More Than Enough

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

25 July 2021

I. Feeding the Multitudes

  • That the first story in our reading, which is the feeding of the multitudes, was important to the early church is quite clear – after all, this is the only sign story that appears in all four of the gospels – each of the Evangelists has a slightly different agenda for telling the story, but they all tell it – did you notice that I called it a “sign story” and not a miracle story? – I did that for two reasons – first, it is the word that John the Evangelist uses to describe Jesus’ work – as far as I can determine, John never uses the word “miracle” – John consistently calls these works of power “signs,” and they point to something beyond themselves – they point to the presence of God, especially in Jesus, and to the nearness of the Vision of God
  • The second reason I use “signs” is to get us away from thinking about the miracle event itself – I am not sure why, and maybe it is just me, but it seems to me that the word “miracle” focuses our thoughts on the action and not what the action represents – thus, we try to explain miracles in some way – we try to get to the “how” of the story – we get caught up in the details of the event to the extent that we lose sight of what the sign means – so, let us focus on the sign of the feeding
  • Jesus and his disciples have gone across the Sea of Galilee, to the east side of the sea, which is the less Jewish side, and, not surprisingly, the crowds gather around them once again – these are not necessarily the same people as had been present on the west side of the sea, but they do comprise a crowd – the Evangelist says that the crowds come explicitly because of the signs that Jesus is doing for the sick – the crowds gather around Jesus because they have seen or heard of Jesus’ signs
  • Jesus goes up a mountain and sits down with his disciples and the crowds come – the Evangelist then tells the readers that the time of the Passover is near, which, for John’s community and for us, connects the sign on the mountain with the sign of the first Passover and with Moses and the Exodus from Egypt
  • Jesus sees the crowd and asks Philip from where they are going to get bread for the people – Philip’s response is completely understandable – he says that it would take more than six months’ wages to buy enough to feed all the people even a little – Andrew says that there is a boy who has a little bit of food, five loaves of barley bread, which is poor peoples’ bread, and two dried or cooked fish, but of course it is not enough for the multitudes – Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the grass – then he takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and he himself gives it to the people – then he does the same with the fish – when everyone has had enough to eat, Jesus tells the disciples to gather the bread crumbs, and there are twelve baskets full
  • Rather than getting caught up in the “mechanics” of the story of the feeding of the multitudes, rather than focusing on how Jesus does this wondrous thing, let us ask ourselves to what the sign points – as during the first Passover, God provides what the people need – as Moses did during the Exodus, Jesus goes up on a mountain – as Moses did at God’s command, Jesus provides food in the wilderness – and the food that Jesus provides is not just enough for everyone to have enough, there is a superabundance of food – there is way more than enough – I think that through the sign of abundance, the Evangelist says that God is at work in Jesus, and that through Jesus there is more than enough for everyone – the sign says that God is not stingy – God is generous, and what God gives is more than enough for everyone
  • Of course the crowd that has come to see more signs is astonished – they look at Jesus and they are convinced that he is the prophet, the “one like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18.15), who is to come – and they decide to make Jesus king, but Jesus does not allow it – he leaves them to go off by himself – he will not be the king that the crowd would have him be – he will not lead them in battle against the Roman oppressors – he will not restore David’s kingdom as they want him to do – he is no warrior-king – he is the one who embodies the abundance of God – Jesus is the one who has come to give them more than enough – more than enough food for their souls – more than enough healing – more than enough peace – more than enough grace – more than enough mercy – more than enough love
  • When evening comes, the disciples decide to head back across the sea to the west side, to the more Jewish side, apparently leaving Jesus to find his own way back – so of course the wind comes up and the sea gets rough – then the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, and they are terrified
  • In the version I read for you, the translators say that Jesus’ response to their fear is to say “It is I” – literally, the text says, “I am” – I like that – I like that Jesus tells the terrified disciples who struck out on their own that “he is” – here is another thing: when Moses first encounters God in the burning bush, he asks for God’s name, do you remember what God tells him” – God says to Moses, “I am” – and that is more than enough for Moses
  • Jesus tells his friends that he is and that is more than enough for them not to be afraid – then, before the disciples can get Jesus into the boat, they reach their destination – they are out of danger and with Jesus once again – and, once again, in Jesus God has given a sign of God’s presence

