“On the tidal mud, just before sunset, dozens of starfishes were creeping. It was as though the mud were a sky and enormous, imperfect stars moved across it as slowly as the actual stars cross heaven. All at once they stopped, and, as if they had simply increased their receptivity to gravity, they sank down into the mud, faded down into it and lay still, and by the time pink of sunset broke across them they were as invisible as the true stars at daybreak.”
from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 35
Born in Rhode Island, Galway Kinnell studied at Princeton University and traveled to Paris with a Fulbright Fellowship. He was committed to the cause of civil rights, serving with the Congress of Racial Equality and registering voters in Louisiana, where he was arrested for his efforts. Hudson Review contributor Vernon Young described Kinnell as “a poet of the landscape, a poet of soliloquy, a poet of the city’s underside and a poet who speaks for thieves, pushcart vendors and lumberjacks with an unforced simulation of the vernacular.” His collection Selected Poems (1980) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. From 1989 to 1993, he was the Poet Laureate for the state of Vermont.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Dead End” Acts 16:6-15
We can imagine the Apostle Paul’s disappointment. The Jerusalem Council blessed his mission to the Gentiles. He left Antioch with big plans: to revisit the churches he had planted on his last missionary journey and then push on into new territory. But 750 miles into Paul’s second journey, it appeared that he was at a dead end. First, the Holy Spirit had turned him around in Asia, and then, the Spirit of Jesus had blocked his way in Bithynia. 750 miles on foot, that’s a long way to go on a dead-end road.
As Paul retreated to the busy seaport of Troas on the Aegean, he must have felt frustrated and grieved. He had gotten all the proper permissions. He had the best intentions. And still, it was a no-go. Even worse, he had dragged friends along on his folly: Silas, Timothy, and Luke. As the team bedded down for the night, Paul was certainly puzzled—maybe even a little angered—by God, who had called him to this great missionary purpose, yet thwarted his efforts at every new turn. It seemed that he had come to the end of the road.
We know how it feels to hit a dead end. We have been there in our personal lives. We’ve spent years in relationships with significant others who would never commit. We have had broken friendships that will never be mended. We have had family problems that just never get resolved.
We have hit dead ends in the workplace. Armed with a degree in our field of study, we step into a first job and find it is not at all what we had hoped or wanted. We’ve worked long years for businesses that fail. We’ve done our very best for our boss and still the promotion never comes.
Sometimes we hit a dead end with our bodies, our physical health. There’s the natural progression of age—we no longer have the legs for mountain climbing or the eyesight for fine needlework. Or a difficult diagnosis can have life-changing consequences, like medications with debilitating side-effects or doctor’s appointments rob us of our days off. Sometimes, our dead end leaves us hoping for a medical miracle.
We don’t like dead ends. At the dead end, we feel like failures and are filled with “if onlys.” If only I had apologized. If only I had accepted that other job. If only I had taken better care of myself when I was younger. At the dead end, we may wonder if we have wasted our best efforts. At the dead end, we may question God’s purpose and even God’s presence.
Paul must have felt a lot like that when he and his friends turned in for the night in Troas, lacking direction and wondering where to go. That night, Paul found new vision. A Greek man, a Macedonian from the heart of the old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, spoke to Paul. He pleaded for Paul’s help, calling the apostle to come over, to cross the Aegean Sea. The apostle awoke with the conviction that the message was from God almighty, who was calling him in an entirely new direction.
After sharing his vision with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, they all agreed, “Macedonia, here we come!” At first light, the men went down to the waterfront. They booked passage for Neapolis, the port city of Macedonia. As they set sail, a promising tailwind pushed them on to their destination in record time. As Paul and his friends stood on the deck with the wind at their backs and the ocean spray in their faces, it must have felt like a holy affirmation of their new direction.
On some days, it can feel hard to imagine that a fresh start awaits on the far side of our dead ends. It’s difficult to see past grief and heartache, pain and loss, doubts and fears. Dead ends really do feel lousy. Yet, dead ends can be turning points or unexpected twists in a journey that continues. Sometimes, when we take stock at the dead end, we find that we have grown through our experience. There is wisdom that comes with failure, insight gleaned from our dashed dreams, fresh understanding that grants patience when circumstances are beyond our control. We may not have a spectacular midnight vision from the Lord, but newness and possibility can emerge from the ash heap of our dead ends.
There is life for us beyond the dead ends in our personal lives. On the far-side of the dead end, we may find a new relationship or discover joy in the freedom of being unattached. We make new friends, tend those kinships better, and keep healthier boundaries. We find the possibility for peace, even when our family stays stuck. We may choose to make a family of our own with those who accept us as we are and support us in our growth.
There is possibility for us beyond the dead ends we find in the workplace. Beyond the dead end, we take the time to discern our gifts and learn how God would have us use those abilities in meaningful and productive ways. Or, we find a new job with different, more meaningful responsibilities, colleagues, and learning experiences. Or, we realize that life isn’t about a paycheck. We find fulfillment beyond the unfulfilling workplace in our families, pass times, and service to the community.
There are fresh starts for us beyond the dead ends of growing age and failing health. Indeed, the dead end of diminishing ability can lead to new interests. We trade the tennis racquet for the pickleball paddle. We trade mountain climbing for trail walking. On the far side of the dead end, we learn to live with that diagnosis. We replace the burgers and fries with grilled salmon and a fresh, leafy salad – and we may even learn to like it. We find the support we need to accept our limits in small groups and the prayers of faithful friends. Even when we must acknowledge the finitude of our days—the dead end that we will all one day meet, we savor the time we have, drink each day to the last drop, and trust that with God, there is always an eternal more that awaits us in that far brighter light on that far better shore
The Apostle Paul had one more twist on his missionary journey. He spent some days in Philippi without any success to speak of. On the Sabbath morning when he left the city and headed down to the river in search of an informal synagogue, he was probably wondering about the wisdom of this “new direction.” There had been no Macedonian man waiting to greet him. On the contrary, it was the Gentile woman Lydia, an affluent merchant of imperial cloth, whom he found, gathered with her household at the riverside to pray and meditate upon the Word.
