Our Just Deserts

We are given a poignant insight into the heart of God in a narrative from 1 Samuel 8: 4-20. I feel sorry for both Samuel and God in this story. The Israelites see their power structure crumbling. Samuel is their connection to God. A prophet, he serves as God’s mouthpiece. But he’s getting old and his two sons are up to no good. The rule of succession dictates that the father elevate the sons to his prophetic position in his state of decline. The Hebrew people know they are doomed. So they cry out to Samuel, asking him to appoint a King for them. Living by an alternative system of government to the surrounding tribes has been taxing. They want to conform: “Give us a king so that we can be like the other nations.” They want to fit in.  Some things never change from generation to generation.

Samuel feels like a failure with this request. God’s governance over the chosen people was to guide them directly through prophets, not to shape royalty out of regular folks. Samuel doesn’t want a monarchy to be established on his watch. But God assures the weary prophet that the people are not rejecting him. The Israelites are rejecting God. God gave them freedom to choose their way of life. So God invites Samuel to give them what they want. Samuel feels guilt. God is resigned. It’s a tough moment in the history of the Jews.

We hit up against an unlikely paradox in this story. God is omnipotent yet humanity is free. This is a remarkable model for power that few leaders choose. Parents understand it however. When our grown children insist on charting a path of destruction in spite of our best guidance, we shake our heads but stand close by. We brace ourselves for the consequences we believe will inevitably come their way. With every choice, they receive their just deserts. In other words, they get exactly what they deserve. Sometimes the path of rebellion has minimal repercussions. Other times, the carnage is painful to witness. As parents, it grieves us to know that our grown children must have the freedom to make their own mistakes.

In this snapshot into the impatient, insecure Israelites, we notice that God meets us where we are at. Our choices may have long-term consequences but God never abandons us. To this generation of adults crying out for a human ruler, God responds, “I’ll still be with you if you choose a king but here’s what the king may do to you…” God strings together a litany of policies that monarchs use to control their people. Taxes, conscripted military service, greed, forced servanthood will be their just deserts if they replace God with a King. Even the best leaders govern their people through these tactics. In contrast to those policies, God liberates, defends, protects and loves. The two models of governance could not be in greater opposition.

The issue at stake in this passage is how will God’s people choose to be governed? What is the foundational protocol for empowering leaders? Is it bribes? Birthright? Is it a popularity contest or, like Samuel tried, succession? Is it a voting process that become hotly contested for its efficacy? Will we raise up leaders who close their eyes to the injustices surrounding them in order to protect the status quo? Is maintaining the power structure more important than shaping a national ethic of compassion?

On June 1 Pope Francis issued an extensive revision to the laws that guide the Roman Catholic Church. After decades of scandal surrounding abusive priests who were reassigned from one parish to another, even as rumors or accusations of sexual misdoing surfaced, the Pope clarified the fitting and harsh response of ecclesial leaders to these transgressions. This revision will not undo the damage that has driven countless believers away from the church. But it may restore some confidence in an institution that, at times, seemed to protect the hierarchy rather than act justly. When politics and faith collide, can there be authenticity or do we expect leaders to protect other leaders? This story perhaps raises more questions than it answers!

Samuel’s allegiance to God stands in stark contrast to the willingness of the Hebrew people to dethrone God. Samuel comes to God’s defense but his sermon falls on deaf ears. I’ve often felt like I was the defender of God! It’s amazing to me how often folks blame God for their mishaps but never thank God for the many gifts in their lives. Quite often the struggles are born out of human sin. Yet God is blamed. What if we did that with a human relationship? Every time something goes awry, we blame the same person. But we never invest in a loving relationship with them that affirms their gifts to us. How long would that relationship endure? We live in a society that readily abandons faith—and Church—for perceived insults. Yet the Offended haven’t had a conversation with their Maker in years! Often the underlying problem to our social issues is spiritual in nature but we hang it on our favorite scapegoats. As long as we blame our problems on others, especially an amorphous deity, we fail to make peace with the inevitable challenges we face. Sadly, embitterment toward God is rampant in our nation today. We are an increasingly secular country where God doesn’t factor into our daily decision-making. But that doesn’t stop us, avowed atheists included, from pointing the finger at God for the slightest discomfort!

In the New Interpreter’s Bible one commentator offers good insights into this passage from 1 Samuel. He writes, “In this story, the elders and Samuel both suggest dangers that still face us in the modern church. The elders have a legitimate concern for justice, but are willing to erode the authority of God for the sake of stronger centers of human power. Samuel is protective of the integrity of God, but represents a vested interest in the way things have always been done. Chapter 8 offers no simple right-and-wrong way to adjudicate the claims of citizenship and faith. It merely demands an awareness of the interrelated character of these claims.”

I was hoping for a simple explanation!


