Your Lord Is Coming

Sabbath Day Thoughts “Your Lord Is Coming” Matthew 24:36-44

The Christmas preparations are underway.  No sooner had the Thanksgiving dishes been washed than the Black Friday shopping began. We can’t wait for Sparkle Village crafts next weekend.  We are hanging wreaths purchased to benefit the Youth Center, the holiday decorations are emerging from their attic lair, and our Nutcracker or holiday concert tickets have been purchased.  We are emerging from our COVID cloud and seeking a little holiday normalcy.

Here at the church, the signs of a new liturgical year are evident. The paraments have gone purple, the Advent devotionals are ready for your perusal, and the Advent wreath has a first purple candle glowing. The church calendar is bristling with Advent Study and kid’s pageant, special services and an evening of music and storytelling.  It’s beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas than it has since 2019.

 Not everyone is ready or eager for Christmas this year. In fact, these Advent weeks of preparation and anticipation may feel at odds with inner feelings of loss, fear, or even hopelessness for some. Some of us are mourning the loss of beloved ones.  We are bitterly and painfully aware of who will not be at the holiday table this year.  Some of us are living with big health concerns that leave us feeling lousy and a little cranky and not in the mood for all the falalalalalalalala. Others of us are feeling the pinch of inflation and economic hardship. We wonder if we can afford a merry Christmas without taking on a mountain of debt.  For some of us, this year’s holiday season confronts us with grief, uncertainty, and perhaps even hopelessness.

When Jesus first shared the unsettling words of our gospel reading, his disciples were gathered around him on the Mount of Olives.  They looked out across the Kidron Valley to see the Temple, perched at the apex of Jerusalem.  The Passover was near.  Jesus had been teaching and preaching some powerful sermons on the southern teaching steps of the Temple, and already it was clear that things weren’t going to go so well that week.  Powerful enemies were plotting to kill Jesus.  Just that afternoon, Jesus had given his opponents the perfect reason to sign the warrant for his arrest by foretelling the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. 

Jesus’ friends welcomed the apocalyptic words that he shared in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel.  They would have felt comforted by the promise of God’s coming kingdom.  The disciples were powerless against Rome, Herod, and the Temple, but the promise of the Son of Man coming in glory to prevail over the powers of this world must have stirred hope in their hearts.  God had a plan and would ultimately prevail.

Nowadays, hope might not be the first thing we feel when we hear Jesus’ promise of an unexpected Second Coming.  It sounds scary, like a zombie apocalypse or a scene out of that Christian fantasy series “Left Behind.”  Some of our discomfort stems from the images that Jesus used to describe the advent of the Son of Man: destructive flood waters, mysterious disappearances, and thieves breaking into our homes.  Any one of those metaphors might set our hearts racing, but sandwich all three together to make a point, and it’s downright frightening.  It’s important to remember that Jesus was using a first century teaching style called hyperbole; he was ratcheting up the rhetoric to stress the importance of his point.

Jesus knew what awaited him at the end of the week – arrest, trial, abuse, and execution.  He also knew what his friends would undergo in the days and years to come. They would be persecuted: driven from Jerusalem, thrown out of the synagogues, and viewed with increasing hostility by the Roman Empire.  Most would lose their lives for the sake of the gospel: stoned, beheaded, beaten, or crucified.  As Jesus’ friends questioned when he’d be coming back in glory, Jesus realized that the greatest danger his friends would face in the difficult times to come was hopelessness.  Overwhelmed by the powerful forces that would oppose them, they could forget the promise that Jesus would return. 

In the years to come, it would be imperative that they remember that God wasn’t finished.  God had a plan and God would be with them in all the chaos, rejection, and persecution to follow.  On some days, the promise that Christ would come again would be the only thing that kept his friends from giving up, going home, and abandoning the gospel.  That apocalyptic promise encouraged the disciples to be vigilant and faithful no matter what.

That biblical-historical context of Jesus’s words to his disciples sounds completely disconnected from the world of our Advent and Christmas preparations.  Today’s reading is at odds with the world out there, where the shopping and partying juggernaut has left the station.  It’s also at odds with our world in here, where we are eagerly counting down the Sundays until Christmas and chomping at the bit to ditch the Advent hymns and sing some Christmas carols.

But Jesus’s apocalyptic promise might be exactly what those among us who are hurting need to hear. We who mourn hear in the assurance of Jesus’s second coming the reminder that God has won the victory over death.  On the far side of the grave, we will rise. We can trust that we will again hear our name on the lips of the beloved one whom we so dearly miss. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our mourning will turn to dancing.

Those who struggle with illness and disability find in Jesus’s apocalyptic promise the comfort of God’s unstoppable power and final victory. We may feel completely powerless in a healthcare system that treats us like a disease, rather than a person. Yet God is always and ultimately all-powerful.  In the end, we are in God’s hands, not the hands of hospital, doctor, or hospice worker, and God’s hands are the very best place to be.  When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our healing will abound.

