in what context that struggle takes place or whether the truth teller is a Christian believer or not.  It doesn’t matter.

And truth can be and is expressed in every tongue under heaven. There is no barrier to it—it can be spoken and understood by all. That is what the story of that first Pentecost in the Book of Acts is all about. “Each one,” it says, “heard [the disciples] speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

But just as all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so every lie, no matter how small or how large that lie may be, emanates from the evil one. If truth is the language of the Spirit, then lies are the language of demons. That’s why we should find the present situation in America so alarming. Because it seems as if truth itself is dying a slow death of neglect, and lies and misinformation have become the new lingua franca of politics and government. We as a nation are so befuddled by such a storm of shams and frauds that we are in danger of losing our way completely. We have been so gaslighted by the falsehoods that rain down on us faster and faster from on high that we are losing our ability to recognize the truth when we see it. And–worst of all—many of us, blinded by cynicism and tribalism, seem to have stopped caring about the truth altogether, so long as the alternative realities presented feed our self-interest and curry our prejudices. And people who do not care if they are being lied to are likely to lie themselves.

Commencement addresses normally tend to be long on pious platitudes and short on real substance. But once in while they become the occasion of telling the honest truth.  So former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson delivered an address at the Virginia Military Institute the other day that contains this acute analysis of America’s crisis of truth: “If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as a people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.” Freedom and truth are inextricably bound together. You cannot have a free society in which there is no belief in objective truth. If there is no truth there is no way to criticize power, and if there is no way to criticize it, there is no way to control it, because there is no basis for doing so.  Lies put us under the heels of the tyrants that tell them. “When we as people, a free people,” Tillerson warned the graduates, “go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

So is it possible that truth could die out among us? It would seem that we are in great danger, beloved. But all is not lost. Truth is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus and of his resurrection, and that Spirit can suffer and be rejected, but Truth itself cannot die. Even in a world that is lying to the races it cannot be overcome. That is the reason for our rejoicing on this day–because we are still free to tell the truth, and because we are still free as long as we do. That is something quite different from candles and colored eggs, but certainly something just as worthy of celebration.  Pentecost calls us to speak the truth and assures us that the Truth will always be there to speak.

It isn’t easy–it seems as if nothing ever is. We are both bi-lingual in this sense–we learn to speak the shadow language of lies at the same time we are learning to tell the truth. Most people are fluent in both. Lying comes to all of us naturally—more naturally than truth-telling–and to some people it is the virtually the only language they know. Some few cannot speak the truth at all, except by accident.  But the absence of the truth, the language of lies, is a sign that the Holy Spirit is truly absent, no matter how much religious gobbledy-gook is spouted, how many empty prayers are offered, how many pious-sounding thoughts are invoked. Only truth is the sign of the Spirit—honest truth clearly spoken.

And that’s what we need to do, with the Spirit’s help, speak the truth honestly in whatever little world we live in. My world is small, beloved, yours may be just as small. But in the end it is not the size of the world to which you speak the truth that matters, it is the clarity with which we speak it. The size of the audience doesn’t matter—it may be just you yourself. Either the truth has made you free or it hasn’t, beloved. There is nothing in the middle. And if you tell the truth, you can be freer in a cardboard box than in the most enormous room.



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Restoring Respect in Religion: A Christian Perspective

Pastor Bill Roen presented the Christian Perspective at the Restoring Respect in Religion program, a part of the Restoring Respect series at The Cathedral of St. Peter, St. Petersburg  FL on January 16, 2018.  This essay was his opening statement.  A video of the program will be available (along with the other programs in the series) on the Cathedral website .




You have to live with the living–my mother used to say. But just how do you go about doing that?—that’s the question.

Well, there’s an old song that Bing Crosby sang. And it runs in part like this: “Would you like to swing on a star,/ Carry moonbeams home in a jar,/ And be better off than you are,/ or would you rather be a pig?”

Now I’d lay ready money that I could get y’all to sing that song with me.

