Poem for a Tuesday — “Before Dark” by Wendell Berry
“From the porch at dusk I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.
He came down the river, splashing
against the water’s dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing
on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away
as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows.
The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him
—at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
In Collected Poems: 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. P. 63.
Wendell Berry is a farmer, author, and poet. For more than forty years, he has sustainably worked the land in eastern Kentucky that his ancestors first settled in the early 19th century. His writing embodies a deep reverence for the land and its wild creatures. He believes that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. Berry was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010 and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Books Critics Circle in 2016.
A number of years ago, I invited Michael, a local homeless man, to come share Easter dinner with me and Duane. Michael had worshipped with us some and even tried singing in the choir, sweating copiously in his blue choir robe and sometimes playing his African drum for us. I tried on a number of occasions to persuade him to move into permanent housing, but he always resisted, choosing instead to couch surf, moving from home to home, crashing with friends until he wore out his welcome. Michael seemed pleased with the Easter dinner invitation and promised to be there at two o’clock.
I was a little surprised on Easter Sunday when Michael wasn’t in church. But on my way home, I ran into him coming out of Stewart’s. He had a big bottle of Mountain Dew and an equally enormous bag of potato chips. Looking at the chips and soda, I asked doubtfully, “Michael, you are coming to our house for dinner, aren’t you?” He looked a little cagey but assured me that he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
When I got home, I told Duane that the odds were fifty/fifty that the man would actually show. But sure enough, Michael appeared at two, bearing his enormous bag of chips, unopened. I put the chips in a big party bowl and added it to the spread: ham, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, rolls, crudité, salad, and Michael’s chips. It was a feast.
Our lesson from Luke’s gospel describes a sabbath day feast hosted by Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, diners reclined on three low couches, called a triclinium. Those three couches surrounded a low central table where food was placed. Diners ate from common dishes, reaching with hands or pieces of bread to scoop up their dinner.
Your place at the triclinium said a lot about who you were in society. The guest of honor took the place of prominence next to the host with best access to food and conversation. Then other guests, by virtue of their social standing, took places of descending prominence on the couches. Guests of least honor were pushed out to the margins, where food might be passed to them by another diner or a servant. Your place in first century society was worked out with table fellowship. You invited guests of high standing to your banquet, hoping they would accept. This increased your social status in the eyes of the community, especially when your high-status guest had to reciprocate by inviting you to dine at their table.
As Jesus watched this complex dance of social maneuvering around the triclinium, he shared a teaching that contradicted traditional practices of hospitality. First, Jesus counseled diners to choose seats of humility, without any presumption of honor or status. Then, he advised that they should rethink the guestlist. Invite low-status guests who could not reciprocate their hospitality because they were poor or infirm.
Now, while righteous people like the Pharisees gave charitably for vulnerable neighbors, like widows, orphans, and refugees, the people whom Jesus described would never make the guestlist for the sabbath feast. The poor, maimed, lame, and blind would have been a disgrace at the table of a high-status Pharisee, like his host. Jesus’ words would have been incredibly offensive to everyone seated at the triclinium. There would have been some major acid reflux around the banquet table.
Practicing the sort of hospitality that Jesus advocated wasn’t easy in the first century, and it isn’t easy today. That Easter dinner with the homeless Michael was part of many interactions with him that were alternately funny, puzzling, and angering. One morning, Michael called me before six o’clock, waking me up. A doe had been hit and killed on the LePan Highway, near where he was couch surfing. He had butchered the doe for meat, but he wanted to know if I was interested in the hide of the unborn fawn. He thought I might like to tan it so that I could make a drum. Then, there was the day when Michael told me that God was calling him to work with children and youth at our church. That blew up even before it started when I asked him to collaborate with others and follow church policies. On another occasion, I returned home from a two-week vacation to learn that Michael had moved into the church basement in my absence. Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to deal with it, so it was left to me to have the “come-to-Jesus” talk with my homeless buddy.
“Michael” I told him, “I wish you would let me help you get into an apartment. You’ve got to go. No one gets to live at the church, not even me.” He wasn’t happy, but he moved out, and he stopped coming to our church.
Jesus, do you understand what you are asking of us when you suggest that we invite our vulnerable, crippled, impoverished, crazy neighbors to be a real part of our lives? Honestly, Lord. Do you realize the difficulty, frustration, and risk that come when we open ourselves up to those sorts of relationships? We’re not sure we really want to go there. Can’t we, like the Pharisees, simply do our mitzvah and practice a little charitable giving, assuaging our conscience and maintaining the status quo?