I wonder when your faith has led you to establish firm, counter-cultural boundaries? When has your stance gotten you in trouble or made things awkward for you? How does your understanding of citizenship and discipleship interact? When you pull up alongside a disheveled person who is holding a sign inviting donations, do you roll down your window and hand out a couple bills? Or do you write a check to a charitable organization that addresses the root causes of poverty in our city? Or do you hope the light changes soon so you don’t have to avoid making eye contact with a pitiful figure who looms outside your car window? As our reasoning capacities mature over the course of our years, we discover that there are seldom easy answers to our faith crises. Job’s wife offered a solution that still is popular today for those facing hardship: Just curse God and die.

But martyrs have died for the Christian faith over the ages! Why would they do that? What belief system is worth dying for? If you want a good but startling answer, read some of the letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. He was a German pastor who worked to bring Hitler’s reign of terror to an end. When this was discovered, he was sent to an internment camp. His letters reflect a beautiful faith that recognizes that he is at the mercy of evil leadership. But God kept company with Bonhoeffer in that death camp. He was killed by firing squad just days before the war ended. When does our faith lead us to say “no” to prevailing attitudes even when it’s costly to us? Political power is usually maintained by force and threat of physical harm. Jesus leads by love. Jesus preaches that we have a choice about how we live each day but reminds us that we can’t serve two masters. Jesus takes on Himself the guilt of others, hoping that the least likable person will encounter God through His willing sacrifice. Do we follow Christ’s example? Or do we keep at a safe distance from our cultural clashes?

Photo by Hert Niks on

Father Richard Rohr writes about the first spiritual experience he had when he was just five. Alone by the Christmas tree he was overwhelmed with a sense that the world was good, that he was good and that he was part of the good world. He realized that his family didn’t know what he was experiencing and it felt like a good secret to keep. He experienced in that holy encounter that he was chosen and loved and he wanted to keep that to himself. He writes, “…see how my ego was already getting involved? Like the Apostle Paul, I now believe that chosenness is for the sake of letting everybody else know they are chosen, too… Our job is to be who we say we are and who God says we are—carriers of the divine image…I can only imagine how differently our lives, families, and nations would look if we trusted the foundational promise of Christian incarnation. When you can see Christ in all things (including yourself!), you will see and live differently.” (Post from April, 2021 on the Center for Action and Contemplation daily reflection)

While the Israelites cry out for a king who will go to battle for them and make a great name for their nation, Rohr suggests that we are to choose a life of “simplicity, service, generosity, and even powerlessness…” Powerlessness? That doesn’t sell! Can you imagine a candidate running a campaign that boasts those attributes? This seems the very opposite of everything that we would describe as “kingliness.” But it also paints a clear picture of the One we claim to follow. Jesus’ ministry, more than one thousand years after poor Samuel took a stand for God, models the necessity of reaching for God during trials rather than relying on false security. When our community cries out for justice, we often grab onto the nearest promise of safety that has flesh and voice. What we receive for our short-sighted security grab is our just deserts.

Jesus calls out to us, wherever we find ourselves marooned, reminding us that we are not alone. His sovereignty goes against the sort of power most rulers flash in order to impress. But He introduces us to a God who liberates, defends, protects and loves.

Do you want a king to be like the other nations? Or will you spend your life in the shelter of this loving God? The choice is yours.


Open Wide Your Hearts

Last Monday marked the 34th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. June 14, 1987 was a hot summer day in suburban Chicago. I drove to church early that Sunday morning and the bank sign informed me that it was 78 degrees at 7:30AM! The ordination service to ceremonially authorize Garrett and me for ministry was in the afternoon. We wore our robes in a sanctuary that was not air conditioned. I sat upright for much of the ceremony, feeling the sweat literally drip down my back! My dad, a career U.C.C. minister, gave the charge to Garrett and me. He said that there was a fairy tale element to serving in Jesus’ name. Princesses have to kiss frogs without knowing that there’s a fair prince mysteriously inside that green body. Likewise, we disciples of Christ are called to embrace lots of toads trusting that their inner beauty can shine forth.

Denominational leaders laid hands on us. The congregation stood so that they, too, were linked to our two kneeling bodies through a web of prayerful touch. At the close of the service, I was able to put my newly-ordained status into immediate practice by baptizing my two-month-old daughter, Lisa. Wearing a baptismal gown that her father and grandfather had both worn at their baptisms, we welcomed her into the family of Christ. All four of our parents and seven siblings were present to celebrate her place in our extended family. The Holy Spirit transformed the First Church of Lombard into holy ground for us. After being feted with cake and hot coffee at a reception, we headed home to our duplex where fourteen of us sat around a ping pong table in an unfinished basement, eating steamy lasagna and garlic bread. Like the Pentecost fire, the Holy Spirit blessed our gathering!

