Monday, October 17, 2022

The Wrestling Healer

Sermon for Oct. 16, 2022 (beginning of Stewardship Season)

Genesis 32:22-31

[The sermon began with a witness from parishioner Asher Tillman, reflecting on seeing God's healing love in action through other members of the choir caring for him enough to "give a rip," being present with him in tough times.]

All through this Stewardship Season, we’ll be reflecting on how we receive and share God’s healing love.  Now, if you’re someone with a little history of church stewardship seasons, your first reaction might be, “OK, we get it.  It’s time to write next year’s budget.  Cut to the chase and make the pitch.”  And you would be right that stewardship relates to giving.  But the Church often goes too far and reduces the message of stewardship to little more than financial giving.  By the same token, sometimes we overcorrect, and get a little too cute, and make it seem like stewardship really isn’t about money at all. 

But here’s the thing: Stewardship is about nothing less than how we live our lives.  It’s about looking to God’s model, especially as revealed in Jesus, and doing our best to live that model ourselves.  It’s about tending all that God shares with us in the same way God tends everything else – with self-giving love.  So, because money is part of how we live our lives, our Stewardship Season will include how we tend the gift of money.  And because the Church is an instrument for sharing healing love, we’ll talk about how we support the Church’s work financially.  But all that will be in the context of something greater: the project of seeking and sharing God’s healing love, which is what our Church and our lives are all about.  In fact, you’ll see and hear love stories from parishioners over the next six weeks, here in person and coming to your inbox – stories of a variety of ways God’s love sets the direction for us day by day.

So, at first glance, you might think today’s Old Testament reading, about Jacob’s wrestling match, is probably the last story you’d pick for a season about sharing God’s healing love.  Healing love?  In this story, it’s love that leaves your hip out of joint after an encounter with God.  The truth is, I didn’t pick this reading; it’s appointed for use today by the schedule of readings the Episcopal Church follows.  But maybe there’s something worth exploring here after all – maybe a little uncomfortable love for us this morning.

I might not look much like a wrestler, but I am.  And I’ll bet you, are, too – at least in the way Jacob was a wrestler.  Let’s remember the backstory for this reading, what brings Jacob to his wrestling match.  Jacob is the son of the Hebrew patriarch Isaac and grandson of the patriarch Abraham.  He’s a twin with an older brother, Esau, who rightly should have been next in line.  But earlier in the story, Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright of his father’s blessing, which of course has driven the brothers apart.  God has assured Jacob that the blessing begun with Abraham and continued with Isaac will pass down to him because he’s the one who carries Isaac’s blessing into the next generation. 

But practically, Jacob needs to skedaddle to avoid Esau’s wrath, so he heads to a different country to find a wife – north to Haran, in upper Mesopotamia.  That’s a whole story itself, with Jacob the trickster being tricked by his father-in-law and ending up with two wives at twice the cost.  But now, years later, Jacob has settled up with his father-in-law and is returning home, bringing both wives, their kids, and all his livestock and possessions back to the Promised Land.  And as he’s crossing back, he’s about to be intercepted by Esau.  Jacob spends the night alone, tortured by the fear that Esau will kill them all and, I imagine, tortured by guilt for having stolen the blessing that should have been Esau’s in the first place.  So Jacob prays like never before, asking God to protect him.

In Jacob’s long night, “a man” comes and wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24).  Now, we want to make sure we have the story straight, right, so we ask, “Who is this man?”  And that’s the question, isn’t it?  Is it a marauder, trying to steal from Jacob?  Is it an angel, representing God; or a demon, representing … what stands against God?  Is it Jacob himself, as he wrestles with his guilt and fear and failure in his role as inheritor of God’s blessing?  It’s not clear – much like our own experience of the angels or demons or shadow sides that afflict us through our own long nights. 

But eventually, the story tells us, the anonymous Wrestler isn’t prevailing, so he knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint, an injury Jacob won’t soon forget.  Still, Jacob hangs on, refusing to quit until the Wrestler gives in and blesses him.  The Wrestler obliges and offers a blessing, but not just that:  He also gives Jacob a new identity.  He’s no longer Jacob, a name that means “he supplants.”  Now, he’s to be called Israel, a name that means either “the one who strives with God” or “God strives.”  Which is it?  I think the answer is, “yes” – Jacob strives with God, and God comes to strive with him.

This is a crazy story – maybe reminding us of dreams we’ve had ourselves.  But this moment for Jacob begins to make sense when you see what happens next.  Hobbled and exhausted, Jacob looks up and sees his brother Esau coming toward him with 400 men.  Jacob is expecting annihilation.  What he gets instead is reconciliation.  Esau, the brother with every reason to carry a grudge, runs to Jacob, and embraces him, and weeps with him.  Jacob tries to give Esau the goods he’s brought to buy him off, and Esau says, “No – let me help you instead, because you look like you’ve had a heck of a night.”  And the story ends with Jacob, dumbstruck, saying to Esau, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” (Genesis 33:15).  The word “lord” there is intended like “sir,” a mark of deference to his older brother.  But the double entendre is completely intentional.  Indeed, why should the Lord be so kind to Jacob the trickster?

Like I said, I’m also a wrestler with God.  And I’ll bet I’m not alone.  This dark, mysterious, ancient story still rings true because many of us have found ourselves in Jacob’s sandals.  We’ve been carrying something heavy, and we’ve carried it a long time.  It may have been our fault, or not.  It may be a single thing, or more complicated baggage.  But we’ve carried it a long time.  And then, at some point, we find ourselves at the end of our rope, and we beg God to help us with this weight we’ve been hauling around.  We ask for protection, or healing, or a fix.  We probably have a pretty clear sense of what we’re asking for, thinking we know exactly what we need.  But God the healer often doesn’t come back with the treatment we self-prescribe.  In fact, the treatment may not make much sense, may not be anything we even wanted.  But the outcome is so much more than what we asked:  Not just pain relief, but healing.  Not just safety, but a new start.  Not just self-preservation, but reconciliation – a life, healed.