II. More Than Enough

  • One of the main principles on which our world stands is that there is not enough for everyone – there is not enough food – there is not enough wealth – there is not enough safety – there is not enough and some will simply have to do without while others will never know the meaning of doing – this is the principle of scarcity
  • Against the scarcity that the world teaches comes Jesus bearing the good news of the God of abundance – against the greed and avarice of so many people comes Jesus with a Vision that says that when one suffers all suffer, and that when one is in need all are in need – Jesus comes to say that there is enough for everyone
  • I doubt that the crowd remembered the first Passover when Jesus gave them bread to eat – after all, many of them might not even have been Jews – I doubt that they remembered the manna that God gave to the people daily – I doubt that they remembered that God gives more than enough – I doubt that they remembered it at the time, but they could learn it if they could read the signs – I do not doubt that John’s community remembered the ancient story and so do we
  • And yet I wonder what we have forgotten – do we remember how God works in the world to provide more than enough for all people? – do we remember that God does not call us simply to give more than we have to serve others, but that God calls us to give all we have? – do we remember that we are responsible to the world and for the world? – do we remember that because Jesus comes to us in our storms and says to us, “I am,” that there is more than enough of what we truly need, despite what we might think we need?

III. Conclusion

  • The sign of the feeding of the multitudes is not about how Jesus does what he does with loaves and fish – it is about the Vision of God for all the world, a Vision that embodies the God of abundance and the abundance of God – a Vision that tells us all that there is enough of God’s love, of Jesus’ grace and mercy, of the Spirit’s power and presence for everyone to have more than enough to share generously with others
  • Let us go into the world to live generously because Jesus gives more than enough – and where we go, Jesus goes with us

One New Humanity

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

18 July 2021

I. Break Down the Walls

  • At its heart, the epistle to the Ephesians is about reconciliation – reconciliation is a wide-ranging concept in this letter – it includes reconciliation between God and the world, reconciliation between human beings, and the work of Jesus in making reconciliation possible
  • In the first part of the second chapter of Ephesians, the author writes of God reconciling humankind to God’s self – through grace and the re-creation of humanity, God makes possible human beings living in right relationship with God – “For by grace you have been healed through trust, and this is not your own doing—it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.8) – God brings reconciliation – it is already here
  • We have to spend a moment thinking about the nature of this gift – the shorthand that the author uses to speak of Jesus’ work is to speak of “the cross” – today, when we think of the cross, we most likely think of the instrument of torture that the Romans used to pacify and control unruly people and nations, but we sanitize it, empty is of its violence – we use images of the cross to decorate our church buildings and even our bodies – in effect, we divorce the image of the cross from a larger, darker image, and that is our mistake – the cross is, and always will be, an image of death, of the false power of nations
  • For the apostle, thinking of the cross does not focus on Jesus’ death alone – as a metaphor, the cross expands to include everything that comes after Jesus’ crucifixion and death, especially the resurrection
  • The cross was, and still is, an image of violence and control – it is a declaration of worldly power, of the ways that nations and empires use violence and destruction to provide the illusion of peace, but peace in this world is rarely anything more than an illusion, and an especially short-lived illusion at that
  • Empires and nations use things such as crosses, military might, and threat as means to control and coerce – so when the Roman Empire killed Jesus, his death was just business as usual for the Empire – then God declared an end to such things by raising Jesus from death – the empire may have killed Jesus, but God has the last word, averring that the power of nations and empires is not the last word – for God, the last word is life – the last word is the power of God’s love for the world – and this last word matters a great deal in the story of reconciliation
  • The healing of the rift between God and humanity, then, has an analog in the healing of the rifts between human beings – the first rift that the apostle mentions is the rift between the “uncircumcised” and the “circumcised” – this is more apostolic shorthand, this time for non-Jews and Jews – these two groups figure heavily in religious history – lest we forget, Jesus was Jewish, and all of his followers at the beginning were Jewish – at the heart of the Gospels is Jesus’ desire to call God’s people to be true to their nature as God created them – only after the fact, when Jesus, and more so Paul, included non-Jews in the message, did the church begin to expand beyond its Jewish roots
  • That expansion created a great deal of hostility between the groups, and hostility is the enemy of God’s Vision for the world – for the apostle, the cross, including the resurrection, is God’s work through Jesus to remove the walls that God’s people were building and were investing with so much power
  • God’s answer to that investment is Jesus, who is the peace of God’s people – understand that this is a staggeringly political statement – in the Roman Empire, the Emperor, Caesar, is the author of peace – as is always true of empires and nations, the Emperor’s peace comes at the point of a sword – God’s peace, the peace that Jesus brings, however, is different, and it reveals the emptiness of the peace of nations
  • The peace that Jesus brings unites people – the peace that Jesus brings denies the power of the walls we build – the peace that Jesus brings proclaims that there are no divisions, no boundaries, that love cannot cross – the peace that Jesus brings creates one new humanity

