The Good Treasure

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Good Treasure” 2 Tim. 1:1-14

For most of us, our faith was formed by the guidance, influence, and instruction of others.

Country music superstar Dolly Parton speaks openly and authentically of her faith.  The fourth of twelve children, born in a one-room cabin in Eastern Tennessee, Parton remembers daily times of prayer and Bible reading with her mother Avie Lee, who was the daughter of a pastor.  Every Sunday morning, Avie Lee and her brood would head to her father’s little mountain church house, where Parton began singing and playing guitar at the age of six.  Although Dolly’s family was what she called “dirt-poor”, she says, “We grew up believing that through God all things are possible.”

Academy Award winning actor Denzell Washington is widely known as a man of faith.  His belief was grounded in the witness of his father, a Pentecostal minister and gospel singer.  Denzell may be known for making Hollywood hits, but growing up, his father limited the family’s film viewing to movies based on Bible stories, like The Ten Commandments.  He also encouraged Denzell to read the Bible daily, a discipline that Washington continues to practice.  Denzell’s faith has kept him grateful and humble in an industry where fame can go to your head.  Washington says, “[I] understand where the gift comes from.  It’s not mine; it’s been given to me by the grace of God.”

Francis Collins is the former head of the National Institutes of Health and director of the Human Genome Project.  Not raised in a family of faith, Collins was an atheist until he encountered a cardiac patient during his medical studies.  An older woman who lived with chronic pain and serious health challenges, she was consistently sunny and upbeat.  She spoke about her faith with Collins on more than one occasion until asking him, “So what about you?  What do you believe?” That prompted Collins to do some research.  On the recommendation of a Methodist pastor, Francis began some spiritual reading, including Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  Taking what he knew of science and looking at it through the lens of Christianity led to belief for Collins who looks at creation and says, “God must be an amazing physicist and mathematician.”

Many of us have similar stories.  The faith that sustains us got its start in the witness of a parent or grandparent.  The seed of faith was planted in the weekly discipline of going to church, the creative efforts of a Sunday School teacher, the prayers of a friend, the spiritual wisdom of a mentor, or the inspiring witness of a co-worker.  How did you discover the good treasure of the gospel?

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul reminds his young friend of the faith he found in the spiritual leadership of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  We don’t know much about Lois or Eunice, but the fact that as women their names are remembered in that deeply patriarchal time says a lot.  Timothy came from Lystra where Paul planted a church on his first missionary journey.  We can imagine that Eunice and Lois were important leaders in that young church, fanning the flames of the gospel in a thoroughly pagan world.  We can trust that as a youth Timothy attended church, shared in family prayers, and learned of God’s great love for him.  Lois and Eunice must have sensed that Timothy would have a holy purpose for his life.  The name Timothy, Timόtheos in Greek, means “honoring God.”

Paul’s letter also reveals that the apostle considered himself to be a spiritual father to Timothy, whom he called his “beloved child.” From Eunice to Lois to Paul, Timothy found belief through the good instruction and faithful witness of those who loved him.  As Paul wrote these words, reminding Timothy of the faith that had been imparted to him, Paul was in prison, having stood trial and been condemned to death for his faith. Paul knew that his days were numbered. If the gospel were to continue to go forth across the empire, Paul would need a spiritual heir, someone like Timothy, who would hold to the standard of good teaching, keep the faith, and guard the good treasure that had been entrusted to him.

Scripture and tradition tell us that Timothy found courage and perseverance in his faith.  The zealous young disciple acted as Paul’s scribe and co-author of the books of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. He accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys, and when Paul was in prison, Timothy represented Paul at Corinth and Philippi. For a time, Timothy was also imprisoned for the faith.  Church tradition teaches that after Paul’s death, Timothy served as bishop of the church at Ephesus, an important seaport on the west coast of Asia Minor.  But in the year 97, Timothy ran afoul of a pagan group celebrating the feast of Catagogion, a festival in which they carried images of their gods about the streets. The pagan revelers beat Timothy with clubs.  Two days later, he died.

We may not be Timothy, but we can all testify to the power of our faith.  The good treasure of the gospel that has been imparted to us by others has been powerful.  It has held our marriages together through dry times.  It has prompted us to be better parents.  We have prayed our way through workplace woes and health crises. The good treasure of faith has been the lifeline through our dark nights of the soul.  We have faced the death of beloved ones, and we contemplate our own mortality, with confidence because we have faith; we trust that Jesus has prepared a place for us in his Father’s House. Thank goodness for those who have cared enough plant those gospel seeds in us, who ensured that we know we are beloved children of God through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, the seeds of faith that are planted in us by others can prompt us to do remarkable things. 

Dolly Parton says that she believes her music is more ministry than job.  She has multiple best-selling country gospel recordings, and since 2019, she has collaborated to record hit records with contemporary Christian artists For King & Country, Zach Williams, and the Swedish duo Galantis.  Dolly’s faith, however, has found its greatest expression in her efforts to promote children’s literacy.  Her literacy program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, mails one book per month to each enrolled child from the time of their birth until they enter kindergarten. Currently, over 1,600 local communities provide Dolly’s Imagination Library to almost 850,000 children each month around the world.

Denzell Washington feels the call to speak of his faith to a younger generation that needs God to negotiate these morally complex times.  In his 2015 commencement address at Willard University, Washington advised students that the most important lesson in life is to “put God first” and have the heart to serve others around them.  Denzell says that he is here “to serve, help, and provide.” He has been the national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993. With his family, he has launched the Gifted Scholars Program in Neurosciences.  This innovative endeavor provides scholarships and fellowships for studies and research in brain science.  A supporter of veterans, Washington also funded new housing for disabled Iraq War vets when he learned that there was no place for them to stay at Fort Sam Huston when they came for treatment. 

Francis Collins, the world-renowned geneticist whose journey to faith was prompted by the tough questions of a patient, has been a leader in bridging the so-called divide between science and faith.  He sees the laboratory as a place of worship that gives a glimpse of the mind of God.  His 2006 bestselling book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief describes how his work on the Human Genome Project was like seeing the language that God uses to speak us into creation. In 2007, Collins established the BioLogos Foundation. The foundation addresses the escalating culture war between science and faith, seeking dialog and harmony between the two. In 2020, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize for harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.

Lois, Eunice, Paul, Timothy, Dolly, Denzell, Francis Collins, those are some inspiring witnesses, aren’t they?  Their little—and big—efforts to live as people of faith and integrity are inspiring.  This morning, may we find in their good examples the invitation to do some faith sharing of our own. Nurture the belief of the children in your life. Challenge the youth you know to put God first. Use your gifts and abilities to share God’s love.  Build bridges that expand imaginations and lead to harmony between the secular and spiritual. Lois, Eunice, Paul, Timothy, Dolly, Denzell, Francis Collins—and you—those are some inspiring witnesses. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you.  Amen.

Resources:

AKM Adam. “Commentary on 2 Tim. 1:1-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 1, 2010. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-3/commentary-on-2-timothy-11-14

John Frederick. “Commentary on 2 Tim. 1:1-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 2, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-3/commentary-on-2-timothy-11-14

Matt Skinner. “Commentary on 2 Tim. 1:1-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 6, 2013. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-3/commentary-on-2-timothy-11-14

Sara Kettler. “Why Dolly Parton Has Devoted Her Life to Helping Children Read” in Biography, April 13, 2020. https://www.biography.com/news/dolly-parton-imagination-library

Lesli White. “The Real Reason Dolly Parton Started Making Christian Music” in Beliefnet. https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/music/the-reason-dolly-parton-makes-christian-music.aspx

Denzell Washington. “Commencement Speech, Dillard University” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROiNPUwg9bQ&t=70s

Manuela Cardiga. “Denzel Washington Is a Devoted Christian — inside His Relationship with God” in Amomama News, Aug 20, 2020.

Templeton Prize. “Francis Collins Awarded 2020 Templeton Prize,” May 20, 2020. https://www.templetonprize.org/francis-collins-awarded-2020-templeton-prize/

Templeton Prize. “Dr. Francis Collins: Harmony – Life at the Intersection of Science & Faith,” Sept. 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYvi8qwp7Og


2 Tim. 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace, and this grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard the deposit I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.


Photo by Dayvison de Oliveira Silva on Pexels.com

Father of the Seas

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Father of the Seas” Job 38:1-18

We live in a watery world.  70% of our planet is covered by ocean.  So important are the seas for the existence of life on earth that they are sometimes called the lifeblood or the lungs of the planet.

All life depends upon the water cycle that begins at sea.  The ocean is warmed by the sun and water evaporates. Warm water vapor rises and condenses into clouds as it enters the cool air of the atmosphere.  When clouds become filled with water, it precipitates, falling as rain or snow to fill our lakes, cap our mountains, bless our forests, and bring forth the harvest.

The ocean is equally essential in sustaining a breathable atmosphere.  Scientists estimate that seventy percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by marine plants, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to energy. At the same time, they release oxygen into the atmosphere, giving us fresh and healthy air to breathe.

The ocean is the great temperature regulator of the planet.  It absorbs heat in summer and disperses it in winter.  Currents within the ocean, like great rivers, sweep the globe, bringing warm tropical waters north and cool arctic waters south.  For example, the Gulf Stream sweeps northward through the Atlantic, bringing warmer tropical waters, rain, and milder winters to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.  In fact, without the ocean to moderate the earth’s temperature, this planet would be in perpetual winter.

The ocean is also a haven of stunning biodiversity. Microscopic marine plants (phytoplankton) are the great base of the ocean food chain.  Bioluminescent fish dwell in the watery depths of the sea, never seeing the sun but generating their own light.  Enormous blue whales, the largest creatures to ever exist on the planet, live ninety years, can reach up to 110 feet, weigh more than 330,000 pounds, and eat six tons of tiny crustaceans called krill every day.  How amazing is that?

One of the most essential truths that we embrace as people of faith is that God created the world and all that is in it. In pondering the ocean, we can affirm that God is a master creator with a stunning, interconnected, complex plan for the flourishing of life as we know it. 

Our reading from the Book of Job offers one of many descriptions in scripture of God’s work in creation.  According to Job, God spoke out of the whirlwind, remembering the birth of the ocean.  The primordial waters gushed forth from the cosmic womb and into the hands of God, who shaped them and set their bounds and limits.  Next, God clothed the deeps, like a newborn child.  God wrapped them in clouds and swaddled them in darkness.  Then, God swam through the springs of the sea and walked in the recesses of the deep. 

I love this particular creation story.  It affirms the truth that God is the great creator, but it does a whole lot more.  In the setting of limits and the forging of bounds, we hear that bringing our oceans into being was hard and intentional work.  In the holding and clothing of the seas, we hear God’s love for the ocean, like a parent tending a firstborn child. Finally, as God swims through the waves and walks upon the sea floor, we learn that God inhabits and delights in creation.  Anyone who has done a little body surfing at the beach or snorkeled along a coral reef knows the joy that God experiences in the ocean.  Indeed, this is a creation story that inspires both awe for the Creator and reverence for God’s watery creation.

Unfortunately, our oceans are in trouble and the problem is manmade.  We have used our oceans as a dumping ground.  Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s a floating dump in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, two-times the size of Texas.  Prevailing currents have collected trash from America and Asia into a 100-million-ton debris field. It’s an ecological catastrophe.

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges to healthy seas. 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enter our oceans every year. That’s equivalent to a garbage truck load of plastic being dumped into the sea every minute. Five trillion plastic pieces weighing 250,000 metric tons are floating in our oceans right now.

Climate change greatly impacts our oceans. In the last fifty years, oceans have absorbed ninety percent of the excess heat caused by global warming.  That means that ocean temperatures are rising, especially along coastlines and at the poles, where scientists say the earth is warming twice as fast as at the equator.  Cold water habitats are shrinking, including places where phytoplankton grow, that most essential link in the world’s food chain. As our oceans absorb the growing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, that increases the acidity of waters, killing coral reefs and eroding the shells of clams and crabs.

That stunning biodiversity of our seas is at risk, too.  90 million tons of seafood are fished each year. Sixty percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished and in danger of collapse.  In 1992, years of overfishing led to the collapse of the Canada’s Grand Banks. 40,000 fishermen found themselves out of work.  Despite a moratorium on cod fishing, the Grand Banks cod population has never recovered. 

It isn’t just the fish we eat that is a threat to biodiversity. In the twentieth century, the whaling industry killed an estimated 2.9 million whales.  That’s a marine holocaust.  Some species, like the blue whales were reduced in population by ninety percent, putting them at risk for extinction. 

It isn’t just what we fish. It’s how we fish.  Trawling drags massive nets along the sea floor disrupting the ecosystem. Every year, hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises are killed as they are caught and drowned in commercial nets – a practice that the fishing industry refers to a “bycatch” as if this is an acceptable by-product of the business.

If God were to speak to us from the whirlwind this morning, it would be a tale of lament.  The father of the oceans would weep as their beloved child suffers.  God would swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in disgust.  God would walk the devastated ocean floor in despair.  In our misuse of the oceans, we have failed to honor the creator and the creation. The lifeblood of the planet is bleeding out.  The lungs of the earth are gasping for air.  We have treated the keystone of creation like a sewer and a boundless resource for our personal profit.  In doing so, we have threatened death to the planet. It is time to gird up our loins like adults and account for our actions.  Lord, have mercy.

So, what we can do? It begins with a shift in how we see the world around us. If God is, indeed, the Creator who has birthed and delights in the creation, then we, as people of faith are called to touch the earth lightly, to carefully consider the impact of our actions upon this great web of being that God has woven.  If we can live and act from a place of reverence and humility, then there is hope for our oceans.

We can all make lifestyle choices that reduce our impact upon the oceans, starting with plastics.  We can stop using single use plastics like straws, cutlery, coffee cups, water bottles, plastic bags, and take-out containers.  If every American just used five fewer straws each year, it would keep 1.5 billion straws out of our landfills and oceans. We can also demand that restaurants and industries use and develop plastic alternatives like compostable containers for leftovers, re-useable cloth bags for produce, and bio-degradable plastics made from corn.

We can reduce our carbon footprint and take our little bite out of global warming.  If you live in town, try walking or riding a bike to run errands.  If you live out of town, combine errands to make only a trip or two each week.  Turn off lights when you leave a room.  Better insulate your home to reduce fuel consumption. Consider turning back the thermostat at night or when you are away from home for eight or more hours – you’ll save money and reduce heat loss through your building envelope.  Those of us who are carnivores can try eating less meat.  Land-based proteins like beef, pork, and lamb generate methane, a greenhouse gas, as part of their digestion.  If we really want to cut the world’s carbon footprint, we can make peace.  War consumes massive amounts of fossil fuels, devastates the natural world, and warships release extreme amounts of waste into bodies of water, degrading marine habitats and coastlines.

We can also do our part to maintain that stunning biodiversity of the ocean.  It can begin by making wise choices at the grocery for seafood that is sustainably fished or farmed.  I’ve made some copies for you of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch National Consumer Guide.  The aquarium monitors the fishing industry to determine which seafoods are most sustainably fished or farmed.  They adjust their guide every six months so that you can trust that your fish dinner isn’t coming from fishing stocks in danger of collapse.  We can also speak out about “by-catch” that murders marine mammals in pursuit of a profit, and we can only purchase tuna that is sustainably caught – look for a label saying so on the can.  Finally, tell others about the importance of consumer choices for the world’s fisheries, and let your favorite restaurant know that you only want to see sustainable options on the menu.

We live in a wonderful, watery world.  It’s the pride and joy of the Father of the Seas.  On this Care for Creation Sunday, let’s resolve to do our part to keep the planet’s lifeblood flowing and lungs breathing.

Resources:

Joe McCarthy. “How War Impacts Climate Change and the Environment” in Global Citizen, April 26, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-war-impacts-the-environment-and-climate-change/

Alison Bailes. “If You Think Thermostat Setbacks Don’t Save Energy, You’re Wrong!” in Energy Vanguard, Feb, 17, 2012. Accessed online at https://www.energyvanguard.com/blog/if-you-think-thermostat-setbacks-don-t-save-energy-you-re-wrong.

Environmental Investigation Agency. “The State of the Ocean.” Accessed online at https://eia-international.org/ocean/the-state-of-the-ocean/

David Bauman. “State of the World’s Oceans” in UCONN Today, Feb. 10, 2016. Accessed online at https://today.uconn.edu/2016/02/state-of-the-worlds-oceans/

World Wildlife Fund. “7 Ways You Can Help Save the Oceans,” June 6, 2018. Accessed online at https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/7-ways-you-can-help-save-the-ocean

Oceana. “10 Ways You Can Help Save the Oceans” in Protecting the World’s Oceans. Accessed online at https://oceana.org/living-blue-10-ways-you-can-help-save-oceans/

Diane Boudreau, et al. “All about the Ocean” in National Geographic Resource Library, May 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/all-about-the-ocean


Job 38:1-18

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began
    and caused the dawn to know its place,
13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
    and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal,
    and it is dyed like a garment.
15 Light is withheld from the wicked,
    and their uplifted arm is broken.

16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
    Declare, if you know all this.


Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Mercy, Me!

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Mercy, Me!” 1 Tim. 1:12-17

Oren Kalisman grew up with Muslim neighbors he never met.  In fact, as a Jewish child growing up in the Galilee, Oren’s only childhood memory of interacting with a Muslim neighbor was when his mother stopped to give a ride to an old man, hitchhiking on the road to the next village.  At eighteen, Oren, like his parents before him, began compulsory military service with the Israeli Defense Forces. He was selected for an elite squad of paratroopers with twenty soldiers under his command.

When the second intifada began in 2000, Oren and his unit were deployed outside a refugee camp. There they used snipers to pick off alarmed Palestinians who emerged to defend their homes with rocks and Molotov cocktails.  In 2002, a solo Palestinian attack at an Israeli checkpoint killed six Jewish soldiers.  Orders came from Oren’s commanding officers: the Muslim policemen manning Palestinian check points in the West Bank were to be killed in retaliation.  Fifteen officers were executed.

Oren justified the violence that he and his men perpetrated. If someone was throwing a Molotov cocktail at you, they should be killed.  Likewise, someone had to pay for the murder of six Israeli soldiers, even if those killed had nothing to do with the attack.  Oren was just doing his job.  He was following orders.

In our reading from 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul alludes to his track record as a man of violence and a persecutor of Christians.  As a devout youth, Paul had studied with the esteemed rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem and become an expert in the Torah.  Paul practiced Pharisaic teachings, which touted an extreme piety and devotion as the best way to please God.  In his zeal as a young Pharisee, Paul had endorsed the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first martyr among Jesus’ followers.  Paul had also harassed the church in Jerusalem, and when many fled to Syria, Paul sought special permission to take his violence on the road, to arrest and return to Jerusalem for punishment all who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Paul justified his violent behavior, believing that he was rooting out a dangerous sect that defiled Judaism with the news of a false Messiah. 

We may not be members of the Israeli Defense Forces or Pharisees censuring blasphemers, but we know how it feels to be troubled by our pasts, even when we believed that what we were doing was true and righteous.  In fact, our past may continue to haunt our present and trouble our thoughts about the future.

Before coming to Saranac Lake, I enjoyed being a youth pastor in Morton Grove, Illinois.  I like to think that I did some good ministry among the young people of the church, but I think some of my best service was in providing caring presence and compassionate listening for some of the church’s oldest members, our World War II veterans.  They were troubled by remembrance of the friends they left behind on the beaches of Normandy.  They were disturbed by memories of the hate and violence they had directed toward Japanese enemies in the South Pacific.  They realized that they had brought the war home with them after it was over.  They kept secrets from their wives.  They had been emotionally distant with their children.  As Morton Grove welcomed an increasing number of Asian immigrants, they struggled to let go of their painful memories and love their new neighbors.  There were any number of ways that they could reasonably justify their past actions, but their violent pasts still troubled them.

In my twenty-two years of serving churches, I have learned that we can all be troubled by our pasts, whether we have embraced violence and persecution or we have simply engaged in practices that wound the spirit or brought injury to others.  We regret the harm we have caused our families: our impatience and harshness with our children, our failures to care for aging parents, or the too little love that we have shown to our spouse.  We regret the harm we have worked against the human family: our gender bias, our racial hate, our prejudice toward those whose ethnicity, social class, or political views are unlike our own.  We can be adept at justifying our actions and rationalizing our bad behavior, but when we are truly and deeply honest, we know our need for grace.  We know the late-night hours when we pray, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

Paul’s past caught up with him as he hurried down the Damascus Road, intent on arresting those who knew Christ as Lord.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was stopped dead, blinded by a heavenly light, and accused by the aggrieved Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Struck blind and powerless, the incapacitated Paul was taken to Damascus, where he spent three days without sight, neither eating nor drinking, pondering how he had gotten things so wrong.

Oren Kalisman’s turn around came during the Passover in April 2002.  In response to a terror attack in Netanya, Oren and his men were sent into the West Bank with orders to occupy Nablus, using whatever means were necessary.  From the second floor of a home that they had occupied, Oren heard gunfire from the room next door.  There, one of his men, a sniper, was firing at an unarmed old man who was seeking to recover the body of a boy, dead in the street below.  When Oren ordered his soldier to stop firing, he learned of orders from their commanding officer to kill with impunity.  Shocked at the inhumanity they had resorted to, Oren realized the moral quandary he was in.  Remembering that moment, the Israeli says, “We were surrounded by Palestinians who were fighting very bravely and who I realized, like ourselves sixty years ago, were fighting out of desperation for their very homes.”  At the end of the operation, Oren voiced his moral concerns and asked to be replaced.

We all have our Damascus Road moments when we are convicted of the harsh truth of sin.  Sin confronts us in the dysfunction that we instill in our families.  Sin shouts at us from the evening news as the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, or the lead in Jackson, MI drinking water remind us of that racism is part of the fabric of our society.  If we are at all self-aware, we will admit the sin of writing off relationships, doing the wrong thing because it is the easy thing, and allowing ourselves to hate others because their political views are unlike our own.  When we sin against our neighbors, we sin against God.  We sin against Jesus, who asks why we are persecuting him. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Paul tells us good news. Although we act in ignorance and unbelief, the grace of God overflows for us.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom Paul deemed himself to be foremost. We are loved and forgiven.  And in the greatness of Christ’s mercy for us, we find a new purpose in service to God and neighbor.  Jesus would use Paul’s zeal to serve God’s Kingdom.  The former persecutor and newly Christened apostle would make multiple missionary journeys, plant countless churches, and touch many lives with the good news of God’s amazing grace that seeks and saves us when we are lost.

Oren Kalisman has found a new purpose.  He has established a chapter of Combatants for Peace in the West Bank community of Nablus where he once was an occupier.  Combatants for Peace brings together former members of the Israeli Defense Forces and former Palestinian combatants.  They share their stories, build relationships, and learn principles of non-violent conflict resolution.  Their goal is nothing less than building a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians that will bring lasting peace to the land.

My wise World War II friends knew that the only way forward from a war to end all wars was through the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ.  They trusted that, even though they might always be troubled by their war experiences, the grace of God overflowed for them.  They poured out their lives in God’s service in simple heartfelt ways. They attended church every Sunday. They shared their skills and abilities for God’s glory: founding a church, building a manse, tending the church gardens, serving on session. They kept God at the heart of their families with Sunday School and table graces, mission trips and church potlucks.  They knew their weakness and trusted that the Lord could do what they could not.  In the eighteen years since I served as one of their pastors, those men have all died.  I have no doubts that grace led each of them home.

The grace of Jesus Christ overflows for us this morning.  We are loved and God is faithful, even if we are, like Paul, the foremost of sinners.  Our immortal, invisible, only-wise God redeems us with a love that is stronger than the persecution of Pharisees or the intractable violence between Israelis and Palestinians.  God’s mercy for us is bigger than the legacy of war or all the ways that we can get things so wrong in our families and the human family. The mercy of God abounds for us and claims us for God’s purpose.  Lord, have mercy!

Resources:

The story of Oren Kalisman was recorded for The Forgiveness Project and may be read at https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories-library/oren-kalisman/

If you would like to learn more about Combatants for Peace, you can at this link: https://cfpeace.org/

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 11, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Benjamin Fiore. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Christian Eberhart. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

A.K.M. Adam. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 12, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org


1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience as an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


By Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17040973

To a Milkweed

Poem for a Thursday — “To a Milkweed” by Deborah Digges

Teach me to love what I’ve made and judgment

in that love.

Teach me your arrogance.

With each five-petaled horned flower teach me

how much blossoming matters

along roadsides, dry-

beds, these fields no longer cleared.

Teach me such patience at each turning, how

to live on nothing but will, its milky

juices, poison

to the others, though when its stem is broken,

bleeds. Teach me to

need the future,

and the past, that Indian summer.

Let me be tricked into believing

that by what moves in me I might be saved,

and hold to this. Hold

onto this until there’s wind enough.

in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 159.


Deborah Digges grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, the sixth of ten children. Her poetry explores themes of family, nature, gender roles, and the complexities of being human. She taught for a number of years at Tuft’s University outside Boston. Digges authored four acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Vesper Sparrows (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize for a best first book of poetry. Her death by suicide in 2009 at the age of 59 deprived the world of a gifted voice. John Michaud of The New Yorker wrote, “She was the kind of writer whose work went deep into the lives of her readers.”


Image source https://www.britannica.com/plant/common-milkweed

It Will Cost You Everything

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:25-33

Jesus knew that following him would cost his disciples their lives.

James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle to be martyred.  Tradition tells us that James went all the way to Spain to share the gospel with Jewish colonists and slaves.  But on a return trip to Jerusalem, he ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was beheaded in the year 44CE.  They say that when the apostle was led out to die, a man who had brought false accusations against him walked with him.  The man was so impressed by James’s courage and joy that he recanted his false testimony and became a Christian.  Alas, James’s name wasn’t cleared.  Instead, the man was condemned to die with James. Both were beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.

The Apostle Andrew was also martyred.  Andrew took the gospel north, along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev.  In the year 39CE, Andrew founded the church in Byzantium, which continues today as the center of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Andrew’s evangelizing came to a painful end in western Greece.  Arrested for disturbing the peace in the city of Patras in the year 60CE, Andrew was crucified.  Considering himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus, Andrew insisted that he be killed on an x-shaped cross.  They say the cross is still kept in the Church of St. Andrew at Patras in a special shrine.  Every November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew, the cross is revered in a special ceremony.

Andrew’s brother, the Apostle Peter, was martyred, too, more than thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion. They say that Peter was arrested and condemned following the Great Fire of Rome.  Although historians now know that the emperor Nero ignited the fire to clear away slums, the blaze burned out of control and destroyed much of the city.  Looking for a scapegoat, Nero blamed the Christians, many of whom were arrested, tortured, and executed.  Peter, at his own wish, was crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in the arena. When Michelangelo painted Peter’s martyrdom, he portrayed the upside-down, grey-bearded apostle looking very much in control, while soldiers managed the crowd and a cluster of four terror-stricken women cowered near the foot of the cross.

Jesus warned his friends that following him would cost them everything.  In today’s reading, Jesus was nearing the end of his journey where death waited for him in the Holy City.  Crowds, that were drawn by his teaching and healing, were on the road with the Lord.  Luke’s gospel describes the people as amazed, rejoicing, filled with awe, and praising God, who was so clearly at work in Jesus.  Who wouldn’t want to hear those wonderful sermons and watch those incredible miracles?  But according to Jesus, discipleship wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. If anyone truly wanted to follow him, then they must be prepared to hate their families, take up their crosses, and give up their possessions.

Jesus was using a rhetorical style called hyperbole, a form of argument that embraces exaggeration to make a point.  In the first century world, the Beth Ab, the House of the Father, was the most fundamental building block in society.  Following Jesus could put disciples at odds with their families.  When James and his brother John answered Jesus’ invitation to drop their fishermen’s nets and start catching people, their father Zebedee was left behind in the boat.  Within a decade, traditional synagogues would expel those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, further dividing families into opposing camps of Jews and Christians.  To truly follow Jesus would call for a singular commitment.  The family of faith must supersede the Beth Ab, and there would be hardship and heartache for many.

As if losing family weren’t hardship enough, Jesus chased his hyperbolic warning about divided households with stories about the costly ventures of building a tower and waging war.  Jesus could have ripped those comparisons from the headlines today.  Many of us have had home improvement projects that have proven more costly and demanding than we ever imagined.  And when it comes to the unanticipated, high costs of war, we should check in with Vladimir Putin.  The Pentagon estimated in August that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.

Like a wet blanket on the fervent joy of the crowd, Jesus warned the people that discipleship would demand deep commitment and big risks.  Those people in the crowd had counted the blessings found in following Jesus, but had they considered the costs?  If they were truly intent on discipleship, then they would need singular commitment and deep allegiance in a world where following Jesus could cost you everything. 

Beyond those first century martyrs, history holds stories of faithful people who practiced a costly discipleship.  Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey stand ten statues of modern martyrs – twentieth century Christians who gave up their lives for their beliefs.

In 1937, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his most influential book, a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount called Nachfolge.  The rise of the National Socialist regime was underway in Germany.  As Hitler and his Nazi followers assumed power, Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, realized that his faith in Jesus demanded that he do the inconceivable: abandon his non-violent principles to become embroiled in a failed plot to assassinate the Fuhrer.  Bonhoeffer’s discipleship cost him everything: his principles, his liberty, and eventually his life.  He was executed, just days before his prison was liberated by allied forces.  His book Nachfolge was one of the most significant works of 20th century Protestantism, translated into English with the title The Cost of Discipleship.

As a young minister at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was drawn into a demonstration against segregation on the city’s bus services. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was brilliantly successful, and King soon formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to press for racial justice. King and his family paid a steep price for his faithful work to win voting rights and opportunity for black Americans: death threats, bomb scares, police harassment, and prison. King ultimately lost his life, assassinated in Memphis while there to support sanitation workers seeking basic worker safety after 3 were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck.

Oscar Romero was serving as the archbishop of San Salvador when the killing of a fellow priest awakened him to the widespread abuse of political power by violent men who murdered with impunity. Wealthy citizens of El Salvador sanctioned the violence that maintained them, death squads executed those who voiced concerns in the cities, and soldiers killed as they wished in the countryside.  Romero committed his cause to the poor and began to document the abuse of human rights, daring to speak the truth in a country governed by lies, where men and women simply disappeared without account.  In March 1980, Romero was assassinated, shot dead while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

From first century martyrs to the prophetic efforts of twentieth century Christians to end tyranny, pursue justice, and advocate for the poor, disciples have been taking up their crosses to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years.  It’s a daunting truth that may feel frightening and impossible for us to imagine for ourselves. 

Yet, beyond those well-known names, are millions of everyday folks like you and me, who may not have died for Jesus’s sake, but they have shown singular commitment and deep allegiance by daring to follow the Lord in costly ways.  They have shared their faith amid repressive regimes, where talking about religion is forbidden.  They have spoken out against injustice in societies that label them dangerous radicals or misguided bleeding hearts.  They have sacrificed from their bounty for the sake of a world in need, giving generously to support churches, alleviate hunger, and care for vulnerable neighbors.  Beyond the martyrs and heroes of the faith, there is an invisible multitude, a great cloud of witnesses, who have paid the price of discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.

It’s easy to enjoy all the good things about being a follower of Jesus: love, forgiveness, grace, the life eternal.  It’s easy to be like that amazed, joyful, praise-filled crowd that tagged along on the road to Jerusalem.  But what happens when things get costly?  Are we willing to share our faith, risk the rejection of neighbors, or live with fewer toys or a more modest retirement for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom? 

Following Jesus will cost us our lives, my friends.  This morning, the Lord challenges us to sit down, add it up, and dedicate ourselves to him anyway.  Will we take up our crosses and follow?

Resources:

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 5, 2010.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2022.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2016.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.

Jeremy Diamond. “Russia facing ‘severe’ military personnel shortages, US officials say” in Russia-Ukraine news, August 31, 2022. Accessed online at https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-08-31-22/index.html.

–. “Martyrdom of St Peter, by Michelangelo” in Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Biography. Accessed online at https://www.michelangelo.org/martyrdom-of-st-peter.jsp.

–. “Modern Martyrs” in Westminster Abbey History. Accessed online at https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/modern-martyrs


Luke 14:25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Photo by Mauru00edcio Eugu00eanio on Pexels.com

Walk Gently

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” — Matt. 6:28-30

Earlier this year, we viewed “The Pollinators” at church. The documentary chronicles the lives of beekeepers who ensure that America’s orchards and fields are pollinated by trucking hives from Maine to California, timing their arrival to coincide with spring blooms. It was a fascinating look at the deft dance that makes our produce purchases possible. It was also scary. Prevalent use of pesticides and infestations of mites routinely cause the collapse of bee colonies. However, climate change is the biggest threat to bees. Heatwaves, floods, and hurricanes destroy hives, reduce food sources, and lower plant diversity.

Inspired by the film, Duane and I decided to join the “No Mow May” effort, letting our back lawn grow. The dandelions were prolific, the forget-me-nots abundant, and the grass grew long. These important early sources of pollen were a boon to bees, which happily buzzed from bloom to bloom.   As June arrived, we mowed portions of the back lawn and cut some paths through what we began to call “The Meadow.”  More beautiful wildflowers appeared: lupines, Queen Anne’s Lace, cardinal flower, evening primrose, and goldenrod.

Best of all, our meadow was a haven not only for bees but for other wildlife. Hummingbirds perched on our pole bean tower and skirmished over nectar. A fat and sassy groundhog appeared, munched on mallow, and ate up all my peas. One morning, part of the meadow lay flat where deer had bedded down for the night.

Our small effort to be hospitable to bees brought joy all summer. It also prompted reflection on the wonder and wisdom of God’s good work in creation. All creatures occupy a God-given niche on this planet. They do so with great elegance and sophistication. We can choose to live in ways that allow that great web of being to flourish as God intended. It can be as simple as skipping the May mowing and allowing an experiment in honey bee hospitality to bear witness to the infinite creativity and wisdom of the Holy One, who prizes the lilies of the field and loves us enough to die for us.

Let’s walk gently into the fall with great love for the world around us—and one another.


“Goldenrod” by Mary Oliver

 “On roadsides,

  in fall fields,

      in rumpy bunches,

          saffron and orange and pale gold,

in little towers,

  soft as mash,

      sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,

          full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerlets

and orange butterflies.

  I don’t suppose

      much notice comes of it, except for honey,

           and how it heartens the heart with its

blank blaze.

  I don’t suppose anything loves it, except, perhaps,

      the rocky voids

          filled by its dumb dazzle.

For myself,

  I was just passing by, when the wind flared

      and the blossoms rustled,

          and the glittering pandemonium

leaned on me.

  I was just minding my own business

      when I found myself on their straw hillsides,

          citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?

  Are not the difficult labors of our lives

      full of dark hours?

          And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?

  All day

       on their airy backbones

           they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,

  they rise in a stiff sweetness,

      in the pure peace of giving

           one’s gold away.”

in New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, pg. 17.


Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com

Before Dark

Poem for a Tuesday — “Before Dark” by Wendell Berry

“From the porch at dusk I watched

a kingfisher wild in flight

he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing

against the water’s dimming face

like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still

I could hear the splashes

farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back

the same way, dusky as his shadow,

sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.

It was dark then. Somewhere

the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for

or where, led by his delight,

he came.”

In Collected Poems: 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. P. 63.


Wendell Berry is a farmer, author, and poet. For more than forty years, he has sustainably worked the land in eastern Kentucky that his ancestors first settled in the early 19th century. His writing embodies a deep reverence for the land and its wild creatures. He believes that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. Berry was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010 and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Books Critics Circle in 2016.


Photo by Monique Laats on Pexels.com

Friends in Low Places

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:1, 7-14

A number of years ago, I invited Michael, a local homeless man, to come share Easter dinner with me and Duane.  Michael had worshipped with us some and even tried singing in the choir, sweating copiously in his blue choir robe and sometimes playing his African drum for us.  I tried on a number of occasions to persuade him to move into permanent housing, but he always resisted, choosing instead to couch surf, moving from home to home, crashing with friends until he wore out his welcome.  Michael seemed pleased with the Easter dinner invitation and promised to be there at two o’clock.

I was a little surprised on Easter Sunday when Michael wasn’t in church.  But on my way home, I ran into him coming out of Stewart’s.  He had a big bottle of Mountain Dew and an equally enormous bag of potato chips.  Looking at the chips and soda, I asked doubtfully, “Michael, you are coming to our house for dinner, aren’t you?”  He looked a little cagey but assured me that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I got home, I told Duane that the odds were fifty/fifty that the man would actually show.  But sure enough, Michael appeared at two, bearing his enormous bag of chips, unopened.  I put the chips in a big party bowl and added it to the spread: ham, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, rolls, crudité, salad, and Michael’s chips.  It was a feast.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel describes a sabbath day feast hosted by Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, diners reclined on three low couches, called a triclinium.  Those three couches surrounded a low central table where food was placed.  Diners ate from common dishes, reaching with hands or pieces of bread to scoop up their dinner. 

Your place at the triclinium said a lot about who you were in society.  The guest of honor took the place of prominence next to the host with best access to food and conversation.  Then other guests, by virtue of their social standing, took places of descending prominence on the couches. Guests of least honor were pushed out to the margins, where food might be passed to them by another diner or a servant. Your place in first century society was worked out with table fellowship.  You invited guests of high standing to your banquet, hoping they would accept.  This increased your social status in the eyes of the community, especially when your high-status guest had to reciprocate by inviting you to dine at their table.

As Jesus watched this complex dance of social maneuvering around the triclinium, he shared a teaching that contradicted traditional practices of hospitality.  First, Jesus counseled diners to choose seats of humility, without any presumption of honor or status.  Then, he advised that they should rethink the guestlist.  Invite low-status guests who could not reciprocate their hospitality because they were poor or infirm.

Now, while righteous people like the Pharisees gave charitably for vulnerable neighbors, like widows, orphans, and refugees, the people whom Jesus described would never make the guestlist for the sabbath feast.  The poor, maimed, lame, and blind would have been a disgrace at the table of a high-status Pharisee, like his host.  Jesus’ words would have been incredibly offensive to everyone seated at the triclinium.  There would have been some major acid reflux around the banquet table.

Practicing the sort of hospitality that Jesus advocated wasn’t easy in the first century, and it isn’t easy today.  That Easter dinner with the homeless Michael was part of many interactions with him that were alternately funny, puzzling, and angering.  One morning, Michael called me before six o’clock, waking me up.  A doe had been hit and killed on the LePan Highway, near where he was couch surfing.  He had butchered the doe for meat, but he wanted to know if I was interested in the hide of the unborn fawn.  He thought I might like to tan it so that I could make a drum. Then, there was the day when Michael told me that God was calling him to work with children and youth at our church.  That blew up even before it started when I asked him to collaborate with others and follow church policies.  On another occasion, I returned home from a two-week vacation to learn that Michael had moved into the church basement in my absence.  Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to deal with it, so it was left to me to have the “come-to-Jesus” talk with my homeless buddy. 

“Michael” I told him, “I wish you would let me help you get into an apartment.  You’ve got to go. No one gets to live at the church, not even me.”  He wasn’t happy, but he moved out, and he stopped coming to our church.

Jesus, do you understand what you are asking of us when you suggest that we invite our vulnerable, crippled, impoverished, crazy neighbors to be a real part of our lives?  Honestly, Lord. Do you realize the difficulty, frustration, and risk that come when we open ourselves up to those sorts of relationships? We’re not sure we really want to go there.  Can’t we, like the Pharisees, simply do our mitzvah and practice a little charitable giving, assuaging our conscience and maintaining the status quo?

Here is the rub.  Jesus chose to specially identify with his neighbors who were vulnerable, stigmatized, and excluded.  One of the reasons that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees was his practice of eating with sinners, tax collectors, and outcasts.  On the sabbath day, when all eyes should be on God Almighty, Jesus reached out to heal the lowly, from bent-over-women to men with dropsy and withered hands.  And while Jesus could have been building his social status by helping and healing the most prestigious households in the land, Jesus tended to blind beggars, demon-possessed boys, hemorrhaging women, and scabby unclean lepers.  When Jesus got to Jerusalem, he would die as many of the people whom he helped had lived: outcast, rejected, in pain, and humiliated. 

In the very last parable that Jesus shared with his friends, he exhorted them to see him in their most vulnerable and rejected of neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46).  On the far side of death, on the far side of the miracle of resurrection, Jesus would continue to walk this earth in the guise of people who are sick and hungry, destitute and outcast, thirsty and imprisoned. He called these hurting folks his “little brothers and sisters.”  Indeed, when disciples choose to welcome and serve these lowest-status neighbors, they are truly welcoming and serving the hidden Christ, who walks among us still.

In following the ethic of hospitality that Jesus taught, we dare to truly connect with our hurting and sometimes hard-to-love neighbors; and at the same time, we are playing host to Jesus.  We never know where we might find him: in line at the Food Pantry, pushing a shopping cart home from the Grand Union, in need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, eating goulash at the Community Lunchbox, camping out in the church basement.  When we encounter the hidden Jesus, it can be messy and uncomfortable. They may test our healthy boundaries with expectation for things we cannot give.  They may not follow our good advice. They may have demons that we cannot exorcise.  And still, we owe them a debt of love and a seat at the table.  Will we extend ourselves in humility, sharing the simplest gifts of hospitality?

My homeless friend Michael skipped town.  He was picked up in Lake Placid for possession of a small amount of marijuana, but because it was near a school, it was a big deal.  As his court date neared, Michael vanished.  Then, one early morning, almost a year later, Michael called me.  What a surprise!  True to form, Michael was using a borrowed cellphone, undoubtedly belonging to someone whose couch he was surfing. 

“How are you?!” I wanted to know.  “Where did you go? Is everything ok?” 

Michael assured me that he was fine.  He was back in the Midwest near family.  He still loved the Lord, and he was helping a lot of people.  We talked about life at the church and drumming.  After a while, there was just silence on the line. Not comfortable, but not really uncomfortable. Eventually Michael spoke up, “I just want you to know I’m ok, and I’m not mad at you.” I assured him that I wasn’t mad at him either.  We prayed and hung up. 

I never heard from Michael again, but I suspect that one day we just might meet up again—at that heavenly feast on the far better shore over a big bag of potato chips.

Resources:

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 289, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Mitzi Smith. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 14:1, 7-14

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


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To the Dust of the Road

Poem for a Tuesday — W.S. Merwin

“And in the morning you are up again
with the way leading through you for a while
longer if the wind is motionless when
the cars reach where the asphalt ends a mile
or so below the main road and the wave
you rise into is different every time
and you are one with it until you have
made your way up to the top of your climb
and brightened in that moment of that day
and then you turn as when you rose before
in fire or wind from the ends of the earth
to pause here and you seem to drift away
on into nothing to lie down once more
until another breath brings you to birth”

in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005. P. 8.


W.S. Merwin

William Stanley Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian Minister. His first foray into poetry came as a boy: writing and illustrating hymns for his father, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil. Strongly rooted in classical studies, his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were heralded for their “graceful, accessible language,” and his Selected Translations won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Merwin was a staunch pacifist and proponent of deep ecology. In 1976, he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism and remained there for the rest of his life, buying an old pineapple plantation and carefully restoring the native habitat. One of the most highly decorated poets in American literature, Merwin was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and served twice as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1999-2000 and 2010-2011.


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Bent Over

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Bent Over” Luke 13:10-17

It was the best sermon I had ever heard.  Shall I start with the voice?  Rich and melodic, captivating.  Within moments, I felt as if I had known him all my life.  He read the Torah with such love, as if he were feasting on every word.  And when he opened the scriptures to us, they came alive.  I could feel the compassion and mercy of God in ways that I had never felt before, as if even I were a beloved child of God.  The synagogue at Capernaum was quiet. Every ear strained to hear every sound.  When Rivka’s baby began to fuss, we all said, “Shhhh!” not wanting to miss a word.