So, in this crazy story where God the physician knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint, where is this healing love we’ll be hearing about for the next six weeks?  Well, here’s where I see it:  God showed up.  And I don’t mean just showing up in some sweet and gentle storybook way, like Glenda the Good floating down to comfort Dorothy in Oz.  God showed up and gave it to Jacob just as hard as Jacob could dish it out.  Because, in that moment, Jacob didn’t need Glenda the Good to come and heal him.  Jacob needed The Rock to knock some sense into him.  And so, a wrestler is what God became.

The divine thing about God’s healing love is that it comes in surprising forms.  Some of the moments when I’ve known God’s presence most immediately were times I’d never have chosen – times of endings or injuries that seemed beyond repair.  I didn’t want to be where I was, and I didn’t want the treatment I heard God offering.  God’s blessing might have felt grudging in the moment, and I was certainly grudging in my receiving of it.  But in the end, the outcome was indeed gracious, healing in ways I could never have asked for.  For even in my wrestling match, I knew it was God who’d shown up.  And just that was healing balm for my soul. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Kingdom Tool of Wealth

Sermon for Sept. 18, 2022
Luke 16:1-13

OK, does anyone else find that Gospel reading to be, shall we say, less than helpful?  Maybe downright confusing?  I mean, I prefer stories like the Good Samaritan, where you come to the end, and Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) – and then we do.  Well, this isn’t one of those.  This is a complicated story reflecting the complexities of human life.  

Looking at this parable, we start with a temptation to read it as an allegory and equate the rich man with God, right?  I guess the character of the rich man might be one way to view God’s nature – an absentee landlord, someone accumulating holdings, growing wealthy from them, and only passingly concerned with the people involved.  You could see God that way, but I don’t think our Scripture and tradition see God that way.  So, who is the rich man?  Well, maybe he’s … a rich man – a wealthy landlord overseeing the performance of his on-site managers.

OK, then, what about the manager in the story?  As we meet him, we learn he’s been “squandering” the landlord’s property (16:1), so the landlord fires him.  But what’s interesting is his response to being fired.  The manager works with the master’s debtors to cut their debts and win their friendship, building a new circle of support to help him through the crisis of being fired.  The landlord finds out about this and grudgingly commends the manager for being shrewd enough to engineer a soft landing for himself.  It’s a very human story – maybe a parable not so much about God as it is about us.

So, what might we take away from this very human story?  Perhaps that we have grudging admiration for a person clever enough to skirt the law and beat the system.  Perhaps that we cheer a little when the underdog debtors get an unexpected break at the expense of the rich landlord.  Perhaps we’d like to find ourselves in that kind of situation.  I probably wouldn’t argue too much if someone from my credit-card company called and said, “Listen, the computer system has credited you with double payments for the last year, so your balance now is only half what it should be.”  Would I ask to speak with the supervisor and insist my full debt be restored?

Well, if this is a story about people more than a story about God, why is Jesus telling it?  It must have something to do with what it means for us to follow him, right?  Like all Jesus’ parables, this story must be a window into what God’s reign and rule can look like, in contrast to the world as we construct it.  So, what does Jesus say as he reflects on this parable?  He says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (16:9)

What?  That seems like about the most un-Jesus-y thing Jesus ever said.  So, how do we make sense of it?

Well, you could argue that the Gospel tradition just got this one wrong.  Nobody was shooting video of Jesus on their phones, so all the Gospel writers had to draw on was decades of memory as they put pen to papyrus to share the Good News.  Maybe decades of telling this story had worn it away, confusing the meaning of Jesus’ words like a game of spiritual “telephone.”

Or, you could argue that Jesus is being sarcastic here.  Turning oral tradition into written, translated, and retranslated documents doesn’t capture tone of voice or facial expression.  Maybe what Jesus said was more like, “Yeah, right, sure – make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it’s gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  Really?  You think that’s my point?”

You may be comforted to know that scriptural commentators ancient and modern have struggled with this reading and don’t agree about what it means.  Some say the manager isn’t dishonest but good because he’s cutting out his commission when he cuts the debtors’ bills.  Others say the manager is playing Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor, so even “dishonest” means justify those ends.  Hmmmm.

Well, if the scholars aren’t certain what this story means, I won’t pretend to be either.  This is one of those readings no preacher wants to draw.  But I do think maybe there’s a principle here from which we might benefit, now and eternally.  So, try this on.

Our Scripture and tradition are pretty clear that wealth and possessions can have an insidious effect on us.  They can become our focus, even consuming our hearts and minds.  We can spend much of our time and energy building and managing wealth.  We can indulge our desires for things we clearly don’t need, using resources that come from God in ways we’re pretty sure God would never suggest.  The potential power of wealth is so great that Scripture warns repeatedly about the danger of its becoming an ultimate power – that if getting more becomes our prime directive, that means we’re worshiping “more” rather than worshiping the God from whom all things come.  Spiritually, that’s skating on pretty thin ice.

Jesus teaches us many ways to break that habit of worshiping the power of “more.”  Give to all who ask of you, he says (Luke 6:30).  If someone takes your shirt, give them your jacket, too, he says (Matthew 5:40).  Feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he says (Matthew 25:35-40).  Recognize that, in God’s eyes, the poor are at the top of the priority list, coming in first in the Beatitudes as Jesus begins, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).  I sense a theme here.  The power of “more” is so great that we have to act intentionally against it.  The reign and rule of God is not something Jesus is going to bring in with the flip of a switch – not in our hearts nor in our world.  Both for our eternal well-being, and for the well-being of the poor person standing in front of us, we have to choose to say “no” to the power of “more.”

So, maybe one direction Jesus might be going with this parable is this:  People with worldly priorities are really good, really creative, at maximizing their wealth.  What if we “children of light” (Luke 16:8) got more creative, more intentional, about using the wealth God provides to reveal and build up the reality of God’s kingdom among us?  What if we prioritized getting more wealth to those who have less of it?  That might be a pretty practical way of “making friends for [our]selves” (Luke 16:9) with the folks whose well-being is at the top of Jesus’ to-do list.