For those of us who feel the financial pinch of an uncertain economy and rising inflation, Jesus’s promise of his presence may bring the reorienting perspective that we need to step off the Christmas express. Jesus, who was born into poverty and lived with a radical simplicity, won’t mind a bit if we forego the shopping extravaganza and instead celebrate his birth with simple, heartfelt gifts that are given with great love. Perhaps it is only when we celebrate a Christmas of want that we begin to know the enormity of God’s great and loving gift to us in Jesus. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, the simple values and limitless love of the Kingdom will prevail.

At the end of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46).  The Lord reminds his friends that, in this time between his first coming and his second coming, he would come to us daily.  He comes in our neighbors who hunger and thirst.  He is known in those who live in poverty and struggle as outsiders.  He is seen in those who cope with illness or languish in prison.  Jesus cautions that how we will fare in that promised second coming will be bound up in how we loved the hidden Jesus, who walks among us even now.

For I was hungry

and you gave Me something to eat;

I was thirsty

and you gave Me something to drink;

I was a stranger and you took Me in;

I was naked and you clothed Me;

I was sick and you took care of Me;

I was in prison and you visited Me.’

‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

In this Advent season, Jesus would put us to work. His apocalyptic words invite us to turn away, at least for a bit, from the decorating and baking, the buying and partying. It’s an encouragement to turn with understanding and compassion to those among us who yearn for the second coming, who are hurting and grieved, sick and disabled, broke and oppressed. In our love and care, perhaps we can impart a foretaste of that glorious apocalyptic day when every tear shall be dried and the eternal alleluia shall resound across the heavens.  May it be so.

Resources:

Matt Skinner. “Advent Attentiveness” in Dear Working Preacher, Nov. 20, 2022.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 2, 2007. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

O. Wesley Allen, Jr. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

The Glorious Inheritance

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Glorious Inheritance Eph. 1:11-23

On All Saints Sunday, we remember our ancestors in the faith.

In July 1890 when Jennie Conklin signed her name to the church register as a founding member, she was newly widowed. Earlier that year, Jennie’s husband John had moved the family from Rochester to Saranac Lake in pursuit of a cold air cure for his tuberculosis, but John died soon afterward.  A Scottish immigrant with three children under the age of ten, Jennie was hardworking and resourceful.  She transformed the family home at the corner of Main and Church Streets into one of the village’s earliest and most successful cure cottages.  Jennie accommodated nine tuberculosis patients at a time, charging them $16 to $18 a week for room and board. That may not sound like much money, but in today’s dollars, Jennie collected about $4,700 a week, all while tending to a three-year-old, six-year-old, and a nine-year-old. Jennie brought that same ethic of ingenuity and industry to her forty-five years of church membership. When she died in 1935, she was remembered as an “active worker” for the church, known for her “first-class doughnuts.”

When William and Rosa Roberts signed on as charter members of the church, they were Saranac Lake pioneers. Not long after their marriage in 1874, the two had come to the north shore of Ampersand Bay where William served as the clerk for the Saranac Lake House, one of the most famous Adirondack hotels of the 19th century. By the time the Lake House burned down in 1888, William Roberts had moved on to serve as the village’s first postmaster. Then, as the tuberculosis boom brought more and more people to town, Roberts saw his opportunity and took it, launching a real estate and insurance agency. William Roberts helped to build this sanctuary.  He was one of the church’s first two elders. In fact, he served as our clerk of session for thirty-eight years, until his retirement in 1928, taking minutes in a nearly indecipherable hand.  You can see him in the photo at the back of the church walking ahead of President Coolidge and Rev. Newell as they emerge from worship. He was notoriously intolerant of long-winded preachers.  One Sunday, he felt the service ran too long, so he collected folding chairs from the center aisle when people rose to sing the last hymn. Unaware that their chairs were gone, worshippers tumbled to the ground when they tried to take their seats for the postlude.

When William Roberts died in 1934, the church grieved, and the elders of session served as his pallbearers.  Among those who carried the burden was Dr. Hugh McClennan Kinghorn. Kinghorn was the young medical superintendent of Montreal General Hospital in 1896 when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. He came to Saranac Lake for treatment from EL Trudeau and stayed on after receiving a clean bill of health, serving first as an assistant to Dr. Trudeau and then opening his own medical practice, just one block up Church Street. There was great excitement at the session table in 1897 when Rev. Tatlock announced that Dr. Kinghorn was joining the church. He was promptly appointed to the newly minted board of deacons and continued to be a mainstay of the church for sixty years, until his death in 1957. Dr. Kinghorn was particularly interested in the spiritual nurture of young people. In the mid-1920’s he recommended that confirmation students be given Bibles upon joining the church, a practice we continue today. He also suggested that the minister counsel the youth of the church on the importance of abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.