Here is the rub. Jesus chose to specially identify with his neighbors who were vulnerable, stigmatized, and excluded. One of the reasons that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees was his practice of eating with sinners, tax collectors, and outcasts. On the sabbath day, when all eyes should be on God Almighty, Jesus reached out to heal the lowly, from bent-over-women to men with dropsy and withered hands. And while Jesus could have been building his social status by helping and healing the most prestigious households in the land, Jesus tended to blind beggars, demon-possessed boys, hemorrhaging women, and scabby unclean lepers. When Jesus got to Jerusalem, he would die as many of the people whom he helped had lived: outcast, rejected, in pain, and humiliated.
In the very last parable that Jesus shared with his friends, he exhorted them to see him in their most vulnerable and rejected of neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46). On the far side of death, on the far side of the miracle of resurrection, Jesus would continue to walk this earth in the guise of people who are sick and hungry, destitute and outcast, thirsty and imprisoned. He called these hurting folks his “little brothers and sisters.” Indeed, when disciples choose to welcome and serve these lowest-status neighbors, they are truly welcoming and serving the hidden Christ, who walks among us still.
In following the ethic of hospitality that Jesus taught, we dare to truly connect with our hurting and sometimes hard-to-love neighbors; and at the same time, we are playing host to Jesus. We never know where we might find him: in line at the Food Pantry, pushing a shopping cart home from the Grand Union, in need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, eating goulash at the Community Lunchbox, camping out in the church basement. When we encounter the hidden Jesus, it can be messy and uncomfortable. They may test our healthy boundaries with expectation for things we cannot give. They may not follow our good advice. They may have demons that we cannot exorcise. And still, we owe them a debt of love and a seat at the table. Will we extend ourselves in humility, sharing the simplest gifts of hospitality?
My homeless friend Michael skipped town. He was picked up in Lake Placid for possession of a small amount of marijuana, but because it was near a school, it was a big deal. As his court date neared, Michael vanished. Then, one early morning, almost a year later, Michael called me. What a surprise! True to form, Michael was using a borrowed cellphone, undoubtedly belonging to someone whose couch he was surfing.
“How are you?!” I wanted to know. “Where did you go? Is everything ok?”
Michael assured me that he was fine. He was back in the Midwest near family. He still loved the Lord, and he was helping a lot of people. We talked about life at the church and drumming. After a while, there was just silence on the line. Not comfortable, but not really uncomfortable. Eventually Michael spoke up, “I just want you to know I’m ok, and I’m not mad at you.” I assured him that I wasn’t mad at him either. We prayed and hung up.
I never heard from Michael again, but I suspect that one day we just might meet up again—at that heavenly feast on the far better shore over a big bag of potato chips.
David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 289, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Mitzi Smith. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
“And in the morning you are up again with the way leading through you for a while longer if the wind is motionless when the cars reach where the asphalt ends a mile or so below the main road and the wave you rise into is different every time and you are one with it until you have made your way up to the top of your climb and brightened in that moment of that day and then you turn as when you rose before in fire or wind from the ends of the earth to pause here and you seem to drift away on into nothing to lie down once more until another breath brings you to birth”
in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005. P. 8.
William Stanley Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian Minister. His first foray into poetry came as a boy: writing and illustrating hymns for his father, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil. Strongly rooted in classical studies, his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were heralded for their “graceful, accessible language,” and his Selected Translations won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Merwin was a staunch pacifist and proponent of deep ecology. In 1976, he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism and remained there for the rest of his life, buying an old pineapple plantation and carefully restoring the native habitat. One of the most highly decorated poets in American literature, Merwin was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and served twice as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1999-2000 and 2010-2011.
It was the best sermon I had ever heard. Shall I start with the voice? Rich and melodic, captivating. Within moments, I felt as if I had known him all my life. He read the Torah with such love, as if he were feasting on every word. And when he opened the scriptures to us, they came alive. I could feel the compassion and mercy of God in ways that I had never felt before, as if even I were a beloved child of God. The synagogue at Capernaum was quiet. Every ear strained to hear every sound. When Rivka’s baby began to fuss, we all said, “Shhhh!” not wanting to miss a word.