So, how would we do that?  If we were at a conference right now, this would be the time when you all would break into groups and come up with solutions, because here’s my confession that you already know:  I don’t have the magic answer for bringing in the reign and rule of God.  And in my view, at least, Jesus doesn’t hand us a specific program for it either.  Faithful people would advocate many different ways to use wealth to help the poor.  Some would say, transfer wealth through government policy.  Some would say, incentivize training and hiring people whom our economy has historically left behind.  Some would say, raise up social entrepreneurship like the Grooming Project, which teaches people skills for success in private enterprise and, by the way, graduated another 21 students here last week.  Some would say, make educating children in poor households our national “moonshot” initiative.

Maybe part of the reason today’s Gospel is so opaque is that we’ve spent so little time taking seriously the notion that wealth is neither good nor bad.  Wealth is a tool, one that can build our own addiction to “more” or one that can build our hearts for an eternal future.  Just as Jesus says here that “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13), so he says elsewhere that the wealthy man Zacchaeus is saved when he gives to others (Luke 19:1-10) and that a hated Samaritan is holy when he pays for a beaten traveler’s care (Luke 10:30-37).  In the Gospels, it’s wealthy women who support Jesus and the disciples financially (Luke 8:1-3).  In Acts, the believers pool their resources to support everyone in their community equally (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35), and new converts in distant lands send back offerings to Jerusalem for the relief of the poor (11:27-30).1 

Wealth isn’t inherently bad.  What makes it good or bad is how we use it.  If we hoard it and worship the god of “more” – well, that’s pretty clearly idolatry, and God tends to frown on worshiping things that aren’t God.  So, maybe in this crazy parable today, Jesus is asking us to expand our view of wealth.  What if it weren’t just a potential idol, drawing our hearts away from the God who provides it?  And what if it weren’t just another issue to polarize us, spurring arguments over who’s right and who’s wrong about how to use it?  What if, instead, we saw wealth as a tool for building the kingdom among us – for helping the poor and for changing our own hearts?  Not only would that bless the poor, but it would bless us as we prepare to spend eternity with the God who puts the poor at the top of the list.

1.      Craddock, Fred P. Luke. Part of Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (43 vols.). Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990. 189

Stepping Down to Heaven

Sermon for 9/11 Anniversary and Holy Cross Day, transferred
Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a
Sept. 11, 2022

Today is the 21st anniversary of 9/11.  For many of us, this date takes us back to where we were that morning – how we heard the news, who we were with, how we grieved.  For some of us, especially first responders and those close to them, the day is harder than the rest of us can know, as the trauma of 9/11 reopens other wounds incompletely healed.

So here in church, how do we mark this day?  In our Episcopal tradition, 9/11 falls within a few days of the feast of Holy Cross, so we’re transferring that feast to today.  It seems right as we still find ourselves trying to come to terms both with the power of evil killing 3,000 people in a morning and the power of the cross to defeat evil and exalt Jesus as Lord.

But why would Christians observe Holy Cross Day in the first place, honoring an instrument of brutal death?  If it seems strange to us, it would have seemed offensive to someone of Jesus’ time and place.  Honoring the cross would have been like us wearing little electric chairs around our necks.  Crucifixion was how you punished the lowest of the low – slaves, murderers, thieves, insurrectionists.  Crucifying someone was the ultimate example of adding insult to injury.  Not only did the process slowly drown you with the fluid collecting in your lungs, and not only did the authorities break your body in the process.  The punishment was not just inhumane but inhuman, proclaiming that the person hanging on that cross was beneath the respect given to actual human beings.

Yet we know Jesus walked the way of the cross willingly.  Just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Now, my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27-28)  And commenting on that reality, in the Letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul writes that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….  [H]e humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6-8).  So this was not simply justice perverted.  It was a decision Jesus made – the second person of the Trinity choosing to be counted among the lowest of the low.

Why would he have chosen that?  Because of the central paradox of our faith: that as we make our heavenly pilgrimage, we step down to step up.  Take a minute to visualize the pattern laid out in that Letter to the Philippians because it’s the map for our journey, too.  Jesus begins “in the form of God” but empties himself, stepping down into the form of a slave.  And “being found in human form,” he steps down again, humbling himself in sacrificial obedience.  And that step leads to another, down to the “the point of death” – and stepping down just that much further, “even death on a cross.”

But then, having taken that journey to the criminal’s grave, Jesus begins stepping up into exaltation.  He rises in triumph over sin and death, breaking the power of evil that sent him to the tomb.  Having risen in resurrection, he ascends back to the glory of the Trinity and receives “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).  And in God’s heavenly time, which wraps around our linear notions of days and years, “every knee [bends] in heaven and on earth under the earth,” the whole cosmos confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)  That title, Lord, meant something even more specific for the people of Paul’s day than it does for us.  Lord, or in Greek, kyrios, was a title the Roman Emperor claimed, the divine sovereign of the day.  But because of the victory over evil that Jesus wins on the cross, the cosmos instead proclaims he is Lord, the one who defeats the pretender to the throne in Rome.

And it’s this path of downward mobility that our Lord Jesus calls us to follow, too.  “Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says before today’s Gospel reading, “and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:26)

What does that look like?  I’d say one example is someone whose face we’ve seen often in the past four days: Queen Elizabeth II.  As Episcopalians, members of the worldwide Anglican Communion of churches descended from the Church of England, many of us might feel a particular twinge of grief at her passing after 70 years on the throne.  The sovereign of the United Kingdom is officially the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” appointing archbishops and other leaders1 and setting the bar for the pomp and circumstance many of us know and love.  Of course, the Crown has no real authority over the Church of England and certainly not a bit of authority over us.  But Queen Elizabeth did have influence.

And I think one statement we’ve heard many times since Thursday captures her royal servant heart.  On Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, this young woman who had served as a mechanic in World War II just a few years earlier2 told the British Commonwealth that her generation was now tasked with leading the world out of the “terrible and glorious years of the second world war.”3  So she took on the mantle of servant leadership for her generation, saying: “[M]y whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service….”3  And when she died 75 years later, she’d refused to stop serving.  From the start and to the end, Queen Elizabeth followed the lead of her sovereign, the One who’d said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

Of course, as the English grieve their Queen, we’re marking 9/11 on this side of the pond.  It was a day of many sacrifices, but I want to remind you of one particular story of downward mobility.  You may remember the name Mychal Judge.  Fr. Mychal Judge was the first of the first responders to die in the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan.  He was a Roman Catholic chaplain for the New York City Fire Department; so when they were deployed, he was, too.  Now, I want to pause for a moment of full disclosure.  Remembering Fr. Mychal Judge this morning was not my idea.  It came from our own first responder, Adam James, who’s also preaching this morning about 9/11 and about Fr. Mychal, just down the street at St. Peter & All Saints where Adam is serving his internship.  But Adam and I agreed that we would both raise up Fr. Mychal today because his story deserves to be heard.