“A pig is an animal with dirt on his face;/ His shoes are a terrible disgrace;/ He ain’t got no manners when he eats his food/ He’s fat and lazy—and extremely rude.”

When it comes to churches, you are what you sing, beloved. So it’s really too bad we don’t sing that song in church sometimes, because it speaks so directly to our topic for this evening—respect generally and in particular respect for our neighbors who belong to other religious traditions. And we live in a world where there are woeful examples of swinish behavior abounding everywhere—in government, on the street, in our libraries and schools, and most certainly in churches, where nastiness has made a nest in the hearts of some who most loudly want to be called Christians.

“If you don’t care a feather or a fig, / You may grow up to be a pig…..”

As the song suggests, beloved, respect for other people, is a decision taken of the basis in a certain kind of education—moral, spiritual and aesthetic. It a religious education, though not a specifically Christian. It should be taking place in churches and in Christian families–should be, but may not be. It is necessary because from the Christian point of view, respect for others is not something that comes naturally to us. It has to be modeled, learned, and internalized. And disrespect for other people is a result of ignorance, neglect, and surrender to our sinful, porcine selves.

Respect is a decision that has to be made over and over and over again, consciously, in order to lead a truly human life. And leading a truly human life is what all the great religious traditions are all about. Each in its own way seeks to answer the question—How do we live with the living?

To answer that question, Christians must always have recourse to the teachings of Jesus.  In the Gospel of Luke we are told that once he was invited out to dinner, and “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you will start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.’

The parable might be about common politeness and good sense, but the Gospel writer goes a step further and concludes with these words—“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’” Central to the Christian idea of respect, is the ideal of courtesy, intentionally putting yourself in the lowest place.

Now the word “courtesy” itself comes from a 12th century word “courteis,” which refers to gentle politeness and good manners. It was originally the behavior expected of the nobility at court, the code of conduct that separated civilized, courtly life from barbarism. Courtesy, sometimes called chivalry, as a way of life was extremely chic during the Middle Ages. Best-selling books were written about its practice. Art and music celebrated it. It reached its apex in the 13th century, when the ideal of courtesy influenced all of European culture, not the least St. Francis of Assisi and his brother monks, who gave it a specifically Christian interpretation. Courtesy was no longer just chivalry, the prerogative of knights and their ladies. It was an ideal that everyone might follow. In a charming book called the Little Flowers of St. Francis we find a saying that sums it up—“Let him who wants to have peace and quiet look upon every man as his superior.”

In answer to the question—How do we live with the living?—St. Francis and his followers would reply, The way to deal with others in your community and the world outside, the way to deal with your neighbor  who belongs to another religion, whose claims to ultimate authority are different from yours, should always be polite deference.

This Christian courtesy involves a decision, not to be put last–that’s something else entirely–to be relegated to last place on the basis of race or religion is discrimination and prejudice. Courtesy means to put yourself last. It is not enough to look upon some people as your betters and other not—that is the basis of elitism, sexism, racism and a lot of other isms still more piggish. Courtesy is the decision to treat everyone with deference, without exception and without reference to rank, wealth, sexuality, religion, goodness or badness or anything else.

From the Christian point of view, courtesy is an ideal never fully realized except in Jesus. It is certainly not popular in some Christian quarters these days where Christianity has become another name for xenophobia and gun ownership. Nevertheless, you and I, who call ourselves by the Name, should still devoutly pursue courtesy as a discipline. Courtesy is liturgy as it is performed outside the church, beloved. It is the holy dialogue of everyday living. And Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another,” means simply–show courtesy to all our neighbors irrespective. (In answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.) Under the name of love, courtesy is a thing to be admired, to be taught, and to be emulated as both the root and fruit of Gospel morality, which, has its basis in a radical humility.

Unfortunately, the word “humility” has become identified with low self-esteem. But courtesy is not having a rotten self-image. It is instead recognizing the image of God in every other human being—yourself included.  Not just those who have earned your respect, but everyone, as the natural result of her or his being created in the image of God. Courtesy is the honor due that image. It includes the non-human world as God’s handiwork. Thus courtesy is extended to the earth itself and all its creatures. It is an environmental value was well as a moral one.

