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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Background Images for Everyone - Week 6 - 2017

Here it is - the (nearly) regular feature of this blog: a free background image for you to download and use as your very own. Use it home, at school, at work, at church. Use it in good health. I only ask that you share it freely and that you tell others that you found it here.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Biblical Limericks: Secret / Not Secret

Jesus, you first said, ‘let them be seen,’
and then, with little space in between,
you told us that we need
to keep all our good deeds
secret – now, tell us, which do you mean?

Matthew 5: 16 / 6: 1

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate: We May Not Be Ready for This (A Sermon)

Matthew 5: 1 – 12
Micah 6: 1 – 8
1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31
Psalm 15                                                                                                               

We are sometimes told that God has blessed the United States of America – and even more – that God has “blessed this nation more than any other on earth” (Graham “Facebook” ). American wealth and power are cited as evidence of God’s favor on America. Franklin Graham has said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown” (Graham “Defining Moment”). So it must be obvious that God loves us best and has blessed us the most. Right? Right?

But this is rubbish. This is not the gospel or, at least, it is not the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. Wealth and power are not values of the Kingdom of Heaven. Egypt was rich and powerful once. Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Persia, Rome – they were rich and powerful as well; they each ruled the world for a time. But time passed and where are they now? These were not the nations that God blessed, that God chose as his own. No. Wealth and might are not signs of God’s favor and blessing on a nation. America should never be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven places value not in wealth and power, but in poverty and weakness. And this sounds foolish to most of the world. It always has. The message of the Kingdom, the gospel of Christ is in the cross, and this is foolishness to the world. (1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31) We proclaim a Christ crucified. We proclaim a Kingdom that values the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the merciful. This is not an empire built on coffers of gold and backed with bullets and bombs. This is something altogether different.

Jesus saw the crowds that were beginning to follow him and he left them to go up the mountain. There, away from the crowds, he sat down and began to instruct his chosen disciples. The crowds were not ready for this. Maybe we aren’t either.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate (Albright 45) are the humble and poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God. The difference between Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and Luke’s “Blessed are the poor” is very often noted, as it should be. But this difference does not get us off the hook. In America most of us are not poor. Not really. We may not be rolling in money. We may not be part of the 1%, but neither are we “poor,” not in the sense of the word that Luke uses.

We are comfortable, and so we cling to Matthew’s “poor in spirit” as a way to justify ourselves, and to include ourselves in this blessed category. “Luke’s blunt talk about the ‘poor,’ we are instructed, must be interpreted in light of Matthew’s fuller ‘poor in spirit,’ a classification to which we can all aspire since it has none of the rude realities of ‘material poverty’ (lack of food, clothing, shelter, employment) attached to it. ‘Spiritual poverty’ in fact becomes a Christian virtue, and we are encouraged to affirm a life-style that puts no premium on goods and possessions but equally does not suggest that we need to get rid of them (Brown, 89).” Reading the beatitudes only from the gospel according to Matthew is a way of letting ourselves off the hook without requiring any sort of compromise to our materialistic lifestyle.

But we must be careful not to “minimize Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the poor by interpreting poverty as a spiritual condition unrelated to social and political phenomena … a careful reading of the New Testament shows that the poor of whom Jesus spoke were not primarily (if at all) those who were spiritually poor as suggested in Matthew 5: 3” (Cone 79). The poor in spirit are the dispirited, the broken, the “losers” of this world.  Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor and humble in spirit, for theirs is the enduring Kingdom of God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  There’s a chorus that I remember singing in Sunday School as a child. I remember that it made me cringe then, and it still does, even more today:

I’m H-A-P-P-Y; I feel like I could fly.
I’m going to heaven; I’ll get there by and by.
My name is in the book; you’ll find it if you look.
I’m going to heaven by and by.

I hate that song, but I do not want to discredit the idea that there is joy in the Christian faith. Neither am I suggesting that a state of mourning is blessed in and of itself. Depression is not divine and no grief is good. But those who grieve and those who mourn are blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven. “The world says, ‘Enjoy!” Christ says “Grieve!’” (Buttrick 281). The world is a sharp and dangerous place. It wounds us. It cuts us to the quick. And we mourn. We grieve. Let no one tell you to “forget about it.” Ignore anyone who tells you to “just get over it.” Blessed are those who mourn, those who feel the wounding of the world for they will be comforted by God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the meek, for they will inherit the earth – though, with the way things are, it often feels like maybe the meek will inherit what’s left of the earth after the rich and powerful have sucked away its resources and nuked the ashes. But blessed are the meek. The world derides the meek as pussies, as pansies. ‘Step up and be a man! Be forceful and strong! Take what is yours!’ they say. But in the Kingdom of God, the meek inherit what they would never seize by force (Buttrick 281).