Jennie Conklin, William Roberts, Hugh Kinghorn. What a glorious inheritance they have left for us here at the Presbyterian Church!

In our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul reminded the church that they were heirs to a glorious inheritance.  Ephesus, on the Aegean coast of what is now Turkey, was the leading city of the Roman Province of Asia.  The prosperous port was home to a prominent Jewish community and a well-established synagogue. There Paul had taught for three months during his third missionary journey, until he wore out the patience of the temple’s traditionalists and was asked to leave.  Ephesus was also a major center for pagan worship. Indeed, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Tempe of Artemis, drew worshippers from across the Roman Empire.  There pilgrims sacrificed to a many-breasted idol that had fallen from the sky.  Paul, Apollos, Prisca, and Aquila had improbably planted a church in Ephesus, a Christian community that had knit Jews and Gentiles into the body of Christ.

Being a Christian wasn’t easy for those first church members in Ephesus.  They faced opposition from the synagogue, which saw them as heretics who had forsaken the Torah to affiliate with unclean Gentiles.  They also faced opposition from their pagan neighbors.  In one of the most sensational stories of the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that Demetrius the silversmith started a riot in Ephesus in protest of Christians, whose winning ways detracted from the worship of Artemis and put a dent in his sale of silver idols. Members of the Ephesian church were verbally abused and beaten during the riot, and Paul was forced to flee for his life.

It sounds like a tough setting for ministry, yet Paul wrote that his Ephesian friends had every reason to celebrate.  Through Jesus Christ, God had claimed them for God’s purpose and adopted them into the people of Israel. They had a share in the glory and honor and power of Jesus, who had been raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realm.  Earthly powers of synagogue and temple might make for challenging ministry, but the faithful of Ephesus were heirs to a glorious inheritance among the saints.  Because they dared to hope in Jesus, the Ephesians could live for the praise of his glory. Their mourning turned to dancing, their lament to jubilation. How could they keep from singing?

On All Saints Sunday, we consider our glorious inheritance among the saints – the saints of Ephesus and the saints of Saranac Lake, like Jennie Conklin, William Roberts, and Hugh Kinghorn.  We, too, have been claimed by Christ and sealed with the Spirit for God’s purpose.  We also acknowledge the responsibility that comes with that wondrous heritage. As heirs and bearers of a legacy, we live in ways that are worthy of our calling. We honor the past and look to God’s future, confident that we are beloved children and inheritors of an imperishable legacy. 

This church abounds with people who honor our glorious inheritance with the sharing of their time, talent, and treasure.  Ted Gaylord, Anita Estling, and Skip Outcalt followed in the footsteps of William Roberts as Clerks of Session.  They may not have served in that capacity for thirty-eight years straight, but their handwriting is a whole lot better.  And with the advent of computers and acid-free papers, the minutes they take today will be perfectly legible for the saints of tomorrow. Others among us have served as elders, doing the prophetic work of making budgets, planning programs, discerning where the Spirit may be leading, and sharing the yoke of leadership. Do we have some elders here today? 

Others among us have, like Dr. Kinghorn, been called to the Board of Deacons.  We care for members and friends in times of sickness or struggle.  We are the first to welcome our babies and to bless our dead.  We have been known to prepare a delicious Spaghetti Dinner or offer tasty treats in big bake sales.  We raise money and awareness to support vulnerable neighbors through the Deacons’ Fund. Do we have any deacons here today?

Many, like Jennie Conklin, honor our glorious inheritance as “active workers” behind the scenes.  We prepare the sanctuary for Sunday mornings as Sanctus volunteers.  We mow the lawn and shovel snow.  We roll up our sleeves for the annual spring cleaning.  We ply the paintbrush, hammer nails, hang drywall, run electrical wiring, or implement new technology. We make “first-class donuts,” chicken noodle soup, and Mardi gras king cake.  Do we have any “active workers” out there?

On this All Saints Day, we remember that we are heirs to a glorious inheritance and bearers of a local legacy.  Through Christ we are welcomed into the company of all the saints, and by choice we have followed in the footsteps of local saints.  Let us live in ways that are worthy of our calling, honoring the past and looking to God’s future, saints one and all.

Resources:

Evelyn Outcalt and Judy Kratts. A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake. Church archives.

Historic Saranac Lake. “Hugh M. Kinghorn.” Accessed online at https://localwiki.org/hsl/Hugh_M._Kinghorn

–. “Dr. Hugh Kinghorn Dies; 61 Years in Saranac Lake.” Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Nov. 7, 1957.

–. “Jane Conklin.” Accessed online at https://localwiki.org/hsl/Jane_Conklin

–. “MRS. CONKLIN DIES AFTER LONG ILLNESS.” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, June 15, 1935.