Back home in North Dakota, my father saw in my brother and me an opportunity to educate two barbarians. And he went about the civilizing process seriously. So when we attended a covered-dish dinner at church it was of course the natural inclination of a fourteen-year-old boy to elbow up to the groaning board as fast as possible before all the fried chicken was all gone. But my father always put himself last. He regarded it as his rightful place, and he insisted that my brother and I be right in front of him in line.

Now this happened not once but every single time, and finally I worked up nerve enough to ask—Why do we always have to wait to the end of the line? And my father looked at me as if I had just hatched from an egg, and he replied–That’s what it means to be a gentleman.

Now you don’t have to be a Christian to be a gentleman, but if you want to be a Christian gentleman like my father you have to be prepared to put yourself last in line and not get any chicken.

As a fourteen year old boy I nearly starved to death, but somehow I survived to tell you that courtesy is the foundation of order and grace and everything good about our society, and discourtesy is tearing us to pieces literally, beloved, from the top down and from the bottom up.

So to address the incivility and vulgarity of our community and our nation each of us needs to renew his or her commitment to live the courteous life in whatever tradition we belong. Remember, beloved, the transformation of society begins with the regeneration of the individual. Every great change begins with the conversion of a few, indeed sometimes only one. And you, beloved, are the one. You are the one.

The radical humility of St. Francis and his followers changed society, becoming a powerful civilizing force in a barbarous world. It disarmed those who encountered it, and still charms us with its sweetness.

The nonviolent revolution of Martin Luther King Jr., whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, changed this country. And the principles of non-violent protest are simply another form of courtesy used as a weapon to confront an evil system.

And courtesy still has tremendous power to alter the world around us when we practice it intentionally. The question is not—Does it work? It works. The question is–How far do you dare to carry it?  That’s what the Spirit is saying to us—How far can you dare to carry good manners and politeness, beloved? To their logical end?

The ideal of good manners is something Christians share with all the great religious traditions. Etiquette is the ritualized form of courtesy. The rituals are indeed good. They bind us together. You Episcopalians understand the importance of ritual words and actions. They are a signal to others of our good will and our intention not to offend, but manners can be artificial, an empty form without meaning.

True politeness is more than good manners. Pope Francis in this New Year’s Eve homily this year praised the politeness of ordinary people, whom he called “the artisans of the common good.” They are ones, people of good will, believers and unbelievers alike, who are kind in public places and attentive to the elderly.  But those whom the Pope singled out for special praise were polite drivers, those “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.” People who are polite drivers make a thousand little decisions not to be a pig—decisions that go against their natural selfishness and help to create a culture of civility in the city, the nation, and the world.

But courtesy in itself is something more than either politeness or good manners. It is both a serious and a lightsome, both charming and barb-wire tough. It is almost sensual in its down-to-earth-ness. Courtesy is not a superficial niceness, but an esteem that arises from a deep admiration for the other. It arises from the kind of experience I had wandering through the through the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre. Surrounded by all those beautiful things–“the radiant face of a civilization that encompassed an infinitely varied wealth of humanity,” as the guidebook put it– I could not help but feel respect bordering on love for the faith that inspired such beauty and harmony. Courtesy implies that kind of deep respect for the civilizing influence of the other great religions, but without abandoning one’s own vision of the truth.

Finally, in treating another person as better than yourself, courtesy demands that the other person be, in fact, better than he or she is. All of us have met people who have made us be better than we were before we met them. That’s what courtesy does. It answers the question—How do we live with the living?–with those words of St. Paul writing to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).

The Spirit transforms that simple decision to put ourselves last into tremendous spiritual power, but it’s dangerous too, beloved, because at the same time the Spirit always asks—You did it, but how much farther can you carry courtesy? One step? Two?





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Unwanted Gifts

“And all in the crowd were trying to touch [Jesus], for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).