II. One New Humanity

  • The image of one new humanity is a threat to nations and empires – almost by definition, nations encourage us to think of people of different nations as “other,” and if they are not us, they are less than us – and if they are less than us, then we can do whatever we want to them and with them
  • This is not only the way of nations and empires – it is the way that we human beings often act toward one another in a wide range of matters – we have spoken many times about how we act toward people in the wider world – we divide ourselves from them and they divide themselves from us – even that language of us and them is a problem – the language assumes that there is an “us” and a “them” – and God says that there is only ever “us,” humankind all together
  • In the face of that us-and-them way of thinking come these words of the apostle – through Jesus, who is our peace, God has made all groups into one – through Jesus, God has broken down the dividing walls, that is, the hostility between us – through Jesus death and resurrection, God has made all of humanity into one new humanity that has as its foundation, not nations or languages or religions or skin color or sexual orientation or gender identity or wealth or worldly power or any of those other measures we use to divide ourselves from one another, but Jesus is the foundation of God’s new Vision for humankind
  • Through Jesus, God is building one new humanity, building on Jesus as the cornerstone – through Jesus, this whole structure of one new humanity is still under construction as a dwelling place for God
  • Being one new humanity does not mean that everyone has to become like one group or another – Jews are still Jews, Muslims are still Muslims, followers of Jesus are still followers of Jesus, the nations are still the nations – and we are all one new humanity – rather than using the distinctions that we have created as ways to divide, they become expressions of the greatness of God, of the extent of God’s grace and mercy, of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Jesus Messiah for all the world (Ephesians 3.18-19)
  • “Those who were far off” and those “who are near” are now all one new humanity by the grace of Jesus Messiah and the will of God

III. Conclusion

  • In these words, the apostle pushes us to redefine ourselves not in terms of our place of birth or of our language or of our religion or of the color of our skin but in light of the work of God through the resurrection of Jesus – we need to try to see the world with God’s eyes and to act with God’s will and direction
  • Jesus is our example – Jesus is our peace – and we in this world are one new humanity in the heart of God

God’s Plumb Line

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

God’s Plumb Line

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • When Crystal and I were not long married, we lived in Chicago – we were not far from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs – we like to go to games at Wrigley, especially me as a Cardinals’ fan, because the Cubs in those days were never very good – there were no lights at Wrigley then, so all the games were afternoon games – what is not to like
  • One game that Crystal and I attended, there was a small, older woman a couple of rows ahead of us – she was decked out in all kinds of Cubs regalia and was keeping score in her own scorebook – she was a fan and there was no doubt
  • A row or two behind us was a large, loud, rather rude and crude man who was well into his beer allotment for the day and showing no sign of slowing down – he was loud and obnoxious, using crude language – many times the older woman looked over her shoulder and glared at the man – finally, she had had enough – she slammer her pencil onto her scorebook, stood up and turned around to face the man – she pointed her finger at him and said in a clear voice, “Why don’t you go back to the Southside, where you belong?” – surprisingly, the man immediately closed his mouth and remained silent for the rest of the game
  • If you know Chicago, you know that there is a Northside and there is a Southside, and never the twain shall meet – the Northside is the domain of the Cubs, those lovable losers of decades past – the Southside belongs to the White Sox, whose reputation fits with the Southside, rough, tough, scrappy, and a bit belligerent – in the case of our small, older woman, the Northside took the day
  • That kept coming to my mind as I read this story in Amos – and the Northside/Southside geography matters to the story