          Stepping into what would become Ground Zero was hardly Fr. Mychal’s first step down into glory.  He was a Franciscan friar, a spiritual descendant of St. Francis of Assisi; and long before 9/11, Fr. Mychal had become known as someone who would go to surprising places with his flock.  People in his New Jersey neighborhood remembered how he “had a knack for showing up at crucial moments.”4  When a man held his wife and child at gunpoint, barricaded in their house, Fr. Mychal climbed a ladder to the window where the man was hiding, so he could talk with him face to face.  In the 1980s, when most people were terrified of AIDS patients and his own Church condemned the sexuality of most the people suffering from that disease, Fr. Mychal went to AIDS wards and rubbed the patients’ feet.  After leading a funeral and consoling the family, Fr. Mychal could be found with the cemetery staff, literally stepping down into a grave to talk with them.  There’s a movement now to make Fr. Mychal a saint, though the fact he was gay stands as a huge barrier in his own tradition.  

But what we remember most today is the image from the reporting on 9/11, the image of other first responders carrying out the body of Fr. Mychal.  He’d been standing there praying as his fellow firefighters and paramedics rushed into the North Tower, and he was killed by cascading rubble when the South Tower fell.4

There’s nothing I can say to honor that sacrifice.  He and so many others have already consecrated that ground and this day “far above our poor power to add or detract,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg.5  What I can say is this:  Fr. Mychal Judge followed his Lord on the paradoxical path of stepping down to heaven.  

And what can we take away from his example?  Well, in the midst of all the conflict and venom stirred up in our culture to distract us, it’s easy to forget the path we’re called to walk.  We are people of downward mobility.  We are people whose one true Emperor hung on a cross like a scoundrel.  We are people who dangle our feet in the grave, finding there the most unlikely stairway to heaven.  We follow a Lord who stood with the folks at greatest risk and touched those whom others refused to see.  Now, we may well think, “I could never be Mychal Judge.”  Fair enough.  But I imagine Mychal Judge thought he could never be Mychal Judge either.  Instead, he simply followed where his Lord went first.

And so it is for us.  Let the same mind to be in us that was in Christ Jesus, and let us walk in his way.  For, though it’s complete foolishness to the world, the cross is the only power strong enough to beat evil at its own game and lead all the world into God’s light.  






Sunday, August 21, 2022

Sabbath Justice

Sermon for Aug. 21, 2022

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

So, with all the crazy things happening in the world around us, our readings this morning focus on the burning question, what’s the right way to keep the Sabbath.  Really?  Could it sound less relevant?  Sabbath-keeping may be one of the 10 Commandments; but in our culture at least, that requirement to set aside one day each week as God’s day might seem right up there with rules against eating shellfish or sewing old and new fabric together.  

When you hear “keeping the Sabbath,” what images come to mind for you?  From my childhood, I remember reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In one scene, Laura and her sister Mary have to keep the Sabbath, which meant sitting in a chair all afternoon in their best clothes, maybe looking at their dolls but not playing with them – not doing anything as the hours dragged on, other than listening to Bible stories.  At the end of the scene, Laura yells out, “I hate Sunday!”  If that’s the Sabbath, I can’t say I blame her.1

What does it look like to observe the sabbath now?  As you know, I really struggle with this part of my spiritual life, workaholic that I am.  In the past month or so, I’ve done better (though not perfectly) at following God’s direction to set aside a day for something other than my job.  Turns out, sabbath is a deeply loving gift that God’s given us by modeling on the last day of creation that it’s right and good even for God to take a rest.  Sabbath-keeping isn’t about restricting our life but giving us life, tending soil where new creation can blossom.  And I’m pretty sure we can even have fun as we keep Sabbath, and God won’t barge in and break up the party.

But what does make God grumpy about our Sabbath choices?  Well, first and foremost would be ignoring that fourth commandment.  If we really think our work is too important to set aside even for a day, there might be a deeper issue to straighten out about who is God and who isn’t.

Our readings today also give us some clues about how Sabbath-keeping can go wrong.  The reading from Isaiah asks the question, whose interests are being served?  If we’re “pursuing [our] own affairs,” we might be missing an opportunity to see the Sabbath in its full scope – not just as a day off but as a day on differently, a day to honor God explicitly and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” as the reading says (58:10).  I think the point there is to see the time not as ours but as God’s, recognizing in our offering of one day that actually all time is God’s and not ours.  So, a good way to remember that truth is to spend some intentional time loving God and neighbor – especially since that happens to be God’s bottom line.

Then we come to today’s Gospel reading, a different example of Sabbath-keeping that advances our own agendas.  Jesus is at a synagogue worshiping on the Sabbath, and he sees a woman whose spine is badly bent.  For 18 years, her condition has kept her hobbled, and Jesus decides to intervene.  Interestingly, that’s not based on any special attribute of the woman herself.  We don’t hear about her deep faith, or persistence, or anything else that other healing stories raise up.  She doesn’t even ask for healing; in fact, we don’t even know whether she knows Jesus is there.  She’s just bent and in pain.  So, Jesus calls her over and says, “[Y]ou are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hand on her to straighten her painful spine (Luke 13:12-13).

But not so fast, says the leader of the synagogue.  Where Jesus sees a chance to meet a human need, the synagogue leader sees a violation of Sabbath law, which prohibited work on God’s day.  And on a certain level, the synagogue leader is right.  The Law did prohibit work on God’s day, and the leader’s role was to make sure people observed the Law faithfully.  Why?  Because being faithful to the Law was the primary way you lived out your identity as a Jew.  So, the synagogue leader correctly notes that “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured,” he says, “and not on the Sabbath day” (13:14).  Of course, Jesus notes the hypocrisy and asks whether that same strict construction applies to feeding and watering your livestock.  If you can untie a donkey to get a drink on the Sabbath, doesn’t this woman deserve to be unbound from her affliction so she can drink deeply from the water of life?