Isn’t it remarkable how great worship can set your feet on higher ground? I came out of church a week ago in a really golden mood. It was All Saints’ Sunday, and the service had been what our kids used to call “good church”—inspired preaching, gorgeous music, the sacrament rightly administered, a sense of communion with the saints, both the quick and the dead. I wasn’t bored even for a minute.

Then things changed. On the steps outside I met a man, probably homeless, who told me he needed fourteen dollars to get to Tampa. Now I make it a point, when possible, to give to those who ask for my help. So I took out my wallet and gave him two dollars. Whereupon he preceded to give me a real tongue lashing– What kind of a Christian do you pretend to be? I need to get to Tampa enough to ask you for money, and you aren’t willing to give what I need that much.  Selfish, that’s what you are. Two lousy dollars!

He made my gift seem trivial and unworthy, and then he pocketed it with grudging thanks and accosted the next person, who was a better Christian than I am, I can only hope. I didn’t wait around to find out how that encounter went. By that time I just wanted to be on my way.

And on my way I went, but the incident has stayed with me all week, tarnishing my golden mood. The man at the church door had a point, although it  was harshly made. Maybe I am selfish. I could have given him fourteen dollars to get him to Tampa-or where ever he was really going. But I didn’t. Jesus would have—or would he? It seems to me that Jesus was in a slightly different position–certainly in a different time and place. In his earthly ministry our Lord encountered the diseased and the possessed, whom he healed by the power that was in him.  We encounter the crazed and the enraged, the wanting and the demanding.

It is so much a part the atmosphere of our time–all the rudeness, the fanaticism, the zealotry—we don’t always notice it. There is so much poison in the air these days that at times it becomes a toxic fog, and the Sun of Civility and Reason becomes only a warm spot in the venomous haze. You can hardly go out without meeting up with a crackpot or a crazy ready to attack—if you are lucky, that is, and it’s only with words. Sometimes it seems that they seem to lie in wait for you. And the problem for all of us, especially those who follow Jesus, is what to do when people unleash their religious prejudices or unload their half-baked partisan biases on you.

What do you do about that young man in the coffee shop who told us that he lives in someone’s garage and then when on to explain in ever louder tones why Donald Trump is the best thing that has ever happened to America? And what do you so about the young Scientologists with their artificial grins who accost you on the street trying to get you to watch a free movie or take a personality test to lure you into their noxious cult? Or what do you do about the crazed octogenarian with flags in his hat who screams at you that you don’t care anything about disabled vets if you don’t put money in his coffee can. Would Jesus put a dollar in the can and be on his way? I suspect not. Or would he do something else entirely?

I rather think he would heal them. That is what Jesus did when, during his earthly life, when he encountered those with illness and possession. He healed them all, St. Luke tells us, without exception. Even to touch him was to be well. And what we need to keep in mind is that those who accost us looking for money or attention or whatever are people in great pain. They have an ulcer on their souls, a fiery boil on their consciousness—that’s what makes them sometimes act out with such outrageous rudeness. They are angry with the way life is treating them, their anger is a symptom of a vast interior sadness, a dark cave of suffering within themselves.  They are trying to deal with their own pain when, intentionally or not, they give us pain.

Of course our first inclination when we meet up with them is avoidance—especially if they are aggressive. We want to shut them out or shut them down in one way or another and be on our way. We might just turn and walk off–show our power over them by ignoring them. Or if they push hard we might push back, meet aggression with equal and opposite resistance. Argue for victory. Beat them at their own crazy game. But we need to remember that such people are in pain. If they are angry, it is because they are weak and filled with the overwhelming sadness that always goes with weakness and anger. To defeat them and march away is no victory.

Victory is to give them what Jesus did, a share of his victory over the powers of pain and darkness. What we need to keep in mind is that those who  accost us are offering us a strange gift. It is a gift that we do not ask for, a gift that we did not know that we wanted or needed. It is the gift of themselves, the image of God in them. And in return they are looking for something—usually not just money. They want to be recognized  as human beings not just empty spaces. Like that man I encountered at the church door they are seeking to affirm their dignity by taking some of ours. And it isn’t hard to refuse. We can easily crush their dignity by taking a superior position and overwhelming them with it. But Jesus, The Son of God, did not do that. He healed them.