–. “William F. Roberts.” Accessed online at https://localwiki.org/hsl/William_F._Roberts

–. : W.F. ROBERTS, SARANAC LAKE PIONEER, DEAD.” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Dec. 13, 1934.

Sally Brown. “Commentary on Eph. 1:11-23” in Preaching This Week, Nov. 7, 2010. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/all-saints-day-2/commentary-on-ephesians-111-23-5

Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Eph. 1:11-23” in Preaching This Week, Nov. 3, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/all-saints-day-2/commentary-on-ephesians-111-23-4

Mark Tranvik. “Commentary on Eph. 1:11-23” in Preaching This Week, Nov. 3, 2013. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/all-saints-day-2/commentary-on-ephesians-111-23-3


Ephesians 1:11-23

11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake, 1901

The Sacred

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Sacred” by Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

in Songs for the Open Road. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 12.


Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn once said he was an unlikely poet. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he attended school on a basketball scholarship, worked writing copy for Nabisco, and quit it all to travel to Spain and pen a failed novel. He found his calling as a writer when his purpose shifted from prose to poetry. The author of twenty-one collections of poetry, Dunn was hailed for his ability to explore the complexity of life by attending to the mundane. Rita Dove once wrote that Dunn was “a poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary. He can take you by the hand and lead you along a street you may have passed through every day without much notice, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals in itself all the splendor and terror of existence.” He served as a distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College before his death in 2021.


Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

The Dogs in Dutch Paintings

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” by David Graham

How shall I not love them, snoozing

right through the Annunciation?  They inhabit

the outskirts of every importance, sprawl

dead center in each oblivious household.

They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,

dozing with noble abandon while a boy

bells their tails.  Often they present their rumps

in the foreground of some martyrdom.

What Christ could lean so unconcernedly

against a table leg, the feast above continuing?

Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace

as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?

No scholar at his huge book will capture

my eye so well as the skinny haunches,

the frazzled tails and serene optimism

of the least of these mutts, curled

in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.

— in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 160.


David Graham is a teacher, writer, and poet. For twenty-eight years, he taught English literature and writing for Ripon College in Wisconsin. He was selected to serve as Resident Poet, as well as faculty member, at The Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts based at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire. Retired now, Graham lives on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park in Glens Falls, New York. He writes a monthly column, “Poetic License,” on poetry and poets for Verse-Virtual, an online community journal of poetry. He has written nine books of poetry. The most recent The Honey of Earth is available now from Terrapin Books.


“The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan Vam Eyck, 1434.

Compassion or Contempt?

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Compassion or Contempt?” Luke 18:9-14

If you are like me, you probably cannot wait for November eighth to roll around so that the mid-term elections will be over.  There are thirty-five U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2022—fourteen seats held by Democrats and twenty-one held by Republicans. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs.  Here in New York, voters will be choosing a Governor.  My eagerness for the eighth has little to do with my passion for the candidates.  It’s more that I am feeling worn out and wearied by all the negative campaigning. 

I’ve noticed that if you are a Democratic candidate, the best way to take your opponent down a peg is to call him or her a “Donald Trump January 6th Republican.”  And if you really want to undo your Democratic opponent, just link their name to Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden.  Have you seen some of the mudslinging going on in the increasingly close New York Governor’s race?  The advertisements have been downright meanspirited.  According to Kathy Hochul, “Lee Zeldin is extreme and dangerous,” an anti-woman Trump sycophant who voted in congress to overturn the 2020 election. For his part, Lee Zeldin portrays Kathy Hochul as an incompetent, corrupt, pro-criminal, pro-inflation, tax-and-spend candidate.  All that negative campaigning, it’s enough to make you give up watching the evening news.

Jesus once told a story of a Pharisee, who does some negative campaigning as he prays in the Temple.  With hands uplifted and eyes looking to God, he begins with a prayer of thanksgiving.  We expect that he will say, “Thank you, God, for all you have done for me, for all your grace and goodness, for all your bounty and blessing.” Instead, the Pharisee gives thanks that he is not like others.  We get the impression that he is looking around the temple court and taking exception to his neighbors, whom he labels thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even tax collectors.  It’s as if by calling God’s attention to the sins of others, the Pharisee hopes to shine a bit more brightly in God’s esteem. 

Once the Pharisee has gotten his genuine but self-serving thanksgiving out of the way, we hear how his love for God is revealed in his zealous observance of God’s law. His piety is impressive and exceptional. The Pharisee tithes on all his income, not just on his harvest.  He fasts twice a week, not just on required holy days, like the Day of Atonement.  The Pharisee is pretty impressive.  If we could work our way into God’s good graces, this man would get elected in a heartbeat.  It sounds like he is entitled to a prime seat at the heavenly banquet.