But here’s the bigger question I think Jesus is raising: What does it mean to be righteous, and how far must our righteousness extend?  “Righteousness” is one of those words we throw around like we know what it means, but it’s not just being good versus being bad.  Righteousness is about relationship – specifically, being in right relationship with God and with other people.  It can help to have rules, even commandments, to guide us in pursuing that goal, but the rules of righteousness aren’t the point.  The point is orienting our hearts, vertically and horizontally, so that Love guides everything we do.

Well, right relationship with God and neighbor demands that we actually see our neighbor.  And I think that’s where the synagogue leader fundamentally misses the mark.  He looks at the disabled woman, and he sees an object – a situation that calls for an application of Law.  He privileges the system over the person being harmed by the system.  On the other hand, Jesus looks at the woman and sees … her.  And he grieves that she literally can’t rise into the full stature of whom God has created her to be. 

It's not that the synagogue leader is a bad guy.  And it’s not that he oversees a bad system.  The problem is that that his righteousness is abstract because his interest in the Law makes him blind to the person in front of him.  His position gives him authority and privilege, so he privileges the system over the people living under it.  He can’t see individuals vividly enough to see that the rules aren’t working for them. 

And I think the way the leader and his system diminish this woman is what pushes Jesus’ buttons.  Yes, he sees the leader’s hypocrisy and calls that out.  But at the core, he sees injustice.  He sees a system working for some but diminishing the dignity of others.  The point of following the Law was to build one’s practice of righteousness, training people for right relationship with God and neighbor.  But here, instead, following the Law is leaving some neighbors out in the cold.

Of all the things we might have associated with Sabbath-keeping, justice probably wasn’t on the list.  But maybe this story about an archaic spiritual practice can help us see God’s justice with fresh eyes.

In our culture, justice is about fairness, as well as providing remedies when one party harms another – ensuring that “both the accuser and the accused receive a morally right consequence merited by their actions,” as the Cornell Law School puts it.2  As Americans, we’re wired to think this way: that justice means fairness among equal parties who share common, level ground.  OK.  But, of course, in the real world – in a world bent and crippled by sin – our ground may be common, but it’s not always level, as much as we might wish it to be, even as much as we aspire for it to be.  Life can be like a football game where the two teams don’t change direction at the quarters, meaning one team is always throwing or kicking into the wind.  That wouldn’t be just, so we make rules to ensure the game is fair.

In Scripture, justice has a more God-centered meaning – that the playing field and the conditions of the game must be fair not just because we value fairness but because fairness and right relationship are aspects of God’s own nature.3  So, in Hebrew, the word we translate as “justice” describes “the restoration of … equity and harmony … in a community.”3  In fact, in ancient Israel, those conditions that lead to “equity and harmony in a community” were seen as inalienable human rights given by God to all God’s people – conditions like freedom, security, and fair dealing.  So, justice in a biblical sense refers not simply to shared rules but to a state in which all are equally able to live into the fullness of whom God has created them to be.  

To realize God’s justice in the world, people like the synagogue leader – people who carry privilege within the system they inhabit – so, most of the people here today – they have to see the people whom the system misses.  They have to look past their interest in the system, sometimes even work against their interest in the system, to ensure that no one’s experience becomes invisible, lumped in with others who seem different to create that vast category of “them.” 

And I think Sabbath-keeping helps us remember this call to straighten out broken systems toward justice.  When we set aside time as God’s own and not ours, it helps us see that God is God, not us.  Having to remember that’s true, we also remember God’s priorities: to practice right relationship with God and our neighbors, seeing those who are bound by sin both personal and systemic.  And living out that daily practice of righteousness, working the muscle of our hearts, we build God’s kingdom within us so that we can reveal God’s kingdom beyond us – seeing those whom the system leaves stooped and bent, and calling that out, and together rising into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

1.       Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. Ebook edition, 2011; taken from the 1953 edition from Harper Publishers, New York. Available at Accessed Aug.19, 2022.

2.       Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. “Justice.” Available at: Accessed Aug. 19, 2022.

3.       Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, H-J. New York, Doubleday, 1992. 1164. Internet Archive edition available at Accessed Aug. 19, 2022.


Saturday, August 20, 2022

Love From the Bottom Up

Sermon for the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, transferred, Aug. 14, 2022

Luke 1:46-55

Today, we’re celebrating St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose feast day is tomorrow, Aug. 15.  Christians have been celebrating Mary on this date for centuries but not with precisely the same understanding of what they’re celebrating.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, honoring the belief that Mary didn’t die but was taken physically into heavenly glory, sort of like Elijah in the Old Testament.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it’s the Feast of the Dormition of Mary, honoring the belief that Mary died but without human suffering, like falling asleep, and that she rose physically into heavenly glory after three days, like her Son.  For us Anglican Christians, specifically Episcopalians, it’s simply the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. We don’t worry so much about the details of how she got to heaven, instead focusing more on her earthly story.

So, who was Mary?  Certainly, the mother of Jesus; but some Christians also give her titles like Co-Redemptrix or Queen of Heaven, highlighting her stature and significance in God’s kingdom.  At the other end of the spectrum, my liturgics professor in seminary insisted on calling her simply Mary of Galilee – a teenaged nobody, called into God’s service in the most shocking draft choice in history.

What do we remember about her?  When you think of Mary, what image comes to mind?  Maybe Mary “meek and mild,” as the hymn says. That’s the image many of us hold: Mary the submissive servant, the model for millennia of women … and, by the way, handy for keeping women from aspiring toward too much, in the eyes of the men in charge. 

Or we can pick up on what Scripture says about Mary reflecting on Jesus’ birth, the shepherds’ visit, and the angels praising the newborn King.  Luke says Mary “pondered [all these things] in her heart” (2:19) – so we might see Mary as a contemplative, spending hours in prayer.  That one seems to make sense.  If I’d been visited by an angel and given birth to God’s Son; if I’d witnessed his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension – I’d probably spend time in prayer, too, trying to understand my place in that stunning story … and what might come next.