Just as a couple standing starry-eyed at the altar, it’s impossible to know where our vows will take us. Pastor Paul, knocked off his horse while persecuting members of the early church, could have not known where Christ would lead him as the church-planter-extraordinaire! In 2 Corinthians 6, we read a portion of a letter Paul wrote to one of his beloved congregations that gave him much angst! In this thick theological correspondence, Paul is blunt and vulnerable. The theme of the letter is reconciliation with a divided, distracted community. We know that this letter follows another that was lost. He references that letter in 2:4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Scholars refer to the lost document as the “severe letter” or “letter of tears.” In this follow-up letter, Paul attempts to guide this fledgling Christian community into a spirit of genuine Christian service rather than heated disagreement. He wants them to understand that faithful living is not the absence of hardship. Rather than running from hot debates, Paul exhorts them to know God’s grace within that hardship. This is a lesson every generation of believers has struggled to embrace.

On the eighth anniversary of my ordination, I found myself at a camp situated in the Mayan jungle. I led a youth group on a mission trip to Belize where we were immersed in a new culture while facing the challenges of living together as a community. My experience with week-long mission trips is that the initial excitement wears off after three or four days of hard work and minimal sleep. Add extreme tropical heat and humidity to the mix and “my kids” were not at all happy with each other that Wednesday night. Facing off with angry words in the community room, my heart was heavy as I tried to move them from frustrated animosity to unified service. Through tears I told them how sad I was that they succumbed to divisive tension when they had worked so hard for this tremendous Christian adventure in beautiful Belize. I hugged each one of the angry teenagers and left the room. As I wandered the darkened campus, illumined by moonlight and amplified with insect sounds, I realized that I was honoring my ordination vows in that moment. By the end of the week the group had forgiven each other their irritating behaviors and grieved the conclusion of our mission trip. Perhaps my tearful message helped to reshape the way we related to each other. Perhaps we understood anew that true Christian community is not forged out of an absence of hardship but through God’s grace while living those trials. Whether in the jungles of Belize, the crush of school hallways, or the tension of crowded offices, we can expect heated moments when only our faith will enable us to emerge as friends.

Peter Hawkins (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 159), a commentator on this text, writes this about Paul: “In essence, he is writing his own letter of recommendation to a church he planted, loves, and feels betrayed by.” Two other leaders in the Corinthian congregation became inflated by their elevated positions and turned the members against Paul. Not being physically present to them, Paul had to defend himself in this letter so that the congregants wouldn’t be led astray by Cephas and Apollos. He worried that these two men were dividing the church family while advancing their own status. Paul reminds them of the call to be servants on behalf of Jesus and subservient to each other’s needs. He points to himself as a good example for discipleship. He doesn’t do this to receive kudos. He fervently tries to convict them of Christ-like behavior. He names the many ways he suffered to point them toward their baptismal calling: be willing to die to self for the sake of others. Paul is at his most vulnerable in this letter as he voices his deep love for them.

Three years ago Garrett and I spent our ordination anniversary touring my favorite place in Paris, Sacred Heart Basilica. I spent a semester in France while in college but was too poor to take tours of significant places. So I was happy to learn much about this beloved church and the surrounding area 39 years later. I didn’t realize that the Church of St. Peter, a much earlier structure, sits right next to the grand basilica that dwarfs it.

As we toured through that tenth century church, our guide told us that St. Peter’s had been built on the site of a Roman temple to the god, Mars. Later it became a sacred spot for Druid worship. Many ancient church buildings are built atop the ruins of pagan altars in a sort of archaeological game of “King of the Mountain.” Conquering groups feel superior when they are able to move into the space of the vanquished and use it for their own purposes. But remnants of the past remind us that we take our cues from previous believers, whether by imitation or differentiation. Two immense Roman columns that date back nearly 2000 years stand in the nave of the Church of St. Peter. I touched one of them, thinking of believers who worshiped in a sanctuary whose structural support relied on these massive posts. Human-made structures have a lifespan. Every now and then, they survive for generations, serving as reminders of our transiency, like those pillars erected to bring praise to a Roman god. On our roots tour to Europe, I was humbled to learn of the sacrifice of my Christian forebears so that I could stand firm today as an ordained Christian pastor in a congregation that dates back to 1847. Like our forebears, the congregation and I honor our commitment to this community as the very first Christian congregation who gathered to worship. Some of you sit in the same sacred space where your grandparents and great grandparents worshiped. Each generation faces trials but must learn to persevere by God’s grace. Their suffering teaches us what it means to carry the torch of faith in our time.

