Tag Archives: Christian Life

Laughter in the Wings based on Mark 5:21-43

“When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”

People do laugh at the strangest moments, don’t they? There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything funny about the situation in our gospel lesson. The death of a child, twelve years old, at the dawn of life, is nothing less than tragic. So why did they laugh?

They laughed because Jesus said—“The child is not dead but sleeping.” To them it seemed an absurd statement. And when we hear something absurd, even in the most tragic circumstances, we laugh. It is a natural response. Absurdity is our recognition that we are being asked to believe that the impossible can happen. The absurd is a statement or a situation is so contrary to common sense that it cannot be. So the mourners in the story thought Jesus was being silly, and they laughed at him. The tragedy was not theirs, after all. It was someone else’s heartbreak.

They were there simply to make a racket. The etiquette of death in our own time demands silence and hushed voices. But in Bible times it was just the opposite. A well-to-do family like that of the ruler of the synagogue might have hired professional mourners to cause an appropriate commotion. They may have been paid for making a hullabaloo. Or it may be that the people who were there that day were just neighbors there to offer their condolences–and perhaps have a bite to eat. In either case they knew death when they saw it, and the child was dead. Kaput. Children died with much greater frequency in that place and time, but the situation was no less poignant for being relatively common. A life had been cut short. There was nothing more to be expected of the dead. Jesus walked in on a noisy wake and hushed the mourners. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” And they laughed because there was no rational answer to such a ridiculous question.

But what the gospel writer wants us to understand is that the presence of Jesus is able to make what would otherwise be absurd, not only possible but inevitable. Nothing is ever over. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. It is worth noticing with what tenderness the miracle is accomplished. Jesus took her by the hand, we are told. And then we are given something very rare and precious—“ipsissima verba dei”—the very voice of the Christ speaking. “Talitha cum,” Jesus says in Aramaic, a phrase which the evangelist Mark helpfully translates for his gentile readers—“Little girl, arise.”

And it says “she arose.” It is the very same word in Greek—“anatasis”—which is used for Christ’s own resurrection. And we are to understand that it is by the same power that Jesus was raised from the dead that the little girl is returned to life. So absurdity is abolished by the presence of the risen Lord. Now nothing is absurd. Anything can happen. That is the essence of the Gospel, and that is the central reality of the Gospel life we are called to live. It demands a changed attitude toward the whole of life.  If Jesus rose from the dead now anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible.

That does not mean that everything that can happen will. What it does call us to do is offer up those impossible situations in our lives to the power that raised Christ from the dead. And all of us have those circumstances we deem hopeless. Consider this, beloved. Are there people from whom you are estranged, with whom you have not spoken for years? Do you have relationships that seem impossible to mend–with relatives, maybe, or with old friends? Are there chronic health conditions to which you have resigned yourself? The gospel demands that that we give up our old ideas of what is possible and open ourselves to any form in which healing and reconciliation may come.

The mourners in the story represent the old way of thinking about things. Their laughter is cynical, hopeless, and without joy. For them the dead are dead. Kaput. So it says that Jesus hushed them up, and “then he put them all outside. . .” He put them outside not only because they provided a noisy distraction to the miracle he was about to perform, but because they could not believe that the absurd can happen. But it can. And it does. The death and resurrection of Jesus provides the paradigm for a new kind of life. If he died an absurd death on the cross and rose again against all expectation, then the world is not the dead end it sometimes seems to be, but a realm from which the impossible has been banished, and a place of genuine laughter and great joy.






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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  http://www.spcathedral.com .




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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The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.

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Whence comes all this beauty. 1 Chron. 16:29

We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?

Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television.  If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.

There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:

“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”

It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes,  but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.

It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.

At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And  that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.

But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”


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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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Filed under Gospels, New Testament

Looking for a Better Crown Luke 13:31-35


The evangelist Luke tells us that some Pharisees once came to Jesus to warn him, “Get away from her, for Herod want to kill you.” But he replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work . . . .’”

There are at least two types of courage I know of. The one kind belongs to those reckless young motorcyclists who zoom helmetless up and down US 19, darting in and out of traffic at the speed of sound. Their utter contempt for dismemberment and sudden death is the type of courage called “daring.” Daring is most appropriate to the young, and most sensible people grow up and out of it, like acne. Some, however—and they are mostly men, though not exclusively–never really do, and they often end up with shattered bodies and a string of memorable if broken relationships. Over their third beer they are likely to say they were born with “a lively sense of adventure” or “a thirst for excitement.” They are “the players,” “the boys who will be boys,” “the girls who “just wanna have fun.” But what they call themselves hardly matters—they possess the kind of unreasonable, pointless adolescent boldness that measures life by its intensity and not in hours and days. Either you were born a player, beloved, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you’ll probably live longer–or at least it will seem longer. And there isn’t really much more to say about daring, except that it doesn’t wear well.

