The Unexpected Neighbor

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Unexpected Neighbor” Luke 10:25-37

Louella Fletcher could really tell a story, and she had been spinning them all afternoon.  Bob said a prayer and bid her goodbye.  Louella walked with him out to the porch.  As the sun had dropped, afternoon flurries had intensified into huge, fast-falling flakes.  A smooth blanket of snow surrounded the house, and Bob’s Subaru was shrouded in white. 

“Say, Bob,” Louella said, holding onto his arm, “Maybe you should have dinner with us and spend the night.  We’re awful remote, and I don’t like the look of this.” 

Bob thought about Marge and Paul back home, waiting dinner for him.  He remembered his meeting, first thing in the morning.  “Thanks, Louella, but I’ll be ok.  I’ve got all-wheel drive.” 

Louella looked as if she was on the edge of another story or a word of warning, but she shrugged and gave Bob a hug, “You take care now, pastor.  Be safe.”

Bob inched along, wipers thumping, defroster rushing, headlights barely making a dent in the snowy darkness.  He hesitated at the pointy corner where the main road swept to the right and the seasonal road climbed to the left.  The main road was likely to be better driving, but the seasonal road shaved a good ten miles off what was proving to be a long, slow trip. “O, what the hay,” Bob said, “I imagine the Subaru and I can handle a seasonal road.”  The car slowly toiled up, up, up, to the top of Hotchkiss Hill. 

At the summit, Bob felt a surge of relief that soon shifted to concern.  He had never noticed how sharp the descent was, no switchbacks, no guardrails, and certainly no lights way out here. Feeling like a kid on a carnival ride, all fear, butterflies, and acid reflux, he steered the car onward.  About half-way down the slope, building speed, deepening snow, and an unfortunate tap on the breaks got the rear end of the Subaru slaloming back and forth.  “Sweet Jesus!” Bob prayed as the car spun out of control, down into the dark, headlights flashing past huge trees.  With a grinding thump, the Subaru scooted off the road and into a ditch.  The rear end settled against a big white pine with a bone-jarring crack.  The wipers stopped, the defroster fell silent, and the headlights went dark. 

Bob thanked the Lord he was still alive and fished out his cellphone.  His joy at the digital glow gave way to disappointment—no signal.  Bob fished a headlamp, two handwarmers, and a granola bar out of the glovebox.  He opened the warmers, gave them a shake, and slipped them into his gloves.  He strapped on the headlamp over his hat.  Then, he turned up the collar on his coat and stepped out into more than a foot of snow. The temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. He debated turning back to Louella’s, but if the Subaru couldn’t handle the snowy track, then his boots surely wouldn’t.  It was miles and miles to town, but if he was lucky, someone might come along and help.

Petey Freudenberg was on his way home from a day of meetings at the DEC.  The ranger was more at home in the woods than in an office.  He resented days like this, hours spent listening to policy wonks who wouldn’t know a mink from a fisher. As Petey’s headlights swept the darkness ahead, he glumly thought that this would be the last day he could get away with taking the shortcut on the seasonal road.  It would be impassable in a matter of hours. 

Not too far from the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, Petey saw the willow-the-wisp of a headlamp, dancing along the shoulder. “Durned yuppies,” he muttered under his breath, “Come up here from the city and think they’ll have a little fun snowshoeing through a blizzard.”  This imbecile took the prize, even gave him a big wave and a yell before Petey dropped the truck into low and surged off up the hill and into the night.

By the time Rhonda LaMott came along in her rig, Bob’s headlamp had failed, first growing slowly dimmer and then blinking out entirely.  His trail boots really weren’t meant for this sort of weather and his feet were wet and numb.  He brushed the snow from his coat and hat and ducked his head against the weather.

Rhonda had just finished plowing at the QuikMart.  Folks had been resistant to a woman clearing snow—said it wasn’t ladylike.  But Rhonda was good and incredibly dependable. She was headed home for the evening, but she would be back in town first thing to clear away the drifts.  Rhonda was thinking about hot chocolate when she caught a glimpse of something moving on the shoulder.  It was big and lumbering through the snow.  A moose?  A man?

About fifty yards past it, Rhonda slowed to a standstill and eyed her rearview mirror.  A woman on her own in the middle of the Hotchkiss bog wasn’t safe.  She checked her door locks and peered into the dark.  Whatever it was, it was bellowing now and running in her direction.  “Jeezum Crow!” Rhonda cursed.  With her heart rising into her throat, Rhoda slid the rig into gear and sent up a shower of snow as she floored it, not daring to look back.

Now Bob was really worried. His boots squelched with melted snow.  At this rate, he might have to walk all night to make it to civilization.  He quickened his pace, fished the granola bar from his pocket, and took an incredibly stale bite.  At the top of a rise, Bob paused and patted his breast pocket for his phone.  He never did find out if he was back in range.  Bob turned out every pocket with the sickening realization that his cell must have fallen out when he ran after the plow.  He squinted back down the road and cursed his stupidity. In Bob’s overactive imagination, he saw headlines, “Local pastor freezes to death in November blizzard” or “Winter storm claims victim” or “Local church mourns pastor.”

About a half mile down the road, Bob stopped, pushed his hat up, and cupped his hands behind his ears to listen.  There it was—jingling, like Santa’s sleigh or something else, something that told him that he was out in the middle of a full-fledged snow emergency: tire chains.  He strained his eyes in the dark and glimpsed two dim beams, slowly growing brighter behind him.  He heard the chugga, chugga, chugga of a big diesel engine.  It was now or never.  Bob took a deep breath and stepped out in the middle of the road with his hands up.

Bob had never met Chester Perkins, but he had heard stories.  No one was certain exactly where Chester lived, but he was definitely off the grid.  Some said he was an anti-social hermit.  Others thought he was related to Big Foot.  Everyone agreed that he smelled bad.  Chester had seen the reflective gleam of a tail light in an empty car in the ditch at the bottom of Hotchkiss Hill, and he’d been prowling up the seasonal road in his rusted-out F-350 ever since. Maybe someone hadn’t had the good sense to stay put and wait out the storm.  Chester thought about the three toes he had lost to frostbite in the big storm of ‘93. Some poor fool might need help. 

The F-350 creaked to a stop about a foot away from Bob, who wasn’t certain which would be worse, getting run over or dying from exposure.  Chester opened the truck door and shouted through the gap, “What are you waiting for?  Get in!”  While Bob’s numb hands fumbled for a grip on the passenger door, Chester kicked it wide open.  He reached out a strong arm and hauled Bob up onto the bench seat.

Bob didn’t know what the source of the odor was, but it smelled bad in the truck, like dead things, body odor, and bean burritos.  As Bob gagged and struggled into the seat belt, Chester passed a jar. “Drink that up, son.” Something fiery and potent, maybe moonshine, blazed down Bob’s throat and kindled warmth in his chest. 

Chester pointed to Bob’s sodden boots.  “Get those off,” he ordered and then passed Bob a furry pelt that looked suspiciously like it had come from a large dog.  “Wrap your feet in this.” Bob did, his feet looking white and waxy in the dashboard light. 

“Alright then, eat this.”  Chester handed Bob a tough, salty chunk of jerky.  Bob briefly wondered what sort of meat it could be but figured it was safe when Chester broke off a big hunk and began gnawing on some himself. 

Chester dropped the truck into first and they crept toward town.  “Where to?” he wanted to know.

“If you could take me to the manse at the Presbyterian Church, I’d be so grateful,” Bob answered, still finding it hard to believe that he just might make it out of this alive.  They rode on for a few miles in silence. 

Chester gave Bob a sidelong glance, “Man of God, huh? I never been to church.”  Bob wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  Certainly, if Chester had ever come to church, it would have been an unforgettable occasion. 

With a sweep of his arm that took in the wind, snow, night, forest, darkness, Chester said, “This is my god.”

Bob nodded, thinking that Chester’s god had almost gotten the better of him that evening. 

Maybe it was the moonshine, or the warmth of the animal skin on his feet, or the chugging of the truck that did it.  Bob’s head fell to his chest, and the next thing he knew, they were in town, parked in front of the manse. Every light in the house was on, and Bob could see into the kitchen, where Marge looked like she was shouting into the telephone. 

Bob pulled on his boots and turned to Chester, “I think you saved my life.  How can I ever repay you?”

“No trouble,” Chester answered, “but it wouldn’t hurt if you promised to never do that again.”

“I promise, I really do,” Bob answered, shaking Chester’s grimy hand and knowing the grace of miraculous second chances and improbable saviors.

Chester chugged off into the night while Bob waved from the top step.  Marge opened the front door, “Thank God! You’re home, Bob! We’ve been worried sick. Who was that?”

Bob reached an arm around Marge and watched as taillights disappeared at the end of the block.  “Marge, that was a neighbor, a true-blue neighbor. Thank God, indeed.”


Photo by Nathan Moore on Pexels.com

A Wind from God

Poem for a Tuesday — “A Wind from God” by Joann White

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. — Genesis 1:1

There comes a point

in every climb when

the need for breath

and the ache of

legs push aside every

unneeded thought.  There is

no room for the

church I carry, the

mistakes I’ve made, the

lies I’ve told, the

truth I cannot speak,

the years of too

little love, the children

I never had, the

future I fear. Emptied,

I simply am rocks

beneath boots, snow reaching

down from Meall Liath,

lambs suckling with wagging

tails, the fairy mountain

hidden by mist, the

shielings of my ancestors,

red deer watching wary,

oily water oozing from

yards-deep peat. God breathes

in me and I

am recreated, a new

Eve, utterly insignificantly at

home in the web

that has been woven.


This is the second poem in a series that I wrote in response to Kore-ada Hirokazu’s stunning film after life. It explores the memory that I might choose to live in for eternity, a day of rough hill walking through the heart of Scotland and over the shoulder of Schiehallion. This poem responds to the question, “When did you best know your place amid creation?” I’ll share the subsequent poems on the next two Tuesdays.


Shieling remnant in the shadow of Schiehallion.

Helped and Healed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Helped and Healed” 2 Kings 5:1-14

We can find it hard to ask for help. Blame it on our American independence.  We generally think we know best, and we don’t like other people telling us what we should or should not be doing. It’s a deeply held American belief that we can be self-made men or self-made women.  That phrase was coined in 1842 by Senator Henry Clay to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. Needing help? That can sound downright un-American.

Naaman needed help.  The Syrian General was a mighty man of valor.  He wielded absolute authority over his troops.  He won victory after victory for his country. He commanded the respect of his king.  He amassed untold wealth and acquired a retinue of servants. Naaman even had the favor of the Hebrew God Yahweh, who gave him victory after victory.

But Naaman couldn’t do it all.  Naaman suffered from tzara áth—leprosy.  He had skin lesions and eruptions. In the biblical world, Naaman’s disease rendered him an unclean social outcast, separated from God and neighbors We know that Naaman’s leprosy was bad enough that the household talked about it, and we can surmise that the men whom Naaman commanded did, too. It was bad enough that Naaman and his wife worried about it—and it seems that they had given up hope on finding a cure.  In fact, no one on earth could cure leprosy.  Only God could do that.

We all need help sometimes. The COVID-19 pandemic made us acutely aware of that. We needed help at church.  Thank goodness that our Resource Presbyter David Bennett came by that first week when things shut down and gave Duane and me a crash course in livestreaming.  I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for all the help that Scott and Karen gave me in troubleshooting technical issues and providing music.  How about Gaelle serving week after week as our greeter and COVID screener?  Many hands helped to set up a worship space in the Great Hall and to eventually move us back into the sanctuary.  Help was needed and help abounded.  Thanks be to God.

COVID made us all realize that we needed help at home, too.  Perhaps someone helped you shop for groceries or brought food in when you tested positive.  Our crafty friends got out their sewing machines and stitched up masks for us.  When we couldn’t figure out how to Zoom, thank goodness for those techy people who got us online and in touch.  When there wasn’t any toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, or bleach on the store shelves, neighbors reached into their stashes and shared what was needed. The mass vulnerability of the COVID pandemic turned us to one another in search of help and in willingness to provide it.

Naaman got help.  It started with the most vulnerable member of the household: a young Hebrew slave girl.  She saw the affliction of Naaman and felt compassion. She cared enough to go to her mistress with the hope of a cure.  If only Naaman would go see the Prophet Elisha!  That started a cascade of helping actions.  Naaman’s wife persuaded the general to seek help from his king.  The king wrote a letter of support and loaded up the travel wagons with treasure.  After a momentary meltdown, King Jehoram of Israel sent Naaman to Elisha.  And Elisha stepped up to say that he was the man for the job.

But all those offers of help almost came to no avail.  At Elisha’s house, the mighty man of valor expected an impressive ritual, the prophet in flowing robes, waving his arms, chanting incantations, and touching Naaman’s wounds.  Instead, the front door opened, a servant came out, and Naaman was instructed to bathe seven times in the Jordan, where the murky waters were brown as dirt.  Feeling hurt and disrespected, Naaman prepared to turn around and head home.

Beyond the mutual need of the COVID pandemic, it can be hard for us to ask for help. Nora Bouchard, author of Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need, writes that we are hardwired to want to do things our way.  It’s there from the moment that our toddler tells us, “Me do it, Mommy!” to the moment they leave the nest and don’t call home nearly as often as we would like.  We could also be reluctant to ask for help because we do not want to be perceived as needy or vulnerable.  Among the most influential forces in our willingness—or reluctance— to seek help is the attitude that we experienced in our families of origin. Were our bids for help encouraged and answered or were they ignored?  Were we treated like a whiny cry baby? Did someone take advantage of our need for assistance?  If help was hard to come by growing up, then we may have particular trouble asking for help now.  Our wiring, our self-perception, and our formation can all get in the way of asking for the help we need.

We might be more likely to ask for help if we remembered that Jesus asked for help. If you read the gospel lection for today (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), then you were reminded that Jesus sent seventy disciples on ahead of him in pairs to every place where he himself intended to go. The Lord could have done it all by himself. But Jesus saw the rightness of asking for help and the wisdom of pairing up buddies so that they could help one another.  Jesus also sent them out with minimal resources—no purse, no bag, no sandals. As those vulnerable disciples moved from community to community, sharing the gospel, they depended upon the help of others.  It was in the giving and receiving of help that the beloved community of the first Christians took shape.

It might also inspire us, as independent-minded Americans, to remember on this Independence Day weekend that even our founding fathers and mothers needed help.  It’s questionable whether we would have won the Revolutionary War without the help of our French allies.  Starting in 1775, France became a secret supporter of the revolutionary cause, providing us with engineers to build fortifications, as well as uniforms, arms, and ammunition to equip the Continental Army.  French aid to the colonies came to more that 1.3 billion livres (that’s about $13 billion), crippling their own economy.  At the turning point of the war, at Saratoga in 1777, 90% of American troops carried French rifles and all of our gunpowder came from France.

What might asking for help look like for us?  I like to begin with prayer and inviting others to pray for me.  We could also start small with help for a minor problem, rather than waiting for something to morph into crisis.  We can trust that the Lord has brought people into our lives who will want to help us, just as the Lord did for Naaman.  If those folks can’t help us, they may know someone who can.  We could also consider having a support team, a little like the people who were in our COVID bubbles but permanent.  These are the people with whom we can feel safe asking for help and extending ourselves in help.  There is help out there if we are willing to ask.

Naaman got the help that he needed. Using a tenderness of language that suggests real affection, the servants interceded, saying to Naaman, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, you would have done it.  Why not try something simple?”  Maybe this healing process really could work. They had come so far.  Wasn’t it worth a try?

Down Naaman went to the shores of Jordan.  He stripped off his uniform and everyone got a look at his scabby skin.  Then he waded down into the chocolaty brown water.  It rose to his ankles and knees.  It surged above his waist and chest.  He grimaced, held his breath, and dunked his head.  Seven times Naaman went down.  Seven times he came up, sputtering.  At some point, Naaman noticed that he was no longer the same.  Help had led to healing.  The mighty man of valor walked out of the river with skin as soft and supple as a young boy. Alleluia!

Help—both holy and human—abounds for the asking.

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann. Knox Preaching Guides: 2 Kings, ed. John H. Hayes, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982).

Lisa Fierenz. “Why Asking for Help Is Hard to Do,” in Psychology Today, April 5, 2017. Accessed online at http://www.psychologytoday.com.

L. Daniel Hawk. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, July 3, 2022. Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.

Brian C. Jones. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, July 7, 2019. Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.

Suzanne McGee. “5 Ways the French Helped Win the American Revolution” in History, Sept. 9, 2020. Accessed online at www.history.com.

Cory Stieg. “Everyone Needs Help During the Coronavirus Pandemic” in CNBC: Health and Wellness, April 22, 2020. Accessed online at http://www.cnbc.com

W. Dennis Tucker. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 15, 2009. Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.


2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 8But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.


Photo by Roman Carey on Pexels.com

Orchids Galore!

On a recent visit to the Steel City, I visited the renowned Phipps Conservatory. Gifted to the City of Pittsburgh in 1893 by Henry Phipps, the botanical garden is a showcase for stunning orchid and bonsai collections. Born to British immigrants in 1839, Phipps earned a fortune as a partner with childhood friend Andrew Carnegie in the Carnegie Steel Corporation. Phipps was a pioneering philanthropist, believing that those who have achieved great wealth should give back for the public good. In addition to his gift of the Phipps Conservatory for the people of Pittsburgh, he funded the Phipps Institute for the Study, Treatment and Prevention of Tuberculosis at the University of Pennsylvania and The Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the first inpatient facility in the United States for the mentally ill constructed as part of an acute care hospital. If you are an orchid enthusiast as I am (albeit a frustrated orchid grower), you’ll enjoy these photos.



“Globe in hand, Grace slowly approached the big orchid, white and fragile and absolutely gorgeous. She very carefully slid the globe over it, and as she was doing so, she put her face into the center of the open flower, smiling as the breathtaking fragrance washed over her–luscious and nectared, candied apricots, airy notes of strange spice.”
― Jeffrey Stepakoff, The Orchard

Full Scottish Breakfast

Poem for a Tuesday — “Full Scottish Breakfast” by Joann White

Lord, you are my portion and my cup of blessing; you hold my future. — Psalm 16:5

Below the thatched

roof in Fortingall

our eyes meet

above the table.

It’s too much.

Tattie scones dipped

in sunny yolks

milky black tea

crispy streaky bacon

black pudding more

than we want

or need and

who eats beans

for breakfast anyway?

We push our

food around the

plate, lace up

our boots, and

step out to

be fed by this glorious day.


This is the initial poem — a prelude — to a series that I wrote in response to Kore-ada Hirokazu’s stunning film after life. It explores the memory that I might choose to live in for eternity, a day of rough hill walking through the heart of Scotland and over the shoulder of Schiehallion. I’ll share the subsequent poems on the next three Tuesdays.


Image credit: https://scottishscran.com/what-is-a-full-scottish-breakfast/

No Turning Back

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “No Turning Back” Luke 9:51-62

When it comes to understanding our higher purpose as human beings, author, psychologist, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin teaches that each of us is born to occupy a specific ecological niche—that’s econiche for short.  Each of us is blessed with gifts, abilities, and aptitudes that are intended to fulfil a particular function in our families, communities, and beyond.  You might even say that we are each created with a God-given purpose.  By living faithfully and courageously, we grow fully into the people whom God created us to be.

Take my econiche, for example.  I like to say that I am doing what God put me on earth to do: serving as a pastor and spiritual leader.  I also feel that I am fulfilling that function where God calls me to be—right here in Saranac Lake.  I believe that God called me to marriage with Duane, who has been a wonderful encourager and conversation partner for my life and ministry.  A few years ago, I began to hear God calling me to use my writing to reach beyond the walls of the church and the limits of Saranac Lake.  When I chose to live into that expanded econiche, doors opened: a book, a doctoral program, and an article in a literary journal this month.

Bill Plotkin writes that we are “each born to take a specific place within the earth community, to fill an individual ecological niche in the greater web of life.”  We each have a holy purpose that serves the planet.  Our personal growth and discovery of our econiche is part of God’s plan.  It’s a fulfillment of our purpose and a blessing to the world around us.  What is your econiche?

In today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel, Jesus resolved to travel to Jerusalem.  Along the way, Jesus would share some of his most profound teachings and work some of his most compelling acts of healing. He would do all this while knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem: betrayal, arrest, conviction, torture, and death.  Jesus knew his econiche.  He knew the redemptive purpose that God put him on earth to serve and he “set his face” to fulfill it.

As Jesus embarked on that fateful journey, he was not alone.  He was accompanied by “the women,” his inner circle of disciples, and other unnamed followers.  Drawn by Jesus’ wise instruction or in search of a healing miracle, people came to see what Jesus was all about.  According to Luke, some who came felt that God’s will for their life—their econiche—was to be a disciple.  Indeed, in today’s lesson, Jesus was approached by three would-be disciples.  All expressed interest in following Jesus, but there seemed to be impediments to answering that calling.

The first would-be disciple sounded eager.  He promised to follow Jesus wherever he might go.  Yet Jesus cautioned that following him would not be easy. Foxes have dens, birds of the air go home to roost, but, at times, Jesus and his friends would have no place to lay their heads. Being a disciple would bring opposition from Samaritan villages, scandalized Pharisees, and plotting priests and scribes.  Jesus and his friends would make enemies.  Discipleship would sometimes feel unsafe and inhospitable, lonely and under-supported.  If this would-be disciple was going to answer the call, then he would need to be ready to face adversity.

If we are to grow into our God-given purpose—our econiche, then we need to be prepared to work through difficulty and adversity along the way.  Benjamin Franklin was 10-years-old when his parents could no longer afford to send him to school.  The resourceful Franklin resolved to teach himself.  He read voraciously, studying late into the night with poor lighting after working all day as a printer’s apprentice. Franklin’s self-directed study equipped him for life as a patriot, scientist, and diplomat.  He was an editor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals, and the American ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785.  

A second would-be disciple approached Jesus.  This man wished to join the Lord on the journey to Jerusalem, but he first wanted to bury his father. First century Jewish tradition taught that at the death of a patriarch a mourning period of seven days followed the burial.  If the dead man were of high status in the community, that mourning period could extend to thirty days.  This would-be disciple wished to follow Jesus, but it would be a while before he was available.  Jesus’ response, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go share the good news of the Kingdom,” sounds harsh. Some Bible scholars say this is hyperbole, an exaggerated rhetoric that makes a point.  Clearly, Jesus is saying that discipleship takes unwavering commitment that is willing to set aside time-worn traditions.

Fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives may likewise demand that we make tough choices that depart from traditions and expectations.  Those of you who are older among us remember the days when the only career options available to women were mothering, teaching, nursing, or being a clerical worker.  Judith von Seldeneck’s parents thought she would make a great secretary – and she was, serving as the personal secretary to Sen. Walter Mondale in the 1960s.  But Judith had different ideas about her purpose. She attended law school—one of only two women in her class.  Then, as more and more women began to enter the workforce, Judith found her niche: helping women find jobs.  The business that she launched, Diversified Search Group, is now a global leader in executive recruitment, with offices in fourteen cities across the US and global affiliates around the world. 

A third would-be disciple approached Jesus. He hoped to follow the Lord, but first he wished to go back home and take his leave.  Jesus sensed that this man’s past would have a powerful hold upon him. Like a distracted farmer who plows a crooked and shallow furrow, this man would always look back.  He would not have the focus and commitment for discipleship.  His preoccupation with the past would be a roadblock to moving ahead.

To grow into the people whom God calls us to be, we may sometimes need to leave something behind.  This may include false beliefs about ourselves and patterns of behavior that are a stumbling block to our growth.  In his book How Not to Be Afraid, author, storyteller, and peacemaker Gareth Higgins writes that many of us subject ourselves to “harsher judgment than that which we direct to people we might even consider enemies.  We have likely judged ourselves worthy of public flogging more times than we can remember.” To move forward and grow into God’s purpose for our lives, we may need to leave behind our critical inner voice, or our failures, or even traumatic experiences that have kept us stuck.  Sometimes, it’s the shame of our past mistakes or our feelings of sinfulness that hold us back because we fail to extend to ourselves the grace that Jesus so generously extended to others. 

The research of author and professor Brene Brown has found that eighty-five percent of men and women interviewed could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming that it changed how they thought of themselves as people and learners. What made those findings even more haunting was that approximately half of those recollections were what Brown calls “creativity scars.” The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or creators.  Our potential is stifled when we accept the criticism of others as part of our self-understanding.

Making peace with the past so that we can move into the future takes prayer, reflection, and healing work.  We may need a wise mentor, a caring friend, a listening pastor, or a good counselor to help us see that our past does not have to determine our future. Indeed, it is in our healing and growing that we discern and cultivate strengths and gifts that will serve us and the world around us. Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, those personal pains that once held us back can be transformed, equipping us richly to serve in the struggles of others.  If we refuse to let go of the past, if we won’t take the risk of stepping out to follow Jesus and pursue our higher purpose, then we fail ourselves and the role we are meant to serve in God’s Kingdom goes unfulfilled.

What I find most fascinating about today’s reading is that we don’t get to see the choices that those would-be disciples made. Did they rise to move into that beautiful, if daunting, path of discipleship?  Or, did they despair at the possibility of discomfort, cling too closely to outdated traditions, and let their pasts get the better of them? Call me an optimist, but I like to think they found their econiche.  Those would-be disciples chose Jesus, chose growth, chose to become the people whom God was calling them to become.  I like to think that they were blessed in that—and that they went on to become a blessing for others.

May we do the same.


Resources:

Brené Brown. “The Most Dangerous Stories We Make Up” excerpted from Rising Strong, July 27, 2015. Accessed online at brenebrown.com.

Chris Crisman. “Women’s work: 12 stories of female success and struggle in male-dominated fields | Perspective” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 2020. Accessed online at inquirer.com.

Mikeal Parsons. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 26, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Marilynn Salmon. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 27, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Michael Rogness. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” in Preaching This Week, June 30, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Out of Control” in Dear Working Preacher, June 24, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 9:51-62

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village. 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”


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St. Francis and the Sow

Poem for a Friday — “St. Francis and the Sow” by Galway Kinnell

“The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   

as Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   

began remembering all down her thick length,   

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”

in Americans’ Favorite Poems, ed. Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.

From the Poetry Foundation: “Galway Kinnell was an award-winning poet best known for poetry that connects the experiences of daily life to much larger poetic, spiritual, and cultural forces. Often focusing on the claims of nature and society on the individual, Kinnell’s poems explore psychological states in precise and sonorous free verse. Critic Morris Dickstein called Kinnell ‘one of the true master poets of his generation.”’ Kinnell’s Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

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The Community of Overflowing Love

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Matthew 28:16-20 “The Community of Overflowing Love”

Ireland has long been known as the Land of a Thousand Welcomes, with a well-deserved reputation as the most hospitable nation on earth.  In Ireland, lost tourists looking for directions find themselves escorted to their destination with many a story along the way.  Visitors to a pub are welcomed like old friends with raised glasses and calls of “Slainte!” An afternoon visit leads to tea with many a cuppa’ and soda bread dotted with raisins and slathered with butter.

This unofficial code of Irish welcome dates back more than 1,000 years to when the Irish clans were regulated by the Brehon Laws.  Under Brehon Law, all households were obliged to provide some measure of hospitality to strangers—food, drink, entertainment, and a bed.  No prying questions could be asked of the guest, and once hospitality was accepted, the guest refrained from any quarrel or harsh words.  The only price of hospitality was the exchange of stories, poetry, and song.  In a rural land with few roads and long distances between settlements, these ancient Irish traditions ensured a much-needed welcome for weary travelers. 

Today, the warm welcome of the Irish continues to summon visitors from around the world.  In 2019, before the pandemic, 11.3 million travelers visited the Land of a Thousand Welcomes, more than double the Irish population.  That’s almost three times the number of annual visitors to the Holy Land.

At the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus cast a vision for the life and ministry of his disciples. We call it the Great Commission.  Jesus sent his friends forth to all nations to share the gospel.  They were commissioned to bear witness to God’s great love for all people, a love that was revealed in the life, death and rising of their Lord.  For their mission, the disciples would rely on the hospitality of others. They had to trust that there would be a welcome waiting for them at the end of a long day of travel—safety, the sharing of food, drink, entertainment, and a bed.

It was in acts of hospitality, in the welcoming of strangers and the telling of stories, that the good news of Jesus Christ was shared.  At the table or while seated at the fire, tales were told.  Strangers became friends.  Disciple begat disciple.  Hosts were welcomed into the community of Christ, which had its own far-reaching hospitality, a hospitality that found its ultimate expression in the rite of baptism.  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, guest became host, host became guest, and all became One in the family of love and faith that Jesus commanded his disciples to make.

Jesus’ vision of an expanding community of love is grounded in the Trinity—the belief that God is Three-in-One.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternal community, three simultaneous, co-equal expressions of the One Holy and Almighty God.  The theologians say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indwell each other (perichoresis).  They make room for one another and are hospitable to one another.  Reformed author and pastor Leonard Vander Zee describes the Trinity eloquently and understandably when he writes, “At the center of all reality, at the heart of the universe, there exists an eternal divine community of perfect love.”

Everything that we know flows forth from that perfect love.  Creation is the expansion and delight of that overflowing divine love.  All creatures arise from that overflowing divine love.  We are an expression of that overflowing divine love.  It is no wonder that when Jesus cast the vision for the church, it was a vision of overflowing divine love, of disciples going forth in love to welcome friends, neighbors, strangers, and all nations into that eternal community of perfect love.  Now that’s what we call holy hospitality.

Standing at the intersection of the ancient Brehon Laws of hospitality and the overflowing love of the Triune God is Brigid of Ireland.  With Patrick and Columba, Brigid is one of the three patron saints of the Land of a Thousand Welcomes. While Patrick evangelized the Irish, and Columba sailed off to share the gospel with the Scots, Brigid was consecrated as a bishop and established Irish communities where the overflowing love of Christ was revealed.

In the 6th century, Brigid was born a slave to a pagan chieftain and his Christian dairymaid.  From an early age, Brigid resolved to live a life of dedication to Christ with great kindness and generosity.  She so infuriated her father by giving away his possessions to anyone in need that he sold her with her mother to the household of a druid priest.  There, Brigid’s generosity got her into trouble again.  Her druid master confronted her for giving away the entire supply of butter, but when Brigid prayed, the butter supply was divinely restored—and more.  Her master’s household prospered and grew rich with abundance.  Convicted of Brigid’s holiness, the druid and his family were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The druid’s first action as a newborn member of that community of overflowing divine love was to give Brigid her freedom.

Brigid’s kindness and generosity often extended to the most vulnerable of her neighbors.  When she fell while riding and struck her head, she asked that the blood from her wound be mixed with water and used to anoint two sisters who were deaf and mute.  Both were healed.  When a cow had been sorely troubled and milked dry by hungry neighbors, Brigid blessed the poor beast, which then provided ten times the milk expected of it and never went dry again.  Brigid gave a mug of water to a leper, instructing him to wash with it, and he was made clean.  Brigid’s self-proclaimed purpose was “to satisfy the poor, to banish every hardship, and to save every sorrowful man.”  That sounds like what Jesus had in mind when he sent out his disciples to share the overflowing love of the Triune God.

Brigid believed in the power of community to extend the outreaching, overflowing love of Christ.  With seven other Christian women, Brigid went to the King of Kildare to request land to build a Christian community.  When the king refused, Brigid persuaded him to give her a parcel of land no larger than her cloak could cover.  The king agreed.  Four women were given the corners of her cloak, and as Brigid prayed, they began to walk.  The Lord brought the increase, expanding the cloak until it covered a generous parcel of land, the Curragh of Kildare. 

There Brigid and her friends built a large double monastery for women and men.  Kildare Abbey was a center for learning, worship, farming, the arts, and, of course, hospitality. In the Spirit of Christ and the tradition of Brehon Law, strangers were welcomed with food, drink, entertainment, and rest.  In the sharing of stories, many a visitor came to know the overflowing love of God and was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate that eternal, divine community of perfect love that lives at the heart of the universe. We remember Jesus’s vision of a ministry of overflowing divine love for all nations. Brigid believed that when we go forth in that overflowing love of the Trinity, we become Christ to others and they become Christ to us.  Brigid said, “It is in the name of Christ that I feed the poor, for Christ is the body of every poor man.” As we are a blessing to others, they become a blessing to us.  This morning, Jesus and Brigid bid us to ponder: How will we go forth to share the overflowing perfect love of the Triune God?

I’ll close with the Irish Rune of Hospitality, attributed to Brigid.

“I saw a stranger yestere’en;

I put food in the eating place,

Drink in the drinking place,

Music in the listening place,

And in the name of the Triune

He blessed myself and my house,

My cattle and my dear ones,

And the lark said in her song

Often, often, often,

Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,

Often, often, often,

Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”

Resources:

Daniel Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991.

Leonard Vander Zee. “The Holy Trinity: The Community of Love at the Heart of Reality” in The Banner, Feb. 26, 2016.

Wendy Hopler. “Biography of Brigid of Kildare” in Learn Religions, June 10, 2019.  Accessed online at learnreligions.com.

John D. Gee. “5 Lessons from St. Brigid of Kildare” in Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, Feb. 1, 2021.  Accessed online at patheos.com.

Mary Dugan Doss. “A Gift of Hospitality: Saint Brigid, Abbess of Kildare” in Orthodox Christianity, Feb. 1, 2014. Accessed online at orthochristian.com.


Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


By John Duncan (1866-1945) – http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/full.php?ID=27474, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46026001

Rushing at Times Like Flames

Poem for a Tuesday — “Rushing at Times Like Flames” by Nelly Sachs

“Rushing at times

like flames through our bodies —

as if they were still woven with the beginning

of the stars.

How slowly we flash up in clarity —

Oh, after how many lightyears have our hands

folded in supplication —

our knees bent —

and our souls opened

in thanks?”

— in Women in Praise of the Sacred, ed. Jane Hirshfield. New York: Harper Collins, 1994, p. 222.


Nelly Sachs was born to a secular Jewish family in Berlin in 1891. With the rise of the National Socialist Party, she became aware of her Jewish heritage and faith. She narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp in 1940 by fleeing to Sweden through the intercession of the royal family. For the rest of her life, the Holocaust was a central theme of her work. She shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature with Israeli novelist S.I. Agnon. Sachs wrote of forgiveness, deliverance, peace, and a God who is present in terror, suffering, absence, and death.


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