Paul let go of his expectations and followed the Spirit’s lead. He shared the good news of Jesus and God’s love that is stronger than death. And Lydia followed the Spirit’s lead, too, with open ears, open heart, and an open home. Imagine the rejoicing on that riverbank, the shouts of “Alleluia!” “Amen!” and “Thanks be to God!” as Lydia was baptized, and Paul’s first church beyond the dead end was planted. Now, that’s what I call a new beginning.
Paul’s story speaks to us, we who have languished in the cul-de-sac of dead ends and second-guessed our new beginnings. Paul reminds us that our path and our purpose ultimately belong to God and we are never alone on the journey. We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, just as it is at work in others. God’s Spirit opens ears, opens hearts, and opens the way to the future that God holds ready. Beyond our dead ends, the Spirit beckons to us, “Come over.”
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 26, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Megan McDonough. “Dead Ends Are New Beginnings.” Accessed online at wholebeinginstitute.com.
Dixie Somers. “7 Dead Ends in Life and How to Avoid Them.” Accessed online at lifehack.org.
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed[b] there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Poem for a Tuesday — “How I Came to Have a Man’s Name”
by Emma Lee Warrior
“Before a January dawn, under a moondog sky, Yellow Dust hitched up a team to a straw-filled sleigh. Snow squeaked against the runners in reply to the crisp crackling cottonwoods. They bundled up bravely in buffalo robes, their figures pronounced by the white of night; the still distance of the Wolf Trail [Milky Way] greeted them, and Ipisowahs, the boy child of Natosi [the sun], and Kokomiikiisom [the moon], watched their hurry. My momma’s body was bent with pain. Otohkostskaksin [Yellow Dust] sensed the Morning Star’s presence so he beseeched him:
‘Aayo, Ipisowahs, you see us now, pitiful creatures. We are thankful there is no wind. We are thankful for your light. Guide us safely to our destination. May my daughter give birth in a warm place. May her baby be a boy; may he have your name. May he be fortunate because of your name. May he live long and be happy. Bestow your name upon him, Ipisowahs. His name will be Ipisowahs. Aayo, help us, we are pitiful.’
And Ipisowahs led them that icy night through the Old Man River Valley and out onto the frozen prairie. They made it to the hospital where my mother pushed me into the world and nobody bothered to change my name.”
in Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, ed. Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird. W.W. Norton: New York, 1997, p.73.
Emma Lee Warrior is Blackfoot. She was born in Brocket, Alberta and raised on the Peigan Reserve. Her grandparents were keepers of the Blackfoot traditions and language. Warrior remembers, “The main thing I learned from them was to be good to people and animals and to look forward to summer. Animals are our relations. People, animals, and nature were given to us by the Giver of Life.” She survived ten years at a residential boarding school.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Out of Bounds” Acts 11:1-18
Canadians were shocked last May by the news of unmarked graves at residential schools. 215 graves of indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian School in British Colombia. A few weeks later, 751 graves were discovered at a residential school in Saskatchewan. Those schools were part of a national policy of assimilation for First Nations’ children which was in place from 1869 until the 1990s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to state-sponsored Christian schools. There they received a basic education and the gospel. Seventy percent of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. Duncan Campbell Scott, who served as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and ran the boarding school program from 1912-1932, once said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
Those residential schools were often run by people with little training, empathy, or cultural sensitivity. 65-year-old John Jones recalls his experience as a 7-year-old, taken from his family on the Nahoose Nation and sent to the Alberni Residential School. There he was punished for speaking his native language or talking about his cultural heritage. At the residential school, John was subjected to daily physical punishment—paddled, slapped, and hit with belts. He remembers being regularly berated as a dirty, stupid, good-for-nothing Indian. He was sexually abused by a teacher who traded chocolate bars for illicit late-night visits.
The impact of the residential school system cannot be overstated. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that many of the 150,000 children who were sent to the schools were subjected to the same sort of abuse as John Jones. Thousands died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence have been rife among survivors. The Commission estimates that the 966 graves discovered last year are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing national tragedy. As Christians, it’s painful for us to hear of the church’s complicity in state-mandated assimilation. It hurts to imagine the gospel of Jesus Christ being shared in a shroud of cultural expectations and demands that have had such far-reaching, destructive consequences.
In our reading from Acts 11, Peter was in hot water for his cross-cultural sharing of the gospel. Peter’s mission had scandalized the Jewish believers because he had taken the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles of the very worst sort. Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Regiment, a leader of the foreign occupation of Israel. Not only had Peter preached to Cornelius and his substantial household, but he had also baptized them, stayed with them, instructed them, and eaten with them.
It’s this last transgression, sharing the table with Gentiles, that was most troubling to Peter’s Jerusalem colleagues. Keeping a kosher diet was an essential dimension of observing the Torah. Leviticus 11 made it clear that some foods were pleasing to God (clean) and some were not (unclean). Eating “clean” foods made the people of Israel holy as God is holy. Eating unclean Gentile foods, like shellfish or pork, was a sin against God which separated you from God and your Jewish neighbor. There was more to it. As an occupied nation, that Jewish diet was a symbol of resistance. Keeping a clean table reminded the people of Israel that they belonged to God, despite their social and political realities.
In his defense, Peter shared a systematic accounting of his actions. According to Peter, his every move had been a response to the initiative of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. God had sent that crazy vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with unclean beasts. God had commanded him to eat. God had sent a vision to the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, telling him to summon Peter. The Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius’s household, even before Peter had finished preaching. The whole mission had clearly been God’s initiative. Who was Peter to get in God’s way? There truly had been nothing left to do, other than to baptize, welcome, and affirm what God had already done.
As the apostles followed the Holy Spirit’s leading out of bounds and across the Roman Empire, one of the greatest struggles of the early church was determining what should be demanded of Gentile believers. Did they need to keep a kosher diet? Should they be circumcised? Should they be treated as second-class, lower tier Christians? Must they become Jews? After hearing Peter’s testimony, those earliest of Jewish believers in Jerusalem simply rejoiced and decided to follow the Spirit’s lead without any strings attached. That wide and inclusive welcome became official in Acts 15 when the Jerusalem Council gave its stamp of approval to Paul’s Gentile mission.