But I also imagine that Mary must have been a fighter.  After all, when we first meet her, in the annunciation story, Mary is strong enough to question the angel Gabriel when he delivered the news that she would bear God’s Son: You’ve got to be kidding; “how can this be?” she asked (Luke 1:34).  So, Gabriel explains she’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit to conceive this child – and I think that strength sustains her and empowers her from that moment forward.  When Mary says to the angel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” I don’t hear that as passive acceptance.  I hear her embracing her power: “Yes, I’ll serve.  Bring it on!”

Then Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, who’s herself six months’ pregnant after spending decades making peace with the notion that she couldn’t have children.  Mary travels all the way from Galilee, in the north, to the Judean hill country – about 90 miles,1 with no mention of her father or Joseph or anybody else coming along to take care of her.  The Holy Spirit tells Elizabeth the good news Mary is bringing, that she’s carrying the messiah; and Elizabeth blesses Mary for believing the angel’s unbelievable news.  As Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, jumps for joy in the womb, Mary and Elizabeth understand God’s using them to change history.

And then we hear Mary speak for herself – or, actually, sing for herself – in today’s Gospel reading, as her voice rises on behalf of everybody who needs deliverance from the powers that oppress them.  And what exactly does Mary exclaim?  

She says, “My soul,” my spirit, “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).  Think about that.  Does God need magnification?  You’d think God could break into human experience with as much shock and awe as God likes.  But instead, God enters human experience needing nurture, needing care, needing leadership and love.  And for those spiritual gifts, God chooses someone with absolutely no credentials, a nobody oppressed in a backwater of the Roman Empire.  That’s just shocking, that God would use the spirit of a nobody to magnify God’s presence and power … but, of course, in God’s kingdom, nobody is a nobody.  

Instead, from now on, Mary sings, “all generations” will see how I’m blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me (Luke 1:48) – and for all who come after her.  So it is for those who offer themselves before God with awe and reverence, that God would have mercy and do great things for them.  In fact, Mary continues, God displays this immense power in the last way the world would expect, showing those who trust in themselves that their power is all in their heads, fleeting as a breath, soon to pass away.  In fact, Mary sings, the powerful will be brought low, and the lowly will be empowered.  For those who are hungry and thirsty and in need, God will fill them and make them whole, while those who are rich in the world’s eyes will have only their own power to rely on, coming away empty when they come before God.  

And God will bring this deliverance to the world through Israel – the lowliest of nations, not even a nation, people run over by one foreign power after another.  God’s king will come from this nothing nation … why?  Because God made that promise, Mary sings, and God is faithful to God’s own word. For generations, these people have found themselves homeless, powerless, even faithless sometimes, but never hopeless; for God has said, over and over again, “Be not afraid, for I am with you.”  So, Mary sings, “Yes!  I will give myself to that God, the God who comes up from the bottom to rule as King.”

It's not that the people of Israel were better than anyone else.  In fact, Luke’s story doesn’t even say that Mary was better than everyone else.  There’s no explanation for God’s choice.  As one commentator writes, “God’s beneficence is a gift and is not tied to notions of just desserts.”2  Mary’s song isn’t about how great she is, or about how great her country is.  Mary magnifies the Lord, so her song is about how great God is.  It’s that gift we routinely call “amazing grace” without really considering how amazing it is.  God raises up Israel, and raises up Mary, and keeps raising up folks who’ve hit bottom because that’s just who God is.  Love is like that. 

Of course, God’s amazing grace for the folks who’ve hit bottom begs the question, “What about the folks at the top?”  Honestly, that’s most of us here throughout most of our lives, especially in comparison to those struggling across town and around the world.  When I hear this song of Mary, I can’t help but feel haunted by the suspicion that I’m among the powerful who will be brought down from their thrones and the rich who will be sent away empty.  I don’t know how we can hear Mary’s song and not come away thinking God wants to see change.  What do we do with that?

Yesterday, about 25 of us came out for our second Connecting Community event at St. James United Methodist Church.  I spent the day in the laundry, talking with people who’d come for Loads of Love.  Others of you offered school supplies, or food, or diapers to families from our partner schools, and St. James’ partner schools, and the surrounding neighborhoods.  When we do this work, and all our Outreach ministry, we’re saying that we, too, are dissatisfied with the way things are.  We don’t just want a family to eat well over a weekend; we want them to eat well over a lifetime.  We don’t just want to offer a load of clean laundry; we want to offer a glimpse of the dignity borne by every child of God.  We don’t just want some students to have some school supplies; we want a city where all children are nurtured and educated to achieve their potential. 

So, how does that change happen?  Some will say through legal reform.  Some will say through educational reform.  Some will say through police reform.  Some will say through government programs.  Some will say through private enterprise.  Some will say through family empowerment.  I will say, “Yes.”  Welcome to the Big Tent.  For under that tent are hearts united in the dream that Mary was singing.  The lowly need lifting up.  The hungry need good things.  Even in a nation as divided as ours, deep down we get that. 

So, then what?  I don’t think God’s intent is that, because “the lowly” (1:52) need change, the powerful need punishment.  I think God’s intent is that the powerful need to be instruments of the change God seeks.  And they need to do it not just for the well-being of the lowly but for themselves, actually; because we the powerful need to experience amazing grace just as much as anyone else.  We need to know in our hearts the love that crosses boundaries, and invests us in one another, and makes us see we have a stake in our neighbors’ well-being.  We need to live the truth that we’re bound together by the Love that loves us all.

When I talk with people who have little by worldly standards, and ask them how they’re doing, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people reply, “I’m blessed.”  I’m blessed.  I may be doing my laundry at a laundromat with someone else’s quarters, but I’m blessed.  That is the song of Mary: that today’s struggle looks to tomorrow’s victory, that today’s sadness looks to tomorrow’s joy, that today’s shortfall looks to tomorrow’s bounty.  For God is faithful, entering into our experience through the least likely person in the world and saving all God’s beloved children from the bottom up.


2.      New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1853 (note).

Face to Face With God, Like a Friend

Sermon for Transfiguration, transferred, Aug. 7, 2022

Luke 9:28-36

As some of you know, I was gone last Sunday.  My son, Dan, and I went to San Francisco, continuing a tradition of summer travels that we’d shared with my father before he died.  Among the highlights of this trip was a drive north of San Francisco to Muir Woods National Monument, a preserved stand of coastal redwoods.  The trees are stunning, of course, especially the aptly named Cathedral Grove, home to the oldest and tallest trees in the park. 