II. A Vision, an Invitation, a Defense

  • In the text from Mark’s Gospel that we shared last week, Jesus states that prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and in their own families – today’s story belies that statement somewhat, but still points to the difficulties of being a prophet of God
  • The part of the story that contradicts Jesus’ statement is that Amos is not a northerner – that might not seem like much of a concern, but let us remember our Bible history – after Solomon dies, the nation of Israel split – the south became the nation of Judah and the north took the name Israel – the two nations had separate governments, different kings, different religious sensibilities – for the few hundred years of their separate existences, the two nations rarely cooperated on anything – mostly they were enemies, or at least like family members who refuse to speak to one another
  • Amos is a shepherd from a little village a few miles south of Jerusalem, which is to say that he is a man of Judah, a southerner – God calls a shepherd from the southern nation to go to the king of Israel, the northern nation – the situation does not bode well for Amos and his preaching
  • The message begins by declaring the failures of the nations that surround the northern nation – this would seem to be good news for the northern king – God is displeased with the neighbors of Israel – good! – glad to hear it!
  • Then Amos starts pointing out the failures and shortcomings of the northern nation – Israel has forgotten the poor – the wealthy have made themselves comfortable at the expense of the needy – the people have worshiped foreign gods and established altars on high places, which also demonstrates their faithlessness – their worship is empty and meaningless because they praise God with one word and scorn the poor with the next – God is also displeased with God’s own people
  • As a part of his preaching, Amos relates having had several visions – the first is a vision of locusts destroying the late harvest – the second is a vision of a destroying rain of fire – after each of these visions, the prophet intercedes for Israel, asking how the nation can endure such events, and God relents
  • The third vision is the one that interests us today – this time the vision is of God standing beside a wall that had been built using a plumb line and holding a plumb line in God’s hand – the wall had been built straight, but has become crooked – this time, the prophet does not intercede
  • God pronounces a judgment against Israel, whom God still calls “my people” despite their corruption – God promises never again to pass by the people, which is not a comforting word – passing by, in this instance, is more of a statement of overlooking, or of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the injustices of the people – God is saying that from now forward, God will not overlook these injustices, that God will not turn a blind eye to the presence of foreign gods and practices – the high places will become desolate and the sanctuaries will become a waste – their actions, their crookedness, belie their worship, and God has let it pass for the last time – God is going to act and the king will fall – God acts by allowing the nation to experience the consequences of their failures to live in right relationships
  • This does not sit well with the priest in charge at the primary sanctuary in the northern nation, at Bethel – this priest, Amaziah, reports to the king that Amos is conspiring against the king – then Amaziah goes to Amos to invite him to leave Israel, to go back southward where he belongs – Amos should never again say a word at Bethel because it is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom
  • That the priest does not say that Bethel, whose very name means “House of God,” is a sanctuary of God and a temple of God – for the priest, the House of God, Bethel, is the king’s sanctuary and temple of the kingdom – no wonder God is upset
  • The prophet defends himself by saying that he is actually not a “professional” in these matters – he is not a prophet and he is not a prophet’s son – he is not a part of the prophetic guild – he is a keeper of livestock and tends trees – and he is the one God calls and sends north to confront a king and a king’s priest – the implication is that there is no prophet in the north who can carry God’s word – it is a slap in the king’s face and Amaziah’s

III. God’s Plumb Line

  • The plumb line is a simple yet evocative image – I am sure that you all know that a plumb line consists of a weight at the end of a line, and provides a standard for determining the verticality of a wall or pole, regardless of the terrain – the question is about what this simple image says to the ancient people and to us
  • Since the wall in the prophet’s vision had already been built using such a line, and since God declares that God is placing a plumb line in the midst of God’s people, then the plumb line must represent God’s determination of the “straightness” of God’s people – the plumb line is a measure for how the people stand – are we vertical or are we not
  • For the ancient people, surely the plumb line must indicate God’s covenant with the people – the covenant is the agreement between God and the people, that the people will be God’s people and God will be their God
  • The covenant places responsibilities on the people to live in community together and with God – the covenant shows the people how they are to live in this world – throughout the centuries, the prophets have called the people to return to the covenant by living in right relationships and justice – and throughout the centuries, God’s people have turned away from God’s plumb line to follow our own standards of measurement
  • For both the ancient people and for us, the plumb line represents the presence of God within us – God’s justice is the standard of living in the covenant of God – and it is against God’s plumb line that God measures us
  • For us, we who declare ourselves to be among God’s people in this age, we also have the embodied demonstration of God’s presence in the person of Jesus, in what he said, and in what he did – for us, the presence of Jesus is a part of God’s plumb line
  • We turn to Jesus, then, for our example of how to please God – and we hear him say that love and justice and right relationships are the evidence of what we say – we hear him say that we are to love our neighbors and even our enemies, that we are to act with mercy toward others, that we are to see that the poor have enough, that we are to call the powers of the world, the powers of empire, to account – and we see Jesus perform acts that confirm his words – he heals all who come to him – he speaks truth to the powers of the world – he welcomes sinners and righteous ones alike – he treats of strangers with compassion, grace, mercy, and welcome
  • This is God’s plumb line for us