And his opponent the tax collector?  Not so good.  He is a scoundrel.  He has made a successful career of worshipping money.  He earns a comfortable living by fleecing his people on behalf of their Roman overlords.  Sure, he collects his neighbor’s taxes, but he also collects a generous surcharge for the trouble. Jesus says that as the tax collector prays, he stands far off, and he won’t even look up.  He knows that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on, before God or neighbor.  As the tax collector prays, he is overcome by his sin and shame.  He beats his breast in grief and self-condemnation, crying, “Lord, have mercy!  I am a sinner!”  And he is a sinner.  There’s no doubt about that.  Everyone knows it.  God knows it.

When it comes to negative campaigning, Jesus knew it was nothing new, and a short lesson from our national history reveals that even our founding fathers were masters of it.  In fact, according to the historic record, what we see today is pretty tame stuff in comparison to the early days of our democracy.  The first political race to get really down and dirty was the presidential election of 1800, which pitted Vice President Thomas Jefferson against the incumbent President John Adams.  Although the two had been compatriots in their revolutionary fervor, there was no love lost between the men when it came to shaping the future of the nation. 

Jefferson got it started.  His camp accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”  Adams’s supporters responded, calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”  If you ask me, that sounds like the very first “Yo’ Mama” joke.  It escalated from there.  Adams was called “a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant.”  Jefferson was labeled “a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.”  Jefferson went so far as to hire a publicist to smear Adams.  They circulated spurious reports that Adams planned to go to war with France after the election.  Frightened voters rejected Adams and elected Jefferson as their new President.  Jefferson’s publicist went to jail for the slander, former President Adams went home to Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House.

When Jesus first told his story of negative campaigning, it would have scandalized his listeners.  Folks would have been shocked as they heard Jesus teach that the Pharisee, despite his very real piety and his genuine love for God and the Torah, is the one who got it all wrong.  No one would have liked to hear that a dirty, rotten, low-life like the tax collector could find mercy and the chance to begin again in right relationship with God and his neighbors.  It’s like saying that when Mother Teresa and Vladimir Putin arrive at the Pearly Gates, the doors swing open, and only Putin dances in.  That’s pretty offensive.  Isn’t it?  That’s how uncomfortable this story would have made Jesus’ listeners feel.

When Jesus first told this story, he must have known that it was not only uncomfortable but also a little dangerous.  Listeners could quickly trade their loathing of tax collectors for contempt of Pharisees.  Then, in their rush to judgment, they would be like the Pharisee, feeling self-righteous and justified by despising the sins of someone else.  I’m sure there was a long uncomfortable silence as Jesus proclaimed, “I tell you — this tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

When election time draws near in this marvelous and messy American experiment in democracy, we face head-on our human penchant for elevating ourselves by taking shots at others.  Instead of standing on our own merit for who we are, what we believe, and what we have done, we vilify our opponent.  We point out their flaws and foibles as a way of distancing and defining ourselves.  He is this, but I am not.  She did this, but I did not.  They don’t deserve your vote, but I do. Polls say that Americans don’t like negative campaigning, but we don’t seem to be able to get away from it. Do we?

Jesus’s story confronts us with the universality of our brokenness.  We can be short on compassion and long on contempt. We exclude and judge. We elevate ourselves by putting down others.  Jesus cautions that we can love God all we want, but if we don’t love our neighbor, we’ve only gotten it half right.  Being in right relationship with God requires that we seek to love our neighbors, even the dirty, rotten scoundrels.  In the end, no one earns a place at that heavenly banquet table, not the Pharisee, not even Mother Teresa.  In the end, God’s love is freely given, whether we are broken or whole, sinner or saint, Republicans or Democrats, Libertarians or Independents.  Indeed, God loved us enough to die for us, long before we had the wherewithal or the courage to pray, “Lord, have mercy!  I am a sinner!” 

Well, my friends, as Nov. eighth draws near, we can anticipate that the negative campaigning will only get worse.  We’ll hear all about the other candidate’s sins.  Before the debates are over and the last ballot is cast, we may really hear a few “Yo’ Mama” jokes.  It’s part of our national character, but even more so, it’s part of our human frailty.  As the days grow short and our patience wears thin, let us remember Jesus’ shocking and dangerous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  May we trade contempt for compassion.  May we love God and neighbor, even the less than loveable ones.

Resources:

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 24, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 27, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Kathryn Schifferdecker. “Dear Working Preacher” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 16, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

For further information regarding the negative campaigning of Presidents Adams and Jefferson, see Kerwood Swint, “Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaign,” August 22, 2008, CNN. com.