We had decided to take the long version of the nice, flat trail through the redwood valley; and I was doing fine with it, old man that I am.  But about a half-mile in, we came to a turnoff for a different path, one that headed up the bluff – the Canopy View Trail.  The short option was 2.7 miles, and the sign described it as “climbing steadily” and with “steep sections.”  But I was not about to tell my son that I wasn’t up to this, so off we went.

Huffing and puffing up the trail, I was hoping for the payoff of a breakthrough view, some grand vista of eternity where we could take in the towering trees and the ocean all at once.  No such luck.  Instead, the higher we went, the more obvious it became that there was just more mountain to hike.  Even the one “breakthrough” view offered trees and … fog.  Not that the trees weren’t gorgeous, because they were.  In fact, they were absolutely astounding all on their own, symbols of encounter with a reality so grand and so vast that I could never hope to take it in all at once, regardless of how high I’d climbed.  So, I found myself simply grateful for being immersed in it, finally letting the experience be what the experience would be.  Plus, thankfully, the journey from there was down the mountain.

I wonder what the disciples were expecting on their hike up the mountain with Jesus.  He was heading up there to spend some quiet time with his heavenly parent, but what about Peter, John, and James?  Were they looking for down time?  Or prayer time?  Or face time?  The reading today doesn’t tell us whether they were hoping for a mountaintop experience or just figuring they’d experience the mountain.  

Either way, what they get is far more than anything they could have planned.  Jesus’ face and clothing change to a “dazzling white” (Luke 9:29).  And suddenly they’re joined by the Jewish Law and the Prophets in the flesh: Moses, through whom God had overcome Pharoah and led the people to freedom; and Elijah, through whom God had deposed unrighteous kings and defeated competing deities.  And Jesus is standing alongside them, taking his place at the top of Israel’s pantheon of heroes. 

Then, as if this isn’t stunning enough, God thunders onto the scene, descending in a storm cloud, enveloping them all in darkness and lightning.  Maybe Peter, John, and James remembered the stories of Moses on the mountain with God.  Scripture says God spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).  Well, if this is a friendly conversation with the deity, they’re thinking, I don’t want to see the angry version.

I don’t know how it works for you, but when I go looking for experiences of the holy, for encounters with the divine, that’s when I can pretty much be guaranteed that I won’t find one.  Like my hike up the mountain, I can look too hard for what I think I’m supposed to get, trying to manage the experience instead of experiencing it.  So, when is it that those rare moments of encounter with God do come?  It’s when God takes hold of my reality … and usually when I least expect it.

But to help bring that about, I do have to make space for the holy to happen.  It can happen in all kinds of settings – certainly in this beautiful space, as we offer ourselves to receive God’s Word and Christ’s Body, grateful for the sustenance God always provides.  It can happen in a conversation with someone you love as you let the Spirit connect your hearts.  It can happen in a walk in the woods, as you drink in the majesty of God’s creative genius and give thanks simply to share in it.  It can happen in an opportunity to serve, as you offer yourself as an instrument of Love and a vessel of blessing even for someone you don’t know.

As it happens, there are three very different opportunities for us to bring ourselves into God’s presence here in just the next couple of weeks.  In the Jewell Room today, you’ll find information about how you can make a difference for a student at Gordon Parks Elementary School.  You can start by giving $25 to provide a student’s uniform for the new school year.  But you could also consider making a difference face to face by volunteering at the school, mentoring a student or helping in a classroom.  Or here’s another chance for connection: Next Saturday, we’ll serve alongside members of St. James United Methodist Church in another Connecting Community event.  Families at our partner schools, Gordon Parks and Benjamin Banneker Elementary, as well as families at St. James’ partner schools, have been invited to come for school supplies, as well as food, diapers, lunch, and laundry.  Look in the bulletin or Messenger to volunteer for a shift.

Offering ourselves in service is a great way to ask God to come down from the mountain and meet us face to face.  Of course, so is offering ourselves in prayer.  And on Saturday, Aug. 20, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., you’re invited to learn more about that in a contemplative mini-retreat in the Jewell Room.  Mtr. Rita Kendagor will teach about centering prayer, a form of Christian meditation; as well as the practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading – a way to engage Scripture at a deep and intuitive level. 

For God to “speak to us face to face, like a friend,” we have to set aside our lives and ourselves long enough to hear that still, small voice and see God where we least expect.  That act of giving our time and attention is a sacrament, a sign of the larger pattern of self-giving Jesus calls us to embrace.  I think that’s what God’s talking about in this morning’s Gospel story, with the one line the sovereign of the universe gets.  God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35).  OK, what are we supposed to hear?  Jesus has had nothing to say through the whole story – so what message are his followers supposed to take away?

Well, the last thing Jesus had to say before today’s story came when Peter named him as the Messiah, the anointed king.  Peter was saying that Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who’ll deliver God’s people from the oppression of Rome and bring them fullness of life under God’s own reign and rule.  Jesus heard Peter proclaim that, and he said, “Yes, but….”  The path to glory isn’t the path you’d imagine.  The path to glory is a path up the mountain all right, but it’s the mountain of Calvary, the way of the cross.  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus had said, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

So – what have you got to lose?  Well, how about a few hours in service or in prayer, to make space for God to show up and lead you just a little higher up the mountain.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Dear Dad

Sermon for July 24, 2022

Luke 11:1-13

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus telling worried and distracted Martha that her sister, Mary, had chosen “the better part” by sitting and listening to Jesus rather than serving an impressive meal (Luke 10:42).  Today, we find Jesus living out his own advice and spending time with his Father in prayer – something he does often in the Gospel stories.  Well, if Jesus needs to carve out time to stay in touch with his heavenly Parent, we probably need that, too.  In fact, one of Jesus’ followers gets this and asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).  And Jesus’ response is what became the Lord’s Prayer.