But then it stopped. Without warning or “Amen,” there were simply no more words. Worshippers began to buzz and turn restlessly in their seats. Slowly things got louder, like a wave of sound rising from the best seats at the front of the sanctuary and rolling back to where I stood, mostly hidden, in the doorway. My husband Moshe placed a hand upon my back and cursed under his breath. “Lord, help us! It’s you, Mahalath. He sees you. I knew we never should have come.”
I should tell you about my back. It started the year our second child was born, a sweet and ruddy boy to join an older brother. I was still hale and strong. With one child bouncing on my hip and another sleeping in a sling at my breast, I worked alongside Moshe. We brought in the barley harvest and shook olive branches to rain down a harvest of ripe fruit. I milked the goats, fed chickens, ground grain at the wheel, and spun wool into yarn. Young and able with the handsome Moshe at my side and our beautiful boys, I was the envy of many, and that may have been part of the problem. You know the ways of jealousy and the dangers of the evil eye.
One day, I bent to lift the bread from the oven, and I couldn’t stand up. My back writhed like it was being squeezed in a vice, and my whole body seized in pain. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I dropped to my knees, sending the loaves into the fire. The world grew dim and then went black.
I’m not sure how long I was in darkness. I awoke to the sound of my children crying. Moshe hovered over me, looking worried. A Greek physician from Sepphoris had been brought to attend me.
“Ah! You are awake!” the doctor said matter-of-factly. He dribbled a vile tasting liquid into the corner of my mouth. “Drink it all, dear,” he said with kindness. “It will help with the pain.” I gagged it down, blinking back tears, and slipped into a sleep troubled by dreams of fire, serpents, and burned bread.
When I awoke, Moshe was sitting at my side, holding my hand. Our boys had climbed into the bed with me. Their small hands clutched the folds of my tunic. Their cheeks were red with worry and weeping. “Ugh!” I moaned.
Moshe leaned in, “Mahalath, stay still. The Greek says that you have been possessed by the spirit of the python. You must save your strength to fight.”
Now, I had heard that in Delphi, on the far side of the Great Sea, the Greeks worship the sun god. Poseidon speaks through priestesses possessed by the spirit of the python. Twisted, bent, and rigid, they prophesy all day long. For the right price, they might even tell you of a bright future. But that had nothing to do with me. I loved Yahweh. I was a beloved daughter of Israel, or so I thought.
I did fight. I found my feet again. I learned to live with pain. I tended my children. I did my best to keep our home and fields, but I never stood up straight again. Our neighbors said that I was “bent over,” as if I were a broken reed or a tree snapped by a windstorm. With every year, my back bent more noticeably, and as my shoulders rounded and my spine folded in on itself, my perspective grew small, narrow, and limited.
My affliction made me unwelcome at the synagogue, for only someone cursed by Yahweh could look as I did. But each week, I would wait at the back, hovering in the doorway, hoping for the smallest crumb of blessing. Our neighbors stopped including us, uncomfortable with my woe and believing the worst. One day, the neighborhood children began to call me names. At first, they did so behind my back; eventually, they did so to my face. In time, most people just called me “Bent Over Woman,” as if I didn’t even have a real name. I prayed always, hoping that if I could find the right words, I might be set free from this prison that my body had become.
So, while I could tell you that he preached the best sermon I had ever heard, and I could tell you that Rivka’s baby fussed, and I could tell you that the preaching stopped and the sound of whispering and unrest rolled to me like a restless wave, I could not tell you what he looked like, or why Rivka’s baby fussed, or why the rabbi stopped speaking, or why the sound of my restless neighbors rolled toward me. Because the only thing that I could see was what I always see: my feet.
Moshe reached a protective arm around my back and held my hand. “Mahalath,” he whispered, “He’s waving to you! He wants you to come forward.”
I tried to turn and leave, but Moshe held me fast. “Mahalath,” he urged, “What have we got to lose?”
What did we have to lose? It doesn’t get much worse than living in constant pain, shunned by your neighbors, and excluded from your church. It doesn’t get much worse than being called Bent Over Woman. My life had become an agony of loneliness and suffering. With Moshe at my side, I walked to the front.
If it was quiet when the rabbi spoke, it was deathly still as I stood before him. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on me. Every breath was held. Even Rivka’s baby was silent.