Over the centuries, as Christianity expanded and became enmeshed with the political power of empire and nation, we have struggled and sometimes failed to live into those accepting, welcoming, inclusive expectations of the Holy Spirit and the earliest church. We’ve often wrapped the gospel in a cloak of culture that demands assimilation. It played out on the geo-political stage from the moment that Constantine had a vision of the cross and sent his legions into battle with that symbol painted on their shields and the motto, “In this sign conquer.” We saw it as Galileo was forced to recant his scientific findings because they contradicted church teachings. We saw it as Spanish conquistadors forced indigenous captives to be baptized at the point of the sword. As a seminary student more than twenty years ago, I saw the devastating impact of forced assimilation first-hand, on Rose Bud and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church operated government-sponsored boarding schools.
The Apostle Peter might remind us that the Holy Spirit is always way out there ahead of us. We may want to draw lines and make demands, but salvation always rests in the initiative and power of God alone. As faithful people, our task is not to insist on a kosher diet or circumcision; our job is not to judge others and insist that they conform to our way of seeing and doing things; our role isn’t to separate children from their families and rob them of their culture. When the Holy Spirit takes us out of bounds, the best thing to do may be to get out of the way, to watch, to listen, to be uncomfortable, to learn, to support, to sit down at the table with folks and break bread. As Peter so eloquently said, if God gives others the same gift that God gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly hinder God?
Healing on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations has come slowly. Indigenous scholars like Albert Whitehat, Sr. learned again their Lakota language and developed curriculum so that it can be taught in schools. Addiction, which at its worst troubled 90% of reservation families, is slowly declining. Indigenous priests, pastors, and directors of religious education are sharing the gospel in new ways. In the suffering of Jesus on the cross, they see their own suffering. They know that their experience as an occupied nation, subjected to terrible abuse, is closer to the life of Christ than most of us could ever imagine. They know that Jesus walks with them.
Shortly after the residential school scandal broke in Canada last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Tribe, announced that the U.S. would be conducting its own investigation into our extensive history of Native American Boarding Schools, about half of which were federally funded but operated by churches. In 1926, 83% of our Native American children were in residential schools, some voluntarily, some forcibly removed from their homes. Just as in Canada, residential schools have had devastating consequences for Native American communities.
Dzbahe remembers the day in 1953 when her parents made the difficult decision to send her to a residential school and she left her Navajo home. At the school, her Navajo clothes and moccasins were taken and she was issued a uniform. Her hair was cut. She was forbidden to speak her language. Not knowing English or American customs, she was repeatedly punished for not doing what was expected of her. Even her Navajo name, Dzbahe, was taken away, and she was forced to respond to the new name Bessie Smith.
This week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report with findings from just 19 of the more than 400 US residential schools. That report included news of more than 500 unmarked graves of children at those 19 schools. The commission warns that as their work continues, the hidden deaths of indigenous children will rise into the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. Lord, have mercy.
1 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “From Sheep to Shepherd” Acts 9:36-43
The noise was deafening. Widows of every age surrounded me. Some cast back their heads in ululation. Others sobbed in lament. Some pressed upon me the work of her hands, pointing to a finely woven flax tunic, a weighty woolen shawl, or the fine tracery of crimson embroidery threaded along the cuff of a sleeve. “Help us, help us! Who will help us?” they pleaded. I looked over to the husband, who sat on a bench in the courtyard, nearly catatonic with grief.
I was still fairly new to this apostle thing. In fact, I had considered giving up after the resurrection. In all honesty, I had proven to be a fairly worthless disciple. I thought I knew it all. I slept when I should have been praying. I ran when I was needed to stand my ground. In the Chief Priest’s courtyard, I had cursed in fear and panic, insisting that I didn’t know the Lord, had never met him, had nothing to do with him. If the resurrection had convinced me of anything, it was of the greatness of God, the holiness of my Lord Jesus, and my utter worthlessness as a disciple.
In fact, I had returned to my home in Galilee and the familiar work of fishing. The waves on the water, the heft of the net in my hands, the rise and fall of the boat under sail. But I had proven to be a failure even at what was my birthright. Then, in the early morning on the rocky shore with the smoke of the charcoal fire in my eyes and the taste of grilled fish and fresh bread on my tongue, the risen Lord had restored me to my purpose. “Do you love me?” he asked. “Tend my flock,” he commanded. For the love of Jesus, I was trying.
Now if ever there were sheep without a shepherd, these women were it. Across the Great Sea, the Greeks and Romans do things differently, but here we live by the Old Ways. Our women do not have inheritance rights. The death of a husband or a grown son leaves a woman at the mercy of a new patriarch, and some are by no means merciful. That was obvious. A toothless crone with two canes wailed at my elbow. A cross-eyed woman with an addled brain babbled for my attention. An emaciated young mother, with two small children clinging to her skirt, sobbed hopelessly. A bald woman with a goiter the size of a pomegranate held up an intricately woven kerchief.
From their stories, it was clear that Tabitha – or I should say Dorcas – had been their shepherd. She had clothed them, fed them, and provided for them from her own purse. Her death was a tragedy for all. It started with a cough, followed by the spike of a fever. Her breathing had grown labored, her breath fetid. Within a few days, she was gone. Now these lost sheep surrounded me with their tears and the ridiculous expectation that I should raise the dead. They pushed me up the stairs, shoved me into the upper room, closed the door, and continued their non-stop racket.
The room was dark. I crossed to the window, parted the curtains, and opened the shutters, flooding the room with light and a sea breeze. Near the window, where the light was the best, stood a loom, threaded with a work in progress. Across the room, the body lay on a bed, shrouded by a woolen pall. I peeled back the cloth. Dark curls, like soft clouds, surrounded a kind face with creases left behind by years of smiles. She wore a simple linen tunic. Her hands were folded on her chest above her heart and she held an olive-wood cross. So natural and peaceful. I placed my hand on hers and shrank back from the cold flesh, inert and lifeless.
I began to pace, as is often the case when I am worried, anxious, or angry. What was I doing? Who was I to raise the dead? What would happen when I failed, as I undoubtedly would? I had agreed to tend the flock, but I didn’t sign up for this. All those expectations of the keening widows pressed in on me. I felt like I was the one wrapped in a pall, a shroud of their lament. I began to hyperventilate. “Feed my sheep?” I wheezed. “Thanks a lot, Jesus.”
“What seems to be the problem, Peter?” I knew that voice better than my own. He stood with his back to the window, his face in shadows. The sunshine, flooding into the room, seemed to shimmer and surge around his silhouette. I stopped hyperventilating.