Paul’s leadership was hotly contested. He was unafraid to name sin because his allegiance was to God and not to any human conventions. Often pastoral leadership shifts away from bold proclamation in a futile effort to keep everyone happy. Paul didn’t concern himself with that. (He might have benefitted from a Pastor/Parish Support Committee in Corinth!) On occasion, I’ve had to stick up for this bold apostle when folks in our bible studies tell me that they’re not a fan! What we witness in this letter is that Paul loves each congregation deeply and suffers repeatedly for the sake of the Gospel. Our existence as a Christian congregation owes Paul and other ancient messengers of the faith a debt of gratitude for their courageous witness that went against the grain of their time.

Last year I marked my ordination anniversary by welcoming a class of confirmation students into church membership. We were in the thick of the quarantine so we had to get creative about how to hold our final class session. Each student brought a beach towel and sat apart from one another on the side yard of the church building. They worked on their statements of faith as a final expression of their desire to be confirmed into the Church.  Most had no recollection of their baptism. Their parents took vows to raise them in the faith and now it was their turn to make a commitment to follow Jesus. At an outdoor service in our parking lot that was limited only to immediate family, twelve young people, wearing masks, read their statements of faith. Family members laid hands on them as we prayed over their commitment. No hugs. Cupcakes individually packaged from a bakery. A group picture of 12 kids standing at a distance from each other. Different form for a confirmation ceremony but as rich as ever. Those of us who have traveled a few miles as Christians know, like the Apostle Paul, that it is not an easy journey. Our faith does not insulate us from problems. But we also learn that Christ walks with us every step of our journey, giving us a holy perspective on suffering. Paul, almost as an aside, tells this beloved congregation that he is speaking to them as he would to his own children. Hawkins writes of this passage, “Nothing else in the rest of his correspondence approaches this level of self-disclosure.”

Paul urges these church members to follow his example. “Open wide your hearts,” he begs of them. In other words, accept the grace of God. Don’t waste your life complaining about inevitable hardships. Accept your brokenness and invite Christ to transform it into areas for powerful ministry. Earlier in this letter he used the image of fragile pottery: “We have this treasure in clay jars.” Unable to carry the burdens of this life on our own, we entrust ourselves to God. We are baptized, confirmed, and ordained into Christian service so that the light of Christ will shine through the cracks of our fragile lives to inspire others. Paul tells this divided, distracted congregation that the time is NOW! The Greek word used is KAIROS: God’s favorable time. Now is the opportune moment to open wide our hearts to the presence of Christ who accompanies us on our pilgrimage. Each moment we live confronts us with certain demands and opportunities. The best we can do is to point beyond ourselves to the only One who keeps us upright. In the powerful name of Jesus, Paul gives himself away to this congregation. He pours himself out for the many individuals who met Christ through his sacrificial evangelism.

Having celebrated the privilege of 34 years of ordained ministry last week, I give God thanks for the courageous testimony of Paul. I am thankful for ancestors who handed the torch of faith to me so that I was led to this particularly rewarding vocation. I am so grateful for the congregations that have embraced my family and me, for churches that have opened wide their hearts so that Jesus is powerfully experienced among us!


The Other Boy

I recently met in a small group and the story of the tension between Sarah and Hagar was used for opening devotions. It’s an odd story to use if you’re looking for light-hearted optimism to kick off a meeting! But it prompted much conversation. The story speaks to us on a number of levels. Abraham is ordered by his wife, Sarah, to expel Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son) from the family compound. Never mind that Sarah was the one who suggested that her elderly husband try to make a baby with her maid, Hagar  Abe and Sarah’s efforts at procreation (both older than 80!) weren’t very successful so desperate measures were taken. It worked! Old Abraham sired a child with Hagar with the blessing of his wife. Well, sort of. Legally the boy belongs to Sarah since Hagar is her servant. The boy also belongs to Abraham since he is the baby daddy. Though Sarah hopes that this little boy will feel like her own, it is always apparent that Hagar is the mother. When God’s promise to Sarah is finally fulfilled and she holds her own flesh-and-blood child, she wants the other mother/son pair out! Heartbroken, Abraham obeys. Hagar and Ishmael are exiled to the wilderness, refugees from family, home, culture and nation. They must leave everything that is familiar to them behind.

In discussing the story our group shared the ways they related to this refugee duo. One man in his early 40’s had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years before. His grief was still overwhelming. Her absence in his daily routine echoed into his social life. Everywhere he went, he felt like a foreigner. He struggled with a sense of betrayal by God. Why should he lose his beautiful wife to cancer when she wasn’t yet 40? Why would God leave him to raise three small children on his own?

Another group member was preparing to move to a small town in Georgia. It was more her husband’s vision for their retired life than hers. So they were packing up all that was familiar: household goods, friendships, and a sense of belonging. They would be living near family but these relatives viewed the group member’s spirituality with suspicion. She wondered if she and her husband would find a church that nourished their spirits in their new hometown. Anticipating the move, she already felt like a refugee amidst family in Georgia.

One other group member had experienced an injury since we last met. His days revolved around pain management administered out of the  palliative care unit of the hospital. A retired doctor, he spoke of the discomfort of being cared for by others after a career as a caretaker. His senses were dulled from pain meds and there was no promise of returning to his routine. He voiced that he felt like a refugee from his former life, a life that gave him the freedom he enjoyed. Continual pain made him a refugee from his own body. He was struggling to adjust to this new life.

The story of poor Hagar and Ishmael struck a chord with our group in surprising ways!

In Genesis 21 we read that the child promised to elderly Abraham and Sarah finally arrives. We witness in this miraculous birth just how powerful God’s promises are! A newborn is delivered to a couple who, according to St. Paul generations later, are “as good as dead.” But there is not the sort of celebration they might have expected. The birth announcement is sandwiched between narratives of tension between members of the family compound. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggeman, notes that the proclamation of Isaac’s birth is “peculiarly understated.” There is no prolonged jumping for joy. Abraham doesn’t distribute cigars to the towns’ elders. It would be easy to miss this first page in Isaac’s baby book even though God shows up in creative force in the form of a baby boy. Years of anguished waiting evaporate but the story moves forward quickly to ugly jealousy that leads to eviction.

Sometimes the choices we make in the present rob us of joy when good things arrive at our door later. I look at the birth of a little girl this past week. A tiny princess was born to an British Prince who resides now in California. A sort of refugee from his own family or, at least, from their royal way of life, Harry and Meghan announced to the world the joy of Lilibet Diana gracing their family. The international buzz over this wee child cannot melt the tensions that keep Harry an ocean apart from his own kin. Personal and communal sin can make us refugees from our dream of having a happy family life.

We are given a glimpse into the awe that accompanied the miracle birth of Isaac in just two verses (verses 6 and 7). The 90-year-old new mom cries out, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The joy bursts forth from those brief words but is short-lived. The text fast-forwards several years to the time of the boy being weaned from his mother. Sarah sees her little boy playing sweetly with his half brother and jealousy wells up within her. Two heirs to her husband’s good name and the other boy is the elder. Ishmael is deserving of the larger portion of her husband’s estate. So the laughter and community feasting dissipate as a distant memory as the older boy and his mother are sent off without a moment’s notice. They quickly run out of food and water and Hagar fears that her young son will die in the desert. Everyone but Sarah values Ishmael who, in fact, is never called by name in this story. We do harm more easily to someone we refuse to name. The young boy, through no fault or power of his own, is cast aside by a heart-broken father who is instructed to do what his envious wife asks of him.

In a previous parish one family had five children. The third child was adopted. He looked different from his four siblings. But what underscored his “otherness” was the fact that his mother would refer to him in conversation by saying, “He’s our adopted son.” She loved him but always set him apart in her own mind and heart. His sense of belonging was continually compromised by a mom who saw him as being different from her biological children. He thrashed his way into adulthood, struggling greatly to claim a healthy sense of identity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was the one who lived with his elderly mother in the last years of her life. He was a faithful son who tended to her physical and emotional needs. The earlier lines of genetic demarcation disappeared with each meal he served and load of laundry he folded. As his elderly mother expressed her utter reliance upon him, he was finally able to leave his refugee status behind.

As Christians, we trace our lineage back to the promised son, Isaac. We share that family history with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But remember that God promised Abraham that the exiled boy would be cared for and made into a great nation. Muslims trace their spiritual roots back to Ishmael. We have witnessed how the division between these two sons of Abraham has festered over thousands of years into a bitter hatred. A recent round of peace talks has brought a brief respite from the bombings between Israel and Gaza. Several of us journeyed to the Holy Land in 2017 and are thankful we were able to go when we did. Even then, we felt uncomfortable seeing police holding machine guns at check points that were heavily guarded. They exchanged easy conversation with one another near a gate into the old city of Jerusalem. At first glance they looked at ease. But their fingers were always on triggers and their eyes were always vigilant. The sons of Abraham are still refugees from the peace they both crave because of ancient jealousy and a possessiveness of God’s promised favor.

Our southern border is overrun with refugees seeking asylum from poverty and danger. In recent months tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed from Mexico into the United States. They were sent by desperate parents who would rather be separated from their own offspring than risk losing them to violence in their home countries. We are a nation built on the hard work of refugees but we anguish over how many we can successfully assimilate into our country? Like Ishmael, these children cry out for mercy.

My small group members experienced refugee status in unexpected ways. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in our social groups because of a changed status: divorce, lost job, or a wayward child. A younger generation is learning that BFFs on social media may not amount to much when looking for in-person support. Poverty can isolate one family from another. But then they are blessed with a new sense of belonging when invited to move into their own Habitat house that hundreds of volunteers have built with them. Their nomadic life is exchanged for a home.

In this story of two brothers, God provides water for the outsider. God does for the refugee pair what Abraham cannot do. God brings life out of a hopeless situation and invites us to do the same for others who are excluded. When sin separates us from our dreams, God gives us a future. When our efforts to push through a plan fail, God picks up the broken pieces and fills us with awe. When we relinquish our fierce grip on each day, God blesses us with joy and we live with with renewed wonder.

The Psalmist gives a beautiful insight into the joy that is available to us when our sense of alienation is replaced by God’s generosity. When the Israelites are restored to their own land after a time of wilderness living, they express a joy that flows forth like rainwater gushing through a dry riverbed.

From Psalm 126:

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of[a] Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.[b]
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”

God’s promises replace our refugee status with a deep and abiding joy. Hallelujah!

(Sculpture of Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael is by George Segal, 1987)


Which God?

On Mother’s Day we had the joy of welcoming a little girl into the life of our congregation through the sacrament of baptism! It seemed a particularly fitting day for this young family to entrust their child into the care of the Church. On the second Sunday in May we pause to honor the gifts of mothers. Their gifts have been more brightly illumined in the past 15 months in this age we call COVID! Moms have learned to homeschool their children while keeping up with their paying jobs. They’ve cooked countless meals in quarantine and reminded their children repeatedly of the tasks that come with independent learning. The house has been in a constant state of invasion with very few residents interested in keeping it clean! So this little girl, baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ, reminded us of why we moms happily set about the many tasks that come with parenting our children! We serve simply because we love them!

This tiny girl, wearing a beautiful white dress, was at a very sweet age. The sleep deprivation of the earliest months had passed and she hadn’t yet started to say, “No!” She knew that her parents are in charge and already learned that she needs to follow their lead. She trusts them completely and rests well in the safety of the home they have fashioned for her. In some ways, these toddler years are easier than when children begin their journey into adulthood and try out their wings. What is both exhilarating and terrifying as parents is the age that our children begin to drive, go to college and define themselves apart from us. When we are no longer the enforcers of helpful rules, who will be? What authority will they recognize and obey?

In John’s first letter that he wrote to fellow believers, he challenged them to name the God they chose to obey. To choose a god is to be ready to obey that god. So which one is it? Whose rules are you ready to follow? What or who will be the driving force behind all your choices? Obedience describes the nature of our faith. It is a gift because who we choose to serve narrows our options. But obedience to any outside force also becomes our greatest struggle. By age two we’ve learned to stick our chin out and answer, “No” to our parents. Keep that image in mind when you consider how willing you are to accept the sovereignty of anyone or anything over your life! We are a stubborn people and we cry out from an early age, “Me do it!” Fortunately for us, when we choose to follow the intrusive God, who interrupts our labors, we discover that we are loved. That love makes it much easier to obey!

To choose a god is to be ready to worship that deity. John used repetitious language to remind us that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one. Tom Wright gives his own translation of these verses: “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is Jesus has been fathered by God. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child as well.” So what do we learn about God when we look at the Son? Most notably that God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. Like any loving parent, we would give up our life to save that of our child without a second thought. We hear in these words that God loves us unconditionally, not because we’ve completed a particular list of holy tasks. Most other gods punish disobedient subjects who can never measure up to their standards. The gods of many religions exercise their power by vanquishing their enemies. We worship the God of Jesus Christ because our God’s show-of-force is by dying for the sake of all others. This is the God we choose to worship.

John went on to say that anyone who has the Son has life. He laid a foundation for the earliest believers to claim that their lives hinged on their faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This is the new life into which the little girl was baptized on Mother’s Day. Maybe we need to look at our own experiences of faith to understand what that means. Remember when someone exclaimed to you, as you awaited the birth of your first child, “Kids will change your life!” We nodded knowingly. After all, we’d read lots of books that prepared us for baby. We had a custom-designed nursery filled with diapers, pacifiers, and toys. We’d watched other parents raise their kids and had carefully critiqued their flaws, knowing we would do better. We knew, without a doubt, that we were ready for this child! And then they were born. After just a few months of parenting, we found ourselves saying to other expectant couples, “Kids will change your life!” Depending on the day, we stated it with a glowing smile or a sigh of exhaustion! What does that new life look like when we have taken a child under our wing and into our home? Can we truly describe that?

In 1966, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Peter Scholtes wrote the words to the familiar hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” It took him a matter of hours to put the lyrics to music because the God he worshiped inspired him. Do you remember the words to that song? “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord…and we pray that all unity will one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love…” This composer lived in the world that the Apostle John described. In the first three verses of the fifth chapter, John dropped the word “love” five times! Love enables us to obey God. Love for God will catapult us into the world to be of holy service to those around us. What does this new life look like that comes from our baptism? We have a deep understanding that we are loved. We work alongside of our neighbors to better our communities. We worship the God we choose to obey.

