“Beyond the Dead End”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Dead End” Acts 16:6-15

We can imagine the Apostle Paul’s disappointment. The Jerusalem Council blessed his mission to the Gentiles. He left Antioch with big plans: to revisit the churches he had planted on his last missionary journey and then push on into new territory. But 750 miles into Paul’s second journey, it appeared that he was at a dead end.  First, the Holy Spirit had turned him around in Asia, and then, the Spirit of Jesus had blocked his way in Bithynia.  750 miles on foot, that’s a long way to go on a dead-end road.

As Paul retreated to the busy seaport of Troas on the Aegean, he must have felt frustrated and grieved.  He had gotten all the proper permissions.  He had the best intentions. And still, it was a no-go.  Even worse, he had dragged friends along on his folly: Silas, Timothy, and Luke.  As the team bedded down for the night, Paul was certainly puzzled—maybe even a little angered—by God, who had called him to this great missionary purpose, yet thwarted his efforts at every new turn.  It seemed that he had come to the end of the road.

We know how it feels to hit a dead end.  We have been there in our personal lives.  We’ve spent years in relationships with significant others who would never commit. We have had broken friendships that will never be mended. We have had family problems that just never get resolved.

We have hit dead ends in the workplace. Armed with a degree in our field of study, we step into a first job and find it is not at all what we had hoped or wanted.  We’ve worked long years for businesses that fail. We’ve done our very best for our boss and still the promotion never comes.

Sometimes we hit a dead end with our bodies, our physical health. There’s the natural progression of age—we no longer have the legs for mountain climbing or the eyesight for fine needlework. Or a difficult diagnosis can have life-changing consequences, like medications with debilitating side-effects or doctor’s appointments rob us of our days off.  Sometimes, our dead end leaves us hoping for a medical miracle.

We don’t like dead ends.  At the dead end, we feel like failures and are filled with “if onlys.” If only I had apologized. If only I had accepted that other job. If only I had taken better care of myself when I was younger. At the dead end, we may wonder if we have wasted our best efforts.  At the dead end, we may question God’s purpose and even God’s presence.

Paul must have felt a lot like that when he and his friends turned in for the night in Troas, lacking direction and wondering where to go. That night, Paul found new vision.  A Greek man, a Macedonian from the heart of the old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, spoke to Paul.  He pleaded for Paul’s help, calling the apostle to come over, to cross the Aegean Sea.  The apostle awoke with the conviction that the message was from God almighty, who was calling him in an entirely new direction. 

After sharing his vision with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, they all agreed, “Macedonia, here we come!” At first light, the men went down to the waterfront.  They booked passage for Neapolis, the port city of Macedonia.  As they set sail, a promising tailwind pushed them on to their destination in record time.  As Paul and his friends stood on the deck with the wind at their backs and the ocean spray in their faces, it must have felt like a holy affirmation of their new direction.

On some days, it can feel hard to imagine that a fresh start awaits on the far side of our dead ends. It’s difficult to see past grief and heartache, pain and loss, doubts and fears. Dead ends really do feel lousy. Yet, dead ends can be turning points or unexpected twists in a journey that continues.  Sometimes, when we take stock at the dead end, we find that we have grown through our experience. There is wisdom that comes with failure, insight gleaned from our dashed dreams, fresh understanding that grants patience when circumstances are beyond our control.  We may not have a spectacular midnight vision from the Lord, but newness and possibility can emerge from the ash heap of our dead ends.

There is life for us beyond the dead ends in our personal lives. On the far-side of the dead end, we may find a new relationship or discover joy in the freedom of being unattached. We make new friends, tend those kinships better, and keep healthier boundaries. We find the possibility for peace, even when our family stays stuck.  We may choose to make a family of our own with those who accept us as we are and support us in our growth.

There is possibility for us beyond the dead ends we find in the workplace. Beyond the dead end, we take the time to discern our gifts and learn how God would have us use those abilities in meaningful and productive ways.  Or, we find a new job with different, more meaningful responsibilities, colleagues, and learning experiences. Or, we realize that life isn’t about a paycheck. We find fulfillment beyond the unfulfilling workplace in our families, pass times, and service to the community.

There are fresh starts for us beyond the dead ends of growing age and failing health.  Indeed, the dead end of diminishing ability can lead to new interests.  We trade the tennis racquet for the pickleball paddle.  We trade mountain climbing for trail walking.  On the far side of the dead end, we learn to live with that diagnosis. We replace the burgers and fries with grilled salmon and a fresh, leafy salad – and we may even learn to like it.  We find the support we need to accept our limits in small groups and the prayers of faithful friends.  Even when we must acknowledge the finitude of our days—the dead end that we will all one day meet, we savor the time we have, drink each day to the last drop, and trust that with God, there is always an eternal more that awaits us in that far brighter light on that far better shore

The Apostle Paul had one more twist on his missionary journey.  He spent some days in Philippi without any success to speak of.  On the Sabbath morning when he left the city and headed down to the river in search of an informal synagogue, he was probably wondering about the wisdom of this “new direction.”  There had been no Macedonian man waiting to greet him. On the contrary, it was the Gentile woman Lydia, an affluent merchant of imperial cloth, whom he found, gathered with her household at the riverside to pray and meditate upon the Word.

Paul let go of his expectations and followed the Spirit’s lead.  He shared the good news of Jesus and God’s love that is stronger than death.  And Lydia followed the Spirit’s lead, too, with open ears, open heart, and an open home.  Imagine the rejoicing on that riverbank, the shouts of “Alleluia!” “Amen!” and “Thanks be to God!” as Lydia was baptized, and Paul’s first church beyond the dead end was planted. Now, that’s what I call a new beginning.

Paul’s story speaks to us, we who have languished in the cul-de-sac of dead ends and second-guessed our new beginnings.  Paul reminds us that our path and our purpose ultimately belong to God and we are never alone on the journey.  We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, just as it is at work in others.  God’s Spirit opens ears, opens hearts, and opens the way to the future that God holds ready.  Beyond our dead ends, the Spirit beckons to us, “Come over.”

Resources:

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 9, 2010.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2013.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 26, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Megan McDonough. “Dead Ends Are New Beginnings.” Accessed online at wholebeinginstitute.com.

Dixie Somers. “7 Dead Ends in Life and How to Avoid Them.” Accessed online at lifehack.org.


Acts 16:6-15

6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed[b] there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.


Photo by Ana Arantes on Pexels.com

Out of Bounds

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Out of Bounds” Acts 11:1-18

Canadians were shocked last May by the news of unmarked graves at residential schools. 215 graves of indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian School in British Colombia.  A few weeks later, 751 graves were discovered at a residential school in Saskatchewan.   Those schools were part of a national policy of assimilation for First Nations’ children which was in place from 1869 until the 1990s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to state-sponsored Christian schools.  There they received a basic education and the gospel.  Seventy percent of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church.  Duncan Campbell Scott, who served as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and ran the boarding school program from 1912-1932, once said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

Those residential schools were often run by people with little training, empathy, or cultural sensitivity.  65-year-old John Jones recalls his experience as a 7-year-old, taken from his family on the Nahoose Nation and sent to the Alberni Residential School.  There he was punished for speaking his native language or talking about his cultural heritage. At the residential school, John was subjected to daily physical punishment—paddled, slapped, and hit with belts.  He remembers being regularly berated as a dirty, stupid, good-for-nothing Indian.  He was sexually abused by a teacher who traded chocolate bars for illicit late-night visits.

The impact of the residential school system cannot be overstated.  Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that many of the 150,000 children who were sent to the schools were subjected to the same sort of abuse as John Jones.  Thousands died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions.  Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence have been rife among survivors.  The Commission estimates that the 966 graves discovered last year are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing national tragedy.  As Christians, it’s painful for us to hear of the church’s complicity in state-mandated assimilation. It hurts to imagine the gospel of Jesus Christ being shared in a shroud of cultural expectations and demands that have had such far-reaching, destructive consequences.

In our reading from Acts 11, Peter was in hot water for his cross-cultural sharing of the gospel.  Peter’s mission had scandalized the Jewish believers because he had taken the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles of the very worst sort.  Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Regiment, a leader of the foreign occupation of Israel.  Not only had Peter preached to Cornelius and his substantial household, but he had also baptized them, stayed with them, instructed them, and eaten with them.

It’s this last transgression, sharing the table with Gentiles, that was most troubling to Peter’s Jerusalem colleagues.  Keeping a kosher diet was an essential dimension of observing the Torah.  Leviticus 11 made it clear that some foods were pleasing to God (clean) and some were not (unclean).  Eating “clean” foods made the people of Israel holy as God is holy.  Eating unclean Gentile foods, like shellfish or pork, was a sin against God which separated you from God and your Jewish neighbor.  There was more to it.  As an occupied nation, that Jewish diet was a symbol of resistance.  Keeping a clean table reminded the people of Israel that they belonged to God, despite their social and political realities.

In his defense, Peter shared a systematic accounting of his actions.  According to Peter, his every move had been a response to the initiative of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.  God had sent that crazy vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with unclean beasts.  God had commanded him to eat.  God had sent a vision to the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, telling him to summon Peter.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius’s household, even before Peter had finished preaching.  The whole mission had clearly been God’s initiative.  Who was Peter to get in God’s way?  There truly had been nothing left to do, other than to baptize, welcome, and affirm what God had already done.

As the apostles followed the Holy Spirit’s leading out of bounds and across the Roman Empire, one of the greatest struggles of the early church was determining what should be demanded of Gentile believers.  Did they need to keep a kosher diet?  Should they be circumcised? Should they be treated as second-class, lower tier Christians?  Must they become Jews? After hearing Peter’s testimony, those earliest of Jewish believers in Jerusalem simply rejoiced and decided to follow the Spirit’s lead without any strings attached.  That wide and inclusive welcome became official in Acts 15 when the Jerusalem Council gave its stamp of approval to Paul’s Gentile mission.

Over the centuries, as Christianity expanded and became enmeshed with the political power of empire and nation, we have struggled and sometimes failed to live into those accepting, welcoming, inclusive expectations of the Holy Spirit and the earliest church.  We’ve often wrapped the gospel in a cloak of culture that demands assimilation.  It played out on the geo-political stage from the moment that Constantine had a vision of the cross and sent his legions into battle with that symbol painted on their shields and the motto, “In this sign conquer.”  We saw it as Galileo was forced to recant his scientific findings because they contradicted church teachings.  We saw it as Spanish conquistadors forced indigenous captives to be baptized at the point of the sword.  As a seminary student more than twenty years ago, I saw the devastating impact of forced assimilation first-hand, on Rose Bud and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church operated government-sponsored boarding schools.

The Apostle Peter might remind us that the Holy Spirit is always way out there ahead of us.  We may want to draw lines and make demands, but salvation always rests in the initiative and power of God alone.  As faithful people, our task is not to insist on a kosher diet or circumcision; our job is not to judge others and insist that they conform to our way of seeing and doing things; our role isn’t to separate children from their families and rob them of their culture. When the Holy Spirit takes us out of bounds, the best thing to do may be to get out of the way, to watch, to listen, to be uncomfortable, to learn, to support, to sit down at the table with folks and break bread.  As Peter so eloquently said, if God gives others the same gift that God gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly hinder God?

Healing on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations has come slowly.  Indigenous scholars like Albert Whitehat, Sr. learned again their Lakota language and developed curriculum so that it can be taught in schools.  Addiction, which at its worst troubled 90% of reservation families, is slowly declining.  Indigenous priests, pastors, and directors of religious education are sharing the gospel in new ways.  In the suffering of Jesus on the cross, they see their own suffering.  They know that their experience as an occupied nation, subjected to terrible abuse, is closer to the life of Christ than most of us could ever imagine.  They know that Jesus walks with them.

Shortly after the residential school scandal broke in Canada last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Tribe, announced that the U.S. would be conducting its own investigation into our extensive history of Native American Boarding Schools, about half of which were federally funded but operated by churches.  In 1926, 83% of our Native American children were in residential schools, some voluntarily, some forcibly removed from their homes. Just as in Canada, residential schools have had devastating consequences for Native American communities.

Dzbahe remembers the day in 1953 when her parents made the difficult decision to send her to a residential school and she left her Navajo home.  At the school, her Navajo clothes and moccasins were taken and she was issued a uniform.  Her hair was cut. She was forbidden to speak her language.  Not knowing English or American customs, she was repeatedly punished for not doing what was expected of her.  Even her Navajo name, Dzbahe, was taken away, and she was forced to respond to the new name Bessie Smith. 

This week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report with findings from just 19 of the more than 400 US residential schools.  That report included news of more than 500 unmarked graves of children at those 19 schools.  The commission warns that as their work continues, the hidden deaths of indigenous children will rise into the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. Lord, have mercy. 

Resources:

James Boyce. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 2, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Karl Kuhn. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 15, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Brian Peterson. Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 19, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jonathan Chang and Meghna Chakrabarti. “Stories from Canada’s Indigenous Residential School Survivors” on On Point, July 28, 2021. WBUR Boston.  Accessed online at wbur.org.

Claire Cleveland. “Indigenous Schools Leave a Legacy of Generational Scars” in The Associated Press, August 8, 2021. Accessed online at apnews.com.

Kalle Benallie. “US boarding school investigative report released” in Indian Country Today, May 11, 2022. Accessed online at https://indiancountrytoday.com/news.


Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”


Native American students at the Carlisle Indian School. By Unknown author – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4797733

From Sheep to Shepherd

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “From Sheep to Shepherd” Acts 9:36-43

The noise was deafening.  Widows of every age surrounded me.  Some cast back their heads in ululation.  Others sobbed in lament.  Some pressed upon me the work of her hands, pointing to a finely woven flax tunic, a weighty woolen shawl, or the fine tracery of crimson embroidery threaded along the cuff of a sleeve.  “Help us, help us! Who will help us?” they pleaded.  I looked over to the husband, who sat on a bench in the courtyard, nearly catatonic with grief.

I was still fairly new to this apostle thing.  In fact, I had considered giving up after the resurrection.  In all honesty, I had proven to be a fairly worthless disciple.  I thought I knew it all.  I slept when I should have been praying.  I ran when I was needed to stand my ground.  In the Chief Priest’s courtyard, I had cursed in fear and panic, insisting that I didn’t know the Lord, had never met him, had nothing to do with him.  If the resurrection had convinced me of anything, it was of the greatness of God, the holiness of my Lord Jesus, and my utter worthlessness as a disciple.

In fact, I had returned to my home in Galilee and the familiar work of fishing.  The waves on the water, the heft of the net in my hands, the rise and fall of the boat under sail.  But I had proven to be a failure even at what was my birthright.  Then, in the early morning on the rocky shore with the smoke of the charcoal fire in my eyes and the taste of grilled fish and fresh bread on my tongue, the risen Lord had restored me to my purpose.  “Do you love me?” he asked.  “Tend my flock,” he commanded.  For the love of Jesus, I was trying.

Now if ever there were sheep without a shepherd, these women were it.  Across the Great Sea, the Greeks and Romans do things differently, but here we live by the Old Ways. Our women do not have inheritance rights.  The death of a husband or a grown son leaves a woman at the mercy of a new patriarch, and some are by no means merciful.  That was obvious.  A toothless crone with two canes wailed at my elbow.  A cross-eyed woman with an addled brain babbled for my attention.  An emaciated young mother, with two small children clinging to her skirt, sobbed hopelessly.  A bald woman with a goiter the size of a pomegranate held up an intricately woven kerchief.

From their stories, it was clear that Tabitha – or I should say Dorcas – had been their shepherd.  She had clothed them, fed them, and provided for them from her own purse. Her death was a tragedy for all.  It started with a cough, followed by the spike of a fever.  Her breathing had grown labored, her breath fetid.  Within a few days, she was gone. Now these lost sheep surrounded me with their tears and the ridiculous expectation that I should raise the dead.  They pushed me up the stairs, shoved me into the upper room, closed the door, and continued their non-stop racket.

The room was dark.  I crossed to the window, parted the curtains, and opened the shutters, flooding the room with light and a sea breeze.  Near the window, where the light was the best, stood a loom, threaded with a work in progress. Across the room, the body lay on a bed, shrouded by a woolen pall.  I peeled back the cloth.  Dark curls, like soft clouds, surrounded a kind face with creases left behind by years of smiles.  She wore a simple linen tunic.  Her hands were folded on her chest above her heart and she held an olive-wood cross.  So natural and peaceful.  I placed my hand on hers and shrank back from the cold flesh, inert and lifeless.

I began to pace, as is often the case when I am worried, anxious, or angry.  What was I doing?  Who was I to raise the dead? What would happen when I failed, as I undoubtedly would? I had agreed to tend the flock, but I didn’t sign up for this.  All those expectations of the keening widows pressed in on me. I felt like I was the one wrapped in a pall, a shroud of their lament. I began to hyperventilate. “Feed my sheep?” I wheezed. “Thanks a lot, Jesus.”

“What seems to be the problem, Peter?” I knew that voice better than my own. He stood with his back to the window, his face in shadows. The sunshine, flooding into the room, seemed to shimmer and surge around his silhouette. I stopped hyperventilating.

“Jesus!” I shouted, half-angry, half-relieved. “C’mon. you don’t expect me to raise this woman.  Do you? I can’t do it!  I can’t!”  It may have been my imagination, but the wailing in the hallway outside the room seemed to escalate.

Jesus nodded, as he often did when I stated the obvious. “No, you can’t do it, Peter.”

This wasn’t helping my confidence at all.  I paced some more while he watched. I stopped and pointed at him accusingly, “You could do it!  You raised Jairus’s daughter.  I was there.  I saw her smile.  I saw her stretch her arms up to be held.  How about the widow of Nain’s son, hopping off his funeral byre as if her were embarrassed to be caught napping? Remember, Lazarus?  Three-days-dead and stinking, you called him out of the tomb.  You can do it!  You can do it!  But I’m not you.”

Jesus agreed, “No, you’re not.”

I paced some more.  I couldn’t do it, but Jesus could.  I shot a look at him where he was now leaning with an elbow on the window sill, and I swear, he raised his eyebrows like he does when he is waiting for me to draw an obvious conclusion.  I stopped.

“Are you really here, Lord?”

Now, he was smiling. “Didn’t I promise to be with you always, Peter, even to the end of the age?” 

He had made that promise.  He had even sent his Holy Spirit as a perpetual reminder.  As Jesus pushed away from the window and took a step closer to me, I felt the Spirit ripple within me. It was obvious. I turned away from Jesus and looked over at the peaceful and thoroughly dead Tabitha—or should I say Dorcas?  “I can’t do it,” I said again, “but you can.”

I moved toward the bed.  The sun warmed my back and moved along my limbs. I stepped closer still to the body and my shadow fell across her face.  I raised my arms with power and words of authority that were mine, but not mine, sounded loud.  “Tabitha!  Get up!”

The first thing I noticed was the slow throb of a vein, pulsing at her temple. Next, her chest began to gently rise and fall with the soft swell of her breath. Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn and a hand fluttered up to cover it.  Here eyelids blinked open, once, twice.  “O, Jesus!  You came!” she smiled.

I whirled around to see if the Lord was still behind me at the window. The room was empty.  The curtains fluttered in the sea breeze, the threads dangling from the loom danced in the shifting air.  Beyond the door, the keening of the women was undiminished and someone had broken out a shofar, blowing long, slow, mournful notes. 

I bent down and took the hand of the no-longer-dead woman. She was still clutching the olive wood cross but had kicked off the woolen shroud and was wiggling her toes.  I helped her up. “Sister,” I said to the puzzled Tabitha, “I know some people who will be happy to see you.” 

As I opened the door and guided her through, there was a moment of stunned silence.  Then, mourning shifted to joy.  There were glad shouts of recognition and fervent alleluias.  Tears of joy streamed down jubilant faces. The crone brandished her canes in celebration.  The fool sang a psalm of rejoicing.  The two children danced, hand-in-hand with their mother.  The woman with the goiter could only repeat, again and again, “Glory be to the great God of Israel, holy be His name!”  Arms reached out to Tabitha, touching, hugging, holding.  Tabitha was swept downstairs and out into the streets in a parade of rejoicing that they are still talking about in Joppa to this day.

I lingered in the upper room, leaning against the sill where the Lord’s elbow had rested, watching the celebration on the street below.  I still felt that I was not very good at this apostle thing. Thank goodness that no one had been in the room with me to witness my panic. But I learned that it is not so much about me as it is about Jesus.  Nine times out of ten, I can’t do what is asked of me.  I can’t rise to the expectations that they have for me.  But Jesus can, and even when I walk through the darkest valley, he is with me.


Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.


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Fed, Forgiven, Sent

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Fed, Forgiven, Sent” John 21:1-19

“Feed My Sheep”

—Mary Baker Eddy

Shepherd, show me how to go

“O’er the hillside steep,

How to gather, how to sow—

How to feed Thy sheep;

I will listen for Thy voice,

Lest my footsteps stray;

I will follow and rejoice

All the rugged way.

Thou wilt bind the stubborn will,

Wound the callous breast,

Make self-righteousness be still,

Break earth’s stupid rest.

Strangers on a barren shore,

Lab’ring long and lone,

We would enter by the door,

And Thou know’st Thine own;

So, when day grows dark and cold,

Tear or triumph harms,

Lead Thy lambkins to the fold,

Take them in Thine arms;

Feed the hungry, heal the heart,

Till the morning’s beam;

White as wool, ere they depart,

Shepherd, wash them clean.”

What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season.  The sanctuary is still decked in Easter white, but the lilies are beginning to fade. The Easter crowd has ebbed and may not be seen again until Christmas Eve. Yet, we have rejoiced together and affirmed that Jesus has risen and God has won the victory over sin and death.  So, what are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? Our reading from John’s gospel suggests that Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in Christ’s purpose.

What’s next? That question must have been on Peter’s mind. After the disciples encountered the risen Lord on Easter evening, they had made their way back to the Galilee.  After the chaos and trauma of Good Friday, Peter must have felt the comforting pull of the familiar, and so he returned to the well-known rhythms of fishing.  With six of his friends, he climbed into a boat, pushed out into deep water, and spent a fruitless night casting his nets.

As the sun rose above the Golan Heights, Jesus stood on the beach and guided his friends to a surprisingly bountiful catch.  When the disciples returned to shore, Jesus knew that folks who have been out all night long, rowing and towing a drag net, need to be fed, so he invited them to a breakfast of bread and fish, grilled on a charcoal fire.  Have you ever noticed how good food tastes when it is fresh, simply prepared, and eaten outdoors?  As the disciples filled their bellies in Jesus’s good company, I suspect they felt “fed” in more ways than one.

We all need to be fed.  If life is a spiritual journey, then we need good food to sustain us along the Way.  In our Lenten Study this year, a dozen of us considered what sustains us along life’s spiritual journey.  We all need nourishment.  We all need ways in which we connect with God — because it is there that we find the refreshment and energy that are needed to live faithfully.  In fact, the class brainstormed a list of things that are bread for our journey.  On the list were worship, scripture, the Lord’s Supper, meditation and prayer, fellowship, nature, the arts, and more.  How are you fed for the spiritual journey?  This Easter season invites us to know the risen Lord and to deepen our relationship with him.  As we spend time with Jesus — in church, with others, or in nature — we are filled and energized.

I am certain that, as Peter enjoyed that fish breakfast on the beach with Jesus, the apostle was struggling with guilt and shame.  After all, he had promised to follow Jesus, even if the way led to suffering and death.  But on the night of Jesus’s arrest, fear had gotten the better of Peter.  The last time that Peter had warmed his hands at a charcoal fire, he had been in the courtyard of the high priest.  There he had repeatedly and vehemently denied even knowing Jesus.  Jesus, seeing his friend’s inner turmoil, gave Peter a second, third, and fourth chance—a Mulligan, a “do-over.”  Peter found much-needed grace and forgiveness as he affirmed his love for Jesus three times.  It was the perfect, poignant remedy to those three haunting denials.

We all need mercy and grace.  We may not have denied Jesus three times to save our own skin, but we all stumble and fall short in right living.  We have treated our relationship with Jesus as an after-thought to be sprinkled around the edges of our lives at our personal convenience.  We have made mistakes in our personal lives.  We have been impatient with our spouse, insensitive to our children, or unavailable for our friends.  We have remained silent at injustice, indifferent to suffering, and unwilling to share with those who need our help, compassion, and generosity.  Where do you need grace this morning?  In this Easter season, we remember the enormity of God’s love for us.  If Christ can forgive a repentant thief, his executioners, and the Apostle Peter, then we can trust that Jesus forgives us.  In this Easter season, we can trust that grace and forgiveness abound for us.

As Peter was fed and forgiven, he learned that Jesus had a purpose for him.  The Lord asked Peter to feed and tend the flock that was being entrusted to his care.  Through Peter, Jesus would continue to reach out, heal, and bless a world that was desperately hungry for good news.  When we read the Book of Acts, we note that Peter answered that calling.  Peter would heal a lame beggar on the doorstep of the Temple.  He would raise from the dead the beloved Dorcas, who had so generously cared for the widows of Joppa. Peter would venture into enemy territory, taking the gospel to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea.  Through Peter, and those other disciples who answered Jesus’s call, Christ’s love would be made known and shared from one side of the Roman Empire to the other.

Jesus continues to entrust his ministry to flawed people like Peter, to flawed people like us.  Jesus’s flock needs faithful people who will love and feed them, and the Lord trusts that we, too, will reach out with healing, help, and blessing for neighbors who hunger for good news.  When we plant the church garden and we bring food offerings to the pack basket at the side entrance, the flock gets fed.  And when we pray for others in the Prayers of the People or share concerns with the Prayer Chain, the flock is tended.  When the deacons reach out with calls and cards, or we invite a hurting friend to church, the flock is blessed.  In this Easter season, we find our purpose and fulfill our calling when we answer Christ’s call to love and serve the neighbors that he entrusts to us.

What’s next?  It’s the question of the Easter season. What are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? According to Jesus, Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in his purpose.  May it be so. 

“Shepherd, show me how to go

O’er the hillside steep,

How to gather, how to sow—

How to feed Thy sheep;

I will listen for Thy voice,

Lest my footsteps stray;

I will follow and rejoice

All the rugged way.”

Resources:

Thomas Troeger. “Homiletical Perspective on John 21:1-19” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Gary D. Jones. “Exegetical Perspective on John 21:1-19” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 21:1-19” in Preaching This Week, April 10, 2016.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Joy Moore. “Commentary on John 21:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Two Things Everyone Needs” in Dear Partner in Preaching, April 5, 2016.  Accessed online at davidlose.net.

Longyear Museum. When The Heart Speaks: Feed My Sheep. Poems by Mary Baker Eddy set to music in the Christian Science Hymnal. October 1, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xI1J5sGbEM


John 21:1-19

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


Photo by Oziel Gu00f3mez on Pexels.com

Reaching Out in New Ways

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making all things new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

—Revelation 21:5


We’re not the same.  My church, like just about everything else, has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s more than taking a break from congregational singing, missing friends who are still minding their social distance, and the presence of a camera in worship. You might even say that many churches have been hauled, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century.  We have mastered new technology, found new ways to communicate, and grown adept at the use of social media. While much of what is familiar and comfortable persists, it’s a brave new world out there for churches.  God is doing a new thing.

Recognizing that small churches need to change or will decline, the PC(USA) Synod of the Northeast has sponsored an innovative grant: Hybrid Outreach for Small Churches.  Congregations in seven Presbyteries have been selected to work with a consultant for a year, who will coach them on reaching out in new ways.  This church is blessed to be one of the seven churches chosen to participate.

Our consultant John Fong is a swirl of creativity, bold ideas, and encouragement.  He also loves to laugh. John believes in evangelism for a new age that invites others to come along on our faith journey through simple acts of kindness and friendship.

If you are wondering what that might look like, consider our Palm Sunday Resurrection Gardens craft—church families and friends made table-top gardens that represent the events of Holy Week.  Half of the people who made gardens at church or at home were members, and half were not, drawn into the life of the church through personal invitations and the power of Facebook. In fact, our Facebook post about the project went viral, reaching more than 2,000 people. Now, that’s some serious outreach.

I’m joined in our hybrid outreach work by Elder Chenelle Palyswiat and some of the church’s communication mavens—Peter Wilson, Anita Estling, and Duane Gould.  We’ve got more projects in the pipeline, like a “Grow-a-Row” initiative to invite local gardeners to join us in growing veggies for the Food Pantry.  We’re also planning a “Cookie Bomb.”  Yes, it is just as exciting and delicious as it sounds. Just wait and see.

As we emerge from the chaos of pandemic, God is doing a new thing in and through us.  It sounds like the work of the risen Lord, who promises to make all things new. May the Lord be doing new — and blessed — things for you and your faith community, too.


“Begin the Day”

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

“Begin each morning with a talk to God,

And ask for your divine inheritance

Of usefulness, contentment, and success.

Resign all fear, all doubt, and all despair.

The stars doubt not, and they are undismayed,

Though whirled through space for countless centuries,

And told not why or wherefore: and the sea

With everlasting ebb and flow obeys,

And leaves the purpose with the unseen Cause.

The star sheds radiance on a million worlds,

The sea is prodigal with waves, and yet

No lustre from the star is lost, and not

One drop is missing from the ocean tides.

Oh! brother to the star and sea, know all

God’s opulence is held in trust for those

Who wait serenely and who work in faith.”


An Idle Tale

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “An Idle Tale” Luke 24:1-12

I was warned when I first came to Saranac Lake that I should NOT expect a full church on Easter.  At the other three churches that I have served, Easter Sunday is a lot like Christmas Eve with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, belting out beloved hymns, and eagerly sharing “Alleluias!”  But Saranac Lake?  Not so much.  Snowbirds have flown south for the winter to stay until May for fear of the dreaded Easter-snow.  The two-week-long school break surrounds Easter, and families weary of winter and sick of mud season leave the North Country in stunning numbers to bask their alabaster flesh in the warm glow of Florida sun.  The past few years have been complicated by COVID, sending us online instead of into the pews to celebrate the resurrection.  On Easter Sunday, many of our friends are missing.

But this Easter, I’ve been thinking about those other people who are NOT in church—the unchurched.  They may be like Brittney, a twenty-something young adult raised in church who never made an adult connection to a local congregation in her new community.  On Easter morning, she is still in her jammies, reading a good book or facetiming with a college friend.  The unchurched may be like Tim and Cindy, once faithful attenders at a Catholic Church until the clergy sexual abuse scandal shattered their trust in the institutional church.  On Easter morning, they sleep in, read the New York Times, and have brunch.  The unchurched may be like Mitchell.  He has only been in church for weddings and funerals, occasions when he feels uncomfortable and out of place.  On Easter morning, he is up early to watch soccer on tv.  He wears the jersey of his favorite team, and from his man cave, his wife and children can hear the shouts of victory and the groans of defeat.  For people like Brittney, Tim and Cindy, and Mitchell, Easter sounds like an idle tale—fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe.

The women on that first Easter morning were accused of telling an idle tale.  They traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover.  They hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel.  Many of them had been helped and healed by his miraculous power.  But on Friday they witnessed their rabbi being beaten, abused, and crucified.  They heard his dying words.  They saw the blood and water pour from his side.  They watched while Joseph of Arimathea claimed the body, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a newly cut tomb.  They retreated to the place where they were staying to prepare the spices and ointments.  They prayed and wept all through the sabbath day. Then, early in the deep dawn, when the sun was just a rosy hint lingering below the horizon, they gathered their precious oils and walked through the streets of the city to offer a final kindness to the man they loved, anointing his body for the grave.

At the tomb, the women expected death.  Afterall, they had seen it with their own eyes.  But something fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe, awaited them.  The stone was rolled away. The body was gone. While they inspected the grave, bowed down with grief and confusion, holy messengers burst in upon them, reminding them of Jesus’ promise of resurrection and challenging them with the question “Why do you look for the one who lives among the dead?” 

Amid the women’s puzzlement and grief, a certainty began to glow like a spark rising from the ashes: Jesus is alive.  In the mixed joy and terror of that belief, they ran through the streets of the waking city and burst into the room where the disciples were still rubbing sleep from their eyes.  All of them began to speak their truth at once, voices rising and falling, alleluias ringing, tears flowing, “The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!”

Perhaps we can forgive the disciples for presuming that what the women had to say was an “idle tale,” stuff and nonsense, a fevered delirium.  After all, the men had just woken up.  And they lived in a world where what women had to say couldn’t be admitted as evidence in a court of law.  And according to Luke, there were a lot of women saying the same wild stuff: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and all those other women who had loved Jesus, provided for him from their purses, and traveled with him throughout his ministry.  All that joy, excitement, and hope that flooded in upon the disciples’ grief and shame made no sense whatsoever.  So, the men failed to remember what Jesus had promised and they refused to believe.  They hushed the women and went back to their dark thoughts and bleak world.

Even if we think that the disciples were embarrassingly clueless on that first Easter morning, we get it.  We expect death.  We have buried our parents and our dear friends.  Sometimes on a day when the world turns black, we bury a child.  We know the death of relationships.  Marriages grow cold.  Friendships end in nonsensical arguments.  Neighbors disconnect over perceived slights or differences of political opinion.  We know the death of opportunity.  The promotion never comes.  The degree is never earned.  The pink slip arrives when we’re too old to start over.  We know death writ large on the world stage. Russia invades Ukraine. Our wild world fails with mass extinction. Hunger walks the land in Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan.  We expect death, preoccupied by our dark thoughts and bleak world.  On some days, we can be just as resistant as the disciples to the truth that the women spoke, all those years ago.

On Easter morning, an empty tomb, two holy messengers, and a group of faithful women dare to tell us that death does not have the final word. Don’t get me wrong.  Death is real.  Pain is fierce.  Loss can be overwhelming.  Some days, we are bowed down to the ground in grief.  Yet, God in a lonely tomb in the pre-dawn dark of Easter morning broke the power of sin and death. All the evil, grief, and sin of this world cannot keep Jesus down. Love wins the day.  Jesus rises.  The tomb is empty. God brings life out of death and reconciliation out of division.  New beginnings spring from impossible endings.   It is fantastic, mysterious, and on some days, hard to believe.  But that’s what God does. Alleluia!

That news is so good that it can be mistaken for an idle tale.  But the truth is proven in the living. When we join those women in saying “Yes!” to what God has done in Jesus, we find the possibility of new life.  We are changed, just as the women were changed.  We rise up with the courage to live with love and reconciliation in a broken and dying world.  We move beyond our grief.  We reach out a hand in forgiveness. We ask to be forgiven.  We make a fresh start.  We call for peace. We care for the planet.  We feed the hungry.  We become hope for the hopeless and food for the hungry of heart.  The world is waiting for an Easter transformation. That can only take shape if we dare to speak our truth to those who may dismiss us as bearers of idle tales.

So, let’s do it.  Let’s reach out to the Brittney’s we know, those twenty-somethings who haven’t been back to church since they left home. Let’s remind them of the love, connection, and encouragement that are such a special part of being a church family. 

Let’s reach out to friends like Tim and Cindy, alienated by the sexual misconduct of those who had been entrusted with their spiritual care.  Let’s remind them that God’s heart breaks along with theirs and there are other churches where the love of God is practiced sincerely in word and deed. 

Let’s reach out to the Mitchells of this world.  They may never feel comfortable coming to church, but they may see Jesus.  Every time we share the love of Christ with fresh produce for the Food Pantry, shallow wells for Africa, or a prayer shawl in a time of crisis, we bear a quiet and powerful witness to the transforming, unstoppable love of God and the truth of Easter.  Someday, people like Mitchell might even be a little like the disciple Peter.  They could turn off the Sunday morning sports and venture forth to see for themselves, to look at the evidence and be amazed, even if they aren’t yet willing to accept the truth.

We’ve got a tale to tell, my friends.  Some call it idle, but we know better.  What are we waiting for?  Next Easter, we might just have a few more people in the pews.  Alleluia!


Resources:

Lucy Lind Hogan. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 17, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-9

Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 20, 2019. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-6

Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/vigil-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-241-12-4

Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, March 31, 2013. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-3

Craig R. Koester. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 4, 2010. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-2


Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.


Greed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Greed” John 12:1-8

Monsignor Charles Pope leads a weekly Bible Study at the White House for President Biden.  In more than thirty years of parish ministry, Charles Pope has spent a lot of time in the confessional, hearing sins and prescribing penance.  Father Pope says that greed is the most under-reported of sins.  We tend to think that everyone else is greedy, but we never think that we make too much money or have too much stuff.  Faith leaders in the Protestant tradition say the same thing.  Rev. Tim Keller, the well-known author and longtime pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, relates that he once led a weekly Bible Study on the Seven Deadly Sins.  The week that the study was least attended was the one when he taught about greed.  Keller says, “Maybe the best sign of greed is that you aren’t willing to even admit the possibility that you are enslaved to it.”

Greed is the artificial, rapacious desire for and pursuit of wealth and possessions.  Two of the Ten Commandments speak to greed: the prohibitions on stealing and covetousness.  In the gospels, greed is the sin that Jesus most frequently spoke against, from his warning to tax collectors against collecting more than authorized (Lk 3:13) to his Parable of the Rich Fool, which reminds us that we can’t take it with us and we are truly fools if our worldly goods are more important than our relationship with God (Lk 12:13-21). Indeed, Jesus saw wealth as an idol, cautioning that we cannot serve God and Mammon.

Throughout the Christian tradition, we have been warned about the dangers of greed.  Thomas Aquinas believed that greed is a three-fold sin.  Greed is a sin against neighbor because one man’s riches cannot over-bound without another man being in need.  Greed is a sin against the self because our “affections are disordered” by loving and delighting in material things.  And greed is a sin against God because we scorn the eternal for our love of the temporal.  Dante’s Inferno places greedy souls in the fourth Circle of Hell, where misers, hoarders, and spendthrifts eternally battle one another.  Martin Luther was especially concerned with greed, calling those who are avaricious “money gluttons.”  According to Luther, the greedy man “would have the whole world perish of hunger and thirst, misery and want, so far as in him lies, so that he may have all to himself, and everyone may receive from him as from God, and be his serfs forever.”

Our contemporary understanding of greed takes into account its destructive nature, as well as its acceptance.  Psychologist Erich Fromm saw greed as “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”  We may be blind to our own greed and the greed of others, thanks to our cultural context.  We are constantly barraged by marketing that tells us that love is revealed in the gift of a diamond that is forever or a brand-new car with a big bow on top delivered on Christmas morning.  Who doesn’t want to be loving?  Only 2% of Americans think we are wealthy “upper class” people, but on a world stage, we are wealthy beyond the imagining of most. 

We also tend to confuse our wants with our needs, and so the more we earn, the more we spend.  Not many of us are like billionaire Warren Buffet who still lives in the same home in Omaha that he bought in 1958.  Instead, more money means more expense, whether we are socking it away in our retirement nest egg, driving a better car, or moving into that nicer neighborhood.  Our growing affluence isn’t necessarily good for others.  A shocking 2008 study discovered the radical generosity of the poor.  Researchers found that 60% of Americans who live in poverty give their money and time to help others while only 32% of people who live above the poverty line are willing to share.  Author, editor, and theologian Brad Littlejohn teaches that greed is spiritually dangerous because it leads to a false sense of security and an inward-focused self-absorption that allows us to ignore the needs of others.

Our biblical paradigm for greed is Judas.  In today’s gospel reading, the Lord would soon be arrested, tortured, and executed.  But that night, Mary of Bethany did something beautiful.  She anointed Jesus with precious oil of nard, all the way from the Himalayas, purchased at great price.  It was a decadent act of generous love. The indignant Judas denounced Mary before the disciples.  Although he claimed he was advocating on behalf of the poor, Luke tells us that Judas was greedy.  The money spent on that costly anointing could have lined his pockets. Within the week, Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  He is the poster child for greed, alienated from his better self, robbing the poor, rejecting the love of Christ, and denying the authority of God.

We’ll be relieved to hear that the remedy for greed is not poverty.  It’s generosity, the virtue of being liberal in giving.  Jesus expected his followers to be generous.  He instructed them to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Lk 12:33-34).  Aristotle taught that generosity is the noble and appropriate mean between two opposing extremes—stinginess and wastefulness. Aquinas saw generosity as a dimension of agape (charitas), the generous love that Jesus taught us, the love that always gives in the best interest of the other.  Martin Luther encouraged generosity, saying, “Possessions belong in your hands, not in your heart.”

Our biblical example of generosity is the poor widow. You may remember that during Holy Week, Jesus took a seat in the Temple to watch folks deposit their offering in the treasury.  Many costly gifts were given, yet the gift that excited Jesus the most was two small coins (copper mites or leptons), given by an impoverished widow.  The Lord praised her generosity, because it was an offering of all she had and all she was—her whole self (Lk 21:1-4).  We remember that Jesus was likewise unfailingly generous, sharing freely of himself to heal, help, and feed his neighbors.  Truly, Holy Week reminds us that Jesus made the greatest gift of all, laying down his life in the ultimate object lesson of God’s generous love for us.

The bad news is that Americans are not as generous as we like to think.  2/3 of us believe that it is important to be generous, yet about half of us give nothing at all to charity.  Only 17% of Americans give habitually, building it into their budget.  Only 16% of Americans make generosity part of their long-term plans, like estate planning and legacy gifts. The definitive survey on Christian giving by sociologists Smith, Emerson, and Herzog learned that adults who do not witness generosity as children, do not practice generosity as grown-ups.  They also found that if American Christians gave in keeping with their income, they would give between $46-85 billion more each year—a generosity that could forever change our communities, where churches remain at the heart of helping vulnerable neighbors and transforming lives.

The good news is that generosity can be learned, cultivated, and grown.  Sociologists point out that being consistently generous involves planning.  It’s a habit that we can intentionally build into busy lives.  This could involve making a formal financial pledge to the charitable concerns that we wish to support, or it could also look like putting dates for volunteering on the calendar.  Studies have found that giving, both in treasure and time, grows when it is routinized and becomes a habit. 

The social scientists say that we are in the right place to become more generous: church.  Local churches are consistent “climates of giving,” places where financial gifts meet known community needs. We get personally involved in ministries, missions, and volunteer opportunities that reinforce the “virtuous cycle” of generosity.  We find that being generous is rewarding because we see the difference that we make in the world, and we become part of a supportive, giving-oriented web of relationships that grows with time.  Within churches, our teamwork builds caring, friendship, and generosity.

Generosity is also grown when we practice it in families and teach it to our children and grandchildren.  Generous parents make for generous kids.  The family that talks about the importance of generosity and practices it together by using those fish banks for OGHS or participating in the Souper Bowl of Caring or walking together in the CROP Walk, these families create a home environment where generosity becomes part of our mental make-up.  Those generous kids grow up to believe that they can and will make a caring difference that can transform the world through their personal generosity.

When we get the better of our greed by growing our generosity, not only does the world become a better and more equitable place, we also return to right relationship with God and with neighbor.  Prof. Will Mari of Louisiana State University, reminds us that it’s not just our stuff that is not our own, it’s our whole lives.  Truly, all we have and all we are is God’s gracious gift. We find ultimate meaning when we devote ourselves to a generosity and service that is “good, godly, and healthy.” Generosity poises us to live the life that God would have us live — open to what may come.  C.S. Lewis in a letter to his dear friend Arthur Greeves in Dec. 1943 wrote, “The great thing about life is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things [that come along] as interruptions of life.  The truth is that what I call interruptions are real life—the life God is sending me day by day.” What is the life that God is sending to us?

God is so generous to us, my friends.  May we live with open hands, open hearts, and open hours, sharing generously of ourselves to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor.

Resources:

Will Mari. “The Only Bright Spot in American Giving” in Christianity Today, Nov. 30, 2017. Accessed online at christianitytoday.com.

Marika Suval. “Just How Generous Are Americans Really?” on Wisconsin Public Radio, March 9, 2016. Accessed online at www.wpr.org/listen/892341

W. Bradford Littlejohn. “The 7 Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 3. Greed” in Reformation 21, Nov. 24, 2014. Accessed online at www.reformation21.org.

Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Greed” in Community in Mission, April 2, 2019. Accessed online at blog.adw.org

Doug Ponder. “Seven Deadly Sins: Greed,” Jan. 14, 2016. Accessed online at www.remnantresource.org.


John 12:1-8

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


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Gluttony

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 16:19-31 “Gluttony”

This is the fifth in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

For many people, an unexpected consequence of the pandemic has been unwanted weight gain.  42% of US adults have reported gaining an average of 29 pounds.  What did we expect?  We were homebound and stressed out. The gyms were closed, yoga and dance classes cancelled, and we stopped jogging with our buddy.  We were ordering take-out and having groceries delivered.  If only we hadn’t started baking sourdough bread and discovered the recipe for the Cheesecake Factory’s original cheesecake.

Obesity has been on the rise in the US for decades.  In the year 2000, 30.5% of us were obese.  By 2021, that statistic had swelled to 42.4% of us.  All that weight puts us at increased risk for diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and cancer.  The annual cost of obesity to our health care system is $147 billion.  Weight loss is a growth industry, raking in $253 billion in 2021.  According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, our weight problems won’t be improving any time soon. Unless we change, half of all Americans will be obese by 2029.  One in four Americans will be severely obese, that’s more than 100 pounds overweight.

A parallel consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in world hunger.  In 2021, 957 million people across 93 countries did not have enough to eat, a jump of 161 million people from before the advent of COVID-19.  239 million people are in need of life-saving humanitarian action.  21.3% of the world’s children suffer from stunted growth, due to chronic malnutrition.  Hunger is a problem that cannot be solved by emergency food aid alone.  We need a concerted global effort to develop sustainable food systems.  There is more than enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet, but we have lacked the global will to ensure that everyone has enough.

Our Lenten consideration of the Seven Deadly Sins continues this morning with gluttony, from the Latin gluttire, to gulp down or swallow. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, taught that gluttony is the unrestrained desire for food that harms the individual and prevents human flourishing.  The Roman philosopher Cicero saw gluttony as a matter of wrong priorities, saying, “It is necessary to eat in order to live, not to live in order to eat.”  The influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas saw gluttony as a moral wrong, an inordinate desire for food that adversely affects our spiritual life. Aquinas cast gluttony as a form of idolatry in which our god is the belly.  Within the Christian tradition, we have seen over-indulgence in food as particularly egregious when it exists side-by-side with the hunger of our neighbors.  Dante envisioned a special Hell for gluttons, lying in filthy, cold slush amid a never-ending icy rain while watched over by a giant stomach with three worm-like heads.  Eeeew!

Contemporary thinking on gluttony invites us to consider the social, psychological, and spiritual context of the sin.  In her book Glittering Vices, Prof. Rebecca DeYoung of Calvin College casts gluttony as a sin of self-gratification, an ultimate expression of “Me” culture in which it is all about us.  The social sciences invite us to see how our human relationship with food has shifted over the course of centuries.  Once upon a time, only the elite could over-indulge in food, but with the rise of the middle class, a well-stocked table was seen as a sign of vitality, prosperity, and success. Somewhere along the way, that sign of prosperity and success went off the rails.  We eat for any number of reasons other than necessity.  We eat out of boredom, stress, tiredness, and anger. Overeating can just be a habit.  Or, we may have never learned proper portion sizes.  Who belonged to the “Clean Plate Club” as a child or was told that there were starving children in India or China or Africa who would love to have our dinner?  Professor Graham Tomlin of Oxford University suggests that beneath those social and psychological forces that promote gluttony, there is a deep spiritual need.  We mistakenly use food to try to satisfy the deeper craving within us.  The craving for God.  What a poor, dissatisfying substitute.

Our biblical paradigm of gluttony is Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man feasts sumptuously every day, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the neighbor who begs at his gate.  Lazarus is poignantly described: starving, sick, too weak to keep the dogs from licking his festering sores.  Death brings a great reversal.  While the rich man suffers eternal torment, Lazarus is welcomed and comforted like a beloved child. We learn that the rich man was not unaware of his neighbor’s suffering—he recognizes Lazarus and knows his name.  In life, the rich man simply chose to not see or assist his starving neighbor.  Instead, he indulged his own lavish appetite.  Jesus suggests that our unbridled consumption and our choice to be blind to the need of our neighbors creates a willful gap that allows suffering to flourish in this world, a gap that has eternal consequences for the life to come.

The remedy for gluttony is found in the virtue of temperance. Temperance is an antiquated word with negative connotations that spring from America’s failed experiment with Prohibition.  Perhaps better words for temperance these days are moderation or self-discipline.  Aristotle characterized temperance as finding the “Golden Mean”—doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way.  Aquinas believed that we don’t need to abstain from the pleasure of good food, but we do need to make discerning choices about what and how we eat, shunning those pleasures that are “immoderate and contrary to reason.”  In Paradise Lost, 17th century poet John Milton had the archangel Michael extoll the virtue of temperance which leads to a long and happy life.

“There is, said Michael, if thou will observe

The rule of not too much, by temperance taught

In what thou eat’st and drink’st, seeking from thence

Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,

Till many years over thy head return:

So mai’st thou live, till like ripe Fruit thou drop

Into thy Mother’s lap, or be with ease

Gather’d, not harshly pluck’t, for death mature.”

Nowadays, advocates of Positive Psychology, which focuses on individual and societal well-being, teach that temperance is one of six core virtues that increase happiness when we build upon them.  Temperate people develop the capacity to handle the complexity of life. They choose to face things calmly and insightfully. Temperance allows us to control our impulses and delay our gratification in pursuit of future goals.  For Christians, temperance equips us to weather difficult times with grace, because we see the long view and trust that God is with us and change can come. Temperance finds its expression in us when we find a healthy moderation and balance in life, creating the right environment for us—and our neighbors—to thrive. 

Our biblical model for temperance is Jesus.  His critics may have alleged that he was a glutton and a drunkard, but Jesus made choices about food to serve the Kingdom of God. Jesus chose fasting in the wilderness as an act of spiritual preparation.  Yet, the first miracle of his ministry was one of feasting.  In Cana, the Lord turned water into wine to save the day at a wedding banquet.  Jesus used meals to build community. He welcomed to the table outsiders, like sinners and tax collectors, and insiders, like Pharisees and disciples.  Jesus was concerned about hungry people.  He fed multitudes with meager resources and miracles of multiplication.  Jesus gave us a holy meal, the Lord’s Supper, to remind us of his great love for us and the ultimate sacrifice that he would make for our sake on the cross.  Jesus liked to eat, just like the rest of us, but he made intentional choices about where, when, and how he ate in order to achieve his mission and give glory to God.  Now that’s temperance.

How might we follow Jesus in practicing temperance?  We can be informed by scripture.  The psalmist affirms that food is God’s good and generous providence: all creation looks to God “to give them their food in due season.” By God’s generous hand we “are filled with good things” (Psalm 104:27-28).  We have a role to play as stewards of that generous providence of God, not only for ourselves, but also for the world around us.  We remember that when the disciples wanted to send away hungry people, Jesus stopped them with the words, “You feed them” (Mark 6:37).  Our personal concern with food needs to be a global concern for feeding a hungry world, for ensuring that Lazarus does not languish at our gate while we feast sumptuously.  Changing our thinking about food can draw us closer to God and closer to our most vulnerable neighbors.

Changing our thinking about food can also change how we understand ourselves.  Learning and implementing temperance in our personal relationship with food may feel harder, but the behavioral science surrounding weight loss tells us there is hope.  We can set dietary goals and be accountable, even if that means keeping a food journal or finding a trusted friend to encourage us.  We can be aware of what tempts us most and take time to notice when the craving kicks in.  We can practice some selective abstinence from foods that are most likely to sabotage us, whether we stop buying the potato chips or we take a break from sugar during Lent.  We can make better choices, cultivating an appetite for healthier foods.  We can also look to things other than food for our personal satisfaction, like a good book, music, fellowship, scripture, nature, creativity, learning, prayer, or exercise.  Healthy change is possible with the help of temperance, the Holy Spirt, and some hard work.

So, let’s give temperance a try.  What do we have to lose other than the 29 pounds we gained during the pandemic and the hunger of 957 million of our world neighbors? 


Resources

Valeria Sabater. “Temperance is Key to Your Psychological Well-Being” in Exploring Your Mind, Nov. 15, 2021.  Accessed online at https://exploringyourmind.com/temperance-is-key-to-your-psychological-well-being/

Lesley Lyle. “Developing Temperance” in Positive Psychology, March 2013. Accessed online at thepositivepsychologypeople.com.

Gernot Laganda. “2021 Is Going to Be a Bad Year for World Hunger” in Food Systems Summit. Accessed online at un.org

Kaia Hubbard. “The Pandemic Has Worsened the US Obesity Epidemic” in US News and World Report, Sept. 15, 2021. Accessed online at usnews.com

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Accessed online at virtuescience.com.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Accessed online at newadvent.org.

Francine Prose. “Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony” from Gluttony (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2006). Accessed online at blog.oup.com.

CNN Staff. “Obesity in the US Fast Facts,” May 27, 2021. Accessed online at cnn.com.

Graham Tomlin. “Gluttony” in The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014).

Kimberly Winston, “Gluttony and the Seven Deadly Sins” in Religion News Service, Nov. 22, 2016.  Accessed online at religion news.com.


Luk 16:19-31

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


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Lust

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Lust” 2 Samuel 11

This is the fourth message in a Lenten Sermon Series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

We don’t often talk about lust in church.  Passion and sexuality are God-given gifts, part of our essential being, and key to God’s best hope for the creation.  They can be the crown and ultimate fulfillment of our most committed and caring relationships.  Yet, when misused and expressed as lust, passion and sexuality can have destructive consequences.

Consider adultery. Until a few decades ago, adultery was still a criminal offense in many countries where Christianity is the dominant religion. Adultery is technically illegal in 21 states in the US. New York is one of the few states that considers cheating on your spouse to be a sin. Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, among others, have felony charges against it. Most couples marry with the expectation of fidelity, and yet extramarital affairs persist.  22% of married men and 14% of married women have committed adultery.  Adultery, as a breach of marital trust, is emotionally traumatic for both spouses.  17% of marriages that go through an incident of cheating end in divorce.

Lust among Millennials is expressed in hookup culture, which has replaced traditional dating on college campuses.  In hookup culture, relationships are purely physical and very brief—a few minutes, a couple of hours, or overnight.  Sexual intimacy is followed by no further communication or connection that could lead to attachment.  Often, drinking is involved.  One in three students characterize hookups as “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.”  One in ten students say that they have been sexually coerced or assaulted.  Professor Lisa Wade of Tulane University says that hookup culture is “a punishing emotional landscape where caring for others or even simple courtesy seem inappropriate.”

The most prevalent expression of lust in our culture is pornography. More than 90% of young men report that they watch porn with some regularity. The world’s largest pornography website Pornhub reports that 90 billion videos are watched on their site every day by 64 million visitors. $3,000 is spent every minute. Research suggests that porn is bad for our committed relationships.  A 2016 study by the University of Oklahoma found that divorce rates double when pornography enters the marriage.  56% of divorce cases cite obsessive interest in porn as a contributing factor.

According to Aristotle, lust is an irrational, insatiable desire for pleasure that increases the more it is exercised. Thomas Aquinas taught that lust is a “voluptuous emotion” that “unloosens the human spirit and sets aside all reason.” In his Inferno, Dante Alighieri portrayed unrepentant lustful souls in Hell, eternally buffeted and driven by the force of a whirlwind. From antiquity through the 19th century, artistic depictions of lust are typically female.  Maybe we can blame it on Prudentius, who in the fifth century described the deadly sin of lust as “lavish of her ruined fame, loose-haired, wild-eyed, her voice a dying fall, lost in delight.”

In our modern understanding, we acknowledge the harmful unrestrained, sometimes escalating, sexual impulse of lust.  Yet, we also recognize the interpersonal abuse of lust. Our Friday night hookup isn’t regarded as a person with social and emotional needs to be respected or reverenced.  They are just a means to get our “rocks off” (as the Rolling Stones once said).  Jesus understood this.  That’s why he taught that when we look at others with lust, we have committed adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:27-28).  In lust, we dehumanize and objectify others, looking only for our self-satisfaction.  Lust can also lead to the abuse of power.  The #METOO Movement shined a spotlight on successful men, like Harvey Weinstein, who used their personal, professional power to coerce women into sex.  In Old Hollywood, they called it the casting couch.  Now, we know it’s rape.

Our biblical paradigm of lust is King David.  While the younger men went off to war, the aging king let his eyes roam and his lust call the shots.  He abused his power to use Bathsheba to gratify his needs.  Then, when there were consequences, he hatched a series of plots to escape responsibility. Uriah was summoned home to sleep with his wife, but when the younger man proved too honorable, things got darker yet as the king engineered his death.  David may not have shot the arrow that took Uriah’s life, but he was the murderer, nonetheless.  History and Hollywood have suggested that Bathsheba was somehow to blame for the King’s lust.  But we know better.  I like to point out that the only sound we hear from Bathsheba in this terrible tale is her wailing of lamentation for the husband she loved.

We find the remedy for our lust in chastity.  Chastity has gotten a bad rap, conjuring up images of prudish men and women with their shirts buttoned up and a withering gaze for anything flirty.  So, perhaps I should begin with what chastity is NOT.  Chastity is not abstinence, although in practicing chastity, we may make choices for abstinence at different times in our lives.  Chastity is not sexual repression, pushing down within ourselves or punishing ourselves for our natural sexual impulses.  Chastity is not refusing to think about or talk about sex, as if sex isn’t a normal, natural part of being human.  Unfortunately, we tend to project all those unnatural, unhealthy qualities onto the virtue of chastity.

Aristotle taught that chastity uses rational principles to govern and bring into order our sexual desire.  He saw it as a natural discipline to be learned and practiced, saying, “as the child should live according to the direction of his tutor, so the appetitive element (lust) should live according to rational principle.”  In Christian thinking, chastity is more than just thinking our way past our sexual impulses.  Robert Kruschwitz, a Senior Scholar at Baylor University, says, “Chastity is a habit of reverence for oneself and others that enables us to use our sexual powers intelligently in the pursuit of human flourishing and happiness.”  I’ll break that down.  In chastity, we are at peace with our bodies and our sexuality—we see their God-given nature.  Then, we bring a loving reverence for ourselves and others to our intimacy.  We honor ourselves as creatures made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and we revere the image of God in others.  We bring love and respect to our intimate encounters for the sake of the other person’s good and ultimate happiness.  In chastity, those sexual impulses that we all experience are governed by Christ’s great commandment that we love God—and we love others as we love ourselves.  When we get right down to it, chastity is a choice to live in love. To bring agape to our sexuality.

Our biblical model of chastity is Joseph, the youngest son of Israel’s Patriarch Jacob (Genesis 39).  After Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, he was bought by Potiphar, the Captain of the Egyptian Guard.  Joseph served as Potiphar’s personal attendant, and the bond between the two men grew so close that Potiphar entrusted Joseph with his entire household. All was well that ended well until Potiphar’s wife cast her lusty gaze upon the well-built, handsome young Hebrew.  She commanded Joseph, “Sleep with me!”  Joseph refused the temptation, seeing that if he said “Yes,” he would betray the kindness and generosity of Potiphar and the love and goodness of God, who had blessed Joseph amid his misfortune. 

We can push back against the harmful consequences of lust in our society by practicing the virtue of chastity.  G.K. Chesterton taught that “chastity, like any value or virtue, is a positive thing that you gain, not something that you give up.”  Indeed, this notion of chastity as a gift or quality earned after moral struggle dates back to the 13th century.  Thomas Aquinas was said to have fought long against the temptation of lust.  According to tradition, when Aquinas prevailed, the angels gave him a rope belt as a sign of his victory.  Soon after his death, his followers began to wear chastity cords in hopes of a similar victory over lust.  Aquinas’s chastity belt is preserved today at the Cathedral in Cheiri, Italy.

In the absence of Thomas Aquinas, chastity belts, and the intercession of angels, there are some steps that we can take to nurture our formation in chastity.  We can acknowledge that lust and sexual urges are part of who we are.  We can learn to recognize what our triggers are, whether it is loneliness, a work trip, porn, or a fraternity party with too much alcohol.  We can be attentive to and mindful of our thoughts and physical state, and then we can choose not to act on those impulses.  It helps to have a small circle of trusted, honest, confidential friends who can hold us accountable, with whom we can share our temptation and find encouragement.  We can find role models who inspire us in the way of chastity at its best, whether it is Jesus or Thomas Aquinas or Captain America, who waited so long for his best-gal Peggy.  We can also accept that chastity, like any other virtue, is one that we can fall from.  Even Jimmy Carter admitted that he had felt lust and committed adultery in his heart.  And yet we trust that even as we fall, the grace of our Lord Jesus is sufficient for us.  We can begin again.  Perhaps most important of all, we need to talk about lust and chastity with our children and grandchildren, who will one day find themselves in the midst of that emotionally punishing landscape of hookup culture.

Well, my friends, we’ve done it.  We have talked about lust in church.  The roof has not fallen in.  Instead, we’ve taken an honest look at the world out there, where the God-given gifts of passion and sexuality have gotten misdirected into adultery, pornography, and hookups.  Lust may abound, but so can chastity.  Let’s choose chastity.  Let’s make that reasoned, respectful, loving choice for ourselves.  Let’s make it for the sake of others.  Let’s teach it to our children.  Amen.

Resources:

Lisa Wade. “The Rise of Hookup Culture on American College Campuses” in Scholars Strategy Network, August 25, 2017. Accessed online at scholars.org.

Alexandra Solomon. “What Hookup Culture Means for the Future of Millennial Love” in Psychotherapy Network, Oct. 5, 2020.  Accessed online at psychotherapynetworker.org.

Content Team. “Adultery” in Legal Dictionary.  Accessed online at legaldictionary,com.

David Schultz. “Divorce rates Double When People Start Watching Porn” in Science, August 26, 2016.  Accessed online at science.org.

Content Team. “Porn Addiction” in Psychology Today.  Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.

Robert B. Kruschwitz. “Chastity as a Virtue” in Christian Reflection, 2016.  Accessed online at baylor.edu.

Adam Jeske. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust” in InterVarsity, March 15, 2014.  Accessed online at intervarsity.org.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, Book 3, Ch. 12. Accessed online at virtuescience.com.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Accessed online at newadvent.org.