The meek are not arrogant and forceful, they do not bully or belittle. They do not seek to destroy or defeat their enemies. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth as a gift from God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This statement, like Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” has been used to justify those like ourselves despite our lack of actual hunger and thirst. But this is no easy escape, no cheap grace. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to hunger and thirst for something more than personal moral rectitude; it is a desperate hunger for justice and an unquenchable thirst for “equity and humanity” (Buttrick 283). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will never “get used to” those who would use their political power to abuse and mistreat the poor immigrant, and to close the doors on the refugee fleeing from war and destruction. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will not accept a status quo that leaves people starving for food and clean water while the wealthy and powerful minority live in profligate excess. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness for they will have it.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the merciful for they will be shown mercy. Oh mercy! But this is hard. “We do not train to be merciful here,” the world says. “Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition. A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.” We are taught by this world to “Strike first! Strike hard! No Mercy, sir!” (Karate Kid) Mercy is foolish. Mercy says, “Father, forgive them,” even as they are killing us. But mercy is not pity. It is not a feeling. It is not a saccharine, sentimental sop. It is the recognition that all of us, at times, are cruel and selfish, proud and hateful and that God has loved us even still. Oh mercy! But mercy is hard. Blessed are the merciful for they shall be given mercy.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the pure in heart for they will see God.  Blessed are those who seek truth, who honor and esteem truth as a treasure. Who can abide in the tent of God; who can ascend his holy hill? None but the pure in heart, only those who speak truth and will not slander. (Psalm 15) Blessed are those who value truth and not “alternative facts.” Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see the face of God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Peacemaking is a “preventative task” (Buttrick 287) a preemptive task. Oh, we know all about preemptive invasions, do it to them before they have a chance to do it to us. But we know very little about preemptive peacemaking. We are reactive, responding to the outbreaks of violence with more violence, and still hoping to somehow make peace, instead of identifying those sources of unrest and injustice that lead to violence and correcting them before war breaks out. Instead of feeding the hungry and defending the oppressed, we allow them to suffer until they feel that violence is the only option.  We know something about peacekeeping, sorta’ but it’s a “peace through superior firepower” and that kind of peace does not last. We need to be peacemakers – building peace from the ground up. Blessed are the peacemakers for they are the children, the favored sons and beloved daughters of God.

I know that this sounds foolish, like a surefire way to end up broke down and beaten up. It is the foolishness and weakness of God chosen to shame the strong and wise of the world. If it were just the hippy-dippy, can’t we all just get along, “cloud of liberal optimism,” this would not be “good news.” It would be “a mockery of the present misery of the suffering” (Moltmann 59). This is something more than just the feel good musings of a bleeding heart liberal; this is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel has teeth. It bites. 

I begin to understand why Jesus left the crowds and went up the mountain to speak these things to his disciples. The crowds were not ready for them. I’m not sure the disciples were either, and I’m not sure that we are, even today. I know my faults and failures. I know how far from these I am. They are hard. They bite. They challenge. They provoke.“To hear Jesus’ words of liberation requires a radical decision … a decision that defines theology as a weapon in the struggle of the little ones for liberation” (Cone 52). To hear these Beatitudes is to redefine our world and our place in this world. It is to reject the idea that wealth, and power, and privilege are our rightful blessings from God, and to accept the foolishness of the gospel of the Cross, and a kingdom that values the poor, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate, but we may not be ready to hear this.

Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1979. Print.

Brown, Robert McAfee, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible through Third World Eyes, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1984. Print.

Buttrick, George A. “Matthew: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. 1975. Print.

Graham, Franklin – “A Defining Moment for our Country,” February 8, 2016.
Graham, Franklin – Facebook Post, October 19, 2016

The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Columbia Pictures, 1984. Film.

Moltmann, Jürgen. “Response to the Opening Presentation.” Hope and the Future of Man. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. 1972. Print.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Catching Up with the Background Images for Everyone - 2017

I hadn't forgotten. Not completely. But I've been delayed. In part, because my camera is not functioning. I've sent it to the repair shop to have the work done, but it's not back yet. So I'm making do, by going back through some older photos that I've taken that I either hadn't used, or that I've processed a bit differently for these three background images.

As with all the Background Images for Everyone, these images are free to you and yours. You are free to use them as you will at home, work, school, church, wherever. I only ask that 1- you share them freely and 2- that you tell others you found them here.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

President Trump’s Messianic Pretensions

I have recently composed a few blog posts concerning the apparent messianic pretensions of now President Donald J. Trump and his supporters. Hail Trump! and Blasphemy and the Donald . I wish this theme would go away, but it’s not.

There was the distressingly ambiguous holiday greeting from the Republican Party which seemed to conflate the birth of the ‘new king’ Jesus at Christmas with Trump. But perhaps that was only accidental, the result of poor writing and the fears and frustrations of those who are not overjoyed by the election of Trump to the office of President.

But there are Trump’s own words and tweets to consider. He seems to think of himself as bringing hope, and salvation, and peace to a benighted world:

He seems to believe that he is the “only one” who can protect and save us.

During his campaign he spoke of the “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad,” and then told us, “I alone can fix it.”

And his supporters have begun (mis)appropriating the words and ideas of scripture in their praise of the Donald. In this video Omarosa has (mis)appropriated the biblical language of the worship of God (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10) and applied to “the Donald.” This is blasphemy or I don’t know what is.