There is, however, another, better variety of courage that grows more attractive the longer we practice it and flourishes with age. Fortitude is reasonable courage, courage with a purpose, and fortitude is something we should nourish in ourselves and cherish in others, because it is both rare and precious. And daily more necessary in a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Considering the dangers of the present and the uncertainly of the future, all sensible people are at times afraid. But to give way to our fears is cowardice, and cowardice is what fortitude overcomes—consciously, purposefully, intentionally.

Fortitude is a grown-up courage. It was a habit my father had in spades. As a man he was widely and greatly liked–but not universally, mostly because he also had the habit of telling the truth. He called stupidity and evil by their right names. And that is a habit always gets you into hot water with ignorant people who prefer lies. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody hates you,” daddy used to say and laugh. But experience has taught me the sober truth of it. Fortitude and the habit of telling the truth go together. They cannot be separated, beloved.

And Jesus also had the habit of telling the truth–he showed how. He not only told the truth, he was the Truth. And for that reason our Lord was likewise widely loved and deeply despised. He was crucified for it. He experienced the consequences of truth telling, and from beyond the resurrection he says to those of us who try to follow him, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Take courage.

Every human being is afraid at times. Jesus was no exception. To fear is part of what it means to be fully human. But fortitude is the gift that overcomes our fear, and it comes preeminently from the Spirit of the risen Lord which has been poured out upon us. It comes first of all from the lively realization that our lives are finite, limited in time. Jesus told those Pharisees, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He was aware of the shortness of his life. And whenever you and I reflect upon the undoubted fact that sooner or later we are going to die anyway, the question always arises–So what else can happen? That our lives are limited in time is not a sad thought at all—for followers of Jesus it is an encouraging one, even a joyful one. We can “take courage,” or as the old translation renders it, “be of good cheer.”

So we can go on and live with cheerfulness in this dangerous and uncertain world because the death and resurrection of Jesus has placed our finite lives in the context of God’s infinite life. “I have conquered the world,” the risen one says. Apart from that cheering news of his resurrection it would do precious little good to say “take courage” or “buck up.” Fortitude is not a decision we make on our own. But the good news of the third day–that nothing whatsoever that will happen to us, in life or in death, can disrupt of eternal destiny in Christ–makes fortitude possible. As my daddy used to say—“Check your shirt, Billy. If there’s no blood on it, you’re all right.” We have been all right so far, and we always will be—far better than just all right. In this world the smart money is always on evil. But you and I have a tip from the stable. We have inside information. We know that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus death is dying. Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness for us. And we will also rise.

So be of good cheer, beloved, and let me hear you call things by their right names. This is not the moment in time to keep our mouths shut. For us right now nothing is more important than to purposefully display the courage of Jesus. In the face of bloody-minded authorities and wicked institutions, both religious and political, he did not step back. Tyrants like Herod are not nice. Handing them sweeties just tends to make them worse. So when some Pharisees came to warn him of what was essentially a death threat, Jesus didn’t miss a beat—“Go tell that fox. . . .”

And you and I, in our own small ways, need to stand up against the evil powers we see at work around us. It is not recorded that Jesus was never cruel, but neither did he ever roll over and play dead either. And neither should we. Because what we fail to do and say in time, beloved, we will regret in eternity. We cannot waste our short years worrying about what other people might think of us. You know I have had reason before to scold you—and myself—for being too nice. Because niceness may render you harmless and liked by all, but it will not make you like Jesus. We are looking for a better crown than Miss Congeniality.

True bravery, which goes beyond mere daring, is a great mystery. We should by all rights be cowering under the covers, but it is inside us—the strength to go on and do what you know needs doing—the bravery to speak out against evil and cope with loss. So where in the world does fortitude come from? Well, from nowhere in this world, strictly speaking. It comes from somewhere else. True bravery is always a first degree miracle. And when we see it displayed in others or discover it in ourselves, we really should indeed marvel. Because it shouldn’t be there, but there it is.



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Filed under Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Living by the Spirit based on John 6:51-69

August 16, 2015

In the Gospel of John the risen Lord says to his grumbling disciples: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”

I grew up on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, and my father spent a lot of his time and energy building fences and then mending them. Good fences are necessary for raising cattle, to enclose pastures and pens, and they keep the stock from wandering off into the wilderness. But strangely enough cattle don’t seem to mind being penned up–for the most part they appreciate fences. They prefer to stay inside with the rest of the herd, even though they could break through their barriers if they wanted to and be free.

Fences are actually quite fragile human constructions of posts and wire, and beef cattle are big, strong, beefy animals. They could walk right through their confines at any time, but for the most part they respect the barriers that keep them in, because they feel safer there, with a barrier of posts and barbed wire between themselves and the wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties. And although the comparison may not be very flattering, many people are like that–they fence themselves in with their limitations.

You know some people like that–folks who build up barriers to confine and narrow their lives. You can hear them saying–Oh I can’t do this! Oh I won’t do that! It’s too scary! It’s too difficult at my age. I suppose I could but I’d rather not chance it. On and on and on. . . .

Our human lives are by nature finite and limited—that’s very true. We can’t be or do everything. But we have infinite God, and his Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be more than we are and do more than we do. By his transcendent power we are always able to transcend the confines of our situation, whatever that situation may be, if we let him.