“Jesus!” I shouted, half-angry, half-relieved. “C’mon. you don’t expect me to raise this woman. Do you? I can’t do it! I can’t!” It may have been my imagination, but the wailing in the hallway outside the room seemed to escalate.
Jesus nodded, as he often did when I stated the obvious. “No, you can’t do it, Peter.”
This wasn’t helping my confidence at all. I paced some more while he watched. I stopped and pointed at him accusingly, “You could do it! You raised Jairus’s daughter. I was there. I saw her smile. I saw her stretch her arms up to be held. How about the widow of Nain’s son, hopping off his funeral byre as if her were embarrassed to be caught napping? Remember, Lazarus? Three-days-dead and stinking, you called him out of the tomb. You can do it! You can do it! But I’m not you.”
Jesus agreed, “No, you’re not.”
I paced some more. I couldn’t do it, but Jesus could. I shot a look at him where he was now leaning with an elbow on the window sill, and I swear, he raised his eyebrows like he does when he is waiting for me to draw an obvious conclusion. I stopped.
“Are you really here, Lord?”
Now, he was smiling. “Didn’t I promise to be with you always, Peter, even to the end of the age?”
He had made that promise. He had even sent his Holy Spirit as a perpetual reminder. As Jesus pushed away from the window and took a step closer to me, I felt the Spirit ripple within me. It was obvious. I turned away from Jesus and looked over at the peaceful and thoroughly dead Tabitha—or should I say Dorcas? “I can’t do it,” I said again, “but you can.”
I moved toward the bed. The sun warmed my back and moved along my limbs. I stepped closer still to the body and my shadow fell across her face. I raised my arms with power and words of authority that were mine, but not mine, sounded loud. “Tabitha! Get up!”
The first thing I noticed was the slow throb of a vein, pulsing at her temple. Next, her chest began to gently rise and fall with the soft swell of her breath. Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn and a hand fluttered up to cover it. Here eyelids blinked open, once, twice. “O, Jesus! You came!” she smiled.
I whirled around to see if the Lord was still behind me at the window. The room was empty. The curtains fluttered in the sea breeze, the threads dangling from the loom danced in the shifting air. Beyond the door, the keening of the women was undiminished and someone had broken out a shofar, blowing long, slow, mournful notes.
I bent down and took the hand of the no-longer-dead woman. She was still clutching the olive wood cross but had kicked off the woolen shroud and was wiggling her toes. I helped her up. “Sister,” I said to the puzzled Tabitha, “I know some people who will be happy to see you.”
As I opened the door and guided her through, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then, mourning shifted to joy. There were glad shouts of recognition and fervent alleluias. Tears of joy streamed down jubilant faces. The crone brandished her canes in celebration. The fool sang a psalm of rejoicing. The two children danced, hand-in-hand with their mother. The woman with the goiter could only repeat, again and again, “Glory be to the great God of Israel, holy be His name!” Arms reached out to Tabitha, touching, hugging, holding. Tabitha was swept downstairs and out into the streets in a parade of rejoicing that they are still talking about in Joppa to this day.
I lingered in the upper room, leaning against the sill where the Lord’s elbow had rested, watching the celebration on the street below. I still felt that I was not very good at this apostle thing. Thank goodness that no one had been in the room with me to witness my panic. But I learned that it is not so much about me as it is about Jesus. Nine times out of ten, I can’t do what is asked of me. I can’t rise to the expectations that they have for me. But Jesus can, and even when I walk through the darkest valley, he is with me.
Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season. The sanctuary is still decked in Easter white, but the lilies are beginning to fade. The Easter crowd has ebbed and may not be seen again until Christmas Eve. Yet, we have rejoiced together and affirmed that Jesus has risen and God has won the victory over sin and death. So, what are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? Our reading from John’s gospel suggests that Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in Christ’s purpose.
What’s next? That question must have been on Peter’s mind. After the disciples encountered the risen Lord on Easter evening, they had made their way back to the Galilee. After the chaos and trauma of Good Friday, Peter must have felt the comforting pull of the familiar, and so he returned to the well-known rhythms of fishing. With six of his friends, he climbed into a boat, pushed out into deep water, and spent a fruitless night casting his nets.
As the sun rose above the Golan Heights, Jesus stood on the beach and guided his friends to a surprisingly bountiful catch. When the disciples returned to shore, Jesus knew that folks who have been out all night long, rowing and towing a drag net, need to be fed, so he invited them to a breakfast of bread and fish, grilled on a charcoal fire. Have you ever noticed how good food tastes when it is fresh, simply prepared, and eaten outdoors? As the disciples filled their bellies in Jesus’s good company, I suspect they felt “fed” in more ways than one.
We all need to be fed. If life is a spiritual journey, then we need good food to sustain us along the Way. In our Lenten Study this year, a dozen of us considered what sustains us along life’s spiritual journey. We all need nourishment. We all need ways in which we connect with God — because it is there that we find the refreshment and energy that are needed to live faithfully. In fact, the class brainstormed a list of things that are bread for our journey. On the list were worship, scripture, the Lord’s Supper, meditation and prayer, fellowship, nature, the arts, and more. How are you fed for the spiritual journey? This Easter season invites us to know the risen Lord and to deepen our relationship with him. As we spend time with Jesus — in church, with others, or in nature — we are filled and energized.
I am certain that, as Peter enjoyed that fish breakfast on the beach with Jesus, the apostle was struggling with guilt and shame. After all, he had promised to follow Jesus, even if the way led to suffering and death. But on the night of Jesus’s arrest, fear had gotten the better of Peter. The last time that Peter had warmed his hands at a charcoal fire, he had been in the courtyard of the high priest. There he had repeatedly and vehemently denied even knowing Jesus. Jesus, seeing his friend’s inner turmoil, gave Peter a second, third, and fourth chance—a Mulligan, a “do-over.” Peter found much-needed grace and forgiveness as he affirmed his love for Jesus three times. It was the perfect, poignant remedy to those three haunting denials.