Then, this rabbi did a most unusual thing. He squatted down on his haunches, down into my limited field of vision, and he looked up into my face. He was sun-browned, as if he worked in the fields. Fine lines creased the corners of his eyes, which were a deep, bottomless brown. He smiled and his kind eyes sparkled with interest and concern. Next, he said the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Didn’t he see what everyone else saw: my hideous bent-over back? Someone snickered. Moshe took a protective step closer.
What happened next is still being talked about in Capernaum. The rabbi stood up and placed his two broad, strong hands on my poor crippled back. What I noticed first was warmth, like the sun on a winter day bringing a blessing to your upturned face. Slowly it flowed out from his hands, spreading down to the tips of my toes and reaching up to the top of my head. It was then that I realized that my pain was gone. The spirit of the python that had held me tight in its grip had departed! I took a deep breath and then another. Then, for the first time in eighteen years, I stood up. I gasped and shouted bold cries of “Alleluia!” and “Thanks be to the Holy One of Israel!” I hugged Moshe, then I hugged the rabbi as my neighbors watched in shocked silence.
Not everyone was happy. The synagogue leader was scandalized that I had entered the sanctuary, and the rabbi had healed on the sabbath. But the rabbi would hear none of it, for surely, even one such as I deserved the mercy that is shown to an ox or mule.
With a wink, the rabbi turned to me. “Mahalath,” he called me by name. “Mahalath, I think I just finished my sermon for today.”
I practically danced toward the door of the synagogue, followed by the rabbi and Moshe. Out they went, but before I left, I turned to my neighbors, the ones who for eighteen years had ignored me, gossiped about me, called me names, and failed to show me the courtesy one might extend to a barnyard animal. I looked them in the eyes and said, “By the way, my name is not Bent-Over-Woman. My name is Mahallath. You are welcome to come break your fast with us today.”
The synagogue erupted in cheers and praise. That sabbath evening, Jesus dined with us, and so did all of Capernaum. The pot never emptied, the bread seemed to multiply, and the wine never failed. But that is a miracle to tell on another day. I rejoiced—and so did the whole village with me—in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.
Poem for a Tuesday — “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
— from the wonderful, gorgeously creative, and insightful book Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, ed. Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. p. 556.
Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation. A gifted poet, memoirist, essayist, and musician, Harjo draws deeply from indigenous traditions of storytelling and oral history. She has a unique gift for capturing the moment, in all its emotional complexity, amid varied landscapes, both natural and human. She is a longtime friend of U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haalund (Laguna Pueblo); both see Native American poetry as an act of reclaiming, celebrating, and advocating for public lands and ancestral homes. Harjo has said “…most of what is created is beyond us, is from that source of utter creation, the Creator, or God. We are technicians here on Earth, but also co-creators. I’m still amazed. And I still say, after writing poetry for all this time, and now music, that ultimately humans have a small hand in it. We serve it. We have to put ourselves in the way of it and get out of the way of ourselves” (Contemporary Authors). Her memoir Crazy Brave was honored with the American Book Award. She served as the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate from 2019-2022.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “When Faith Divides” Luke 12:49-56
Our faith may put us at odds with others. Take my family for example. My grandparents were all Presbyterians. But that homogeneity of belief is a thing of the past. My sister is a Methodist lay pastor. My brother is a born-again southern Baptist. I have an uncle who converted to Judaism. A bevy of cousins are fundamentalists, an equal number are nominally Catholic, some are completely unchurched. I imagine that if we were to break into small groups and share a little about the religious context of our families and friends, we would hear similar stories of conflicting beliefs and convictions. We have probably learned through bitter experience that conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table should never turn to matters of faith unless we want to risk a food fight.
Jesus warned his followers that his life and ministry would bring conflict and bitter division to their lives. I bet the disciples didn’t like to hear those words of warning any more than we do. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is no warm and fuzzy lesson. As Jesus spoke, he and his friends were on their way to Jerusalem. We can hear in his words the stress and tension that he must have felt. His mission was nearing fulfillment in his death and resurrection in a holy city rocked between the joyous welcome of “Hosanna!” and the murderous shouts of “Crucify him!” There would be no peace in Jerusalem that Passover.
Jesus knew from personal experience that pursuing God’s purpose would cause family trouble. Remember the day that Mother Mary and Jesus’s brothers showed up at the house where he was teaching (Matthew 12:46-49)? Fearing for Jesus’ mental and physical well-being, they sought to forcibly take him home to Nazareth. Jesus refused them an audience, turning instead his followers and said, “Here are my mother, brothers, and sisters. Whoever does the will of the Father is my kin.” Think of the sorrow and worry with which Jesus’s family turned around and went home.