This week I got a note from a woman named Rachel from my congregation in Savannah. She is in a nursing home. Her body is crippled by arthritis. “I’ve been in bed for years,” she writes. “I don’t count. I just love and enjoy life.”

Some people magnify the constraints of their flesh, and other people, like Rachel, transcend their limitations by the power of the Spirit, who gives life. And asked myself when I read her letter—Do you magnify your restrictions and constraints, or do you rise above them? And I must admit that at times rather than trust in the Lord I use my limitations as an excuse. It is a natural tendency for all of us to dwell upon the restrictions our flesh places upon us, and that tendency grows stronger as we get older, and we experience more real incapacities. It’s easy to come to relish them, even enjoy them. So you hear them saying–Salad makes me windy. I get heartburn from onions. Waiter, does this salad contain eggs? I can’t have eggs. And red wine makes me nervous. And asparagus disturbs my sleep. But then I don’t like to go out after dark. And I would never fly! Never, ever! And so on and on and on, to anyone who will listen, dwelling upon what they cannot eat and what they cannot do.

But then young people can be just as bad, making up excuses to keep from attempting what is tough or complicated or scary. All of us have a tendency to do that, beloved, glorify our limitations, magnify our obstacles, and build up the fences between ourselves and wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties, and then live inside the barriers we build for ourselves, like cattle in a pasture.

It is what the risen Lord in the Gospel of John calls living by the flesh, letting the limitations that our humanness places upon us—our scruples and our fears and our incapacities–rule our lives. And Jesus is always contrasting our tendency to live by the flesh with another, better kind of existence–life in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” he says in our Gospel lesson, “the flesh is no help at all.”

And the risen Lord Jesus is here right now asking us a searching question–What is governing your life—your obstacles or your faith in the power of God to transcend them? And all of us…all of us, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, will have to answer him—Lord, in the past I have often let my limitations triumph over my expectations. I have sometimes preferred to hide behind feeble excuses rather than live in the freedom you died on the cross and rose again to give me.

Now our lives are finite and limited, this is most certainly true. But that is not a good enough reason for us to spend our finite days like that, in a pen of our own making. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians—“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

School started again this week for our grown-up son Paul, who is the vice-principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a charter school in a poor neighborhood and the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary has to exploit every opportunity to make the students care about their school and value the education they receive there. The children are all required wear uniforms, and Paul stands at the front door in a suit and tie to shake to hands with each student every morning and greet him or her by name.

And as a way of expressing school spirit, he acquired as a school mascot a little yellow hamster. The children named the hamster “Little Griz,” in homage to Memphis Grizzlies, the wildly popular local professional basketball team. And Little Griz is also wildly popular.

She visits the classrooms on a regular basis to observe progress. She gives out prizes and when the children try to pet her she seldom bites. But Little Griz does not like living in a cage. In fact, she is an escape artist par-excel-lance. She is a veritable hamster Houdini. She regularly trips the fasteners and jimmies latches of her cage and goes on the lam for days at a time. She is a hamster of seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.

Now hamsters don’t live long—two to three years at most—and Little Griz seems to sense this. Her life is finite, and she seems determined not to spend it in a narrow cage if she can help it. And although her daring escapes drive the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary School crazy, everyone is forced to admire that hamster’s spirit. The word “impossible” is not in her lectionary.

But how about us? Life can become a narrow cage if we let it. And the difference between those who live by the Spirit, and those who are still trapped in the limitations of the flesh has to do with their ability to imagine things they have never seen and trust God to accomplish in their lives what seems impossible. Those who live by the Spirit may be frightened, but they are not afraid.

Now I would suspect that in your life, as in my own, there are a multitude of issues that are still pending. We all each carry around with us a thick file marked IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS– DO NOT OPEN MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. There are seemingly hopeless tangles we struggling to undo. There are walls that stand before us in which we are trying desperately to find an opening. There is a wide, swift-flowing river at our feet, and we stand on the edge of it, waiting for it to run out before we try to cross it, but the river never, ever does run out.

So we need to hear the words of Jesus to his grumbling disciples—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” We can’t do everything, beloved, it’s true, but God can—and will do something if we if we give him room.

You and I often read the miracle stories in the scriptures, and then wonder at the lack of miracles in our ordinary lives. But if we don’t see miracles it is because we don’t expect any. Actually wonderful things are happening all the time, all around us, in this world where literally anything can happen. But our hearts are not expectant. We do not see the glory of God, we do not see the Son of Man ascending, because our eyes are always fixed on the ground, upon our limitations and our barriers.

But the Lord is always calling us to imagine what he could do, and then he is ready to accomplish even more than we can imagine in our wildest daydreams. He will address the problems that we have long ago marked IMPOSSIBLE. He will show us the low door in the wall, and he will unlock it for us. But for our part—in the Spirit of Jesus and in the light of his example—we need to step forward into the swift-flowing river of life at our feet and stop hiding behind our limitations.

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Filed under Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament