Thursday, January 23, 2020

Whistle Blowers and Inconvenient Truths

This week the Narrative Lectionary serves up the story of the poor Gerasene man who Jesus freed from demons.  Jesus - perhaps with a twinkle in his Jewish eye - cast the demons into a nearby congregation of  non-kosher pigs. 

This week the Gerasene demoniac appears in Mark 5:5-14.

The same story, from Luke 8:26-37, was offered by the Narrative lectionary last June. 

In one of those unholy coincidences that agitate preachers, especially lay preachers and deacon interns like me, it so happens I preached on the Luke version in my church (St. Pauls Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y.) in June, and I am scheduled to preach the same story this week.

I realized immediately that I have nothing new to say on the subject. I said everything I could think of in June. 

Naturally, I turned to my spouse, the Divine Doc M, for advice. Martha – who, among other things in her vita, once served on the board of Habitat for Humanity – suggested I borrow an exegesis from Habitat founder Millard Fuller.

Millard drew a connection between the demoniac and the Prodigal Son, based on the idea that when pig slop began to look appetizing to a kosher-keeping Jewish young man that signaled that his soul was in turmoil. He no longer had a sense of self. 

Martha adds: Millard wouldn’t have said or maybe even know this, but that thought dovetails well with Thomas Merton’s idea of the authentic self vs. the false self. Part of the healing was to get rid of the symbols of his spiritual turmoil. In Merton-speak, he was restored from a false to an authentic identity, which is our identity in God.

So God’s love that rescues demoniacs, prodigals, and the rest of us who stray, and restores us to our authentic identity in God. 


I should quite while Im ahead. But Mark’s gospel adds a postscript that does not appear in Luke. In Luke 8:26-37, the people of the Gerasenes were so afraid of Jesus power that they asked him to be quiet and leave. The curing of the demoniac was a story that threatened their lifestyle, and they didn’t want to hear it.

But Mark writes:
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him but Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (Mark 5:18-20).
Given the number of times Jesus told a cured person to “tell no one” about the miracle, it would appear that proclamation is a matter of timing. 

The question about when to tell and when not to tell has become increasingly complicated today because churches, politicians, and other public institutions have so much good they want people to know about – and so much unsavory stuff behind the scenes they won’t want anyone to know. Whether to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is a public relations decision. And as one who was a church P.R. decider for many decades, I can avow that you never know whether you are making the right decision or not.

I can say that too many high ranking bureaucrats believe secrecy is the glue that holds church, society, and government together.

If so, we’re in big trouble. Three may keep a secret, Benjamin Franklin said, if two of them are dead.

That insight is hardly surprising from one of history’s garrulous gossips, but most of us prefer to think secrecy is both essential and holy.

The 2015 film Spotlight dramatized Boston Globe journalists courageous efforts to penetrate the archdiocese’ impermeable wall of silence protecting predator priests. 

The archdiocese – in fact, the whole church – strove mightily to keep clergy child abuse a secret for fear the reputation of the church would be irredeemably harmed. Only later was it obvious is would have been better if the whole truth had been revealed much earlier. Its too bad Cardinal Bernard Law stifled the whistle blowers in the archdiocese. In institutions that fear the truth, the whistle blower is the most valuable person on the staff, the proper counter weight to the rest of the staff that believes that if there is something sinister to hide,  the less said about it the better. 

It’s astonishing how many otherwise intelligent people think secrets can be immutable. When I was 18 I was given a “secret” security clearance by the Air Force, the result, I immodestly think, of FBI interviews with my teachers and admiring contemporaries. I could have had a “top secret” clearance but didn’t, so I suspect my history teacher, Mr. Dodge, hinted to the FBI that I was a liberal, or my chemistry teacher, Mr. Palmer, leaked documentary evidence I was mentally sluggish. Even, I took my security clearance seriously and never told what I knew: that my Air Force base in England had tactical nukes stashed in Quonset huts. 


No doubt the Baader Meinhof Complex had its suspicions, but they never heard it from me.

Our justice system is also based on the idea that people can keep secrets. 

I cringe (secretly) when I’m on jury duty and the judge orders that the facts of the trial cannot be shared with anyone, including our spouses. Yeah, right. Even as I nod obediently I know I can’t wait to get home to the Divine Doc M to spill all the details, not only about the obviously guilty defendant, but about the sweet imbecilities that flow from the lips of lawyers and my fellow jurors.