Jesus’s followers knew that discipleship would bring trouble from the moment that fishermen James and John left their father Zebedee behind in the boat and answered Jesus’s call. When Luke recorded his gospel (about the year 75), the early church was plagued by division. Traditional synagogues had driven out Christians as heretics. Many fled Israel to live in exile across the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Greece to Rome. We admire the Acts of the Apostles with its vivid stories: Philip teaching Samaritans and Ethiopians, Peter preaching to Roman soldiers, and Paul witnessing to the Gentiles. Yet, we fail to recognize that behind those bold and risky triumphs there were scandalized parents, alienated siblings, lost loves, and outraged neighbors. Discipleship brought days of triumph, but it also brought sorrow, pain, and oh yes, plenty of division.
There are places in this world where being a Christian remains a recipe for conflict, rejection, and even death. 245 million Christians in 150 countries experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. That works out to about 1 in 9 Christians around the world who live with threat of violence right now. For the most recent year that data is available, 4,136 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons. 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, sentenced, and imprisoned. 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, many destroyed. For persecuted Christians the world over, Jesus’s scary warning about family rejection and coming persecution are an affirmation of their faithfulness in a hostile world where belief can cost you your life.
Today in Cuba, where Christians face ongoing harassment from government authorities, David Walter Fis pastors a church. State security officials demolished the church building, and when the congregation continued gathering, officials placed restraining orders on Pastor Fis and the congregation. Despite the government’s attempts to silence their witness, the church has continued meeting in the homes of church members or in fields.
In Pakistan, Sahid and his wife Memona live in a small Hindu village. In April, they were confronted by Hindu family members and neighbors about their Christian beliefs. The couple refused to renounce their faith in Christ. Around two weeks later, their home was set on fire, and their two youngest children were killed. When the couple notified the police, the authorities tried to pressure them into saying that the fire was an accident.
In Indonesia, Nia became a Christian through the influence of friends. When her Muslim family learned of her faith, they threatened to behead her. They subsequently kept her locked in her room. Although the parents eventually released her, they have forced her to take psychiatric drugs and see an Islamic leader for “healing.” Her Christian friends and church community are unsure how to help.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” It’s all so black and white in the world of Jesus and the disciples. It’s all so cut and dried in the experience of believers in those 150 countries where Christians are persecuted. Indeed, those experiences of hardship for the sake of faith make our Thanksgiving dinner family squabbles seem tepid and innocuous. Yet I believe that when we live with integrity, our calling as followers of Jesus continues to put us at odds with others, continues to invite us to speak truth and risk conflict for the sake of the gospel that we hold dear. There are moments in our lives when we will risk conflict and division if we are to keep the faith.
It may be the day that you become a whistleblower, putting your foot down over the ethical corners that your boss cuts.
It could be the time that you stop your uncle in the middle of his familiar racist or sexist jokes.
It could be your refusal to turn a blind eye to the way a family member has mistreated their spouse or children.
Perhaps it will be when you invite your non-believing spouse to stop treating your faith like an inconvenient hobby and ask them to join you in the pews.
It may be the day when you speak truth to a parent about the harm that their addiction has caused the family and insist that they get help.
It could even be when you stop a friend from spreading a malicious rumor by reminding them how hurt the target of their gossip would feel to hear those cruel words.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Christians like us, who live with tolerance and religious liberty, isn’t persecution. Instead, the challenge we face is our reluctance to make waves for the sake of our faith. When our Christian conscience is pricked by the unethical, hurtful, or harmful behavior of others, we bite our tongues or look the other way. We do not take a stand for fear of being labeled self-righteous, judgmental, or holier than thou. We don’t want to be known as one of “those Christians.”
My former colleague, the Rev. Dr. John Walton, with whom I served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, teaches that today’s reading from Luke, with its scary warning about family conflict, is meant to be read alongside the following reading in Luke 13:6-9. That’s the equally uncomfortable parable of the unfruitful fig tree. Remember it? When a fig tree refuses to bear fruit, a land owner threatens to cut it down. Fortunately for the fig tree, a good gardener bargains for more time, promising to apply fertilizer and special care to ensure a fruitful future. It’s a parable of judgment that begs us to consider if we are fruitful fig trees. Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God? If we stood in a court of judgment, would there be sufficient evidence in our daily living to convict us of being Christians? Or, have we hidden our faith and refused the risks that come when we affirm that Christ is Lord?