Luke 18:9-14

9 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’


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To Satisfy the World’s Hunger

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 16:19-31

October sixteenth is World Food Day, an international day of awareness celebrated every year to commemorate the founding of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. We remember those who died on the battlefield during the second world war, but we do not always realize that many people lost their lives to famine. In 1943, famine in the Bengal Province of British India killed an estimated 3.8 million Bengalis.  During the winter of 1944-1945 in the Netherlands, a German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm towns, threatening 4.5 million people with starvation. In the far east, great famines occurred in Vietnam and Java in 1944–1945, claiming the lives of some 3.4 million people. To address the crisis of a hungry, war-weary world, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization was formed to address the root causes of hunger and improve and develop agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and land and water resources around the globe. On World Food Day, we acknowledge that we are a global community of neighbors, called to alleviate the suffering of those who hunger.

Despite the efforts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, hunger is again on the rise globally, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, war, and soaring inflation.  Although there is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, hunger affects about ten percent of the world’s population. What does that look like? 829 million people go to bed hungry every night. Since 2019, the number of people with acute food insecurity (who are malnourished and wasting) has surged from 135 million people to 345 million. 14 million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition, think of the ashy skin, dull eyes, and bloated bellies of famine’s children in sub-Saharan Africa. Here in the United States, one in five children live in households that struggle to put food on the table.  Here among our North Country neighbors, those numbers are higher.  One quarter of our children in Franklin County live in food insecure households, where families have more month than money.  On World Food Day, we are challenged to consider what we will do in response to hungry neighbors, near and far.

In our lesson from Luke’s gospel, Jesus shares a parable about a rich man with a poor neighbor.  It’s a study in contrasts.  The Greek word for “rich man” is plousios, and it means a wealthy landowner who does not labor for a living.  Lazarus, on the other hand, is ptoxos, the poorest of the poor, a beggar without the stabilizing resources of property, friends, or family.  The rich man lives behind the gate in a lavish home while the poor man Lazarus has fallen down or been left outside the gate. There he relies on the charity of those who pass him by. The rich man is clothed in a splendid robe of purple cloth and a fine inner garment of the purest linen. Lazarus is clothed in filthy rags and festering sores. The rich man rejoices in feasting sumptuously every day, yet Lazarus is hungry, longing to eat his fill from the refuse that falls beneath the table. The rich man would be respected by all. Lazarus is so powerless that he cannot even prevent the dogs from licking his scabby wounds.

As Jesus tells the story, death brings a great reversal. Lazarus finds himself seated at the heavenly banquet in the place of honored, next to his patriarch Abraham, who comforts and encourages him, while the rich man is endlessly tormented by flames in a shadowy underworld.  Even in Hades, the rich man presumes that he can command Abraham and be served by Lazarus.  The parable gets really uncomfortable when we hear that the rich man’s suffering cannot be relieved because it is a consequence of the choices he has made in life. With his indifference to his suffering neighbor, the rich man dug a great chasm that separated him from God and his neighbor.  Lazarus had been at the gate, entrusted by the circumstances of his life to the care of his affluent neighbor, and the rich man never even noticed. Lazarus at the gate had been an opportunity to love generously and provide for the common good from the bounty with which God had blessed him, but the rich man could not be bothered. 

The Bible scholars tell us that Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazars is an apocalyptic parable, a vivid description of the afterlife that is intended to change our behavior, here and now.  It’s a wake-up call that reveals a truth that Jesus wants us to see.  Our failure to heed the warning can have the direst of outcomes.  Jesus reminds us that Lazarus is at our gate, but we must open our eyes to see him, and we must be ready to love him. Our failure to engage the suffering of others has terrible consequences for our at-risk neighbors—and, according to Jesus, it has terrible consequences for us.

On World Food Day, we acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, we may not be Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, but we are the rich man. Lazarus is at our gate. Our hungry neighbors need our care and compassion. For about forty years, we have shown our passion for feeding hungry people with the CROP Walk, taking to the streets to raise awareness and funds to address the reality of hunger around the world and right here in Saranac Lake.  CROP Walk is an initiative of Church World Service, which seeks to address the root causes of hunger by enhancing the capacity of people to feed themselves. I’ll share a couple of examples.

In Honduras, the Miguel family has been subsistence farmers for generations, growing three crops: rice, beans, and coffee.  But then they enrolled in a program through Church World Service and learned how to diversify and grow new crops. The program transformed their small farm as they added vegetables, fruit trees, and grain. Next, they were taught how to raise barnyard animals like chickens and rabbits. Most recently, they have created a pond on their land to farm tilapia. Over the years, the Miguel family has been able to cultivate more land and add corn, squash, bananas, onions, cabbage and tomatoes to their fields. In fact, they have become so successful at growing produce and raising animals that they have been able to sell their surplus at market and put money in the bank. Their daughter Lesly is the first person in the family to attend school. This fall, they sent Lesly to university where she is studying to be a social worker.