And recently I’ve seen the following image being shared around social media. It seems to co-opt the ideas (if not the actual language) of Philippians 2: 6 -11 and apply them, not to Jesus but to Donald Trump - coming down from a place of glory and power, suffering humiliation in order to bring us salvation. 

Of course, it may be true that others had similar misapprehensions about President Obama – but I really don’t remember them being this blatantly messianic – and even if they were, “he did it first” is a poor argument. 

This should be cause for caution. This should give us (especially those of us who claim the name of Christ) pause. Messianic pretensions can be dangerous both spiritually and politically.

Updated February 2:

 President Donald Trump seems to have accepted the "worship and encouragement" of the American people at the National Prayer Breakfast. Maybe this was just another goofy Trumpspeak, but... the pattern holds.

"Your faith and prayers have sustained me and inspired me through some very, very tough times.  All around America, I have met amazing people whose words of worship and encouragement have been a constant source of strength." 

Updated February 14:

President Trump's senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller has attributed 100% accuracy to Donald Trump as well as unquestionable power. This is either messianic delusion or the propaganda of a dictator (and those are not mutually exclusive categories.)

Updated February 15:

Today on his 700 Club program Pat Robertson, quoting from Psalm 2:2, indicated that President Trump is the "Lord's Annointed," which in the Hebrew is quite literally, "the Lord's messiah."

Updated February 16:

Ann Coulter's worshiping at the church of the Messianic Trump:

Updated March 03:

Conservative activist, Mary Colbert, while appearing on the Jim Bakker Show described President Donald Trump as "the chosen one of God" and said that God will curse Trump's opponents and thier children and thier children's children.

How Can the Poet Speak

How can the poet speak
in these exaggerated days
when words are worn threadbare,
meaningless as an old pair of jeans?

The prophet strips naked,
to deliver the truth;
three years exposed -
the palace and people yawn.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Biblical Limericks: Alternative Facts and Evil Acts

If the leader accepts and then backs
those lies which are “alternative facts,”
be on guard and beware,
you be sure to take care
for his crew is up to evil acts.

Proverbs 29: 12

(Not-So) Biblical Limericks: They Can Have What’s Left…

From Indianapolis to Perth
the meek aren’t given what they are worth,
but we’ve gone ‘round the bend
and soon our wars will end -
then they’ll inher’t what’s left of the earth.

Matthew 5: 5 sorta’

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Biblical Limericks: #Alternativefacts Won’t Cut It

Who to the Lord’s hill can aspire?
Who shall ascend and then go higher?
Those of clean heart and hand,
but forever God-banned
is the man whose pants are on fire.

Psalm 24: 3 - 4

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Of Inaugural Addresses and Enthronement Oracles (A Sermon)

Isaiah 9: 1 - 4
Matthew 4: 12 - 23
Psalm 27

It is highly unlikely, altogether improbable that those individuals who compiled and organized the three year cycle of lectionary readings for the Church were aware that today’s reading from Isaiah 9: 1 – 4 would coincide with the very recent inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America. So it is a fortuitous – a serendipitous – a providential text, fitting for today even if by nothing more than coincidence. Many biblical scholars believe Isaiah 9 to be part of an enthronement event, a “dynastic oracle uttered on the occasion of the anointing of a new king or at the anniversary of the event” (Scott 231) and, as such, is a fitting text to read as we reflect upon the recent transition of power in the government of the United States of America.

Speeches and songs are part of the pageantry of government – for better or worse. They can be used to inspire and encourage. They can be used to frighten and intimidate. They can be used to uplift and ennoble. They can be used to blame and harass. In his inauguration speech on Friday (January 20, 2017) President Donald Trump described a bleak picture of the way things are as he takes office – of “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He described it as an “American carnage” (Trump “Inaugural Address”). 

Now whether or not he painted an accurate word picture of way things are or not (I’d say not; his description is either wildly hyperbolic or grossly dishonest), it is not uncommon for new government leaders to describe differences between the outgoing and the incoming administrations in the starkest and most dramatic terms possible. All that is behind was darkness and destruction, and all ahead will be light and glory.  For better or for worse, this is the way that propaganda works.

And it is the way that our passage from Isaiah works as well.  Although historians and biblical scholars cannot say with certainty whether this passage describes the rule of a particular King of Judah or if it is intended to describe the rule and reign of an idealized king of the future, and Christians have interpreted the passage to speak of Jesus Christ, it seems likely that the “oracle was composed to celebrate the ascension of an actual Judean king” in the 8th century B.C.E. (Scott 232). Isaiah describes the way things were as gloomy and filled with anguish. The people were walking in darkness and living in the land of the shadow of death. (Isaiah 9: 1- 2) They were under the heavy yoke of an oppressive foreign invader – the Assyrians. (Isaiah 9: 4) But the new king would bring light, would bring glory; he would change contempt into joy and rejoicing. The new king would be a magnificent figure, a messiah on the throne of David.