We all need mercy and grace. We may not have denied Jesus three times to save our own skin, but we all stumble and fall short in right living. We have treated our relationship with Jesus as an after-thought to be sprinkled around the edges of our lives at our personal convenience. We have made mistakes in our personal lives. We have been impatient with our spouse, insensitive to our children, or unavailable for our friends. We have remained silent at injustice, indifferent to suffering, and unwilling to share with those who need our help, compassion, and generosity. Where do you need grace this morning? In this Easter season, we remember the enormity of God’s love for us. If Christ can forgive a repentant thief, his executioners, and the Apostle Peter, then we can trust that Jesus forgives us. In this Easter season, we can trust that grace and forgiveness abound for us.
As Peter was fed and forgiven, he learned that Jesus had a purpose for him. The Lord asked Peter to feed and tend the flock that was being entrusted to his care. Through Peter, Jesus would continue to reach out, heal, and bless a world that was desperately hungry for good news. When we read the Book of Acts, we note that Peter answered that calling. Peter would heal a lame beggar on the doorstep of the Temple. He would raise from the dead the beloved Dorcas, who had so generously cared for the widows of Joppa. Peter would venture into enemy territory, taking the gospel to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea. Through Peter, and those other disciples who answered Jesus’s call, Christ’s love would be made known and shared from one side of the Roman Empire to the other.
Jesus continues to entrust his ministry to flawed people like Peter, to flawed people like us. Jesus’s flock needs faithful people who will love and feed them, and the Lord trusts that we, too, will reach out with healing, help, and blessing for neighbors who hunger for good news. When we plant the church garden and we bring food offerings to the pack basket at the side entrance, the flock gets fed. And when we pray for others in the Prayers of the People or share concerns with the Prayer Chain, the flock is tended. When the deacons reach out with calls and cards, or we invite a hurting friend to church, the flock is blessed. In this Easter season, we find our purpose and fulfill our calling when we answer Christ’s call to love and serve the neighbors that he entrusts to us.
What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season. What are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? According to Jesus, Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in his purpose. May it be so.
21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making all things new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
We’re not the same. My church, like just about everything else, has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s more than taking a break from congregational singing, missing friends who are still minding their social distance, and the presence of a camera in worship. You might even say that many churches have been hauled, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century. We have mastered new technology, found new ways to communicate, and grown adept at the use of social media. While much of what is familiar and comfortable persists, it’s a brave new world out there for churches. God is doing a new thing.
Recognizing that small churches need to change or will decline, the PC(USA) Synod of the Northeast has sponsored an innovative grant: Hybrid Outreach for Small Churches. Congregations in seven Presbyteries have been selected to work with a consultant for a year, who will coach them on reaching out in new ways. This church is blessed to be one of the seven churches chosen to participate.
Our consultant John Fong is a swirl of creativity, bold ideas, and encouragement. He also loves to laugh. John believes in evangelism for a new age that invites others to come along on our faith journey through simple acts of kindness and friendship.
If you are wondering what that might look like, consider our Palm Sunday Resurrection Gardens craft—church families and friends made table-top gardens that represent the events of Holy Week. Half of the people who made gardens at church or at home were members, and half were not, drawn into the life of the church through personal invitations and the power of Facebook. In fact, our Facebook post about the project went viral, reaching more than 2,000 people. Now, that’s some serious outreach.
I’m joined in our hybrid outreach work by Elder Chenelle Palyswiat and some of the church’s communication mavens—Peter Wilson, Anita Estling, and Duane Gould. We’ve got more projects in the pipeline, like a “Grow-a-Row” initiative to invite local gardeners to join us in growing veggies for the Food Pantry. We’re also planning a “Cookie Bomb.” Yes, it is just as exciting and delicious as it sounds. Just wait and see.
As we emerge from the chaos of pandemic, God is doing a new thing in and through us. It sounds like the work of the risen Lord, who promises to make all things new. May the Lord be doing new — and blessed — things for you and your faith community, too.
“Begin the Day”
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
“Begin each morning with a talk to God,
And ask for your divine inheritance
Of usefulness, contentment, and success.
Resign all fear, all doubt, and all despair.
The stars doubt not, and they are undismayed,
Though whirled through space for countless centuries,
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “An Idle Tale” Luke 24:1-12
I was warned when I first came to Saranac Lake that I should NOT expect a full church on Easter. At the other three churches that I have served, Easter Sunday is a lot like Christmas Eve with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, belting out beloved hymns, and eagerly sharing “Alleluias!” But Saranac Lake? Not so much. Snowbirds have flown south for the winter to stay until May for fear of the dreaded Easter-snow. The two-week-long school break surrounds Easter, and families weary of winter and sick of mud season leave the North Country in stunning numbers to bask their alabaster flesh in the warm glow of Florida sun. The past few years have been complicated by COVID, sending us online instead of into the pews to celebrate the resurrection. On Easter Sunday, many of our friends are missing.
But this Easter, I’ve been thinking about those other people who are NOT in church—the unchurched. They may be like Brittney, a twenty-something young adult raised in church who never made an adult connection to a local congregation in her new community. On Easter morning, she is still in her jammies, reading a good book or facetiming with a college friend. The unchurched may be like Tim and Cindy, once faithful attenders at a Catholic Church until the clergy sexual abuse scandal shattered their trust in the institutional church. On Easter morning, they sleep in, read the New York Times, and have brunch. The unchurched may be like Mitchell. He has only been in church for weddings and funerals, occasions when he feels uncomfortable and out of place. On Easter morning, he is up early to watch soccer on tv. He wears the jersey of his favorite team, and from his man cave, his wife and children can hear the shouts of victory and the groans of defeat. For people like Brittney, Tim and Cindy, and Mitchell, Easter sounds like an idle tale—fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe.
The women on that first Easter morning were accused of telling an idle tale. They traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. They hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel. Many of them had been helped and healed by his miraculous power. But on Friday they witnessed their rabbi being beaten, abused, and crucified. They heard his dying words. They saw the blood and water pour from his side. They watched while Joseph of Arimathea claimed the body, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a newly cut tomb. They retreated to the place where they were staying to prepare the spices and ointments. They prayed and wept all through the sabbath day. Then, early in the deep dawn, when the sun was just a rosy hint lingering below the horizon, they gathered their precious oils and walked through the streets of the city to offer a final kindness to the man they loved, anointing his body for the grave.
At the tomb, the women expected death. Afterall, they had seen it with their own eyes. But something fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe, awaited them. The stone was rolled away. The body was gone. While they inspected the grave, bowed down with grief and confusion, holy messengers burst in upon them, reminding them of Jesus’ promise of resurrection and challenging them with the question “Why do you look for the one who lives among the dead?”