According to Jesus, the Kingdom, with its demand for action is always all around us. It’s as obvious as the storm clouds that bring rain or the south wind that causes a scorcher. If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, if we take the obligations of the Kingdom of God seriously, then there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others. Pick your battle.
49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain,’ and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Faith, Not Fear” Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 12:32
Ruth is afraid. Ever since she got that diagnosis, she wakes in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. Her thoughts race. She wonders how she’ll pay the doctor’s bills. She knows how much her kids need her now – they may be grown, but, Lord, they depend upon her common sense and encouragement. She thinks about her husband Bud and wonders how he’ll get by if she doesn’t beat this. The man can barely fry an egg. With heart pounding and the acrid taste of fear in her mouth, Ruth tosses and turns.
Brad is afraid that he’ll never pass the bar exam. He wasn’t at the top of his law school class, but he worked hard and did all right. He even took one of those courses that prep you for the two-day test. But when Brad sits down to take the exam, things don’t go so well. While everyone else seems to fly through the six essays, Brad can’t concentrate or organize his thoughts, and the more he thinks about it, the more stressed he feels. He feels even worse when he begins to think about paying back his law school loans. He has failed twice. He’ll try once more, but he doesn’t feel confident.
Jenny is afraid that she’ll spend her life alone. She is shy. A middle child with two overbearing siblings, she learned to keep a low profile growing up. Her work as a researcher is solitary, and since the pandemic began, she has been working remotely. Her college friends are married with families of their own. She tried one of those dating apps, but found that the people she met didn’t share her values and had little interest in commitment. It doesn’t help that Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking. Some days, Jenny feels hopeless about the future.
Abraham was afraid. He was already getting grey in the beard and long in the tooth when God called him away from his ancestral home in Ur of the Chaldeans. God promised Abraham and Sarah land and children, so they took a big risk and made the long journey. Along the way, there had been blessing, a land that flowed with milk and honey, flocks, prosperity, and victory. But what Abraham and Sarah really wanted, a child, remained an unfulfilled hope.
In this day and age when people may opt to not have children for any number of reasons, it may feel difficult to understand the despair and disappointment that Abraham felt. In the ancient near east, childlessness was a source of social ridicule and shame. Tradition taught that God alone governs fertility and opens and closes wombs, so a childless couple must be displeasing to the gods. This view persevered in the rabbinic tradition. In Jesus’s day, a childless man could not sit on the Sanhedrin, the governing board of the Temple. According to the Mishnah, the childless man was reckoned as if menuddeh, “cut off” from all communion with God, like one who has deliberately disregarded divine commands. Some texts consider a childless man to be already dead. From a purely practical point of view, in those days long before a social safety net, children were one’s heritage and safeguard for care and protection in old age.
Given that cultural context, we can hear the fear and hopelessness in Abraham’s voice. God tells Abraham to not be afraid. God promises that Abraham’s reward will be very great. But the patriarch laments, “O Lord God, what difference does it make what you give me for I continue childless?” The questions within Abraham’s question are, “Do you love me, God? Are you with me? Can you bless me when the world seems stacked against me?”
Fear can get the better of us. When we are afraid, our body responds powerfully. Threat kicks our hypothalmus, pituitary, and adrenal glands into overdrive. Primary stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and nonadrenaline flood our systems. Our heart rate and respiration soar. We feel the butterflies of panic. When we experience chronic fear, like illness, vocational woes, social isolation, violence, or crisis, we experience a reduction in our defenses and adaptive energy. Pretty soon, we are feeling overloaded, burned out, and fatigued. Our immune system can be compromised. Our sleep/wake cycle gets disrupted. We can’t eat—or we eat too much. Our headaches turn into migraines, muscle aches become fibromyalgia, body aches turn into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing can turn into asthma. Fear can even affect our spiritual life. Like Abraham, we may feel bitterness or confusion toward God. Like Abraham, we may struggle to trust God. We may even find it hard to be hopeful about the future.