And you and I, his followers, his would-be saints, are called to receive that gift the crazies and the crackpots offer, their shared humanity, with thanks. We need to thank them in some way for what they have given us, and then do what we do instinctively when we receive a gift—offer one in return. Healing. At a much lower voltage we have in us that same power that came out from Jesus to heal the multitudes. He was a conduit for the love of God, and so are we.

Each time we are accosted we are being called to the ministry of healing. We are able to heal those in pain by doing what Christ did. He met people one to one in their need. He stopped and he listened, and by being a compassionate listener we restore some of the dignity the speaker has lost. If we stop and listen we will often meet with irrational anger, with the aggressive language of the young and the “age rage” or the elderly. But that is just the wrapping of the strange gift they offer. And our response in some form should be—Thank you for yourself, for your honesty about your need.

Every person we meet, beloved, even the most obnoxious, has something to teach us, about God, about the world, and about ourselves. But to hear what they have to teach we need to stop and listen, compassionately and humbly. We are not put on this earth to correct them, but to listen to them. A person doesn’t have to be right in order to teach us something important.

And there is a lot to be learned these days and no shortage of teachers. Is it just me, or does it seem as if there are a lot more crazies out there, or are the ones out there crazier than before? What is certain is that everyone is stressed by the news and the old inhibitions on polite speech and action have been dissolved in the strong acid of mass culture. It makes us all a little crazy. There is no one to blame for the situation because we all are to blame. People feel they can say and do whatever they think best, and we, none of us, were really that good in the first place.

But those people who accost us in the street offer to each of us the opportunity to learn more about how to follow Jesus. They each have a strange gift for us, and we have a gift of healing to offer in return. The scriptures say that power went out of Jesus and healed all who were in any need. And that power was the love of God. And the only way for us, his would-be followers, to confront sad and angry souls is to let that love show through us by compassionate and humble listening.

Now that we know what to do, beloved, the trick, as ever, is to do it.

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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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Too Late? Matthew 6:13

It may already be too late. The temptation may already be upon us, beloved–I leave that to you to decide.

But first, we need to consider what this petition–“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—means, because there is no part of The Lord’s Prayer that is so little understood or so perplexing. Does Jesus’ prayer for deliverance from temptation really mean that God tempts people to sin, or at least that he puts them in situations where they might be inclined to immoral thoughts and actions?

No, that would be a game, beloved, and God doesn’t play games with us. He doesn’t tease our appetite for disobedience. The compulsion to sin comes from our own inclinations and from the active power of evil in the world, not from God. The word “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different and distinct.

Part of our perplexity results from the translation of the prayer we use in worship and private devotion. Whereas the familiar King James Version says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the more modern New Revised Standard Version translates the same words, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

When the Lord teaches his disciples to beseech the Father to be spared from temptation and from the power of the evil one he is referring to the Jewish apocalyptic belief–a belief shared by Jesus and by the little Jewish church for whom the evangelist Matthew writes–that before the end of the age there will be an era of intense suffering and testing for the people of God. During that period the wrath of Satan will be loosed upon the righteous, and his time of persecution and calamity is variously called “the time of trial” or “the temptation” or “the tribulation.”

So the temptation into which we pray not to be led is not an individual experience, but a moment in history when the evil one and his forces will attempt with cunning and violence to turn the faithful away from faith and obedience into apostasy. And when we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” we are praying for the church that it may be delivered from this awful time and from the power of the Satan, the spirit of chaos and malice.

But has the “time of trial” come upon us already unawares? We can’t help but wonder. Is it too late? Has the temptation already begun? Even as are praying that the barn door will remain shut, is Satan already loosed upon the world? There is no question that we live in an apocalyptic moment, beloved. All around us we are witnessing a turbulent struggle between the forces of good and evil, and between two visions of what the end of history should be—ultimate freedom or repression, self-giving love or bigotry, human transformation or human degradation.