Amid the women’s puzzlement and grief, a certainty began to glow like a spark rising from the ashes: Jesus is alive. In the mixed joy and terror of that belief, they ran through the streets of the waking city and burst into the room where the disciples were still rubbing sleep from their eyes. All of them began to speak their truth at once, voices rising and falling, alleluias ringing, tears flowing, “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Perhaps we can forgive the disciples for presuming that what the women had to say was an “idle tale,” stuff and nonsense, a fevered delirium. After all, the men had just woken up. And they lived in a world where what women had to say couldn’t be admitted as evidence in a court of law. And according to Luke, there were a lot of women saying the same wild stuff: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and all those other women who had loved Jesus, provided for him from their purses, and traveled with him throughout his ministry. All that joy, excitement, and hope that flooded in upon the disciples’ grief and shame made no sense whatsoever. So, the men failed to remember what Jesus had promised and they refused to believe. They hushed the women and went back to their dark thoughts and bleak world.
Even if we think that the disciples were embarrassingly clueless on that first Easter morning, we get it. We expect death. We have buried our parents and our dear friends. Sometimes on a day when the world turns black, we bury a child. We know the death of relationships. Marriages grow cold. Friendships end in nonsensical arguments. Neighbors disconnect over perceived slights or differences of political opinion. We know the death of opportunity. The promotion never comes. The degree is never earned. The pink slip arrives when we’re too old to start over. We know death writ large on the world stage. Russia invades Ukraine. Our wild world fails with mass extinction. Hunger walks the land in Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan. We expect death, preoccupied by our dark thoughts and bleak world. On some days, we can be just as resistant as the disciples to the truth that the women spoke, all those years ago.
On Easter morning, an empty tomb, two holy messengers, and a group of faithful women dare to tell us that death does not have the final word. Don’t get me wrong. Death is real. Pain is fierce. Loss can be overwhelming. Some days, we are bowed down to the ground in grief. Yet, God in a lonely tomb in the pre-dawn dark of Easter morning broke the power of sin and death. All the evil, grief, and sin of this world cannot keep Jesus down. Love wins the day. Jesus rises. The tomb is empty. God brings life out of death and reconciliation out of division. New beginnings spring from impossible endings. It is fantastic, mysterious, and on some days, hard to believe. But that’s what God does. Alleluia!
That news is so good that it can be mistaken for an idle tale. But the truth is proven in the living. When we join those women in saying “Yes!” to what God has done in Jesus, we find the possibility of new life. We are changed, just as the women were changed. We rise up with the courage to live with love and reconciliation in a broken and dying world. We move beyond our grief. We reach out a hand in forgiveness. We ask to be forgiven. We make a fresh start. We call for peace. We care for the planet. We feed the hungry. We become hope for the hopeless and food for the hungry of heart. The world is waiting for an Easter transformation. That can only take shape if we dare to speak our truth to those who may dismiss us as bearers of idle tales.
So, let’s do it. Let’s reach out to the Brittney’s we know, those twenty-somethings who haven’t been back to church since they left home. Let’s remind them of the love, connection, and encouragement that are such a special part of being a church family.
Let’s reach out to friends like Tim and Cindy, alienated by the sexual misconduct of those who had been entrusted with their spiritual care. Let’s remind them that God’s heart breaks along with theirs and there are other churches where the love of God is practiced sincerely in word and deed.
Let’s reach out to the Mitchells of this world. They may never feel comfortable coming to church, but they may see Jesus. Every time we share the love of Christ with fresh produce for the Food Pantry, shallow wells for Africa, or a prayer shawl in a time of crisis, we bear a quiet and powerful witness to the transforming, unstoppable love of God and the truth of Easter. Someday, people like Mitchell might even be a little like the disciple Peter. They could turn off the Sunday morning sports and venture forth to see for themselves, to look at the evidence and be amazed, even if they aren’t yet willing to accept the truth.
We’ve got a tale to tell, my friends. Some call it idle, but we know better. What are we waiting for? Next Easter, we might just have a few more people in the pews. Alleluia!
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
April 24th is the Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. Beginning in 1915, inspired by nationalism and government scapegoating, Ottoman Turks drove ethnic Armenians from their homes and massacred them. Outside observers at the time described what was happening as “a massacre like none other,” “a massacre that changes the meaning of massacre.” Historians suggest that one million Armenian people were killed, often in unspeakably cruel ways. Those who weren’t murdered, were forcibly deported and marched to their deaths in the deserts of Syria. At the time, a number of influential people spoke out against these atrocities, including the British poet William Watson, who publicly decried England’s failure to come to the aid of the Armenian people. In his poem, “The Plague of Apathy,” Watson wrote,
“No tears are left; we have quickly spent that store!
Indifference like a dewless night hath come.
From wintry sea to sea the land lies numb.
With palsy of the spirit stricken sore,
The land lies numb from iron shore to shore.
The unconcerned, they flourish: loud are some,
And without shame. The multitude stand dumb.
The England that we vaunted is no more.
Only the witling’s sneer, the worldling’s smile,
The weakling’s tremors, fail him not who fain
Would rouse to heroic deed. And all the while,
A homeless people, in their mortal pain,
Toward one far and famous ocean isle
Stretch hands of prayer, and stretch those hands in vain.”
The willingness to passively stand by while mass murder is committed is endemic of the seventh deadly sin: sloth.
Sloth has been traditionally known in the Christian tradition as acedia, from the Greek word for failure to care. According to Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a “facetiousness” or “sluggishness” of the mind that keeps us from loving God and neighbor. Prayer and worship are too toilsome. Deeds of lovingkindness toward others are too much bother. While the other six deadly sins are sins of commission, sloth is a sin of omission. We fail to do what we know is right and best. Poet Dante Alighieri envisioned those who are slothful in the fourth circle of his inferno. There, in endless punishment for their failure to act in life, they are made to run eternally in death.
Nowadays, the word sloth is more likely to prompt images of a slow-moving South American mammal than a deadly sin. Better words for our contemporary understanding of sloth are apathy, laziness, procrastination, distraction, idleness, and “I don’t feel like it.” In her essay on sloth, English author Dorothy Sayer said, “It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” When we are in the grip of sloth, we do not use our God-given gifts, and we fail to pursue God’s purpose. All our talent, all the difference that we could make in this world, simply goes to waste. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters wrote that sloth is “the safest way to Hell—the gradual, gentle slope, soft underfoot without sudden turnings, milestones, or signposts.”