Of course, we hear that as referring to a formal, set prayer we’re supposed to offer.  In our Episcopal tradition, the Church has included that prayer in just about every act of public worship.  And it’s key for many of us individually, too – starting our mornings, or ending our nights, or maybe both. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus’ answer to that disciple might have been as much about how to pray as it was about what to pray.  How are we supposed to engage the eternal sovereign of the universe?  What’s God looking for?  I think that may have been what Jesus had in mind.

So … how should we pray?  Well, I thought I’d ask God directly and see what comes from that.  For me, the best medium is writing, so I wrote God a letter.  Here goes.

Dear God,

It’s been a while since I’ve written.  I’m sorry about that – not in the sense of regretting a sin but in the sense of regretting that I haven’t made the time.  I always feel better when I set aside time with you, but I wonder how it makes you feel, as the heavenly parent.  In my own life, I feel blessed when my kids want to talk to me.  It says that, despite everything, our relationship is still there.  Does it work that way for you, too?

Anyway, you taught us to pray using this lesson we call the Lord’s Prayer.  It is a comfort, and I’m grateful for it.  When I don’t know what else to say to you, those words fall into place.  At the same time, I have to admit that I often don’t think much about what I’m saying as those words fall into place.  So, let’s see what happens if I do.

Jesus told us to begin by naming you as “Father” (Luke 11:2).  Honestly, I don’t know that “father” is how I see you.  I don’t think of you in terms of gender, but that’s not the point.  Instead, I think “father” means that you want me to remember that you’re not just some abstract cosmic force; you’re my parent in the best sense – the creator and authority figure, yes, but also the one who always shows up and listens.  You care about what I care about simply because I care about it.  How crazy is that?  And, like a good mom or dad, you also move me forward, helping me see that whatever I’m getting wrapped up in is not the ultimate reality.  Maybe that’s why some of the people writing the Gospels remembered Jesus adding the words “in heaven” to that opening address of “Father.”  Our reality isn’t the scope of your reality, and that’s good to keep in mind.  But the downside is that your heavenly position can make us forget that you’re with us right here, right now, too.

Then there’s that line, “Hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2).  With that, I think Jesus ask us to remember there’s a big difference between you and my own parents, even at their very best.  When something is “hallowed,” it means that thing is set apart as holy, signifying a reality that’s eternal and divine.  But we aren’t the ones that make something hallowed.  Like the battlefield at Gettysburg, you are hallowed not by any act or remembrance that we can offer but because of the offering you make.  Like the soldiers on that battlefield, you give yourself to us and for us; and that self-giving nature ironically sets you apart from us, makes you holy.  In your gifts to us of life and love, you pour yourself out, the living sacrifice you ask us to emulate.  So, even though you’re there with us in every experience, you’re also set apart from our experience, always reminding us that your love is just that much more than we can comprehend.

Then you ask us to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2).  Now, why would you want us to ask for what you already intend to do?  Maybe because prayer isn’t about getting you to do something; it’s about getting us on the same page with what you’re already doing.  Now, I’ll admit that when I say, “Your kingdom come,” there’s a part of me that’s really saying, “Come on, Lord, bring on the big ending.”  There is so much to lament, so much to grieve in this world you’ve given us … and the thought of you swooping in to set the world to rights is pretty darned attractive.  But praying for your kingdom to come reminds me that your reign and rule over our experience happens on your timeline, not mine.  And it reminds me that we humans aren’t just props on your cosmic set.  We’re your kids, people you’re always forming more and more into your image and likeness.  And the way we grow into who you’ve made us to be is by being the change you’re seeking in the world now.

OK.  The next line is, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3).  This one may be the hardest one to pray without my fingers crossed.  Because, if I’m honest, I want a lot more than my daily bread.  I want plenty of bread, and I want it for a long time.  Like the people of Israel, I don’t want to have to trust that the manna you provide today will be there tomorrow; I want to gather up a bunch of it right now so I can rest easy in the future.  But, of course, this petition isn’t about bread.  It’s about trust.  Well then, sure, God, I can get on board asking for help with that, because trust is something I definitely need.  So, give us what we need for today … and help us take a breath, knowing that you’ll come through tomorrow, too.

Well, God, then we come to the daily work of forgiveness, and there’s a lot in these lines of your prayer.  If you’re telling me to ask for forgiveness every day, that means you know I’m going to turn away from you every day.  But still, you’re there.  And still, you want to have this conversation.  On one level, that’s shocking: Why haven’t you written us off long ago?  But on another level, that’s parenting: You know your kids will mess up, but you want to have the relationship anyway.  So, you ask us to come back to you, even though we’re sure to turn away again. 

But that’s not all.  There’s a powerful lesson here about how we deal with each other, too.  Your grace is free, but it’s no free ride.  To the same extent that you forgive us, you expect us to forgive each other.  And it’s not just forgiveness in the abstract you’re asking for.  You want us to “forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4) – which says to me that forgiveness is going to cost me something.  Come to think of it, that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.  After all, freeing us from our sin certainly cost you something.

And finally, we come to this: “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4).  That seems weird: Why would we think our loving parent might be the one bringing us into trial?  Well, some of the people recording these stories of Jesus expanded that line to say, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”1  OK, that gives the request some context.  But it’s hard for us postmodern folks to take that seriously.  We’re much too sophisticated to think there’s an evil overlord out there somewhere, stirring up harm for your children.  But then again … just follow the news for a few days: people shooting children in schools, people shooting each other on the streets, nations invading other nations without even the pretext of justification, comfortable people knowing other folks suffer but not really doing much to change it.  Well, we may not be threatened by a red devil with horns and a pitchfork, but we are certainly threatened by evil that takes us “where [we] do not wish to go” (John 21:20).  So maybe we need to pray such an archaic prayer simply to remember that there are indeed spiritual forces out there that do not wish us well, and that we’d be smart to turn to you instead.

Well, God, I’ve got to wind up this letter now.  As always, it’s time to get on to the next thing.  But thank you for the chance to remember the craziest truth of them all – that you’re asking me to reach out more.  I should be the one appealing for an audience with you … but it turns out, you’re already there, waiting.  All I’ve got to do is knock – or sit down and write a letter.

1.       See Matthew 6:13. The NRSV notes that this addition also appears in some ancient manuscripts of Luke.