2 Samuel 11:1-18, 22-27

11 In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

6 So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9 But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord and did not go down to his house. 10 When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13 David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” 16 As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17 The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. 18 Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 22 So the messenger went and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23 The messenger said to David, “The men gained an advantage over us, and came out against us in the field; but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24 Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall; some of the king’s servants are dead; and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.” 25 David said to the messenger, “Thus you shall say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city and overthrow it.’ And encourage him.”

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.


James Tissot, “David Sees Bathsheba Bathing,” https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/d/images/3/3a/King_David_Bathsheba_Bathing.jpg

Wrath

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Wrath” Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-5

New York Police are investigating what looks like a case of road rage in Harlem on Tuesday.  After a dispute between a motorcyclist and a driver, surveillance video shows motorcyclists surrounding the car and an argument ensuing.  The 63-year-old driver and his 35-year-old son were pulled from the vehicle, thrown to the ground, kicked, and robbed.

Last week, Atlanta Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna told his teammates he was sorry for an arrest last year on charges of aggravated assault by strangulation and battery after police officers said they witnessed him attacking his wife. Ozuna, who attended court-mandated counseling, says, “I learned how you treat a person, how you be a better person, how you be the best daddy, how you be a human being. You learn everything from that.”  He hopes the public can forgive him.

In Fresno, a long-running feud between next-door-neighbors came to a head last month when a yard sale ended in violence.  According to witnesses, the two men were having a heated argument outside their homes when one picked up a pellet gun and shot the other.  When the police arrived, the shooter had walked away to cool down and the victim had broken his collar bone in a fall.

We all get angry.  It’s part of how we are hardwired.  Presented with threat, a part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into gear, telling us to fight or flee.  Anger can get us out of dangerous situations or motivate us to change.  Indeed, anger can be constructive, like Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple as a righteous protest against the exploitation of the poor.  Yet, anger, especially when it is long-held, disproportionate, or explosive is destructive, for ourselves and others.

Theologians have long called our uncontrolled feelings of anger wrath.  The Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas wrote that anger is a good and useful passion, but becomes evil when the order of reason is set aside.  Aquinas described the daughters of wrath as “quarreling, swelling of the mind, contempt, derision, clamor, indignation, and blasphemy.”  Poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri said that wrath is “the love of justice that has been perverted to revenge and spite.”  In his Inferno, Dante imagined the eternal punishment for the wrathful: dismemberment while still alive.  16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch in his painting “The Seven Deadly Sins” depicted wrath as two drunken neighbors violently quarreling.  One has clearly been hit over the head with a chair.  The table is overturned, hats and cloaks are cast off, blades are drawn, and a long-suffering wife tries to intercede.  

Our Biblical example of wrath is Saul, that’s the Apostle Paul before his come-to-Jesus moment.  Saul saw himself as the ultimate defender of the Hebrew faith.  He once described himself to the church in Philippi as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6).  When the followers of Jesus demonstrated a new interpretation of the Torah, Paul got angry, and then his anger grew into hatred and violence. First, Saul sponsored the execution of the deacon Stephen.  Then, he rounded up and imprisoned followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Samaria.  Next, unwilling to stop with the elimination of Christians in Israel, Saul traveled to the Roman province of Syria to launch a new program of persecution there.  It would take an encounter with Jesus himself to turn things around for Saul.

In our own lives, wrath has physical and relational effects.  When we are in the throes of wrath, our hearts race, our blood pressure spikes, and our blood courses with adrenaline and noradrenaline.  We lose our capacity to monitor our emotions and actions.  We lack objectivity.  We are incapable of empathy, prudence, and thoughtfulness.  Wrath behind the wheel of a car can escalate to road rage, yet it is also seen in speeding, tailgating, and flipping off another driver.  Wrath can explode in marriages with acts of domestic violence, yet it is also revealed in that same fight that we have over and over again for years. We’re a little like the late comedian Phyllis Diller who quipped, “Don’t go to bed angry; stay up and fight!”   Wrath between neighbors can devolve into a feud, but it can also look like someone with their anger button stuck on, who takes exception to anything and everything that someone else does.  We feel so self-righteous about it, too.  But it’s like author Ambrose Bierce once wrote, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

Although we all struggle with wrath, we have a powerful weapon for that spiritual battle: the virtue of patience. The Latin root of patience pati means to suffer or endure.  According to Aquinas, a person is patient because she or he is able “to act in a praiseworthy manner by enduring things that hurt” without being unduly saddened or troubled by them.  When we are patient, we keep control over the impulse that suddenly and naturally arises when something disagreeable happens to us.  Patient people aren’t doormats or victims who allow themselves to be steamrolled in conflict. Rather, those who are patient choose to control themselves amid difficult circumstances for the sake of what is right – they trust that a way forward can be found with time and effort.  You might even say that in patience we freely bear the small cross of facing someone’s anger and bad behavior for the common good that makes healing possible.

Our biblical model of patience is, of course, Jesus.  Just look at his relationships with the two apostles who would become the lions of the early church.  Remember Peter?  Peter tried to talk Jesus out of the way of the cross.  Peter would sleep through Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane.  Peter would resort to violence when the Temple guard arrived.  And Peter would deny Jesus three times.  Yet the long-suffering Jesus saw in Peter the gifts of leadership that the early church would need.  With great patience, Jesus restored Peter to right relationship with the three-fold invitation to feed the flock that Jesus was entrusting to his care.  Likewise, Saul, that Hebrew born of Hebrews, that greatest of persecutors, got turned around by Jesus on the Damascus Road.  Thanks to the patience of Jesus, Saul was redeemed.  Saul became Paul, the great evangelist to the Gentiles.

The bad news about patience is that these days there is less of it to go around.  In 2012, UMass researchers Krishnan and Sitaraman determined in a study of 6.7 million internet users that we can lose patience in as little as two seconds.  Buffering leads half of viewers to abandon videos in ten seconds.  The faster our internet connection is, the more impatient we become.  Scientists theorize that the rapid pace of technology is rewiring human brains to be less and less patient.  Is it any wonder that road rage incidents in Texas have doubled in the last year?  Jesus, take the wheel!

The good news about patience is that we can cultivate it.  We can grow our capacity to stay patient amid all the experiences that can make us angry.  A good place to begin is simply thinking before we speak.  Whether we count to ten or we take a minute to gather our thoughts and make a reasoned response, a little time can keep us from responding in ways that hurt and escalate anger.  We can also think about how we express ourselves.  It’s okay to let people know we are angry, but we can do it in a non-confrontational way.  Be clear and direct with statements that take personal responsibility for feelings.  “I feel angry. . . I feel irritated . . . I feel frustrated . . .”  Identify some possible solutions to the conflict and try to work toward a mutual agreement.  Humor, not sarcasm, can deflate heightened tensions.  “George, I’m angry that you chopped down the cherry tree.  I may not ever win the Great British Baking Show, but you’ve set me back about fifteen years in my quest to bake the perfect cherry pie. What would you like to do to make this right?”

In addition to those strategies in the moment, we can use some simple skills that help us to manage the side-effects of our angry encounters.  Take a walk.  Give yourself a time-out.  Listen to music.  Write in your journal. Imagine yourself in a relaxing place.  Not only do these practices relieve the physical effects of anger, they equip us to observe and reflect upon our own behavior.  We begin to see that we can make different choices.

Finally, even when we are not able to successfully resolve our angry encounters, we can choose to not hold a grudge.  The practice of forgiveness releases us from bitterness and creates the graced space where a relationship can find redemption.  When we are clean out of forgiveness, we can always borrow some from Jesus, who had plenty of mercy for Peter, Paul, and for us.

Well, my friends, we all get angry.  This week will bring a fresh batch of headlines about road rage, domestic violence, and community feuds.  We’ll feel our hearts racing, blood pressure rising, and our tempers flaring when the car we are following stops dead at the intersection of Route 86 and Brandy Brook Avenue, or when someone forgets to put the trash out again, or when the neighbor hangs yet another banner airing their political opinions.  But we can take a deep breath and have patience.


Resources:

CBS News Team. NYPD: Driver pulled from car, kicked and robbed by motorcyclists in possible road rage incident, CBS News, March 17, 2022. Accessed online at cbsnews.com.

Jake Seiner. “Ozuna addresses Braves after domestic violence ban ends” in AP News, March 14, 2022.  Accessed online at apnews.com.

Nic Garcia. “Fresno man in hospital after being shot by neighbor, police say” in ABC30 Action News, Feb. 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://abc30.com

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Accessed online at newadvent.org.

Krishnan and Sitaraman. “Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior,” Amherst: UMass, 2012.  Accessed online at people.cs.umass.edu.

Adam R. Shannon. “The Sin of Anger” in The Seven Deadly Sins.  Accessed online at deadlysins.com

Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger” in Catholic Standard, April 4, 2019. Accessed online at cathstan.org.

Christopher Muther. “Instant Gratification Is Making Us Perpetually Impatient” in The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2016.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “10 Tips to Tame Your Temper.” Accessed online at mayoclinic.org.

–. “Control Anger Before It Controls You” in Journal of the American Psychological Association, January 2005. Accessed online at APA.org.


Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-5

54 When the elders heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. 8 1 And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Then, Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”


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