Editor and theologian Brad Littlejohn warns that we live in the age of acedia, the age of sloth. Our love for God and neighbor has been usurped by “momentary pleasures, distractions, and stimulations.” We surf the internet rather than read a good book. We check our smartphones instead of enjoying the company of a friend or beloved one. On Sunday morning, we’d much rather sleep in than worship God. In the age of apathy, vulnerable minorities are stripped of voting rights without a public outcry, refugees languish in the no-man’s-land of camps, domestic violence goes unreported, and we lack the political will to stop school shootings.
Our scriptural paradigm of sloth takes place on the night of Jesus’ arrest. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, grieved and agitated, anticipates the evil that will soon befall him. He implores his most trusted of friends—Peter, James, and John. He asks them to watch with him, to pray for him in his distress. Yet, again and again and again, the disciples sleep. They leave Jesus to face his darkest hour on his own. They fail in empathy, care and even the most basic of courtesies. How lonely Jesus must have felt!
The remedy for our sloth is the virtue of diligence. We are diligent when we practice careful and persistent effort. Diligence is tenacity, consistency, perseverance, commitment, and dedication. When we are diligent, we make a constant and earnest effort to accomplish whatever we undertake, regardless of the circumstance. Diligence is the resolve to live each day with love for God and love for neighbor, not just as a spiritual disposition but as a course of action. We work toward what is right in the right way for the right reason. The mantra of the diligent person is, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
We all know diligent people. They may be scrappy, like paralegal Erin Brokovich, who learned about groundwater contamination in a California town, and built a winning legal case against Pacific Gas and Electric. Diligent students may not have the highest IQ, but they often get the best grades because they are willing to work hard to learn and excel. Diligent workers are the kind of people we can entrust with a project and know that they will see it through to completion, even if they encounter big obstacles along the way.
Jesus believed in the importance of diligence, especially in our spiritual life. His Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) is a lesson in diligence. Jesus described a vulnerable widow who had been denied justice. While most women would walk away, Jesus’ widow wouldn’t give up the fight. Her judge was thoroughly corrupt, but the widow was so relentlessly persistent that he eventually gave in, just to shut her up. Justice was served, only because the widow insisted. Jesus suggests that we need to bring that same relentless effort to our relationship with God.
We build diligence when we reignite our love for God with worship, prayer, spiritual reading, and meditation. We can also take time for appreciation and gratitude. Take a few moments each day to savor God’s blessings for us: the beauty of creation and the goodness of friends and family. We can ask the Holy Spirit to be at work within us, to kindle our hearts and imaginations, to give us eyes to see the neighbors whom Jesus would have us love.
Educators have learned that mutual support is vital for the formation of diligence. Students, who have the support, encouragement, and positive expectations of teachers, parents, and classmates, grow in diligence and excel in the school and beyond. Likewise, we can seek out the people we need in our corner, people who will help us to stick with it and hang tough.
Perhaps the most essential way to grow in diligence is to notice what distracts us and do something about it. Does too much nightly news shut you down and make you throw up your hands? Then limit what you watch and explore some different media outlets. Does your cellphone get in the way of quality time with family? Turn it off. Is social media driving your bus? Try fasting from your favorite apps for a day, a week, maybe even a month. When all else fails, we can simply pray that greatest of commandments: “Lord, show me how you would have me love you, love my neighbors, and maybe even love myself.”
Researchers say that diligence, when practiced consistently, is rewarding. When we use our God-given gifts and we pursue God’s call for our lives, we experience joy. We believe we have a purpose, and we feel that we are making a difference. That joy finds us, even when we encounter difficulties. In fact, as we meet and beat those challenges, we grow in our gifts and purpose. We feel more connected to God, and more connected to others. I want to get me some of that. How about you?
To circle back to the start of my message and William Watson’s condemnation of his nation’s sloth at the genocide of the Armenian people, I suspect that the next mass murder of humanity is going on even as I speak to you on this Maundy Thursday evening. It’s happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It’s befalling the Karenni people in Myanmar. It could be happening in Ukraine. Perhaps it is unfolding on our city streets and in our public schools as we numbly hear news of yet another mass shooting. Let’s not let sloth get the better of us. Be diligent, my friends.
Matthew 26: 17-30, 36-46
17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
20 When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21 and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 25 Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Monsignor Charles Pope leads a weekly Bible Study at the White House for President Biden. In more than thirty years of parish ministry, Charles Pope has spent a lot of time in the confessional, hearing sins and prescribing penance. Father Pope says that greed is the most under-reported of sins. We tend to think that everyone else is greedy, but we never think that we make too much money or have too much stuff. Faith leaders in the Protestant tradition say the same thing. Rev. Tim Keller, the well-known author and longtime pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, relates that he once led a weekly Bible Study on the Seven Deadly Sins. The week that the study was least attended was the one when he taught about greed. Keller says, “Maybe the best sign of greed is that you aren’t willing to even admit the possibility that you are enslaved to it.”
Greed is the artificial, rapacious desire for and pursuit of wealth and possessions. Two of the Ten Commandments speak to greed: the prohibitions on stealing and covetousness. In the gospels, greed is the sin that Jesus most frequently spoke against, from his warning to tax collectors against collecting more than authorized (Lk 3:13) to his Parable of the Rich Fool, which reminds us that we can’t take it with us and we are truly fools if our worldly goods are more important than our relationship with God (Lk 12:13-21). Indeed, Jesus saw wealth as an idol, cautioning that we cannot serve God and Mammon.
Throughout the Christian tradition, we have been warned about the dangers of greed. Thomas Aquinas believed that greed is a three-fold sin. Greed is a sin against neighbor because one man’s riches cannot over-bound without another man being in need. Greed is a sin against the self because our “affections are disordered” by loving and delighting in material things. And greed is a sin against God because we scorn the eternal for our love of the temporal. Dante’s Inferno places greedy souls in the fourth Circle of Hell, where misers, hoarders, and spendthrifts eternally battle one another. Martin Luther was especially concerned with greed, calling those who are avaricious “money gluttons.” According to Luther, the greedy man “would have the whole world perish of hunger and thirst, misery and want, so far as in him lies, so that he may have all to himself, and everyone may receive from him as from God, and be his serfs forever.”
