For the graceful handle I found in a field attached to nothing pray it is universally applicable
For our tracks which disappear the moment we leave them
For the face peering through the cafe window as we sip our soup
For cheerful American classrooms sparkling with crisp colored alphabets happy cat posters the cage of the guinea pig the dog with division flying out of his tail and the classrooms of our cousins on the other side of the earth how solemn they are how gray or green or plain how there is nothing dangling nothing striped or polka-dotted or cheery no self-portraits or visions of cupids and in these rooms the students raise their hands and learn the stories of the world
For library books in alphabetical order and family businesses that failed and the house with the boarded windows and the gap in the middle of a sentence and the envelope we keep mailing ourselves
For every hopeful morning given and given and every future rough edge and every afternoon turning over in its sleep
Published in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005.
When the economy cratered in 2008, the St. Louis-based manufacturing and consulting company Barry-Wehmiller took a big financial hit. For CEO Bob Chapman it was clear that employee cuts were inevitable, but instead of sending out pink slips, Chapman made a surprising announcement. He implemented alternating furloughs of four-weeks unpaid leave for all. Chapman told his workers, “We must all suffer a little instead of letting people go.” Chapman participated in the rolling furloughs, foregoing wages alongside his employees until the crisis was averted.
When Cheryl Bachelder became CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in 2007, the fast-food franchise was struggling. Popeye’s, which had started 45 years before as a grab-and-go fried chicken joint in the suburbs of New Orleans, had dwindling franchises and falling revenues. Instead of cutting the bottom line, Bachelder implemented a new leadership model. Bacheleder cast the vision for what Popeye’s could do: serve excellent chicken to families on the go for a reasonable price in more locations. Then she set out to help her workers succeed with better pay, benefits, and training. Bachelder transformed Popeye’s from just another fast-food mill to a business culture where everybody won.
In March 2020 as the world ground to a halt amid the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry was in big trouble. Governments issued lock-down orders, travel plans were cancelled, and we all sheltered in place. The CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian took drastic steps. Bastian led his company through the crisis by announcing that he would take a 100% pay cut, going without his $900,000 salary for the next six months.
Bob Chapman, Cheryl Bachelder, and Ed Bastian are advocates of servant leadership, a model for business management first theorized by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. Greenleaf cast the vision for management that shares power and puts the needs of workers first, so that they can reach their greatest potential. According to Greenleaf, servant leadership creates businesses where employees are growing as people. They feel healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. Those workers are also more likely to become servant leaders themselves. Beyond the walls of the corporation, these companies make a difference for good, benefitting the least privileged and most at-risk people of the community. Greenleaf dreamed of a world where servant leaders would create businesses that showed the way for others to follow while making a helping, healing difference for communities.
Our gospel lesson reminds us that, long before Robert Greenleaf cast his vision, Jesus was a servant leader. He hoped that his disciples would follow him on that path. Jesus’s words, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” were spoken as he neared the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for that final Passover. Just before today’s reading begins, Jesus had warned his friends. For the third time, he told them that he would soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and executed.
Even though they had heard this message three times, the disciples didn’t understand. James and John had figured out that glory would not await them in the holy city, so they hatched a new plan. They would convince Jesus to honor them in the Kingdom to come with places of greatest honor at his left and right. The fact that the other disciples got so angry at the Sons of Zebedee tells us that they probably had their own visions of grandeur. How dare James and John assert their right to be elevated above the rest of them!
In stark contrast to those visions of glory, Jesus called his friends to be servants and slaves. A servant, diakonos, waited on others, whether serving food or completing helpful tasks. A slave, doulos, simply did whatever he or she was told, acting at the direction of their master. This was not what the disciples wanted to hear.
Jesus’s model of servant leadership was an extraordinary departure from business-as-usual in the Ancient Near East. Think about it. Caesar was a self-proclaimed God. Petty rulers like King Herod lived in luxury at the expense of the people whom they were appointed to rule. In stark contrast to Caesar and Herod, Jesus was the prime example of servant leadership. Jesus allowed his core value of agape, self-giving love, to guide him. That love called him to a life of service—helping, healing, caring, speaking truth to power, and ultimately giving his life for the salvation of us all. Long before Robert Greenleaf tried to sell the business world on servant leadership, Jesus was blazing the trail and hoping that his followers would go and do likewise.
Back in 1970 when Greenleaf published his first essay on his new model of leadership, he had plenty of critics. Those naysayers insisted that leaders would only be respected if they were firmly authoritative—that often translated to white men with graduate degrees from prestigious schools and years of experience at the helm of Fortune 500 companies. Greenleaf’s critics also said that if you make your workers your priority, then they will walk over you. They would indulge themselves with those opportunities, perks, and benefits, but they wouldn’t put their shoulder to the wheel. The skeptics proclaimed that companies who embraced this radical theory of leader-as-servant would never make money.
Yet time has told a different story. When Bob Chapman became CEO of Barry-Wehmiller in 1975 at the age of thirty, the ninety-year-old company had $20 million in revenue. Their technology was outdated. Their financial position was weak. Today Barry-Wehmiller has survived that 2008 recession and continued to grow. They now have 12,000 employees and a net worth of $3 billion. Beyond that impressive bottom line, the company sees its unique measure of success as the way they touch the lives of others. In addition to his work as CEO, Bob Chapman and his wife operate a foundation which teaches the principles of servant leadership for free to communities in need.
At Popeye’s, Cheryl Bachelder found that when she began to focus on changing the company’s culture to a servant-based model, things began to change for the better. As franchise owners and employees benefitted, the chain began to grow. Sales increased by 45%. Stock price climbed from $13-a-share to $61-a-share. Better yet, when surveyed, franchise owners, employees, and customers all said that they were happier. In 2017 when Tim Horton’s acquired Popeye’s, that grab-and-go chicken joint had grown to 2,600 locations worth $1.8 billion.
Although COVID-19 remains an ongoing concern, thanks to the delta-variant, things are looking up at Delta Airlines. Unlike their competitors, Delta has weathered the COVID crisis without resorting to furloughs. In an interview last month, CEO Ed Bastian said that flights are full and Delta is hopeful and optimistic. After losing $9 billion in 2020, Delta turned a profit last quarter and is on track to do the same this quarter. Delta was the first airline to volunteer to help with the evacuation of Afghanistan. With more than two dozen flights out of Kabul, they airlifted 3,000 refugees from the crumbling nation. When praised for his leadership, Bastian brushes aside the compliments, saying, “It’s all about the people.”
Of course, after Jesus, the best example of the power of servant leadership is found in the disciples, the ones who really didn’t get it when Jesus told them three times that whoever wishes to be greatest of all must be servant of all. Ten of the disciples would follow Jesus in losing their lives for the sake of the gospel. As they reached out to the world with the good news of God’s amazing love, the disciples died untimely deaths in pursuit of Jesus’ mission and in service to God’s Kingdom. They were crucified, put to the sword, stabbed, clubbed, stoned, and burned. Even John, the only disciple to live to old age, suffered—driven out of Israel and forced to live in exile on the other side of the Mediterranean. Despite the high cost of servanthood, by the time John died, the gospel had spread exponentially. House churches spanned the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Syria to Spain. Everywhere people were affirming that God is love and Jesus is Lord.
Those servant churches would grow. Within four centuries, Christianity, which began as a persecuted sect of Judaism, was granted status as an official religion on the Roman Empire. Today there are 2.5 billion Christians worldwide, about a third of the world’s population. Nowadays, the fastest growing churches in the world are in places like Iran, China, and North Korea, where servants of the gospel take great risks to share the good news that Jesus, who was slave of all, loved us so much that he died for our sins.
I suspect that there would be more thriving churches if we worried less about number of members and the size of endowments and we thought more about servant leadership. It is in putting love into action, it is in choosing to serve others, it is in saying “yes” to Jesus’s humble purpose, that greatness is found and growth comes. May it be just as true for us as it is for those titans of industry. May it be just as true for us as it was for Jesus and the early church. Amen.
Americans don’t like to talk about money. In May, Business Insider Magazine conducted a poll of 2,130 people to determine the topics they were most likely to discuss with friends. Last on the list was money, outranked by current events, family, health, sex, relationships, and politics.
Rachel Sherman, a sociologist with the New School, reports that how we feel about discussing money may be determined by how much we have. Affluent Americans say they are circumspect about money because they don’t want their lower-wage-earning friends to feel bad. Middle income Americans tend to shy away from the topic of money because they may be economically fragile—the cost of their kid’s college education, a surge in healthcare expenses, or an unexpected big-ticket home repair can leave them reeling with more month than money. Working class Americans are much more transparent about money. They freely discuss the challenges or even impossibilities of supporting a family on minimum wage work. They swap ideas about how they stretch their dollars and cut corners.
Kimberly Chong, an anthropology lecturer at University College, London, teaches that at the heart of the taboo on money talk is a cultural belief that money is associated with personal worth. Social status, power, and respect are tied to our paychecks and our bank accounts. It’s like that bumper sticker, “The boy, who dies with the most toys, wins.” That sort of thinking is uncomfortable in a democracy where we affirm the equality of all citizens, even as we acknowledge the reality of income inequality and the concentration of wealth.
We don’t like to talk about money, if we can help it. We really don’t like talking about it in church. Perhaps my calling our attention to the topic has got you feeling uncomfortable—or wishing that I would change the subject.
Jesus didn’t have any trouble talking about money. He talked about it a lot. Indeed, the only topic that Jesus talked about more than money was the Kingdom of God. If you counted, you would see that eleven of Jesus’ thirty-nine parables are about money. Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel speaks frankly about the tension that can exist between our understanding of earthly riches and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus and his friends were departing on a missionary journey, a rich man stopped them and asked the Lord an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Jesus’ day, eternal life was just another way of saying the Kingdom of God. Jesus sounded impatient as he counted off the requirements of the Torah: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, no fraud, be sure to honor your parents. Perhaps feeling relieved, the man was quick to share that he was all about that sort of righteous living.
Mark gives us a window into Jesus’ feelings. The Lord, seeing the rich man and hearing of his obedience, loved the man. Jesus saw that it was this man’s heartfelt desire to love God and love his neighbor as himself. This man had disciple written all over him. And so, Jesus extended to him the same invitation he had made to Levi the tax collector and Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the fishermen: “Follow me.”
When the rich man heard the cost of discipleship, he balked. The thought of selling his property, and parting with the proceeds made his heart skip a beat, tied his stomach in knots, and sent his mind scampering down rabbit trails of worry and fear. The rich man went away grieving. The Greek word that describes how the man felt is stugnasas. It means shocked, surprised, and in sorrow. The man had a crisis of character. He turned away from Jesus, unable to accept what the Lord asked of him.
It’s a story that is hard to hear and perhaps harder to understand. Even the disciples struggled with what Jesus had to say about the rich man and camels passing through needles’ eyes. In the ancient near east, wealth was seen as a blessing from God. From the point of view of the disciples, this rich man was one of God’s beloved ones. How else could he have amassed that land, those homes, those belongings, those slaves? It didn’t make sense to the twelve. If the rich man wasn’t first in line at the pearly gates, then who could be saved?
Over the centuries, Bible scholars and preachers have grappled with how best to interpret this tough story, a story that questions our relationship with God and money. The monastic tradition has long looked to this passage as a proof text for vows of voluntary poverty. Postulants of the Franciscan, Claretians, and other religious orders take vows of poverty upon entrance, renouncing their worldly possessions. What they own becomes the community’s and is used or disposed of for the benefit of all.
In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, our spiritual ancestor John Calvin taught that the rich man’s problem was more than money. The rich man wanted to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life. For Calvin, that smacked of works’ righteousness, as if we earn our way into God’s Kingdom by accruing God’s particular favor with good deeds. Eternal life, Calvin taught, is God’s freely given gift for all who place their trust in Jesus. We cannot earn our way into heaven, but God’s grace makes the impossible possible for us.
During stewardship season, generations of preachers have used this story to invite us to be generous givers. The rich man makes us question what we truly value. Is it Jesus and a life spent in his company, or is it our money and the things that we possess? In our love for Jesus, we are inspired, maybe not to sell all that we have, but to hold our possessions loosely. We prayerfully consider how our abundance may be used in Jesus’ purpose. We live generously as a blessing to church and community.
I think those are all valid and responsible ways of preaching about the rich man. Some are called to a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing. Heaven is ours only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are, indeed, blessed to be a blessing to our church and others. Ultimately, all we have and all we are belongs to God, whether we are rich men and women, or middle-class families, or the working poor who live so creatively on so little.
But the story of the rich man goes deeper than all that. Jesus calls us to question the core assumptions and the cultural beliefs about money that possess our society. Jesus contradicts the premise that our personal worth is tied to our net worth. That assumption prompts us to value some people over others. It’s a short leap from there to what the disciples presumed: that the rich man’s wealth was a sign of God’s special favor.
But that wasn’t how Jesus saw the world. Jesus loved the rich man. Yet, Jesus also loved those low-status, vulnerable children whom he hugged and blessed. Jesus loved those disciples, who struggled to understand his teaching. That abundant and overflowing love of Jesus was a reflection of God’s love. After all, God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son to die for us.
At the close of today’s reading, Jesus told his friends that those core cultural beliefs that we hold about personal worth and net worth don’t apply in the Kingdom of God. There, many who are first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus invited his friends—Jesus invites us—to let go of our false assumptions. We are called to envision a world where the penniless Haitian migrant at the southern border is as loved by God as the billionaire businessman. It’s a world where the illiterate day laborer is of equal value to the university professor. It’s a world where the residents of Edgewood House, and others who are reliant upon the social safety net, are every bit as valued and beloved as those who are enjoying a leaf-peeping getaway at The Point this weekend. That’s some radical stuff, Jesus.
If we accept what Jesus has to say, it will change how we see not only our neighbors but also our possessions. If our personal worth isn’t incumbent upon the size of our paychecks or our 401Ks or our brokerage accounts, then it gets easier to live generously and share freely. Our abundance becomes a way to shape a world where all may know that they are the beloved by our limitlessly loving God. That’s an invitation to discipleship that can make us feel stugnasas—shocked, surprised, or in sorrow. Or, Jesus’s invitation just might grant us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come and the life eternal. Jesus says, “Follow me.” How will we respond?
Black, C. Clifton. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Loudenback, Tanza. “A Survey of 2,000 Americans Found . . .” in Insider: Business Magazine. Accessed online at businessinsider.com.
Menendez-Atun͂a,Luis. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2021. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Pinsker, Joe. “Why So Many Americans Don’t Talk about Money” in The Atlantic, March 2, 2020. Accessed online at theatlantic.com.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 10:2-16 “When Dreams Die”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our health—and hard on our marriages. As employers furloughed workers or businesses went virtual, couples found themselves spending more time together and lots of it. That round-the-clock intimacy has been complicated by other factors. Lay offs and job loss have meant less income and greater economic pressure. Social distance has stretched the limits of our family and friend support network. If you have kids, closed schools and quarantined daycares created impossible challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and distance learning.
Studies show that during the first seven to eight months of the pandemic, the divorce rate surged. That spring, a survey of 1,277 couples found that 29.9% of them said they were in serious trouble and headed for divorce. Ken Jewell, a New Yok City divorce lawyer, related that when his office reopened after the shut-down in June 2020, he saw a 48% jump in requests for counsel. A further dark consequence of the COVID crisis has been an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse. Apostles’ House in Newark, a shelter for women and children, reports that their beds have been full throughout the pandemic.
Beyond the social science and the statistics, we all know couples whose marriages have become fraught, embattled, or failed over the past year and a half. Young couples with children, middle-aged empty-nesters, and even retired folks with years of marriage under their belts are calling it quits. There is a lot of heart-ache out there. Weddings are among the most hopeful and joyous moments in our lives. When those dreams die, they take a piece of us with them.
The Pharisees put Jesus to the test with a question about divorce, “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The fact that the Pharisees knew by heart what the Torah had to say about divorce reveals that there was a larger controversy brewing. Deuteronomy 24 instructs that a man my write a certificate of divorce if his wife commits an “erwat dabar”—an indecent thing. The two great rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day disagreed about what an indecent thing might be. The Hillel School taught that it was up to the husband’s discretion. A poorly cooked meal, childlessness, failure to observe the Torah, sexual immorality, or inability to complete household tasks, all could be grounds for divorce. The Shammai School allowed men to divorce wives for only one reason: serious infidelity. The Pharisees anticipated that Jesus’ response, one way or the other, would make him enemies.
It is likely that Jesus’ answer offended everyone. It certainly left the disciples scratching their heads and asking more questions. Instead of weighing in on what indecent thing would be grounds for divorce, Jesus called his listeners to re-think their understanding of marriage. Jesus turned to the creation stories of Genesis in which humanity is created male and female in God’s image. Something sacred is stamped upon each of us, and we are given to one another in the covenant of marriage. Two become one with God at the center of the relationship. In that union, we find a wholeness and completeness that was part of God’s plan right from the start. “What God has joined together,” Jesus teaches, “Let no one separate.”
Behind Jesus’ words lies a deep pastoral concern for women. According to Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband on any ground. It is hard for us to understand, but in first century Israel, women were a little like sexual property. Young women passed from a father’s household to a husband’s household in an arranged agreement that had monetary and social benefit for the father. The husband had every legal right to dismiss the wife at his discretion, like bad goods that failed to live up to their anticipated benefit. The impact of divorce upon a woman could be catastrophic. She might be able to return to her kinfolk. If not, she had no safety net—no alimony, no property rights, no home, no right to even parent her own children. She depended on the charity of neighbors or was forced to beg or resort to prostitution.
Jesus’s teaching about divorce contradicted this prevailing notion of women as property. Indeed, Jesus’s suggestion that women could divorce husbands would have sounded deeply shocking and offensive to the Pharisees. Jesus invited his listeners to see women as beings created in God’s image, whose equal footing was essential to wholeness in marriage. Marriage—this shared sacred identity and need for wholeness—was at the heart of God’s best hope for humanity. Jesus’s words were—and still are—a radical, counter-cultural, deeply truthful lesson.
Despite God’s original intent and Jesus’ provocative teaching, divorce persists. Presbyterians have been debating it since the Westminster Assembly of the Divines met in 1647. They allowed for divorce by husbands or wives in cases of adultery and willful desertion. The aggrieved party could later remarry “as if the offending party were dead.” Our denomination’s current stance on divorce is best expressed in a 1981 revision of the Westminster Confession. We acknowledge God’s holy intent for marriage, yet we also recognize the frailty and sin of humankind, “The weakness of one or both partners may lead to the gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that the marriage dies at the heart and becomes intolerable.” When dreams die, separation and divorce may become acceptable and permissible. That same guidance applies to traditional unions and to our refined definition of marriage, adopted in 2014, between “two people.”
Beyond the words of scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and the guidance of the church, is the uniquely painful reality of divorce. It feels like something dies at the heart. On the day in 2004 when I accepted this church’s call to serve as your pastor, I stood in the pulpit and shared that I was divorced. A brief, early marriage to my college boyfriend had come to a sad end, more than a decade earlier. My ex-husband’s adultery and “willful desertion” might have ticked all the boxes for the Westminster Assembly of the Divines, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I had felt profound grief, shame, rejection, and a visceral pain that told me that part of my heart was dying. I know that many of you in your own experience have felt the same, whether you have been through divorce or experienced the end of a long-time committed relationship, whether you are children of divorced parents or your adult children have suffered through divorce.
That collective pain of divorce is so great that it is tempting to not preach about it at all. Jesus, we hear your beautiful vision of marriage that is sacred and deeply reverent with God at the very heart of it. We freely acknowledge that there would be a whole lot less divorce, and many more happy marriages, if those relationships were entered into in the spirit of your teaching. But Adam and Eve have left the garden. We live in a frail and fallen world where we regularly disappoint you and one another. Lord, have mercy upon us.
It’s significant that Jesus followed his tough teaching on divorce with the blessing of children, those most vulnerable and lowest status members of the Hebrew household. Although the disciples wished to turn the children away as a waste of Jesus’s time, the Lord welcomed them and blessed them. Jesus welcomed the children, the outsider, the vulnerable, the rejected, the leper, the Pharisee, the low-status-second-class citizen. It’s safe to presume that Jesus welcomed the divorced. It’s safe to say that Jesus continues to welcome those who are divorced. The grace of Jesus Christ is always sufficient for us. Thanks be to God.
The most recent studies of marriage have shown that as the pandemic has continued, the divorce rate has levelled and begun to decline. Some of the reasons for that may not be good. The economic strain of the pandemic may have forced couples to remain together. The lack of childcare has put plans for separation on hold. Closed courts and a backlog of cases may be causing a temporary lull. Five states that make divorce rates public are showing a drop in the number of couples rushing to the courts. A recent survey of 2,429 couples found that 17% of those questioned now say that their marriage has been strengthened by the pandemic. They began to communicate better. More time together deepened their appreciation for one another. They spent time with the kids, exercised together, cooked together, and cultivated new shared hobbies. Their feelings changed for the better. Perhaps they began to glimpse in their spouses that sacred image that each of us bears. Perhaps they are now finding in one another that wholeness and completeness that God originally planned.
Mallozzi, Vincent. “Divorce Rates Are Now Dropping: Here Are Some Reasons Why” in The New York Times, March 24, 101`. Accessed online at nytimes.com.
Staniunas, David. “Marriage, Divorce, and Mariners” in Presbyterian Historical Society Newsletter, June 26, 2014. Accessed online at pcusa.org.
Wall, Robert W. “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.
Sabbath Day Thoughts: “A New Earth” Isaiah 65:17-25
When it comes to climate change, the Adirondacks may not be at the top of our list of regions most impacted by our warming earth.
We are more likely to think of island nations like the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that rises only 2.4 meters above sea level at its high point. As sea level rises with the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the Maldives are in peril. In 2015, the charismatic young President of the Maldives drew world attention to his nation’s plight by holding his first cabinet meeting underwater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2010, sea levels will potentially rise 100 centimeters, covering almost the entire nation.
When it comes to climate change, we think of polar bears, the poster-child for the impact of global warming on our animal species. Climate projections anticipate that, before mid-century, we could have a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer. Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for traveling, hunting, mating, resting, and in some areas, for dens where cubs are birthed and nurtured. Studies have linked the demise of sea ice with a 40% decline in the number of polar bears in northeast Alaska and Canada. Will the bears survive a warming Arctic?
In the lower forty-eight states, we tend to think of the south when it comes to the impact of global warming. Our warmer, wetter world has caused a surge in powerful tropical storms that have pounded the Gulf states and beyond. Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August, second only to Hurricane Katrina as the most damaging and intense hurricane to hit the U.S., with maximum winds of 150 mph. As Ida moved north, so did its destructive power. The storm caused catastrophic flooding across northeastern states. Ida caused $50.1 billion in damages. In the storm’s aftermath, 95 Americans had been killed—33 deaths in Louisiana and 9 more across the southland, 30 in New Jersey, 18 in New York, and 5 in Pennsylvania.
Island nations sinking into the sea, polar bears threatened with extinction, massive storms inflicting heavy property damage and loss of life. This is often the face of climate change on the evening news. Yet we might be surprised to learn that the Adirondacks are being profoundly affected by our warming world.
Researchers at SUNY Plattsburgh report that the Adirondacks are warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The global average temperature has increased 1.8 degrees over the past 30 years, but in Lake Placid, that increase has doubled to 3.6 degrees. That means that our fall is longer than it once was. Our spring comes earlier. We have more winter warm-ups. Ask anyone who grew up in Saranac Lake and they will tell you that winter isn’t what it used to be.
The Adirondacks sit at the southern edge of the great boreal forest that stretches north across Canada to the Arctic. As our weather warms, that boreal forest will creep north as native plants and trees can’t take the relative heat. It’s already happening. It’s already having a big impact on our wild creatures. The National Audubon Society reports that we are seeing a dramatic decline in our northern boreal birds, like gray jays, Bicknell’s thrush, spruce grouse, and the black-backed woodpecker. We are also seeing a decline in fish. Brook trout, lake trout, salmon, and round whitefish all need cold water to thrive. An EPA report anticipates that brook trout fishing could disappear from the Adirondacks by the year 2100. As the Adirondacks continue to warm, the animals of the boreal forest will migrate north in search of habitat. Can we imagine the park without moose, bobcats, fishers, pine martens, and loons? Unless there is collective action to limit the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, that will be the Adirondack Park that we leave to our children and grandchildren. It’s a sobering possibility.
In our scripture lesson, the Prophet Isaiah shares God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy were likewise living with the impact of their actions upon the good land that God had entrusted to their care. The Israelites had returned home from decades of captivity in Babylon. Their land, which had once flowed with milk and honey, had been devastated by foreign invasion and decades of war. When the Babylonian army had rolled across Israel, they had destroyed everything in their path. Every fortified city from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south had been conquered and flattened. Jerusalem was hardly recognizable: its protective walls breached and pulled down, its homes in ruins, its Temple burned to the ground. The reality was so overwhelming, that people didn’t know where to begin. That may be how we feel about the reality of climate change.
In the midst of the people’s despair, God spoke a vision of hope. God, who had created heaven and earth, would create again, a new world of harmony and abundance. God’s word to the Prophet Isaiah is a sweet and joyous promise of long life, rebuilt homes, fruitful vineyards, simple abundance, and good health. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and the holy: before we even begin to pray, God will hear and respond. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and all creatures, great and small. All will dwell peaceably, free from harm and the threat of destruction. Isiah’s promise is so sweet, that we hear it and we want it for ourselves. We want it for the generations to come.
It’s a promise that reveals God’s best hope for us. Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos described God’s coming Kingdom as Isaiah did, as a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem in right relationship with God. Humanity gets things so wrong. The ancient Israelites bring death to the land by exploiting its bounty, oppressing one another, and waging endless wars in pursuit of wealth and national greatness. We, with our unbridled consumption and short-sighted pursuit of prosperity, pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases that trap ultraviolet rays and turn up the heat. Our world is suffering. Creation is groaning. And in the middle of the mess that we have made, God dares to dream that things can be different. There can be a fresh start, a new earth.
What might it look like for us to claim Isaiah’s vision, to begin living in ways that give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom that God will one day bring to completion? Jerry Jenkins, the leading expert on climate change in the Adirondacks, says that we can personally start to mitigate climate change with simple thrift. Don’t buy new stuff: reduce, re-use, recycle.
We can make changes at home. If we dial back the thermostat by two degrees, we can not only reduce our household carbon emissions, but also save as much as 5% on our heating bill. We can turn off un-needed lights. We can replace energy-wasting lightbulbs with high-quality LED bulbs that last a long time, consume less electricity, and save lots of money, year in and year out. We can use native plants in our flower gardens to attract pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
We can change our habits. We can bring our own re-useable bottle or mug wherever we go. We can drive less—plan our trips into town, walk to nearby destinations, or ride our bikes instead of hopping in the car. We can cut down on food waste by eating leftovers. We can eat less meat—those concentrated animal feeding operations, where cattle and pork are warehoused in close proximity and force-fed, are massive emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas.
If we are in a position to make big ticket investments, we can consider purchasing a hybrid car. We could add a solar array to our homes to begin moving off the grid. We could invest in a renewable heat source. Burn wood pellets. Go geo-thermal.
These are simple steps that each of us can embrace. You can give them a try, even if you deny the truth of climate science. What’s to lose? These simple actions are good for us, good for the planet, and they save money. Who doesn’t want to save money?
William Janeway of the Adirondack Council envisions a day when the Adirondack Park will be “energy neutral.” We’ll preserve our wild beauty and ecological integrity. We’ll be a world-class natural resource and a premier tourism destination. We’ll be a model for the world to see of a “climate-smart, public-private conservation landscape.” The stakes are huge. Our failure to take action could have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren. Jerry Jenkins cautions that if we do not slow the course of human-caused climate change, “We may be the last generation to see the big bogs and the boreal creatures.” Would our children ever forgive us?
May we find in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth the holy will to make a better future for our park and our planet.
–. “Peril and Promise” on Mountain Lakes Journal, May 21, 2019.
Craig, Gewndolyn. “Adirondacks Affected by Warming Climate in a Number of Ways” in The Post Start, October 13, 2018. Accessed online at www.poststar.com.
Foderaro, Lisa. “Savoring Bogs and Moss, Fearing They’ll Vanish as the Adirondacks Warm” in The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2011. Accessed online at www.nytimes.com
Kerlin, Kat. “18 Simple Things You Can Do about Climate Change” in UC Davis: Science and Health. January 8, 2019. Accessed online at www.climatechange.ucdavis.edu
Mann, Brian. “Effects of Climate Change on the Adirondacks” on North Country Public Radio, Feb. 25, 2019. Accessed online at www.ncpr.org
Rivera, Nelson. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Johns, Mary Eleanor. “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
“What can they do to you? Whatever they want. They can set you up, they can bust you, they can break your fingers, they can burn your brain with electricity, blur you with drugs till you can’t walk, can’t remember, they can take your child, wall up your lover. They can do anything you can’t stop them from doing. How can you stop them? Alone, you can fight, you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can but they roll over you.
But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file can break a cordon, an army can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other sane, can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex. Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge. With four you can play bridge and start an organization. With six you can rent a whole house, eat pie for dinner with no seconds, and hold a fund raising party. A dozen make a demonstration. A hundred fill a hall. A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; ten thousand, power and your own paper; a hundred thousand, your own media; ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time, it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again and they said no, it starts when you say We and know you who you mean, and each day you mean one more.”
in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Beacon Press: Boston, 1991.
If we are talking about nations, we might argue that the greatest country has the strongest economy – a chicken in every pot, a job for every worker, abundance beyond imagining. Or, it could be the land with the most powerful military: expertly trained troops, cutting edge technology, firepower that inspires shock and awe. Or, it could be the nation with the best quality of life – top healthcare, best schools, least poverty, and earliest retirement.
When it comes to the workplace, we might feel that greatness is found in the biggest paycheck. Or, it could come down to responsibility—the number of employees we supervise or sites that we manage. Greatness is associated with climbing the corporate ladder. We have an inherent sense of workplace hierarchy from the tech billionaire firing rockets into space to the immigrant janitor, emptying the trash after hours.
Our understanding of greatness takes shape from an early age. Consider our schools. Greatness is acknowledged in brainy students who earn academic laurels, like National Honor Society, valedictorian, and salutatorian. Greatness is heralded on the athletic field, where our natural prowess for speed, agility, or teamwork is rewarded. Some students think that greatness is found in popularity—kids with the coolest circle of friends, best clothes, prettiest faces, and nicest homes are often most admired.
What do we believe makes for greatness?
In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples were challenged to rethink their understanding of greatness. Jesus and his friends were walking a long way, apart from the crowds. The Lord used this quiet time to share a second prediction of the betrayal, suffering, and death that would befall him. Given Jesus’ bleak prophecy, we might expect the disciples to discuss how they could best support, protect, and encourage their friend Jesus. Or perhaps they would ponder how best to continue Jesus’ message and mission, if the worst should happen. They could have talked about care for mother Mary, help for the struggling crowds, or healing for all those sick people who depended upon Jesus’ compassion.
But at the day’s end, as they settled into Peter’s home in Capernaum, we learn that the disciples spent the day arguing. When confronted by Jesus, the twelve grudgingly admitted that they had been squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Peter thought he was the best because he had walked on water—at least for a little while. Andrew thought he might be best because he was a natural evangelist, bringing Philip and Nathaniel and even Peter to the Lord. James said he was the greatest because he was a natural leader whom others respected. Judas thought he should take top honors for best managing the money. On the road that day, there must have been the sort of heated, trash-talking debate that we hear in the locker room or on the line of scrimmage, in the board room or on the playground.
Scientists believe that the desire for status is a fundamental human motive. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business found that status is something that all people crave and covet—even if we don’t realize it. We may not want wealth or a fancy home or an impressive job title, but we all desire respect, some voluntary deference from others, and social value – to know that we matter in the lives of other people. Status is universally important because it influences how people think and behave. It can even effect how we feel. Indeed, when we perceive that our status among peers, work, or community is low, we suffer. Low status impacts our health, making us more prone to depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.
In the first century world of the Roman Empire, Caesar was the greatest. Members of the imperial family and the Roman senate, as well as those who enjoyed their patronage, had high status. Roman citizens had higher status and greater legal protections than residents of vassal nations, like Israel. At the bottom of the social ladder were menial slaves and children. Within Greco-Roman society, unwanted children could be abandoned at birth at the discretion of their father. Even within Hebrew society, children had no status apart from the Beth Ab, the house of the father, the patriarch. Outside the protective order of the Beth Ab, a child was completely vulnerable. That’s why the Torah is littered with commands to care for orphans.
When we consider that first century world, we begin to imagine how shocking and offensive Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples would have been. First, Jesus says that the greatest of all must be servant of all. The servant of all was the lowest status slave in a household. They were typically the youngest slave with the most menial of duties: foot washing, sanitation, caring for animals. The servant of all didn’t eat until every other slave in the household had been served—by them. Only then could they eat from the leftovers. Next, Jesus—a high status rabbi who typically would not have been concerned with children at all—Jesus took a toddler and placed the child in their midst. This child would have been the lowest status, most vulnerable, and dependent person in the home. Jesus gave the child a hug and told the twelve that this was who he was. This was whom they should emulate and welcome. Can we imagine the shocked silence in that room?
It’s a tough teaching that flies in the face of our fundamental human desire for status. It’s hard to even think of a comparable metaphor in today’s world. Perhaps, Jesus would call us to be like migrant farm workers, spending long hours in backbreaking labor for low wages to feed America. Perhaps Jesus would call us to be like the vulnerable children caught up in the foster care system without a permanent home or consistent guardian or a legal voice in decisions that profoundly affect our lives. Whatever our notions about status may be, Jesus wants to turn them upside down. Jesus wants to thoroughly reorient us.
Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, teaches that we begin to understand what Jesus is trying to say when we consider what God has done. The immortal, omniscient, inscrutable, unknowable great God of the multiverse chose to be mortal, to know the finitude and the frailty of flesh. That downward path continued as Jesus—God made flesh—concerned himself with the least of these, the low-status people of his time. He sought the lost sheep of Israel, forgave sinners, touched those who were unclean, welcomed scoundrels, taught women, and healed Gentile outsiders. It got worse: betrayal, prison, a kangaroo court, torture, public humiliation, and a brutal excruciating death that was reserved for the lowest status residents of the empire. God gave us the ultimate object lesson in downward mobility. Think about it.
It is a hard and holy road. It makes no sense whatsoever until we affirm what those earliest Christians knew about Jesus, knew about God. God is love. God is agape, the choice to love others and act always in their best interest, without counting the personal cost. Agape is the choice to love whether or not the object of our love is lovable or worthy. It is a choice to love, regardless of status. Agape prompted God to become flesh in Jesus. In agape, Jesus poured out his life with kindness and caring, healing and justice. In agape, Jesus chose the cross for the redemption of status-seeking disciples like Peter, Andrew, and James, for status-seeking disciples like us.
In today’s tough teaching, Jesus dares to hope that there will be others to follow him on that hard road of downward mobility. He opens a window on a world that can be ours, a world where greatness is found in love that serves, honors, and sacrifices. Jesus challenges us to envision a world where we are willing to be weak, vulnerable, and humble for others’ sake. It is a world where our innate desire for status is subverted, where the greatest among us are not the folks with political power, the biggest bank accounts, or the most followers on social media. The greatest of all love the most. It is world where we can all be great.
As I finish up my message, I’d like to invite you to imagine the world that Jesus would have us make, where greatness is found in vulnerability and self-giving love. In Jesus’s world, the Olympic games honor those who care the most. The gold medals this summer went out to all the nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and caregivers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID crisis. In Jesus’s world, the billionaires aren’t firing rockets into space; instead, they are vying to ensure that the world’s children have safe clean drinking water, enough food, and an education. In Jesus’s world, reality television doesn’t pit contestants against one another for survival on a desert island. Rather, competitors go toe-to-toe to see who can be kindest, who can do the most good, who can make the biggest positive difference in their hometown. In Jesus’s world, every child is honored and everyone has status, not because they are intelligent, athletic, or popular, but because they are children of a God who loves them enough to die for them.
It’s a good world. It’s the greatest. Let’s go forth to make it so. Amen.
Lewis, Karoline. “The Greatest” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 17, 2018. Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.
Lose, David. “A Different Kind of Greatness” in Dear Partner in Preaching, Sept. 2018. Accessed online at http://www.davidlose.net/
Moore-Keish, Martha L. “Theological Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.
Ringe, Sharon H. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.
Every day we encounter them, folks who are outsiders to the Christian community.
Melissa has never been a church member. Although her parents were both raised in mainline congregations, they never got involved with the church as adults. They never had Melissa or her brothers baptized or confirmed. Melissa has good memories of attending church as a child on special occasions with her grandparents, especially those wonderful Christmas Eve services. Sometimes, Melissa thinks she could really use that beauty and belonging in her life, but she doesn’t know how that would happen. Her grandparents have been gone for years. Sunday morning services feel like a foreign language, and the one time she did go, she sat by herself in the back. It feels a whole lot safer to stay home and have a second cup of coffee.
Ben and Mary haven’t attended church since their youngest son aged up and out of the Youth Group. They had felt it was important for their children to experience the moral and ethical teachings of Christianity, and so for years they had made the effort to come to church. They sat in the sanctuary while the kids trooped off after the Children’s Time to Sunday School. Ben and Mary never truly intended to drop out of church. Each week they promised one another that this would be the Sunday they would be back. A week turned into a month. Then, it was a year. Then, it just got too embarrassing because they had been gone for so long. Now they think of church as something that had been part of their lives “back then.” It’s just too much bother to reconnect.
Betty attended church weekly for decades. Every week, she sat in the same pew, used the same hymnal, and passed the peace with the same people. All that tradition had to change when Betty sold her house, which had gotten to be too much to manage after her husband died. Betty’s new home is a fifteen-minute drive from church. After she had a series of fender benders, the kids persuaded her to give up the car. As a result, Betty’s Sunday morning trips to church came to an end. Betty likes the online services, but it’s not the same. She misses worship; she misses her church family.
Every day we encounter them, those folks who, for whatever reasons, are now outside the Christian community. We exchange awkward “Hellos.” We make small talk about the weather. We share superficial news of family. Then, we go our way, feeling relieved it’s over but also a little sad.
Our reading from Mark’s gospel told two stories of outsiders to the covenant community. It began with that woman and her demon-possessed daughter. The Bible scholars like to tell us all the reasons why this woman and her child would not be welcomed by Jesus and his friends. First of all, she was a Gentile of the worst sort: a Syrophoenician who worshipped the storm god Baal. These were not lost sheep of Israel. These were foreign Jezebels. This woman didn’t have the courtesy to follow the traditional practice of sending a male family member to make the request for healing help. A first-century rabbi would never accept a private audience with a woman who was not a family member, especially a Gentile Syrophoenician one.
All Jesus wanted was a little peace and quiet after his dust up with the Pharisees and scribes, but as soon as this woman heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, she was knocking on the door with her inappropriate request. We know that Jesus didn’t like it because he called the woman and her child dogs—ask any woman and she will tell you that there is absolutely nothing nice about being called a dog, no matter who says it. Most of us would tuck our tails and walk away, but that tenacious woman refused to give up. Her witty repartee about even dogs deserving a few crumbs—and her bold faith that Jesus could heal her daughter, if he only would—stopped Jesus as he began to shut the door. “Hmm,” he thought. “Maybe it isn’t just about the lost sheep of Israel. Maybe God’s love can be bigger than that. Maybe even outsiders like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter could have a place within the new covenant community that is taking shape around me”. One thing is for certain, Jesus changed his mind. The demon was gone and the girl was cured, sight unseen.
The second healing story serves as an exclamation point to this notion of a bigger mission. Jesus was again in Gentile territory, again facing inappropriate demands to heal someone who was beyond the literal and spiritual borders of Israel. This time, there was no harsh refusal, no need for witty repartee. On the contrary, Jesus worked hard for the man’s healing: laying on hands, applying spittle, touching his tongue, and praying, “Ephphatha!” Be opened! Jesus’ healing work was so thorough that the no longer impaired man and his friends couldn’t stop sharing the good news of what Jesus had done, despite Jesus’ request that they keep it on the down low. The news of this new openness must have spread like wildfire throughout the Gentile cities of the Decapolis.
These beautiful stories of healing and the command to “Be opened” speak to us. Often when we hear them preached, we are reminded that Jesus invites us to reach beyond traditional boundaries. We are meant to share God’s love, healing, and mercy with folks who are stereotypically outsiders to the mainstream of society—or at least to mainline churches. Be opened! Minister to those who are incarcerated. Reach out to the refugee and the migrant. Welcome neighbors whose lifestyles or loves have been made to feel like they don’t belong amid the assembly of the faithful. Indeed, I believe that Jesus calls us to that radical openness which we affirm every Sunday when I share our statement of mission and state that, “All are welcome here.” God’s love is always larger and more inclusive than we can begin to imagine. Jesus expects that those who follow him will “Be opened” even when that is not easy or comfortable.
This time through the lectionary cycle, I have also been thinking about those other outsiders, the ones we encounter every day. They may be spiritually hungry seekers, like Melissa. They have never known what it is like to have a church family. They don’t know that Jesus loves them. The very thought of attending a church on their own feels risky and lonely, like being a stranger in a strange land.
Those everyday outsiders may have once had a place in the assembly of the faithful. But then an empty nest, or a big promotion, or retirement got them out of the church habit. They have slipped away from our Sunday mornings and our potlucks. For a number of years, they made an obligatory appearance on Christmas Eve. One day, we sadly realized that they aren’t church people any more.
Those everyday outsiders may even have once been insiders like Betty. Then, a big move, a growing disability, the death of a spouse, or the onset of dementia brought an end to their deep engagement with the congregation. We miss them, but we don’t always do anything about that. We trust that the deacons and the pastor will handle it.
There are everyday outsiders everywhere, and the advent of the pandemic has made it that much easier to allow folks to continue to be outsiders. We tell ourselves that if people really want to worship, they can now do so online. We don’t even consider inviting them to church because who wants to worship in the Great Hall anyway? It becomes awfully easy to hide behind our masks in the grocery store. We may encounter those everyday outsiders everywhere, but those awkward moments of encounter pass. We shrug it off, at least until the next time.
“Ephphatha!” Be opened, Jesus says to us this morning. It’s a prayer. It’s a plea. It’s a calling to take personal responsibility. Those everyday outsiders, their mothers aren’t going to come knocking at the church door, demanding an audience with Jesus. Those everyday outsiders, their neighbors aren’t going to intercede for them. It’s up to us to care, to reach out, to speak, to make a way for connection, to be the love of Christ for those who feel that, somehow, they are on the outside.
Jesus, put your fingers in our ears. Jesus, give us a little of that holy spittle. Jesus, touch our tongues. Open our hearts to those who are on the outside looking in, lonely, alienated, and uncertain about what they are truly looking for. In a world that is desperate for God’s mercy, healing, and love, the gap between insider and outsider is ours to bridge.