During the past decade the technology of social media has brought the whole world together in ways both amazing and alarming. People with similar ideas in disparate corners of the earth are being gathered into online communities that share ideas and information. This new globalism has had many happy results, including my ability to talk with you online about matters that concern us both.  There is, however, a sinister side to all this information sharing. In much of the world the internet access is largely uncensored and uncontrolled. Online it is possible to say anything and everything. As a result, fascist hate groups, once consigned to the lunatic fringe, have experienced an alarming rebirth throughout Europe and America.

The internet serves the evangelists of the so-called alt-right well as a recruiting tool, gaining for their ideas an enormous following of believers. This often anonymous community exists mostly online, but has gained great media attention of late owing to its vocal support for Donald Trump and its influence in the Trump White House.  The most remarkable thing about the alt-right movement, however, is its youthfulness. It is not just the old and the angry who are enticed. Millions of youthful adherents have been proselytized by the marketers of hate. They are drawn chiefly from a subset of under-employed and frustrated teenagers and young men, who are attracted to the potent anti-gospel of racist ideas and anti-migrant propaganda that they find online.

The influence of alt-right videos, blog posts and tweets is not, however, confined any single group. Crucial to the agenda of the alt-right is to make their message acceptable and familiar to ordinary people, bringing hate speech about liberals, feminists, and migrants into the mainstream.  Here they have succeeded brilliantly. Their assault upon the internet has already pushed the boundaries of acceptable conversation far to the right, making it possible to say things publicly that it would never have been uttered before. Suddenly the walls of “correct speech” are crumbling like Jericho’s. The measure of how well this agenda of the alt-right has succeeded is the fact that there is less and less opposition to racist and sexist ideas when they are uttered in public discourse and online. So we hear the president of the United States calling black athletes exercising their first amendment rights “sons-of-b…..s,” and we are scarcely surprised.

Many decent people have turned away from the internet in reasonable disgust, tuning out its tweets and the posts. But their effects cannot be ignored. The click, the re-tweet, the YouTube comment are part and parcel of an epochal struggle between good and evil. So the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the Armageddon of our times, is taking place not on a plain in Syria but on an online battlefield into which anyone with internet access can step.  The migration crisis has energized the alt-right, making it possible for its disciples to imagine a Europe that re-embraces fascism. In the United States the backlash against immigrants has already led to violent action and still more violent speech. And it is not over by any means. The alt-right movement is not going to go away; in fact there is every sign that it is strengthening both here and abroad and becoming a truly global network of tech savvy fanatics and an army of devoted followers.

The temptation is upon us, beloved. The struggle between those who wait for the Kingdom to come and those who imagine a fascist, pagan future has already begun. We know that the Lord will triumph over the power of Satan in the end, but in the meantime God help us all.





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Fair It Isn’t

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus says—“When it was the turn of the men who came to work first, they expected something extra, but they were paid the same as the others. As they took it, they grumbled at their employer: ‘These latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated them on the level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun.’”

I suppose you could hog-tie this parable and try to make it about something it isn’t. It is certainly not a story in defense of laissez-faire economics or an illustration good labor-management relations. You might dwell on whether or not it is true that a person has a right to do whatever he pleases with his own property. But the parables of Jesus were not intended to inculcate high morality. And in any case you would miss the point, because this story is about justice, God’s kind of justice, and because it’s about God’s justice, it is an outrageous story. God’s justice being outrageous, scandalous, and messy.

My mama used to say, “If it’s sloppy, Billy, eat it over the kitchen sink.” And this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—is one that you have to eat over the kitchen sink, beloved, because it runs counter to our human idea of what’s fair is fair. The truth is, it isn’t–fair, that is. But nothing gets closer to the gospel, the good news, than this parable does. It may not sound like good news on first hearing, but it is.