But then it stopped.  Without warning or “Amen,” there were simply no more words.  Worshippers began to buzz and turn restlessly in their seats.  Slowly things got louder, like a wave of sound rising from the best seats at the front of the sanctuary and rolling back to where I stood, mostly hidden, in the doorway.  My husband Moshe placed a hand upon my back and cursed under his breath.  “Lord, help us! It’s you, Mahalath. He sees you.  I knew we never should have come.”

I should tell you about my back.  It started the year our second child was born, a sweet and ruddy boy to join an older brother.  I was still hale and strong.  With one child bouncing on my hip and another sleeping in a sling at my breast, I worked alongside Moshe. We brought in the barley harvest and shook olive branches to rain down a harvest of ripe fruit. I milked the goats, fed chickens, ground grain at the wheel, and spun wool into yarn.  Young and able with the handsome Moshe at my side and our beautiful boys, I was the envy of many, and that may have been part of the problem.  You know the ways of jealousy and the dangers of the evil eye.

One day, I bent to lift the bread from the oven, and I couldn’t stand up.  My back writhed like it was being squeezed in a vice, and my whole body seized in pain.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I dropped to my knees, sending the loaves into the fire.  The world grew dim and then went black.

I’m not sure how long I was in darkness.  I awoke to the sound of my children crying.  Moshe hovered over me, looking worried.  A Greek physician from Sepphoris had been brought to attend me. 

“Ah!  You are awake!” the doctor said matter-of-factly.  He dribbled a vile tasting liquid into the corner of my mouth.  “Drink it all, dear,” he said with kindness. “It will help with the pain.”  I gagged it down, blinking back tears, and slipped into a sleep troubled by dreams of fire, serpents, and burned bread.

When I awoke, Moshe was sitting at my side, holding my hand.  Our boys had climbed into the bed with me.  Their small hands clutched the folds of my tunic. Their cheeks were red with worry and weeping.  “Ugh!” I moaned.

Moshe leaned in, “Mahalath, stay still.  The Greek says that you have been possessed by the spirit of the python.  You must save your strength to fight.”

Now, I had heard that in Delphi, on the far side of the Great Sea, the Greeks worship the sun god.  Poseidon speaks through priestesses possessed by the spirit of the python.  Twisted, bent, and rigid, they prophesy all day long.  For the right price, they might even tell you of a bright future.  But that had nothing to do with me. I loved Yahweh.  I was a beloved daughter of Israel, or so I thought.

I did fight.  I found my feet again.  I learned to live with pain.  I tended my children.  I did my best to keep our home and fields, but I never stood up straight again. Our neighbors said that I was “bent over,” as if I were a broken reed or a tree snapped by a windstorm. With every year, my back bent more noticeably, and as my shoulders rounded and my spine folded in on itself, my perspective grew small, narrow, and limited. 

My affliction made me unwelcome at the synagogue, for only someone cursed by Yahweh could look as I did.  But each week, I would wait at the back, hovering in the doorway, hoping for the smallest crumb of blessing.  Our neighbors stopped including us, uncomfortable with my woe and believing the worst.  One day, the neighborhood children began to call me names. At first, they did so behind my back; eventually, they did so to my face.  In time, most people just called me “Bent Over Woman,” as if I didn’t even have a real name.  I prayed always, hoping that if I could find the right words, I might be set free from this prison that my body had become.

So, while I could tell you that he preached the best sermon I had ever heard, and I could tell you that Rivka’s baby fussed, and I could tell you that the preaching stopped and the sound of whispering and unrest rolled to me like a restless wave, I could not tell you what he looked like, or why Rivka’s baby fussed, or why the rabbi stopped speaking, or why the sound of my restless neighbors rolled toward me.  Because the only thing that I could see was what I always see: my feet.

Moshe reached a protective arm around my back and held my hand.  “Mahalath,” he whispered, “He’s waving to you!  He wants you to come forward.”

I tried to turn and leave, but Moshe held me fast.  “Mahalath,” he urged, “What have we got to lose?” 

What did we have to lose?  It doesn’t get much worse than living in constant pain, shunned by your neighbors, and excluded from your church.  It doesn’t get much worse than being called Bent Over Woman.  My life had become an agony of loneliness and suffering.  With Moshe at my side, I walked to the front.

If it was quiet when the rabbi spoke, it was deathly still as I stood before him.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on me.  Every breath was held.  Even Rivka’s baby was silent. 

Then, this rabbi did a most unusual thing.  He squatted down on his haunches, down into my limited field of vision, and he looked up into my face.  He was sun-browned, as if he worked in the fields.  Fine lines creased the corners of his eyes, which were a deep, bottomless brown.  He smiled and his kind eyes sparkled with interest and concern. Next, he said the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Didn’t he see what everyone else saw: my hideous bent-over back?  Someone snickered. Moshe took a protective step closer.

What happened next is still being talked about in Capernaum.  The rabbi stood up and placed his two broad, strong hands on my poor crippled back.  What I noticed first was warmth, like the sun on a winter day bringing a blessing to your upturned face.  Slowly it flowed out from his hands, spreading down to the tips of my toes and reaching up to the top of my head.  It was then that I realized that my pain was gone.  The spirit of the python that had held me tight in its grip had departed!  I took a deep breath and then another. Then, for the first time in eighteen years, I stood up.  I gasped and shouted bold cries of “Alleluia!” and “Thanks be to the Holy One of Israel!” I hugged Moshe, then I hugged the rabbi as my neighbors watched in shocked silence.

Not everyone was happy.  The synagogue leader was scandalized that I had entered the sanctuary, and the rabbi had healed on the sabbath.  But the rabbi would hear none of it, for surely, even one such as I deserved the mercy that is shown to an ox or mule. 

With a wink, the rabbi turned to me. “Mahalath,” he called me by name. “Mahalath, I think I just finished my sermon for today.”

I practically danced toward the door of the synagogue, followed by the rabbi and Moshe.  Out they went, but before I left, I turned to my neighbors, the ones who for eighteen years had ignored me, gossiped about me, called me names, and failed to show me the courtesy one might extend to a barnyard animal.  I looked them in the eyes and said, “By the way, my name is not Bent-Over-Woman.  My name is Mahallath. You are welcome to come break your fast with us today.”

The synagogue erupted in cheers and praise.  That sabbath evening, Jesus dined with us, and so did all of Capernaum. The pot never emptied, the bread seemed to multiply, and the wine never failed. But that is a miracle to tell on another day.  I rejoiced—and so did the whole village with me—in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.


Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.


James Tissot, “The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years” (La femme malade depuis dix-huit ans), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.