Now, please note that I am not equating President Donald J. Trump with the messianic figure of Isaiah 9 – Trump is not a messianic figure. And neither is he the Antichrist. And, let me continue, the same is true of his predecessor: President Barak H. Obama was neither the Antichrist nor a messiah. We read this text today without praising or demonizing either of those men, but to reflect on the ways that we can understand our world today. What makes this passage from Isaiah something more than persuasive political propaganda? What can our president do, and –more importantly- what can we do to make this reading something more than the inflated rhetoric and empty promises of political propaganda?

We can’t say everything that might be said this morning so we will limit our thoughts to two points – a two part plan for bringing light to a once darkened land.

First: We must lift off the burdensome weight of the oppressor. In Isaiah’s case the oppressor was obvious – it was the Assyrians led by Tiglath-Pileser III. The Assyrians were the evil empire of the day, the forces of darkness. In our own day the oppressor may not be the army of a foreign invader, but still threat, still a danger.

In recent days I have been struck by the prescient words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He described the oppressors of our day by saying:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (King “Beyond Vietnam”)

Any political or economic system that favors profits over people and products over persons is an oppressive system. Any law, or practice, or tradition that favors one ethnic or gender or sexual identity over another is part of that oppressive weight that must be lifted, part of the burden that must be removed if we are going to live in light and glory instead of dark gloom and anguish.

Theologian James Cone wrote, “Yahweh is known and worshiped as the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus from the dead. He is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed. To know him is to experience his acts in the concrete affairs and relationship of people, liberating the weak and the helpless from pain and humiliation. For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world” (Cone 62).

The weight of the oppressors must be lifted from the shoulders of the poor and the afflicted.

Second: We must put away our reliance on military force. We must be prepared to burn all the clanking footgear and the blood-rolled clothing; the signs and symbols of that darkness of death are ritually burned as the new king comes to power.

Again from Martin Luther King Jr:

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. (King “Beyond Vietnam”)
We have been at war for a long time, for far too long. We have been at war for my teen-aged son's entire life. I cannot wrap my mind around that fact. And more warfare will not make an end to our warring. We must make the hard choice to give up our reliance on military might. It has not made us safe. It has not brought prosperity to our nation. It has not brought light to the world, only more darkness. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that” (King “Strength to Love”). We must put an end to our warring. We must burn away our weaponry.

But I should stop here and be very clear to note that it was not king who did these things. Whoever the historical king in view in Isaiah’s text may have been, he did not do these things and bring light and glory to the people living in the land as dark as death. God did. “This is God’s own action. It is God who is the cause of the rejoicing, God who has given bountifully, and God who has broken the oppressor’s rod” (Lang). The king was God’s representative, his adopted son (Psalm 2:7), but it was God himself who brought about the redemption and deliverance of the people.

We "praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light" (Edwards) for he is our light and our salvation. (Psalm 27:1)

And this is still true today; President Donald J. Trump will not - cannot - save us; he will not deliver us. Our hopes cannot be in individual who occupies the presidential office. We cannot put our trust in princes or presidents who cannot save us. (Psalm 146: 3)

But if we would like to live in that kingdom of light and glory instead of the land as dark as the shadow of death, this must be our plan and program – to lift the away the weights of the oppressors so that everyone is free to share in the good gifts that God has given us, and to burn away our reliance on violence and military force. If we cannot do these two things then we will continue to live in the gloom and anguish of that land of death. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee of the Gentiles by saying "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Today we repent of all our oppressive systems and structures; we repent of our militancy and violence. We repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, the dawning of that great light is near even now.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. 1975. Print.

Edwards, Rusty. "Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness" 

King jr. Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence” April 4, 1967. Riverside Church, New York, NY.

King jr. Martin Luther. Strength To Love. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 1963. Print.

Lang, Dirk G. “Commentary on Isaiah 9: 2 – 7.” December 4, 2012

Scott, R. B. Y. “Isaiah: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1956. Print.

Trump, Donald. “Inaugural Address” January 20, 2017, Washington D.C.   

Friday, January 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice American Style

Your Prefect Now

Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus again saying, “Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?”  Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above…”

Then those that were in the praetorium with them interrupted Jesus. “Be quiet,” they said to him. “Pilate is your prefect now.”

(John 19 sorta’)

Get Over It - Nebuchadnezzar’s Your King Now

King Nebuchadnezzar had a golden statue made, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, which he set up on the plan of Dura.  A herald then loudly proclaimed, “Peoples, nations, languages! Thus are you commanded, when you hear the sound of the horn, zither, Marine Band, and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you will prostrate yourself and worship the golden statue.”

Now there were certain Jews: Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego that ignored the command and did not prostrate themselves at the sound of the horn, zither, Marine Band and Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Chaldeans then came forward and said, “Get over it. Nebuchadnezzar’s your king now.”

Daniel 3 – sorta’

The Prophet Jeremiah Went Up to Washington D.C.