John went on to say that everything that comes from God conquers the world. I don’t typically look at my day in terms of what I have conquered! I remember feeling like I had conquered the laundry as a working mother of four children when the pile changed from “dirty” to “clean.” When I’m able to throw away the post-it notes that are stuck all over my desk top because I’ve completed the tasks, I feel as if I’ve conquered my to-do list. But what does it mean that the God I choose to worship has conquered all of creation? In John’s Gospel (16:33) Jesus used this same language with His anxious disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But cheer up! I have conquered the world!” How do we work alongside of Christ to conquer the world? Do we do it for ourselves or for others? John urged us to look at the world in which we live with the eyes of an outsider. What fits well under the umbrella of God’s love? What choices can we make that either reflect this powerful, loving God or eclipse our view? What language do we use when talking with others? Is it sacred or filled with profanity? What do we feel in our heart toward the driver who just cut in front of us to shave a few seconds off their commute? What words do we have for a neighbor who lets their dog dig up our flowers and whose kids jump dangerously on our trampoline? What does it look like to conquer the world just as the One we choose to worship has done for us?

John wrote this letter in an effort to bring his straying congregation safely back into the fold of faith. He challenged them to recognize the contradictions in their way of life that claimed obedience to the God of Jesus Christ but, in fact, made gods of money, power, prestige, or (even more innocently) family? The gauge by which we measure our discipleship is how we love others. Do we treat folks like family even when conflict arises? Or do we shake the dust off our feet and close ourselves off from them for good? By what actions would outsiders know that you are a Christian—yesterday, last month, or last year? How have we been compassionate toward complete strangers during this pandemic that has tested and tried all of us?

John asks this congregation to decide which God they choose to worship and obey. Those who are welcomed into the Christian faith through the waters of baptism are assured that love is their birthright. Through the sacrificial blood of Jesus, we are made one. We are “blood relatives.” By the work of the Holy Spirit we are unified and empowered for service. This God invites us to choose whom we will worship. This God asks us if we are willing to be obedient to a new way of life. This God of Jesus Christ has conquered the temptations of the world for us and reaches out in boundless love to claim us as family! Hallelujah!


Night Talks

My sons are just thirteen months apart in age. They developed their own language when they were toddlers, saying things to each other that we couldn’t understand. After exchanging words that were unintelligible to the rest of us, they would head off together in some sort of joint venture. When they left crib life behind, we tucked them in each night in bunk beds, one boy stacked on top of the other. I always tried to keep my children on a good sleep schedule. So, when I heard them talking in the dark, half an hour after saying bedtime prayers, my instinct was to suggest they pipe down and go to sleep. But then I would hear their conversation. They processed the day, they giggled over funny moments, and they asked questions that the other was willing to answer. Many times, even though there was no answer to a question, they knew that they were heard. One brother cared enough to reflect on life with the other even if they couldn’t make sense of every experience. This loving dialogue allowed them to fall into a deep sleep.

The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus but not a follower. He came to Jesus in the night, drawn to what he saw in Jesus but not ready to publicly own Him. Emmanuel Lartey states, “Like Nicodemus, we discover some of our most profound understandings about life come from conversations and consultations with people we talk to ‘at night,’ people we are often afraid to be seen associating with.”

Nicodemus is a work in progress in John’s gospel. He moves from intrigue to belief. In this introduction to him, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but only under the cover of darkness. In chapter seven we meet him again and he defends Jesus in the midst of his angry Pharisee colleagues. They deride him for his willingness to see Jesus in a positive light when they only see Him as a threat. Finally, we meet Nicodemus in John 19 after Jesus’ death. The man who initially was not willing to meet Jesus in the light of day anoint Jesus’ dead body with expensive spices. He and Joseph of Arimathea give a proper burial for the man they love. Like us, Nicodemus is a work in progress, moving from admiration to worship.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night looking for enlightenment but finding only confusion. Notice where he starts the conversation: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God…” This learned Pharisee is giving a lecture to Jesus about who He is! But it sounds like Nicodemus is trying to convince himself of Jesus’ identity. He begins his speech with assuredness. As a scholar he is accustomed to being the one who teaches students. He is the intellectual who studies his world and defines it for others.  But his teaching moment goes downhill from there. He thinks he knew Jesus well enough to lecture about Him. But, when faced with the very man he so admired, he learns that there is much he can’t comprehend.

I wonder if you have ever been certain that you knew someone well only to discover that you never really knew them? You missed telling revelations because you were sure you knew all there was to know about them. Many in our world today are put off by Christians because they come across as know-it-alls. These believers are ready to lecture about truths they have pinned down. In their self-righteousness, they miss the remarkable revelations others bring to the conversation because they aren’t open to a re-ordering of their carefully constructed world!