The first and oldest meanings of a word are often the most interesting, beloved. For instance, to be “fair” meant originally to be pale, blond-haired and good-looking. In other words, to be fair is not to be dark, or to speak another language, or to worship God under another name. Our ideas of fairness are weighed, perverted by our own prejudices and predispositions. So as often as not they are stacked against the poor, the uneducated, the helpless, the dark, and the different. Fair doesn’t usually mean what’s fair to everyone. It means what’s fair to me.

Hurricanes tend to bring out the worst and best in people. There is a story that came out of this last hurricane. In Covington Georgia a worker pulled into a Taco Bell to get a quick lunch. He is a lineman for the county, and he had not been home for three days. He had been working hard, trying to get people’s electricity back on. But not hard enough. A woman approached him at the Taco Bell and threw her soft drink in his face because she thought he shouldn’t be eating while her power was still out. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, some people had electricity while others were in the dark. Fair it isn’t. But fairness can often be a cloak for crude selfishness.

So in Jesus’ story the employer offered all his workers a fair wage—a denarius, worth about twenty cents, which was considered generous for a day’s work in New Testament times. Therefore, those who worked for a full day for their denarius had no ground for complaint. And they are rebuked not for dissatisfaction with what they received, but for begrudging others who received just as much. They grumbled—understandably. But their employer asserts his right to be generous, to be just in the larger sense, rather than simply fair, to pay everyone alike. By giving to one he insists that he is taking nothing from another.

And this is the justice of God that constantly gets in the way of our idea of fairness. Fairness is a human notion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an hour’s wage for an hour’s work—but fairness, the human idea, is opposed to justice, the divine ideal. Justice is what God  alone can give, because he is God. This is not human business; it is Kingdom business. In the Kingdom of God each laborer receives the same grace no matter how long or short the service given.

I told you that this is a messy parable. You have to eat this one over the sink. It isn’t fair. It is grace, beloved. Eternal grace.

And grace cannot be divided up into parts and offered as payment for services rendered. We cannot earn eternal grace. It us ultimately past valuation, an inexhaustible fortune, the pearl of great price worth everything else we have and then some. And it is given fully and completely to each laborer in the vineyard. We could never earn it no matter how long we worked in the hot sun. It always remains a gift, pure and simple, not a wage. This parable is a defense of Jesus’ message of God’s pure and simple grace against the attacks of those who defend a religion of meritorious works. God’s justice is perfectly evenhanded, it says, like the employer, he gives to each the same, whether they come early or late.

It is never too late. Before we part I want to tell you the story of a woman, Ann. She was the wife of a mid-level diplomat who lived with her family in all sorts of places in Africa and the Far East, wherever her husband was posted. It was not as glamorous as it sounds. Most of those postings were on the night-soil circuit, as it is called. In one of them, far from good medical care, Ann’s baby became suddenly ill and died.

She did not have an easy time of it, but what can you say? If it’s sloppy, eat it over the sink. Life isn’t fair.

But during all those years between Katmandu and Timbuktu, Ann kept a secret ambition alive. Most people would have given it up long before, but Ann didn’t. And when her husband retired, she made up her mind to fulfill that ambition, though late in life. She had always wanted to go to seminary and become a Lutheran pastor. Her grown children thought she was crazy. Her husband tried to seduce her with the pleasures of retirement. But she became the oldest student ever to enroll in the seminary, and she graduated at age sixty-one and was ordained, having received a call to a little country church in rural Maryland.

And Ann was a wonderful pastor to those people. How they loved her! She was filled with stories about the grace of God. She was filled with compassion for the little sorrows of ordinary life. But mostly she was filled with thanksgiving for having received what she desired all her life. And who would begrudge her of it? Those who don’t want women to be ordained to the ministry? Those who think Ann was too old?

The grace of God does not know early or late, young or old. It swallows up our ideas of fairness like Jonah was swallowed by the great fish—hook, line and sinker. As the landowner in Jesus story asks the grumbling laborers with genuine amazement—“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or would you begrudge my generosity.”

Fair it isn’t. Nevertheless who would dare?



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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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