I love how God responded to Abraham. God didn’t chastise Abraham for his ingratitude. God didn’t withdraw God’s love in an act of punishment. God didn’t treat the patriarch like a spoiled child and take away all his blessings. Instead, God took Abraham outside, into the deep dark of the night before the advent of electric lights. God called Abraham’s attention to the night sky, the milky way stretched across the heavens like a tent, a dazzling, visual symphony of stars and planets dancing across the darkness. “Take a look at this Abraham,” God promised, “This is what your progeny will one day be like.”
I suspect that Abraham felt very small beneath the night sky. To think that God, who had created that great cosmic lightshow from God’s very self, should care for Abraham! To imagine that God, who spins the whirling planets, should stand with him in the darkness and promise him a future! Surely, if the great God of the universe could do all this, then maybe Abraham could trust that God keeps God’s promises. As faith and trust swelled within the patriarch’s heart, he began to fear less. His heart slowed, his breath became even, the butterflies of panic in his gut flew away. There beneath the arc of the heavens, Abraham felt peace.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took fourteen more years. There were some rocky moments and crises of faith along the way. But in God’s time, Abraham and Sarah conceived. They were old as dirt and good as dead when their son was born. They named him Isaac, which means God laughs, and Abraham and Sarah laughed, rejoicing in the faithfulness of God.
We all contend with fear. Like Ruth, we have sleepless nights plagued by big and little fears. Like Brad, we may fear that our dreams just won’t come true. Like Jenny, we may fear the social isolation and disconnection that are characteristic of our world today. What are you afraid of?
Abraham reminds us that faith is the remedy for fear. Jesus knew that. Indeed, that’s why Jesus encouraged his disciples with the words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We might write those words off as an empty promise if they weren’t spoken by Jesus, who rose above fear to face head-on the agony of the cross and reveal to us the limitless love that God holds for us. God, who spins the whirling planets, God, who raised Jesus from the grave, God is more than a match for our fears. Let that truth swell your heart and bring you peace. Have faith. Fear less.
Ruth decided that she wasn’t going to allow her fear to get the better of her. She likes to tell folks that when you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep. Talk to the shepherd. She still feels overwhelmed from time to time, but those late-night times of prayer remind her that God is powerful, even when she is not.
When Brad realized that his fear was jeopardizing his vocational future, he went to his pastor about it. The pastor referred Brad to a counselor who has helped Brad add a few tools to his belt to help wrangle that overwhelming fear, like meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization. Brad and his pastor prayed together, and Brad has been added to the church’s prayer chain. He knows that when he next takes the exam, he’ll be better equipped, and he’ll have some caring folks praying for him, too.
One of Jenny’s married friends invited her to come to church. Jenny is still shy, but in the shared acts of worship, service, and learning, she has found that she is not alone. There are other folks who have the same values. They like her for who she is and make her feel welcomed. In their kindness and love, Jenny can feel God’s love for her. When Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking, Jenny says that Jesus never had kids, but he left quite a legacy.
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Poem for a Tuesday — “Blue Morning Glory” by Anne Pitkin
“Voracious, yes. But when you see it, shy blue flowers blaring like trumpets in spite of themselves, center star shaped and yellow; when it startles you, early in the morning, all over a white picket fence, say, in Massachusetts, you might think ‘triumphal,’ ‘prodigal,’ ‘awake.’
Of course you don’t want it in your rose garden among all the pruned, the decorous bushes. You don’t want it in the vegetables, for it will romp through the tomatoes, beans and peas, will leave no room on the ground, or even in the air, for the leafy lettuces and cabbages soberly queueing up in their furrows. It will hog all the sky it can get knowing as it does what enormous thirst is satisfied by blue.
Father Michael says Follow the God of abundance Says we hurry from the moment’s wealth for fear it will be taken. Think of this:
the morning glory has been blossoming for so long without permission that in some gardens it is no longer censored. What does that tell you? See how it opens its tender throats to a world that can sting it, how, without apology for its excess, it blooms and blooms, though even yet it seems surprised.”
in Cries of the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, pp. 33-34.
Poet Anne Pitkin was born and raised in Clarksville, TN. Her poetry collections include Yellow and Winter Arguments. Her newest volume But Still, Music will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio in September. Pitkin’s work explores nature, family, and the tensions of growing up in the Jim Crow South. With regard to her craft, Pitkin has said, “I cannot say just when or why I started writing poetry. I read a lot of it during and after college, and I responded, I guess, by trying to write it, initially piqued by the tensions between words” (from Rattle #27, summer 2007).