And Yahweh said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and there say this word, ‘Listen to the word of Yahweh, king of Judah now occupying the throne of David, you, your officials and your people who go through these gates. Yahweh says this: Act uprightly and justly; rescue from the hands of the oppressor anyone who has been wronged, do not exploit or ill-treat the immigrant, the orphan, the widow; shed no innocent blood in this place…’”

and the prophet was interrupted by the king’s supporters who shouted him down saying, “Let it go. He’s your king now. Let it go.”

(Jeremiah 22: 1 – 3… sorta’)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trump Will Swear on Lincoln’s Bible and I Don’t Care

Tomorrow afternoon Donald J. Trump will place his hand on a Bible and take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States of America. And he will do so using a bible once owned by the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln arrived in Washington D.C. for his inauguration without his own copy of the scriptures; the so-called “Lincoln Bible” was given to him by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court. The same bible was used by the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, for both of his inaugurations in 2009 and 2013.

And while I understand the historical resonance of America’s first black president swearing his oath on the same copy of the scriptures once held by “the Great Emancipator,” I don’t really care that President Obama used and that President-elect Trump will use “Lincoln’s Bible.”

Neither that particular copy of the bible, nor any copy of the bible-no matter how storied, or noble its provenance is a magical book. It will not make Trump’s promise any more or any less trustworthy. Let him “swear on a stack of bibles” (as the kids say, and as President Obama did in 2013) – let him swear “on his mother’s grave,” let him “cross his heart and hope to die, stick a needle in his eye” if he wants, it doesn’t make his words any more credible or trustworthy.

Trust is earned. Honesty is demonstrated. And liars will lie – even on historically significant copies of the scriptures.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. – Matthew 5: 33 – 37 (NRSV)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Supernatural Jesus

It occurred to me this afternoon that I have, on various occasions made the argument that Jesus was a:

Short / fat - Redneck - Exorcist.

Apparently I believe that Bobby Singer (from the television show Supernatural) was Jesus. Balls!

Do Not Say You Were Misled

This was the man we have elected as our next president. Do not say you did not know. Do not say you were not warned. Do not say that you were fooled or misled. He is not a wolf masquerading in sheep's clothing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Tired Servant (A Sermon)

John 1: 29 – 42
Isaiah 49: 1 – 7
Psalm 40

Last week we read of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer, and of his visionary experience – seeing the sky ripped open and the glories of the kingdom of heaven exposed and all the demands of righteousness. Jesus rose up from those embryonic and chthonic waters, waters symbolizing both a new birth and a coming death, full of anticipation of the work he was called to do, ready to go and to do the will of God. Ready to be the servant of God. Ready to meet all the demands of righteousness, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the low and the poor and the lost. 

Our texts for that day combined Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3: 13 – 17) with a reading from the first of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.”(Isaiah 42: 1 – 7)  In that reading we saw Jesus / the servant as a passionate spirit, endowed and emboldened by the Spirit of God to do a great work – confident that he would not grow weary, would not be exhausted until he had been successful in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to all the world.

This week the lectionary moves forward only slightly to combine the beginnings of Jesus’ mission – his movement away from John the Baptizer and the calling of his first disciples – with a reading from the second of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.”

We might have expected the same victorious spirit, the same eagerness to dare and to do – that same bold confidence  to grab the world, the sort of exuberant (though perhaps naïve) confidence expressed by high school graduates who believe that they will go out and challenge and change the world.  There is no challenge too great, no obstacle too large, no enemy or opponent too powerful…

Like “God’s Soldier”:

God's soldier marches as to war,
A soldier on an alien shore,
A soldier true, a soldier who
Will keep the highest aims in view.
God's soldier goes where sin is found;
Where evil reigns, his battleground;
A cunning foe to overthrow
And strike for truth a telling blow.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory
we’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown
we’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story
we’re going to turn the world upside down.

So it may come as a bit of shock to find this particular combination of texts this morning. Instead of the courageous and undaunted servant, ready to do battle against the world, we instead have a broken and tired servant, a cynical and despairing servant who is almost resigned to failure and his inability to complete his mission.

“My toil has been futile.” He says.
“I have exhausted myself for nothing, to no purpose.” (Isaiah 49: 4 New Jerusalem Bible)

What happened? Why the despair? Shouldn’t the good and faithful servant always be happy? (Smile, smile, smile and not frown…) Shouldn’t the good servant move from victory to new victory, and from glory to ever-increasing-glory? We’ve been taught that the good follower of God, the good Christian will always be positive, and never entertain feelings of dejection or worry. The good servant of God will succeed, will be victorious and more than a conqueror. Right? These are the marks and signs of doubt – and doubt is bad. Failure is bad.

Perhaps this attitude is naïve, and this expectation unrealistic.

We are not Hollywood movie action heroes. We are not plaster saints. We are fragile. We are we fallible. We get tired. We grow weary. We despair.

I think of Martin Luther King Jr, who we celebrate and remember tomorrow who was no plaster saint to set upon a pedestal. As inspirational and heroic his work was, he suffered the same despair we all feel at times, the same despair as Isaiah’s suffering servant. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, facing stiff opposition and 30 – 40 threatening phone calls and letter a day, he reached his “saturation point” (King.)  