Our contemporary understanding of greed takes into account its destructive nature, as well as its acceptance. Psychologist Erich Fromm saw greed as “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” We may be blind to our own greed and the greed of others, thanks to our cultural context. We are constantly barraged by marketing that tells us that love is revealed in the gift of a diamond that is forever or a brand-new car with a big bow on top delivered on Christmas morning. Who doesn’t want to be loving? Only 2% of Americans think we are wealthy “upper class” people, but on a world stage, we are wealthy beyond the imagining of most.
We also tend to confuse our wants with our needs, and so the more we earn, the more we spend. Not many of us are like billionaire Warren Buffet who still lives in the same home in Omaha that he bought in 1958. Instead, more money means more expense, whether we are socking it away in our retirement nest egg, driving a better car, or moving into that nicer neighborhood. Our growing affluence isn’t necessarily good for others. A shocking 2008 study discovered the radical generosity of the poor. Researchers found that 60% of Americans who live in poverty give their money and time to help others while only 32% of people who live above the poverty line are willing to share. Author, editor, and theologian Brad Littlejohn teaches that greed is spiritually dangerous because it leads to a false sense of security and an inward-focused self-absorption that allows us to ignore the needs of others.
Our biblical paradigm for greed is Judas. In today’s gospel reading, the Lord would soon be arrested, tortured, and executed. But that night, Mary of Bethany did something beautiful. She anointed Jesus with precious oil of nard, all the way from the Himalayas, purchased at great price. It was a decadent act of generous love. The indignant Judas denounced Mary before the disciples. Although he claimed he was advocating on behalf of the poor, Luke tells us that Judas was greedy. The money spent on that costly anointing could have lined his pockets. Within the week, Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He is the poster child for greed, alienated from his better self, robbing the poor, rejecting the love of Christ, and denying the authority of God.
We’ll be relieved to hear that the remedy for greed is not poverty. It’s generosity, the virtue of being liberal in giving. Jesus expected his followers to be generous. He instructed them to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Lk 12:33-34). Aristotle taught that generosity is the noble and appropriate mean between two opposing extremes—stinginess and wastefulness. Aquinas saw generosity as a dimension of agape (charitas), the generous love that Jesus taught us, the love that always gives in the best interest of the other. Martin Luther encouraged generosity, saying, “Possessions belong in your hands, not in your heart.”
Our biblical example of generosity is the poor widow. You may remember that during Holy Week, Jesus took a seat in the Temple to watch folks deposit their offering in the treasury. Many costly gifts were given, yet the gift that excited Jesus the most was two small coins (copper mites or leptons), given by an impoverished widow. The Lord praised her generosity, because it was an offering of all she had and all she was—her whole self (Lk 21:1-4). We remember that Jesus was likewise unfailingly generous, sharing freely of himself to heal, help, and feed his neighbors. Truly, Holy Week reminds us that Jesus made the greatest gift of all, laying down his life in the ultimate object lesson of God’s generous love for us.
The bad news is that Americans are not as generous as we like to think. 2/3 of us believe that it is important to be generous, yet about half of us give nothing at all to charity. Only 17% of Americans give habitually, building it into their budget. Only 16% of Americans make generosity part of their long-term plans, like estate planning and legacy gifts. The definitive survey on Christian giving by sociologists Smith, Emerson, and Herzog learned that adults who do not witness generosity as children, do not practice generosity as grown-ups. They also found that if American Christians gave in keeping with their income, they would give between $46-85 billion more each year—a generosity that could forever change our communities, where churches remain at the heart of helping vulnerable neighbors and transforming lives.
The good news is that generosity can be learned, cultivated, and grown. Sociologists point out that being consistently generous involves planning. It’s a habit that we can intentionally build into busy lives. This could involve making a formal financial pledge to the charitable concerns that we wish to support, or it could also look like putting dates for volunteering on the calendar. Studies have found that giving, both in treasure and time, grows when it is routinized and becomes a habit.
The social scientists say that we are in the right place to become more generous: church. Local churches are consistent “climates of giving,” places where financial gifts meet known community needs. We get personally involved in ministries, missions, and volunteer opportunities that reinforce the “virtuous cycle” of generosity. We find that being generous is rewarding because we see the difference that we make in the world, and we become part of a supportive, giving-oriented web of relationships that grows with time. Within churches, our teamwork builds caring, friendship, and generosity.
Generosity is also grown when we practice it in families and teach it to our children and grandchildren. Generous parents make for generous kids. The family that talks about the importance of generosity and practices it together by using those fish banks for OGHS or participating in the Souper Bowl of Caring or walking together in the CROP Walk, these families create a home environment where generosity becomes part of our mental make-up. Those generous kids grow up to believe that they can and will make a caring difference that can transform the world through their personal generosity.
When we get the better of our greed by growing our generosity, not only does the world become a better and more equitable place, we also return to right relationship with God and with neighbor. Prof. Will Mari of Louisiana State University, reminds us that it’s not just our stuff that is not our own, it’s our whole lives. Truly, all we have and all we are is God’s gracious gift. We find ultimate meaning when we devote ourselves to a generosity and service that is “good, godly, and healthy.” Generosity poises us to live the life that God would have us live — open to what may come. C.S. Lewis in a letter to his dear friend Arthur Greeves in Dec. 1943 wrote, “The great thing about life is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things [that come along] as interruptions of life. The truth is that what I call interruptions are real life—the life God is sending me day by day.” What is the life that God is sending to us?
God is so generous to us, my friends. May we live with open hands, open hearts, and open hours, sharing generously of ourselves to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor.
Will Mari. “The Only Bright Spot in American Giving” in Christianity Today, Nov. 30, 2017. Accessed online at christianitytoday.com.
Marika Suval. “Just How Generous Are Americans Really?” on Wisconsin Public Radio, March 9, 2016. Accessed online at www.wpr.org/listen/892341
W. Bradford Littlejohn. “The 7 Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 3. Greed” in Reformation 21, Nov. 24, 2014. Accessed online at www.reformation21.org.
Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Greed” in Community in Mission, April 2, 2019. Accessed online at blog.adw.org
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”