In West Timor, Indonesia, Church World Service has launched a Zero Hunger Initiative that seeks to provide seeds, tools, chickens, and clean water access for all. One beneficiary of the program is Yabes.  Her daughter Sifrallili was chronically sick and malnourished, due to contaminated water and lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. CWS helped Yabes with a protected source of clean water and provided seeds and training to help her start a home garden. Things really turned the corner for Yabes and Sifrallili when they were given the gift of a rooster and three hens. Now they are collecting eggs and raising enough chickens to turn a profit. The chicken manure is used, too, to fertilize the garden and boost their veggie crop. Yabes reports that she has saved almost enough money to build a latrine for her family.

When we raise funds through CROP Walk, we are helping global neighbors like the Miguel family and Yabes to feed themselves and escape the cycle of hunger and poverty. Yet when we participate in CROP Walk, we are also taking a bite out of hunger right here in Saranac Lake. One quarter of the money that we raise returns to the community.  This year, we have designated the Wednesday evening Community Supper as the local beneficiary of the walk. The supper offers the opportunity for neighbors who are hungry or hungry-of-heart to gather weekly for a hot, nutritious meal.  Families with children, single folks, seniors from the DeChantal, and more are served, free of charge.  The supper provided meals throughout the COVID pandemic with a team of volunteers delivering take-out to people in their homes.

On World Food Day, we remember that our care for vulnerable neighbors is good for them, but according to Jesus, it’s a moral imperative that is also good for us.  We dream of the day when Lazarus no longer languishes at the gate, a day when all truly have enough.  Let’s lace up our walking shoes and make it happen. Amen.

Resources:

Barbara Rossing. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 25, 2016.  Accessed online at workingpreacher,org

Lois Malcolm. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 29, 2013.  Accessed online at workingpreacher,org

Church World Service. CROP Walk 2022 Resources and Activity Guide. Accessed online at CROP Hunger Walk Resources

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Home | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao.org)


Luke 16:19-31

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’


CROP Walkers head out for the Saranac Lake CROP Walk.

Pennsylvania Station

Poem for a Tuesday — “Pennsylvania Station” by Langston Hughes

The Pennsylvania Station in New York
Is like some vast basilica of old
That towers above the terror of the dark
As bulwark and protection to the soul.
Now people who are hurrying alone
And those who come in crowds from far away
Pass through this great concourse of steel and stone
To trains, or else from trains out into day.
And as in great basilicas of old
The search was ever for a dream of God,
So here the search is still within each soul
Some seed to find to root in earthly sod,
Some seed to find that sprouts a holy tree
To glorify the earth—and you—and me.

In Songs for the Open Road, Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 38.


Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Rennaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. In 2002, his image was added to The United States Postal Service’s Black Heritage series of postage stamps.


A southward view of the concourse and its famous clock as seen on April 24, 1962. Cervin Robinson photo. Accessed online at https://www.american-rails.com/pnstn.html

Life in Exile

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Life in Exile” Jer. 29:1, 4-7

We all know how it feels to live in exile.  Our beloved ones die.  We labor in stressful, unfulfilling jobs. Our marriages are fraught.  We can’t remember things like we used to.  Our kids think we are the enemy.  The doctor gives us health news that we do not want to hear. The COVID crisis sweeps across the world, cuts us off from normalcy, and fills us with anxiety.  The evening news prompts fear and foreboding.  We all know how it feels to sojourn in a time and place that feels far from the promised land.

The Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, were well-versed in exile.  The armies of Babylon had overrun their promised land, like locusts swarming out of the north to devour everything in their path.  They laid siege to Jerusalem, waiting for hunger to bring the city to its knees.  When Jerusalem finally fell, the dead lay in the streets, too many to be counted.  The Babylonians pulled down the city walls, sacked the palace, and burned the Temple, making off with the material wealth of the kingdom.  Then, they plucked up the human wealth, conscripting everybody who was anybody, the royal court, elders, priests, artisans, and metal smiths and forcing them into exile.  500 miles across the desert, the Israelites marched a trail of tears to the capitol of Babylon.  The survivors colonized the ghetto of Tel Abib and wondered what to do next.  Babylon was a land they had always despised.  They never dreamed that one day it would be home.

Life in exile doesn’t feel good.  Our grief threatens to swallow us up. Our frustration and anger can explode with little warning.  We take things out on others, or we take it out on ourselves with endless recrimination and critique.  We fear that things will never get better—maybe things will get worse.  We feel alone, alienated, and abandoned by those we have loved the most. In exile, we are existentially uncomfortable, cut off from better times and our better selves.  We wrestle with despair. We ask, “Why me, God? Where are you, God?”