“I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn't sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I'd come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, "You can't call on Daddy now, you can't even call on Mama. You've got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way." With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone" (King).

But neither Martin Luther King jr. nor Isaiah’s suffering servant were allowed to give up. They suffered. They hurt. They failed. They faltered. They despaired. But they were not allowed to give up. They were not allowed to resign from the fight.

As he prayed that night the faltering Martin Luther King jr. seemed to hear the voice of God saying to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world” (King).

And so too Isaiah’s suffering servant. In his moment of despair when everything seemed like failure and lost, the voice of God said to him, ‘It’s not enough for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and the survivors of Israel – I shall make you a light to all the nations of the world.’ (Isaiah 49: 6 – 7)

"If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12: 5)

Not only were they not allowed to give up – but they were challenged to do more, their mission was enlarged.

“A monk was once asked: What do you do there in the monastery? He replied: we fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again” (Ware 129).

We all struggle. And we all fail. We all wrestle with doubt and disappointment. It is naïve to expect otherwise. It is unrealistic to demand a perpetual victory march. But disappointment and doubt, faltering and failure are not stop us. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up again and again with the strength of the spirit that leads us forward. He lifts us up from the miry clay of our failure and despair and puts our feet on a solid rock again.

The challenges loom large, and the obstacles seem insurmountable. Our enemies are strong and our failures are real. But when we are knocked down by life, by trial, by opponents and enemies, we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again.

“My brethren, do all that is in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall, but, if you do fall, get up again at once, and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times, because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again at each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written: ‘If a righteous man falls seven times,’ that is, repeatedly throughout his life, ‘seven times shall he rise again’ [Proverbs 24:16].”

St. John of Karpathos, from the collection of letters to monks in India

King jr., Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King jr. Ed. Clayborn Carson. New York, NY: IPM / Warner Books. 2001. Print.

Read, Harry. “God’s Soldier” The Salvation Army Songbook. London. The Salvation Army. 2015. Print.

Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Way.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1979. Print. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Scraps and What Not

Every so often I page through the notebook that I carry everywhere and note the various bits of writing that I haven't done anything with. Here are a few bits that otherwise would have gone to waste:

*Though I’m only 41 (nearing 42), I’ve lived at least that long, and I’ll go on living till something better comes along.

*If I preach peace – and I do – it’s because I know I’ve been a beast to you.

*God, my Mother, gave birth to me and I was born again.

*The footmen have worn me out; I don’t want to run with the horses. (Jeremiah 12:5)

*Many of my friends say the word “Liberal” as if it were a swear, a vulgarity, but Psalm 37: 35 – 26 says the liberal are righteous.

Jesus Says, “Them’s the Breaks”

As he was setting out on a journey, a rich young man ran up to Jesus and knelt before him. He asked, “Good teacher, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

The rich young man stared blankly at him. “I don’t understand…”

But Jesus continued, “You know the commandments as well as I do: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother, yada, yada, yada...’”  

And the rich young man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up till today. What else can there be?” 

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “There’s one thing you lack: go and sell all you possess. Give to the poor and then you can come follow me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he stepped aside grumbling, for he was one who owned much property.

Standing there also was a poor working man. “Teacher,” he said, “I too have kept the commandments. Well, I’ve kept them as well as anyone.  But, I’ve nothing much to sell. No land, no treasure. Only the sweat of my labor – which I sell every day, and that is barely enough to feed my family. What must I do to be saved?”

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him also and said to him, “You are blessed. Learn to live in brotherhood and love.”

The rich young man pushed his way forward again. “Wait!” he shouted. “That’s it? You demand that I sell everything I have, everything my father left me and then I can be allowed to follow you, but this farmhand, this high-school dropout, this bucktoothed illiterate gets your blessing? That’s not fair!”

“What can I say?” Jesus shrugged. “Them’s the breaks.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Biblical Limericks: Capitalist Fool

Jesus said to call no one a fool
and we follow this general rule -
applied to everyone
with one small exception
for the wealthy capitalist tool.

Matthew 5: 22 / Luke 12: 16 - 21

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017

Background Images for Everyone - Week 3 - 2017

As promised, here is another free, weekly background image. It's yours to download and to use. I only ask that 1) you share it freely and 2) that you tell others you found it here.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Did He See? (Sermon - Matthew 3: 16)

Then Jesus appeared – coming from the soft, green hills of Galilee down to the Jordan River valley, to the river – which was not much of a river, not more than a stream in many places. He came to be baptized by John. But John objected, “I should be baptized by you.” Jesus insisted, “Let this be done to fulfill all the demands of righteousness.”

So he was passed through the baptismal waters and God was with him (Isaiah 43:2). He went down into the waters that were at the same time embryonic and chthonic - a symbol of both his new life as a prophet and his coming death. As Jesus was immersed in the swirling, muddy waters of that narrow stream, he closed his eyes and held his breath. He felt the firm press of John’s hand, holding him under for a timeless fraction of a second, then raising him up again. The water streamed from his hair, down his face and beard. Jesus sputtered for air, wiped his eyes and looked up toward the sky. And suddenly the heavens were opened.

“Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down
- in your presence the mountains would quake…” (Isaiah 64:1)

And what, besides the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, did he see when the sky was ripped open? What did Jesus see when the One “who created the heavens and spread them out” (Isaiah 42: 5) now ripped them open? What visions did he see? Matthew’s gospel does not say – not specifically. But I would like to hazard a guess.

In that moment, as he stood up from the river with the water pouring from his face as the heavens were opened for him, I think he saw the brilliant, blinding light of billion dimly burning wicks. (Isaiah 42:3) I think that he saw the Kingdom of Heaven in all its righteousness, in all its varied splendor and in its many forms of suffering.

He saw “the masses of men live[ing] with their backs constantly against the wall…the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed” (Thurman 3). He saw the tired, the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of a thousand teeming shores, and the homeless who are tempest-tossed from one place to another, never able to settle or find a home.  (Lazarus)

He saw the widows and orphans of every unjust war. He saw the massacred innocents, the displaced refugees, the frightened and the terrorized. He saw the helpless and the powerless and the desperate.
He saw women weeping and little children going hungry. He saw men going to prison, in and out, in and out. He saw drunkards and poor lost girls upon the streets and dark souls lost without the light of God. (Booth) He saw walking lepers and lurching bravoes from the ditch. He saw the dribs and drabs of drug fiends with pale faces and minds still ridden with corrupted passions, and soul-powers frail. He saw vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, and the unwashed legions of the ways of death. (Lindsay)

He saw people lingering in, and dying from illnesses that could easily be treated and cured if not for the greed of powerful and wealthy men. He saw hungry children. He saw mothers and fathers out of work. He saw the illiterate struggling to fit in with the rest of society. He saw the immigrant struggling to speak a second (or third) language along with the people of their new country. He saw the mentally ill and the learning disabled. He saw the lonely elders in nursing homes and sterile hospital rooms.

He saw the “wretched of the earth,” all the disreputable people piled on top of one another in crowded slums and barrios and ghettos, living in shacks squeezed tightly together in a world with no space, famished and hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light, crouching and cowering on their knees. (Fanon 4 – 5)

He saw all of the people, in every part of the world, who are “tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” who are “tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation” and tired of experiencing the "bleakness of nagging despair” (King “MIA Mass Meeting”)

He saw “the slow, the suffering, the quick, the dead” (Rice) He saw nuns and priests assassinated in South America, and black American prophets gunned down in Harlem and in Memphis. He saw husbands and wives struggling to keep their love for each other alive. He saw children used and abused and pushed into prostitution.

He saw the poor and the poor in spirit. He saw the gentle. He saw those in mourning. He saw the hungry and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He saw the merciful and the pure in heart. He saw all the struggling peacemakers living in a world of war. He saw the persecuted and the oppressed, the abused and maligned. (Matthew 5: 3 – 12)

He saw the gentle ones – the crushed reeds and faltering wicks – struggling to keep the flame of faith alight. He saw the blind and captives in prison and the ones living in dark dungeons without light (Isaiah 42: 3, 7)

He saw them in the east and the west, the rich and the poor, the despised, the distressed (Gowans #1011) a huge number of them, impossible for anyone to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language, standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7: 9). He saw the serried ranks of countless millions - billions of children, women, and men unknown and unnamed by history – but known, and named, and loved by his father in heaven. And he saw the against-the-evidence hope for triumph over evil (West 35) in each of their lives.

He saw all of this but did not balk at the pressure, he did not recoil from the demand, or hesitate at the thought of countless, inevitable failures along the way, or the long, long delay before full and final glory. He did not grow faint and would not be crushed until he had established justice and righteousness on the earth (Isaiah 42: 4)“Oh it is hard continuing believing, continuing loving, continuing resisting all that opposeth! We are subject to be weary of well doing” (Bunyan 193). He knew that “the time may be long, the obstacles great, and the chance of success dim,” but he knew that, “the servant continues to perform his mission, conscious of his election and calling and endowment” (Coffin 466).

Coming up out of the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus saw all of this and he knew what he had to do. He knew what he would do: he would be the Servant of the Lord. He would give his life in service to all of these, and in this way fulfill all the demands of righteousness.

Booth, William “While Women Weep – I’ll Fight” - this may be one of the apocryphal quotes, something the founder of The Salvation Army never actually said, but is very much in line with all that he did and said in his life. 

Bunyan, John. “Christian Behavior.” The Practical Works of John Bunyan Vol. VI.

Coffin, Henry Sloane “Isaiah: Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1956. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. “On Violence” The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove Press. 1963. Print

Gowans, John and John Larsson. “They Shall Come from the East” The Salvation Army Songbook. London. The Salvation Army. Print.

King, Martin Luther. “MIA Mass Meeting” Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama: 5 December, 1955. Speech. 

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus” 1883. 