I also cringe when school boards or church boards meet in “executive session,” which is to say, in secret. I was never the best investigative reporter in the world, but I rarely had difficulty finding out what goes on behind closed doors. There are three types of people who emerge from executive sessions: people who reluctantly reveal the details; people who can’t wait to reveal the details; and people who never talk about the details because of personal integrity or because it makes them feel powerful to know something others don’t. The third type is never much of a hindrance for reporters because the other two categories are so densely populated.

In church and denominational offices, there are many things that should be handled discretely – that is, kept secret – but there is little agreement what those things are. When I was a communicator for the Baptists, I thought it was essential to protect information about overseas missionaries that might compromise their safety. But my fellow church bureaucrats were also concerned to hide information that arguably should be public, such as the salaries, benefits and travel budgets of staff executives. Another secret area was the wide category of “personnel matters,” which was intended to keep evaluations and other awkward matters strictly between bosses and employees. But the personnel category may also hide when an employee is being treated unjustly by the employer, and more than one church organization cites “personnel matters” to hide the crimes of a sexual abuser in their employ.

And here’s the thing: the most carefully guarded secrets will always emerge, sometimes sooner than later. In the early days of my tenure as an American Baptist communicator, the photocopy machine was shared by the office of communication and General Secretary Robert Campbell. Whenever Bob announced a new staff appointment, he felt it necessary to embargo the news until appointees had a chance to inform their erstwhile employers they were leaving. He’d send his assistant to the lone photocopy machine to make copies of the announcement with strict instructions not to let anyone see it. But on more than one occasion, she would make the copies and leave the original in the copier. Quickly, the secret document would end up on my desk, giving me a chance to start gathering biographical information about the appointee for a news release, long before the announcement was official. I doubt Bob ever knew how I seemed to have an inside track to such things, and I never told him. I can keep a secret.

There are, of course, legitimate secrets, and no one wants to see leaks that will jeopardize the security of the United States or the lives of service men and women. The same goes for the church. But apart from the justifiable veil of the confessional, I suggest the church should operate as much as possible in the sunshine. For the most part, it might be said church secrets are ferociously guarded for the same reason academic politics are so vicious: because, as one institutional president put it, “the stakes are so low.” Surely persons in pews who contribute to missions have a right to know how much their church is paying its bureaucrats and whatever special benefits may accrue.

When it comes to secrecy, the church might look to the style modeled by Jesus, perhaps the most transparent figure in history. The incident of the curing of the leper early in Mark’s Gospel may have been a lesson to Jesus that secrecy is futile anyway.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45) 

There may have been many reasons Jesus didn’t want the leper running at the mouth, and sermons of yore have noted a few: It was early in his ministry and he wasn’t ready to attract premature scrutiny from scribes and Pharisees; he was busy going about his ministry and he didn’t want to be mobbed by admiring masses if word spread that he was some kind of miracle worker; he wanted the man to focus on the cleansing rituals at the temple. 

Whatever his reason for wanting the man to keep it under his keffiyeh, Jesus was not being off-handedly modest. He meant it. He warned the man “sternly,” according to Mark, which is to say: Go away and shut up about it.

But if a secret paper discovered on a photocopier is worthy of revelation, there is no way anyone is going to keep quiet about being cured of a dread disease. The fact that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word,” leaves little doubt what happened. The cured man leaped into crowds snagging every sleeve he could grab, perseverating the news. And he must have been convincing, because curious people swarmed to Jesus “from every quarter” and Jesus “could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country.” 

Because of the passionate public relations campaign of a cured leper, Jesus went overnight from being an articulate carpenter to a national celebrity. 

It was inevitable, of course, but perhaps it happened before Jesus was ready for it. He’s a little like a small business owner who has to scramble when the demand for his product exceeds early projections.

Certainly that’s the way it should have been and, besides, what were the alternatives? To take sick people into hidden corners to discretely cure them, or to clandestinely pantomime the reign of God? God sent Jesus into the world to be visible, to be apparent, and to let the truth ring out. The scenario of a secret messiah was never part of the plan. And once the word got out, Jesus never had another quiet moment unless he hid in the country.

That’s the kind of translucence Jesus models for the faithful. For the record, Jesus never ordered any of us to “say nothing to anyone.” Quite the contrary.

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:15-16), “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

The trick, and it is a big one, is to live our lives in such a way that people may see our good works and give God the glory.

But all of us will fall short on that score. If we are human, many of our works may not be good enough to shine before others. That’s precisely the reason secrecy has crept into the church, the government, and into our lives.

But we know in our hearts that secrecy is no way to honor Jesus who came to redeem us, or to serve God who calls us to proclaim the good news. 

The church and its members will always have defects and sins they will not wish to expose to the world. But that is certainly no secret, and it is no reason to slam shut the door of secrecy. 

As flawed as we may be, Jesus is calling us to follow the example of the leper who perseverated the good news of what God did for him. And leave our cherished secret security clearances at the door.

Blow, whistle, blow.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Lobster at the Manger

One of the traditions of our wide-spread family is to sit in front of various screens around the country to watch favorite holiday films ranging from the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol to the 1983 classic, A Christmas Story.

One film hated by some members of the family, because it is about amoral people pursuing unequal relationships, and loved by others as a guilty pleasure, is the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually

For the ecclesial nerds in the family, the best scenes in the movie relate to preparations for the local church Christmas pageant. In one scene, Emma Thompson's screen daughter announces she will play a lobster at the Nativity scene. When Emma asks incredulously if there were lobsters at the birth of Jesus, the daughter - expressing the condescension recognized by every parent - replies impatiently, "Yeah!"

The lack of specific scriptural detail about who was present at Jesus' birth and when leaves the scene wide open to our imaginations. If lobsters were not specifically excluded from the dramatis personae, than who can say they weren't there? I insist on imagining the lobster sitting to the right of the manger being sniffed by our two dogs, Usnavi and Iggy. The more the merrier.

One extra-biblical detail we can all agree on is that Jesus' birth place probably smelled like variegated excretion.
As a denizen of rural Central New York, I have to remind myself that many of our Westchester County neighbors have no idea what barns smell like.

The television barns they remember, portrayed in Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, Mr. Ed, or Hee Haw, were well swept rustic structures smelling of fresh hay and Ava Gabor’s French perfume.

Even factual documentaries on farm life – one of my favorites is Brother’s Keeper about three bathless bachelors whose rickety barn stood a few miles from where I grew up – do not have the benefit of smell-o-vision. In this particular film, it’s easier to imagine the stench in the unwashed brothers’ cramped sitting room.

As far as authentic barn smell goes, you have to experience it yourself. The combination of fresh and stale manure, fermenting hay, and smoldering covens of cats and rats, is unimaginable to city folk and suburbanites. Eau de Merde doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Even so, millions around the globe are not only familiar with the smell but find it unobjectionable. I remember visiting the Philadelphia Zoo after years of relatively odor-free living in barracks, dormitories, and apartments, and being taken aback by a whiff of elephant droppings. My eyes filled with tears, mostly because of the sting of the stench, but also because of the sweet nostalgia of the smell, so much like the tang of Leon Korzeniewski’s cow barn on the outskirts of Morrisville, N.Y. There’s something bonding about barn bouquet. It not only unites billions of noses in common cause, it also brings us closer to the thousands of generations that came before us. 

That’s one reason we can praise God that Jesus was born in a barn. It puts the incarnation in perspective. Contrary to depictions in Renaissance art, Jesus did not enter the world in a sterile lean-to adorned with lights, freshly bathed shepherds, and streaming gold ribbons. He was born in a stable replete with rotting hay and fetid sheep. 

As we strive to understand the Christ event, the stench of excrement should be as evocative as the Eucharist. Every time we walk into a barn, a still small voice should whisper in our ears: “Smell this in remembrance of me.”

Much of Christian art seeks to glorify some of the ruder elements of the gospels. Mangers are radiant. Lepers and beggars greet Jesus in well-pressed robes. Jesus walks the dusty paths of Palestine wearing a bleached robe and, often, carrying a snowy white lamb on his shoulder. Brass crosses on our communion tables shimmer with jewels so bright that one theologian suggested that to be affixed to one would be a beatific experience. 

I sometimes think that the Magi – the three mysterious kings from Orien-TARR – were added to the manger story to clean it up a bit.  Certainly this smelly little barn would seem more like the proper birthing room of a king if three other kings in silken robes dropped by to pay homage.

It may seem a bit sacrilegious to suggest that anything about these three kings was made up to improve the story. Then again, so much of what we think we know about them has been made up.

Matthew’s gospel says nothing, for example, about who they were, how many they were, what their names were, where they came from, what their racial background was, what they were king of, or what they were wise about. There is certainly no mention of their dromedary conveyances. And yet over the years we have managed to fill in all those blanks. Lobsters waiting in the wings.

How did scholars do that? 

Easy. They make it up. 

Thanks to long standing church tradition, we call them by name: Melchior a Babylonian scholar; Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), a Persian scholar; and Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), an Arab scholar. One was black and two were not.

It is also long standing church tradition that the travelers were three in number. Some scholars say church tradition jumped to that conclusion because it corresponded with the number of gifts they brought the Christ child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are those who believe there may have been more magi than that.

According to an article in, an eighth century Syriac manuscript in the Vatican Library suggests the Magi may have numbered as many as 12 and perhaps there were scores of them. 

The dubious manuscript, entitled Revelation of the Magi and allegedly written by the Magi themselves, has been translated into English by Dr. Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Landau writes:

The magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group . . . of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form. When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east. 

Landau gives little credence to this apocryphal document but it highlights how far church tradition has gone to fill in the blanks left by Matthew’s gospel. And chances are good that the notion of 12 or 60 Magi descending on the manger will not soon catch on in churches. It would overwhelm the Christmas bathrobe pageants in most congregations.

But regardless of all the mystery surrounding the Magi, one thing seems clear: the gospel writer saw them as a dramatic way of illustrating the profound significance of the incarnation in Bethlehem.

There could be no greater miracle than this:

That on a dark night in an isolated hamlet on the edge of an already declining empire, surrounded by poverty and mud and the stench of animals, the Creator of the Universe took the form of a helpless baby boy who was lain in the accumulated debris of a feeding trough. 

Any story teller would feel challenged to tell the story in such a way as to attract a maximum of attention.  And who could doubt that such a miracle would be – must be – accompanied by a descending star, a chorus of angels, and gilded kings wandering in from eastern climes?

Whoever and whatever the Magi were, they understood their role in the miracle of incarnation.
Magi, they stooped to see your splendor, Led by a star to light supreme; Promised Messiah, Lord eternal, Glory and peace are in your name. Joy of each day, our song by night, Shine on our path your holy light. - Christopher Idle

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

John the Baptist Made You Feel Like a Lucky Viper

By our  standards, John the Baptist was one of the worst advance men in history.

Rather than cultivate religious insiders, he called them vipers and told them they were going to hell. No wonder they were in such a bad mood when Jesus arrived.

In modern times, the role of the advance team is to attract crowds, warm them with compliments and jokes, and get them excited about the great leader who will soon follow.

Months before Billy Graham opened an evangelistic campaign, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea and dozens more would descend on the city, schmooze with clergy and politicians, recruit choir members, anoint ushers, and get everyone excited about the coming of the great man. I sat in on some of those advance meetings prior to Billy’s 1967 London crusade. By the time the advance team was finished, I was convinced that only Billy’s presence could save millions of Londoners from hell.

Of course many people were predisposed to like Billy Graham whether he had an advance team or not. The advance is more essential for politicians who are not naturally likable, such as Lyndon B. Johnson.

For years, LBJ’s advance team included his cousin, Ava Cox, and J.J. Pickle, a Texas pol and future congressman. 

When Johnson ran for the senate, and later for vice president, he would send Cox and Pickle into the hustings to convince large crowds to come out to welcome the LBJ campaign helicopter. As the chopper approached, Pickle would take the mike to remind Texans how much Johnson had done for them and how much more he would do for them if they sent him back to office. Excitement grew as the helicopter circled the field and a familiar voice crackled from a speaker: “This is Lyndon Johnson. I’m going to land in just a minute and I want to shake every hand down there.”

When the chopper banked, the six-foot-four-inch candidate would appear larger than life at the aircraft door. In what looked like a spontaneous gesture, LBJ would remove the ten-gallon hat from his head and throw it into the jubilant crowd.

“Now, that was dramatic and he had about a four-beaver hat,” Ava Cox said later. “And when he did it … our job was to go get that hat … and if we didn’t get it, we'd catch ‘Hail, Columbia’ from the boss then. And he’d say, ‘Do you know how much that hat cost me? Do you know how much? Have you been in to buy a Stetson hat lately?’ We’d say no, of course we wouldn’t ‘cause we didn’t dare wear a hat like it. He said, ‘That’s coming out of my pocket. You get that hat when we throw it out,’ and we’d have to go get that hat. Usually we could get it, but if you got it recovered by a little 10-year-old boy, it was pretty hard to run up and say, ‘Son, give me that hat.’” *

No one knows if LBJ lost votes when his advance men wrested the hat from people, though some may have thought the gesture showed his true colors. 

In a sense, John the Baptist was grabbing the hat back every time he got up to speak. In the first breath he’d talk about the realm of God and how wonderful it will be when Jesus arrives, and in the second he was condemning influential religious leaders to unquenchable fire. Thanks a lot, Jack.

As a journalist, I knew several persons who did advance work for politicians. Many of them were indeed nicer than the pol they served, and it takes enormous skill to make a reporter on deadline feel okay that the boss had little time to waste on you.

I have also done a little advance work for traveling ecumenical leaders or church hierarchs who liked to meet with the press. In 1998 the World Council of Churches sent a colleague, Sonia Omulepu, and me on a trip around Zimbabwe to assess hotels, game parks and other recreational activities for persons attending the eighth assembly of the WCC in Harare.

What we assessed was that some airport runways in Zimbabwe had not, in 1998, caught up to jet travel. Sonia and I boarded a British BAe-146-300 regional aircraft that hopscotched its way to several small airports around the country. 

The runways were too short for jets and the aircraft had to slam on its brakes to keep from charging into the bush. We scarcely noticed the seatbelts grabbing at our bellies because we were distracted by the acrid smell of burning brakes.

Our particular aircraft had lost the cooling agent to reduce the temperature of the brakes so each time we landed we had to sit on the plane for an hour until the brakes were cool enough to use. 

The short runways also made takeoffs difficult. There wasn’t enough room for the plane to accelerate normally to liftoff speed so the pilot held the aircraft at the end of the runway until the engine reached a deafening pitch; then the plane lunged forward as passengers were slammed roughly against the backs of their seats. We felt the G’s as the plane soared into the air. 

What the advance team of Omulepu and Jenks found was one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with spectacular scenery including Victoria Falls, modern farms, exotic game preserves, Zambezi River cruises, comfortable hotels, and excellent restaurants.

But our message to the six thousand assembly visitors eager to visit the country was concise: take the bus.

John the Baptist’s advance work was invariably rude and hardly designed to comfort his audiences. Still, he attracted huge crowds. People may have been as impressed by his honesty as by his assurance that God will forgive the repentant. Certainly folks enjoyed his verbal attacks on the overweening aristocracy, the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

They would certainly have noted his warning that their salvation would not depend on being a member of a great ancestral lineage recognized by God. 

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, he said. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

My grandfather Addison was a perfunctory Methodist, though no member of my family recalls seeing him in church. His real religion was a form of ancestor worship. He believed the family name would be enhanced if he could trace its roots to a great ancestor, such as a Mayflower pilgrim.

Perhaps in Heaven I will have a chance to ask Grandpa what the big deal was about the Mayflower, which was filled with puritans of the same ilk as Oliver Cromwell, who missed the boat and stayed home to slaughter thousands of Catholics in Ireland. Later, the puritans in America jailed and flogged Baptists on the pubic square in Boston and hanged innocent women as witches in Salem. 

I think it makes more sense to be ashamed of a puritan ancestry, but Grandpa was pleased to prove – to his satisfaction, at least – that he was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley. And so, possibly, are you. Elizabeth and her husband, John Howland, produced ten children whose prolific progeny generated millions of living descendants. There is no evidence Elizabeth whupped Baptists or hanged witches – she was probably too busy accommodating Mr. Howland and changing diapers – but her bloodline isn’t going to save anyone either.

The central theme of John the Baptist’s message is this: 

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Even as a child, John knew that his calling was to prepare the way for the ministry of the messiah.

Obviously he didn’t fully comprehend all that included. At one point he even sent two messengers to Jesus to make sure he wasn’t making a big mistake.

“When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’” Luke 7:20-23)

As an advance man, John had a distinct disadvantage. He didn’t know the whole story. He didn’t know how it would turn out. And sometimes he was puzzled when Jesus reached out in love to everyone, even the brood of vipers John assumed the messiah would consign to unquenchable fire.

With that in mind, we can certainly understand John’s brusque demeanor and eccentric ways. He may not have been the best advance man in the world. But he was a faithful prophet who understood God offers love and forgiveness to all who repent.

But we, who have the advantage of knowing how the story came out, know that Jesus took it a step further.

God, Jesus said, loves each of us unconditionally – the repentant and the unrepentant – and God will send no one to eternal fire without giving them abundant chances to turn back to God.

And the message assigned to you and me, as members of Jesus’ advance team, is the eternal declaration of angels:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.” Luke 2:14.

Advent: The Taste That's Worth the Wait

The Heinz family – that singular conglomeration of aristocratic noblesse oblige that gave us H.J. Heinz, Senator John Heinz, Teresa Heinz Kerry and 57 combinations of condiments – didn’t get rich by underestimating the American people.

When they made their luxuriously thick ketchup, they realized they had a potential problem. The ketchup was so dense you could hold the bottle upside down for what seemed like hours before the first drop would dribble on to your cheeseburger. Almost no one in the United States has that kind of patience and the Heinz people feared millions would desert their delicious condiment in favor of Brand B, some thin, runny, but instantly available tomato liquid. Brand B offered lower satisfaction, perhaps, but instant gratification.

In 1979, with the aim of stemming the migration away from their viscous product, the Heinz people implemented a TV ad you may remember well. Two boys are shown patiently holding a Heinz ketchup bottle over their hamburgers as the first drops of red goo begin to form at the bottle’s mouth. In the background, Carly Simon sings: “Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” In the 32-secondcommercial, the boys have plenty of time to decide postponed gratification is good. As the scene closes, the words appear on the screen: “Heinz Ketchup. The taste that’s worth the wait.”

There you go. An Advent sermon in a single sentence. The taste that’s worth the wait.

Luke 21:25-36 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

The passage, sometimes called “The Little Apocalypse” because it quotes the adult Jesus’ prediction of the end times, is not very Christmassy. There is no babe in the manger poetry, no paeans to the Christ child, no glory to God in the highest, no peace on earth. Instead, we are warned that stars will be falling from heaven and we are advised to keep awake.

That’s not Silent Night. That’s the Ride of the Valkyries. Who knew we would begin this joyous season with dark warnings of the collapse of all we know? Where are the tidings of great joy?

Karoline Lewis, assistant professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, thinks the rhetorical bombshell might be good for us. “There is a certain realness in this Gospel text to begin the Advent season,” she writes. “It cuts through any sentimentality and romanticism about Christmas and reminds us that incarnation is risky business.”

The passage in Mark, like its counterparts in Luke and Revelation, is the basis for the expectation of the rapture, that at the end of time Jesus will appear in the clouds and send out his angels to collect his elect from the four winds.

Rapture theology can be distracting and even dangerous, as you may recall if you were watching for the end of the world on May 21, 2011 when a misguided evangelist named Harold Camping said it would happen. Camping and his followers spent fortunes on bill boards and T shirts to alert people to the end of time, financed in part by many who sold everything they had to pay for the ad campaign.

Most Christian scholars said then that Mr. Camping, who died in 2013, was clinically nuts. Even Al Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – whose statements about the National Council of Churches and its member communions were unabashedly obtuse – spoke with wisdom on the Camping issue.

“Given the public controversy, many people are wondering how Christians should think about his claims,” Mohler wrote. “The Bible does not contain hidden codes that we are to find and decipher. While Christians are indeed to be looking for Christ to return and seeking to be found faithful when Christ comes, we are not to draw a line in history and set a date.”

In the first centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, persecuted Christians yearned for the return of Jesus and prayed daily for him to keep his promise.  The Apostle Paul didn’t predict the date of Jesus’ return, but he thought it was imminent: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (I Corinthians 15: 51-52). A couple millennia later we are still waiting, and many Christians have lowered their expectations.

I was in a workshop with Robert Schuller in January 1981 when he bet the millennialist Hal Lindsey a million dollars that Jesus would not return before the year 2000. Clearly Schuller’s ideas about the Second Coming of Jesus drifted leftward, but I was more impressed by the fact that he was a man who knew a sure-fire bet. Lindsey, incidentally, declined. And it's 2015 already and Lindsey is still waiting for the rapture while soliciting contributions and selling merchandise as if he thinks the world will last forever.

It used to be that evangelicals tended to avoid actions against climate change on the grounds that eco-justice didn’t really matter because Jesus would return before the polar icecaps had fully melted. More recently, conservative theologians like Richard Cizik, formerly a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, jumped into the eco-justice movement with both feet. As thousands of evangelicals followed in his wake, it was clear that most acknowledged the near unanimous verdict of scientists that global warming is caused by human abuse of the environment. It was also an indication that many evangelicals no longer plan their lives around the notion that Jesus will return before their mortgages are paid off.

The Second Coming of Jesus is a basic tenet of faith, appearing in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. It’s something we should be eagerly anticipating. But our reaction to the “The Little Apocalypse” set aside for our first week of Advent suggests we find the idea a little scary. It’s no coincidence that most of the end-of-world movies are classified as horror, and even films with a rapture theme portray a vengeful Jesus in pursuit of terrified sinners.

That probably says more about us than it says about the films. Most of us live lives of reasonable contentment and we would prefer to indulge the non-threatening Yuletide trappings of tinsel and wassail than contemplate the stars falling from the sky.

The future, for many of us, is a very scary place because so little is known about it. No matter how hard we try to live virtuous lives, all of us have fallen far short of perfection – and the future, we fear, is where all our chickens come home to roost.

This month when we watch the inevitable rebroadcasts of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (if you only have time for one, I recommend the 1992 Muppets version), the ghost of Christmas yet to come is the creepiest character of all – not because of his menacing cowl and skeletal fingers, but because he shows Scrooge his own just desserts, the righteous judgment on the grasping, self-obsessed life he has led. It is Scrooge, not the ghost, who is the chilling character in these scenes. Ebenezer’s life of depraved indifference to the poor leaves him no chance of heavenly reward, and he knows it. He fears the ghost of Christmas future most of all. He has no hope of relief, no promise of the joys of postponed gratification, so his anticipation of the ghost’s awful truth is agony for him.

“Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” And the anticipation is hell.

Most of us, perhaps, have less to worry about than Ebenezer Scrooge, but at Christmas time we’d still rather trill with Silver Bells than pulsate with apocalyptic cannonade.

Given all this, it will take a little discipline to remind ourselves: when we anticipate the coming of Jesus, there is no difference between welcoming him as an innocent child or as a rescuing savior.

Karoline Lewis offers reassuring words: “The darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon's light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we have known it. That death will be no more because God will die is something to anticipate during Advent. This is not to be a downer just when Bing really kicks into high gear with White Christmas. It’s to speak the truth, about ourselves and our unrealistic expectations; about God and how God exceeds them.”

Advent begins, and there will be many joys to share in the coming weeks: the Advent wreaths, the manger tableaus, the pageants, the lights, the presents, the family gatherings, and the familiar carols.

The Advent message, as always, is that the Creator of the Universe has taken on human flesh, coming to us in the form of a powerless, innocent infant.

And the message is also that God, through this child, has come to die on a cross, conquer death, and ultimately to return to gather those who have been redeemed in loving arms.

What does it matter if the stars fall from the sky if death has been defeated and a new, more perfect life begins?

The bottom line on the first Sunday in Advent is this: the coming of Jesus is good news.

And our Advent prayer is to savor the anticipation of the miracles yet to come.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Jesus Wrote With His Finger on the Ground

Sermon delivered November 17, 2019, at St. Pauls' Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rye Brook, N.Y.
“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:6b-8)
The Jesuits have a wonderful suggestion: when you read a vivid story like this, imagine yourself in the midst of the drama. This brings much-read scripture to life, and most find it to be a profound spiritual exercise. Where would you imagine yourself? 
Are you among those at the temple sitting at the feet of Jesus as he taught? 