Nicodemus, the scholar, begins with a proclamation about who Jesus is and ends with a repeated refrain of, “How can this be?”

What did you once understand thoroughly only to humbly discover that you grasped the subject matter very little? In matters of faith, the closer God draws near, the more we realize that we cannot know this God fully. The instant we are sure we can predict the movement of the Holy, the wind shifts and we recognize that the power of our God cannot be contained. In our arrogance, we are humbled.

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Last week I was outside with my grandson. He was racing along the sidewalk, trying out his running skills. At a rare moment when he was still, the wind gusted and a thousand rosy helicopter seeds blew toward us from a nearby maple tree. We were mesmerized as they floated past and tried to anchor themselves in a manicured lawn. The breeze moved on and our world was once again still. God’s creation seeks to bring growth, to perpetuate the species, to put down roots so that life can break forth from unlikely places. If we devoted all our energies to stopping the shedding of seeds from plants and trees right now, we could not. If we put all our efforts into preventing locusts from showing up every seventeen years to do their brief dance out in the open before leaving their eggs deep in the ground, we could not.

The Spirit of God moves over the face of the earth, sending seeds of growth that challenge our self-assuredness.

John Calvin thought that Jesus wasted His precious time on proud Nicodemus. But Jesus understood that there are lots of us who begin as secret admirers. In the dark of night, we dare to ask our questions, hoping that we will be heard. Jesus’ willingness to challenge this scholar gave Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize how much he had narrowed his world. Nicodemus understood that Jesus loved him enough to engage with him. Jesus trusted that this confident Pharisee could see the world newly through Jesus’ eyes. When we meet him again in John 7, Nicodemus is no longer in the dark about Jesus. He takes a stand before his judgmental colleagues, losing professional credibility because of his willingness to see the divine in controversial Jesus. You see, Nicodemus was indeed born again through that night talk with Jesus. The encounter gives him the humility to allow the Spirit of God to take the lead and teach him new truths. Nicodemus learns that the life of faith is built upon a continual movement of self-surrender. Lartey states, “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it.”

Does that challenge you like it challenges me?

On Trinity Sunday we remember that the nature of God is to be in community. God sent Jesus to give us a greater understanding of who God is. Like those helicopter seeds that optimistically float to the ground, hoping to put down roots, the Spirit blows in each of our lives. We are reminded of a glorious truth: God blows across the face of this earth seeking relationships with all of humanity. God searches you, me, our children, our crabby neighbor, a dying atheist who is finally willing to look for the Divine in the sunset of his life. This is one of only two places in John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of the kingdom. His message is not that God’s Realm is limited to the great beyond, experienced as eternal bliss beyond this physical space that we call home. The Realm of God is here and it’s now! It is found in the quality of life we shape for ourselves and others today, tomorrow and next week. Nicodemus embraced this lesson because we find him for the third time in the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel, taking a very public stand before the religious authorities. They are so threatened by Jesus that they orchestrate His crucifixion. Nicodemus, alongside of Joseph of Arimathea, tenderly carries the broken body of Jesus (who died a criminal’s death) and anoints Him with spices to welcome Him into the next life. To say that Nicodemus’ caring for Jesus’ body is controversial is a gross understatement. He understands that God’s realm is lived out here and now with each word, thought and decision that we make, both privately and publicly. In the end, Nicodemus worships Jesus.

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This past week was Trinity Sunday. The point is not to understand the Trinitarian God. We are called to love God. We are invited to watch for the movement of the Spirit by the seeds that drift before us and settle in our lives, trying to take root. Nicodemus would tell us, “Don’t hold back from God! Never stop asking your questions because God is listening and will hold you in your times of need!”

It is in the dark of night that we wrestle with our deepest questions. Captives, held against their will, whisper questions about their future for which there are no immediate answers. In the asking, they are comforted to sense that God is with them. Lovers at night pledge their devotion to each other, choosing to commit to one another for a lifetime of faithfulness. They know that they can be true to those promises only if they invite God to guide. A father holds his fearful child, assuring her with the words she somehow believes: “It’s Ok.” She falls into a deep slumber because she knows she is safe. My boys’ questions, uttered from stacked bunkbeds in a darkened room, may not all have been answered but they, nonetheless, drifted off to sleep contented that they weren’t alone in their journey. As children of the Tri-une God, we understand that we are created for community. The past fifteen months have been a painful lesson in how much we need to be in each other’s presence, hugging, listening closely, and looking each other in the eyes. Even when we can’t answer each other’s questions; even though we get it wrong at first, what matters is that we are heard and held and loved. What matters is how we hear and hold and love.

Will Willimon reminds us of how much God loves us: “Salvation, our healing and restoration by God, through God’s son, is not our achievement. It is God’s gift. The requirement is not that we know, but that we are willing to be known. God so loved the world that God gave the Son.” Amen!