Lindsay, Vachel. “General William Booth Enters into HeavenGeneral William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems. Doylestown: Wildside Press. 1913. Print. 

Rice, Tim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. ”HosannaJesus Christ Superstar. 1970. 

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. New York: Abingdon – Cokesbury Press. 1949. Reprint Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 1996. Print

West, Cornel. Prophesy Deliverance! Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1982. Print.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

One Week with Rufus

Rufus has been with us for one whole week now. He's still adjusting, but doing very well. He sleeps through the night. Pees outside (most of the time, grrr). He has a few issues to work out with the vet (the result of being a stray and eating garbage, and bugs, and who knows what.. and to be, ehem... "fixed") but other than that he's a healthy, happy dog.

The cat, however, is not yet adjusted, and is not at all happy. That relationship might take a few more weeks.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Sonnet for the Moon

I've written Limericks and Haiku, a Ghazal and a Cinquain but this is my first attempt at a Sonnet:

A Sonnet for the Moon
The moon is close and full, or will be soon;
I’m watching as it rises in the sky,
and I realize that I hate the moon
though I do not know, and cannot say why.
An uncertain promise of silver light,
waxing, waning, but still remaining cold;
youthful lovers may embrace through the night,
but I am lonely, and I have grown so old.
And you, who were my illumination,
my light in darkest nights, my radiance,
have, like wandering moon, changed and now shun
the one you once loved, and have no patience
                for my words of love, and grief, and sorrow.
                Like the moon, love’s brief and gone tomorrow.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Background Images for Everyone - Week 2 - 2017

Here it is. Here it is. Just in time for you to use in any of your own projects at home, work, school, or church: this week's free background image. These images are free for you to download and to use - I only ask that you 1) share them freely and 2) that you tell others that you found them here.

This one was made with the Sunday's gospel reading in mind - of Jesus' baptism in Matthew 3; 13 - 7.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Comparing Martin Luther King Jr and Jeremiah Wright

Consider -

The distance of time, and his death by assassination has all but made a saint of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – in the same way that President Abraham Lincoln is revered now as a ‘founding father’ but was divisively hated in his own time…  But Martin Luther King Jr. was despised in his day.

Compare -
Martin Luther King Jr. has been made tame, made safe. Where he was once a burr and a bone of contention and challenge, he’s now respectable and honored. Perhaps we’ve lost something in his elevation. Read through his sermon “Standing by the Best in a Time of Evil” (August 6, 1967 – Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia).

Notice that he says, “The judgment of God is on America now.”

“Oh I weep for my nation. And I must think about the fact that I live in a country that is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. … And I’ll tell you my friends I’m going to stand by my convictions. I’m going to stand by the principle that the Spirit is mightier than the sword. The judgement of God is on America now. “(page 6 of 9) 

In the relatively recent past, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright was vilified by white Christians in America for his “God damn, America” sermon.  But read the full text (and not just the out-of-context inflammatory sound bite…).

“Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Guyana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian decent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”

Is there a significant difference between what Martin Luther King jr (now safe, and respectably in his grave) said and what Jeremiah Wright said? No. Not really. So… should Wright have been treated with more respect – with a larger measure of the respect we now give to Martin Luther King Jr.? Probably.

But, then again, perhaps we shouldn’t have allowed Martin Luther King Jr to have been tamed, to have been made safe. 

An American Onolatry

It is imperative that we see
the threat to our Christianity -
we’ll suffer our lumps
to say: Following Trump’s
an American onolatry.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Monday, January 2, 2017

Trump the Hollow Man

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a twitter.

(with apologies to T. S. Elliot)

Your Sickness (Your Survival)

I saw him on the Southeast corner of the town square, across from the Chinese restaurant. It was January, but incredibly warm for that winter month, warm enough that I was out without a coat and only a hooded sweatshirt. It was even raining (far too warm for snow or ice) slightly. As I walked down the sidewalk towards him, away from the movie theater where I’d just enjoyed a Saturday science-fiction matinee. I could hear him shouting. I could hear him well before I saw him. Heard him almost as soon as I stepped out from the movie theater, in fact.

There weren’t many pedestrians out – not in January (even as warm as it was) – not in the rain – not when it was easier and drier to drive across town. But there were a few people walking around the square. A married couple walked arm in arm from their parked car towards The Great Wall. He held the door open for her and stared at him from the entryway. I could smell Szechuan sauce and warm eggrolls (more appetizing than the artificial-butter flavored popcorn of the movie theater). A trio of teenagers laughed and flicked cigarette butts at him as they passed. “Shut up, freaky-man!” they hooted.

I saw him: a distinguished man of middle age and ebony dark skin, a few white curls twisted out from the kinky hair at his temples. His eyes were tight. His teeth even. His jaw firm. He wore plain, belted jeans over scuffed work boots, and a grey / green plaid, flannel shirt. He stood on the Southeast corner of the courthouse square, next to the old civil war canon and said in a loud (but not shouting), unflinching voice:

“Your sickness is not survival!”


Your survival is not sickness!”

Rufus at the Backdoor

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