Are you an innocent bystander trying to avoid an angry crowd carrying stones? 
Are you carrying a stone while shaking your fist in righteous indignation? 
Or are you the flustered man who committed the act of adultery with the woman and is now slinking into the crowd, trying desperately to be invisible?
And what is Jesus doing in your imagination? Is he exasperated when a crowd of Pharisaical bullies with rocks interrupts his teaching?  Or does he turn toward them with quiet patience? 
And the woman? Is she glaring defiantly at this meshuga mob? Or is she terrified, standing behind Jesus and begging for his protection?
And the greatest mystery of all: what is Jesus writing in the sand with his finger?
These discrete eleven verses in John present a dramatic episode in the life of Jesus. There is real drama here because Jesus knows whatever he says next could lead to a hideous death for a sinning woman. Our imaginations, curated by years of television and cinema, have little trouble sensing the tension. The thought of having your life force slowly and brutally beaten out of you by a rock-throwing throng is too terrible to imagine. But fornication is a serious sin, and the law calls for harsh punishment.
It’s no wonder we have paid so much attention to this story over the centuries.
Reading the story in 2019, in fact, makes us a little queasy. We might even find ourselves wondering if such a violent death is a just punishment for extramarital sex (as we assume this is what it meant by “the very act of committing adultery”). All of us have passed through (or are passing through) adolescent hormone storms and all of us throughout our lives have been led unto temptation and put to the test. 
At the same time, we don’t know anything about this woman except what she is accused of. Is she at the age of consent and, if so, was she a consenting adult? 
Was sex forced upon her or was she soliciting? 
Prostitution, as we have all heard, is the world’s oldest profession, but I suspect if this was the woman’s profession she would have been too smart to get in the very act.
From our vantage point, we might even wonder if being a hooker justified a death by stoning. Today New York City police no longer charge prostitutes under 18 – in other words, children – with a crime. These children are not criminals but victims of human trafficking. The same is usually true of older sex workers, most of who are exploited by the pimps and systems to which they are indentured.
Be that as it may, I don’t think Jesus was thinking about the sexual misconduct of the woman brought before him. He was thinking about the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.  And when the Pharisees demanded to know what his own interpretation was, he knew they were setting a trap for him.
Indeed, some scholars think this is what this drama is about: a rhetorical exercise to catch Jesus saying something that was against God’s Mosaic law – which would in itself have been a serious offense.
Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, doubts the woman caught in adultery was in any real danger of being stoned. Regardless of what the law said, there is little evidence that ancient Jews actually stoned people. That kind of inhumane punishment of sinners was more prevalent in the Christian era, when you could be burned alive at the stake for reading the bible in a language other than Latin.
It’s more likely, Dr. Levine believes, that the Pharisees would not have had the stomach to stone a woman to death, but they created an artificial scenario to trip Jesus up.
“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they said to Jesus. “Now what do you say?”
They knew if Jesus said, ignore the law, let her alone, they could charge him with heresy and destroy his credibility with the law-abiding Jews who followed him.
What does Jesus do?
He kneels down and writes in the sand with his finger.
What did he write?
Was he just killing time, as some suggest, while he thought of an answer?
Did he write the name of one of the Pharisees as if to say, “Come off it, Moise, I saw what you were doing Sunday night”?
Or, as some say, was he writing a timely reminder from the scripture we read today to shame the Pharisees into better behavior?

He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God.” (Micah 6:8-9)

We will, of course, never know what Jesus wrote in the sand. 
But whatever it was, it had sufficient force to open the ears of the Pharisees when he evaded their sinister trap.
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Foiled again. The Pharisees shuffled away in rhetorical defeat.
For those of us who read the footnote in our bibles, it should be noted that none of the most ancient manuscripts of John include this passage. Some scholars – the sort who pour cold water on our enthusiasm for Jesus’ verbal conquest of the Pharisees – doubt it really happened.
But my uneducated hunch is that it did really happen, and the fact that Jesus wrote in the sand is a clue to its authenticity. It feels like the kind of odd thing that wouldn’t have been reported unless it really happened.
Writer and worship leader Julie Barrier notices that someone is missing in the scenario of the woman caught in the very act of adultery: the man who was caught in the very act with her. Bringing only the woman, Barrier writes, is a violation of the oral law of God.
With violators of the law brought before him, “the priest was required to stoop down and write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, in the dust of the floor of the temple,” Barrier writes. “By doing this, Jesus showed his accusers that they were not keeping the law, but He would anyway.”
“The Scribes and Pharisees ignored the law, brought the woman only, and then continued with accusations,” Barrier says. 
When Jesus wrote in the sand and then stood up, he had demonstrated the accusers were not keeping the law themselves. Though they had no intention of stoning the woman, they were eager for Jesus to condemn her. But when Jesus said, “He who is without sin … throw the first stone,” he had out-flanked the accusers and exposed their own violation of the law.
It’s an interesting theory and, for me, makes it seem more likely that this encounter really occurred.
But in the end, the lesson Jesus taught is about judgment, a warning to refrain from judging other sinners when our own sins are still darkening our lives.
It’s also a reminder that God forgives our sins automatically when we repent, that God loves us unconditionally, and the notion of stoning a sinner is intolerable to God.
Jesus, at the climax of this drama, demonstrates God’s love for the woman caught in sin by sending her on her way, forgiven and whole.
And out of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves comes the ultimate guide for all of us sinners and saints:
He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God.” (Micah 6:8-9)