The people of Israel, exiled to Babylon, felt shell-shocked, bereft, and abandoned by God. They struggled with the terrible temptations that all exiles face.  Some were tempted to despair, so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the best course of action seemed to be none at all – just give up, decline and disappear.  Some were tempted to dissidence.  Their hurt and anger were ready to explode in acts of violence against their Babylonian neighbors, even if that brought harsh reprisals and death.  Others were tempted to assimilate, to give up their Israelite identities and become just like their captors, until no one was left who remembered the Torah or a faraway land that flowed with milk and honey. 

Who can blame them?  Because when life as we know it ends, when all our best dreams go up in smoke, when the rug gets pulled right out from under our feet, it’s only natural to give up, or act out, or opt out.  It’s only natural to feel hopeless and angry and beaten.  When we languish in the land of exile, we need help, holy help.  We need hope that there is a better future, not a perfect future, but a tomorrow that feels a little safer and more meaningful than our today.

As the Israelites endured exile, Jeremiah was probably the last person from whom they expected a letter.  For forty years, the prophet had warned them about the consequences of failing to love God and honor their neighbor.  Back in Israel, they hadn’t liked Jeremiah.  They had slapped him silly and bound him in stocks.  They had thrown him in prison.  They’d almost lynched him after his Temple sermon.  Jeremiah was held in such low esteem in Israel that the Babylonians hadn’t even deemed him worthy of deportation. When Jeremiah’s messengers, Elassah and Gemariah, showed up in Tel Abib with a letter from the prophet, the Israelites must have thrown up their hands and said, “Now what, Jeremiah?  A big ‘I told you so’?”

No one would have anticipated what Jeremiah really wrote: a message of comfort and reassurance from God Almighty, calling them to go about life as usual, even in exile.  “Plant gardens, marry, have children, multiply and thrive, even pray for the peace of the strange city that you now call home. They could make a future, even in Babylon, because despite everything, God was still God. God loved them and would be with them.  One day, exile would end and God would bring them home.

On this sabbath morning, perhaps we, who have felt exiled from better times and our better selves, can hear in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah God’s promise to us.  We can dare to imagine that our grief may someday be tempered by the memory of love.  Our work places can change or new opportunities emerge.  Strained marriages can find healing and new ways forward.  As memories fade, we can trust that others will remember for us and offer hands to help. One day, our kids will have kids of their own and develop a fresh appreciation for the hard choices and healthy limits that every parent must set.  We learn to live with the new normal that the doctor prescribes.  We remember that those who came before us lived with grace through pandemic and world war and economic roller coasters— and so will we.  Jeremiah reminds us that we are not forgotten or alone.  God is with us. We can do it. We can put one foot in front of the other and move ahead.  Better days await.

Maybe Jeremiah’s letter got the Israelites thinking about all the other times when their ancestors sojourned in foreign lands without a future.  Perhaps they remembered Abraham and Sarah, aging, childless, and “as good as dead” in the distant land of Haran.  God had promised to make of them a multitude, as many as the stars in the sky.  Maybe they thought of their ancestors groaning beneath Pharaoh’s yoke in Egypt.  God had heard their cries and equipped Moses to bring them out of slavery and into that promised land.  God had been faithful, and according to Jeremiah, God was faithful still. 

So, the Israelites, languishing in the land of Babylon, found courage and took heart.  They planted gardens and started businesses.  They married and bore children.  They found a fresh start in exile, even though it was the last place in the world that they had ever wanted to be.

Let me be your Jeremiah, my friends.  Life in exile is crummy.  There is no getting around it.  But we can endure.  Our lives have meaning and purpose. Change comes.  The world turns. Dawn follows the dark night, even if it is the far brighter light of that far better shore.  I am confident of those essential truths because God so loves us that God would choose to endure exile for our sake. God would take flesh and live among us with healing, compassion, and self-sacrificing love in Jesus of Nazareth.  And when the world had done its utmost to exile Jesus, to cut him off from all that was good and merciful and kind, a new day dawned, the stone rolled away, and Jesus rose.  And in that rising we trust that we, too, shall rise, and our times of exile will come to an end.  For thus says the Lord God of hosts.

Resources:

Melissa Ramos. “Commentary on Jer. 29:1, 4-7” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 9, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Richard W. Nysse. “Commentary on Jer. 29:1, 4-7” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 9, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Jer. 29:1, 4-7” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Donald W. Musser. “Theological Perspective on Jer. 29:1, 2-7” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Terence E. Fretheim. “Exegetical Perspective on Jer. 29:1, 2-7” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

29These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.


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Witness

Poem for a Tuesday — “Witness” by Denise Levertov

“Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.”

in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 72.


When British-American poet Denise Levertov was five years old, she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hasidic Jew who taught at the University of Leipzig. During the First World War, he was held under house arrest as an enemy alien by virtue of his ethnicity. After emigrating to the UK, he converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. Denise said, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.” She was described by the New York Times as, “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving.” She wrote and published twenty-four books of poetry.


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