IV. Conclusion

  • This could seem overwhelming, beyond our abilities – and it may be so – at the same time, God sends the Holy Spirit among us to guide us and to empower us to see God’s plumb line and live in alignment with it
  • Jesus also assures us that God’s love and mercy are without end – the plumb line need not be a judgment – God’s plumb line is our guide, our standard – God’s plumb line is among us and his name is Jesus

For the Journey

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

For the Journey

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Going Home and Going Out

  • Our story for this week picks up right where we ended last week – last week’s stories were the conclusion of a longer part of the Jesus story in which Jesus confronts fear in the people around him and urges them to trust in him – the last images in that longer story were of a woman healed after twelve years of suffering and a family rejoicing after the restoration of their daughter, and the comforting picture of Jesus telling the daughter’s parents to give her something to eat
  • As we often see in Mark’s Gospel, the Evangelist quickly shifts the location – Jesus leaves the area of the Sea of Galilee and goes home to Nazareth – and the twelve follow him
  • We are not surprised that Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach – he had done the same thing earlier in the gospel, going to the synagogue in Capernaum, but this time apparently he is in Nazareth
  • At first, the teaching seems to go well – many who hear him are astounded – they cannot believe that someone they know has this kind of wisdom – “Where did this man get all this?,” they ask – “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?,” they wonder – then things take a darker turn
  • The amazement of the men in the synagogue turns to contempt – this is no scholar – he is only a common carpenter or stonemason – he is the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and a bunch of sisters – notice that there is no mention of Jesus’ father at all – any respect or astonishment the synagogue men might have felt flies away – all that is left is scorn – they are saying that because they know his roots they also know that he is nothing special – he is just another pretender to wisdom, not deserving of respect or attention
  • In some way, their scorn and unbelief limit what Jesus is able to do there in terms of healing, which seems to say that human faith in some way affects or restricts God’s power to heal – that seems odd to me, but there it is – maybe Jesus cannot perform many deeds of power in Nazareth not because the people’s unbelief curbs Jesus’ ability but because they simply will not allow him to work or to act – then the few healing acts Jesus does accomplish successfully are simply because the people allowed him to work
  • The situation in Nazareth then becomes the launching point for the mission journeys on which Jesus sends the twelve – he gives them authority over unclean spirits, but by implication he also gives them authority to spread the good news and call people to repentance
  • The disciples’ preparations for the journey are quite specific – they are to go out like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” depending on the kindness of strangers – they are to take no food, no bag, no money, no spare clothing – they are to take nothing but a staff and sandals and their own willingness to teach as Jesus has taught them
  • When they get to a place, they should stay in that place – and if a place will not welcome them, they are to move on and not look back – such a reception defies the custom of hospitality, and likely demonstrates an unwelcome attitude toward the good news – and yet, as Jesus and the twelve have just seen in Nazareth, people can be hostile to the message and to the messengers
  • In spite of the possibility of rejection, the twelve seem to have a good deal of success on their journeys – they cast out demons and they heal many who are sick – and they proclaim the message of repentance

II. For the Journey

  • Before anyone gets too exercised that I might suggest that the mission journeys of the twelve are a model for our lives today, let me assure you that I will not do that – while the mission journeys matter, the preparations for the journeys are different for us, and yet there are some lessons for us
  • We have to recognize that whoever we are, we are on a mission journey – to be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a movement that takes precedence over every aspect of our lives – to be a follower of Jesus is to be first and foremost ministers – we often think that such work is for professionals, for paid staff members of churches, but that is an incorrect thought – we are all of us missionaries to our worlds
  • We all are to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all people – we all proclaim hope in place of despair – we all are to proclaim peace in place of strife and conflict – we all are to proclaim unity in place of division – we all are to proclaim grace in place of judgment – we all are to proclaim love in place of hate and apathy – we all are to proclaim these things and so many more by way of our choices and actions more than by what we say – there is some truth in the old saying, “preach the good news at all times and if necessary use words” – this is a significant part of our calling
  • At the same time, we cannot force anyone to listen to our words and actions – we have to be ready for rejection and for others to refuse to hear us – one aspect of the lesson of the journey is that we can never be responsible for what others do or for how they might react to our proclamations in word and action – we can only be responsible for what we say and do
  • Accepting that might sound like a simple thing, but it is hard – we all want others to like us, but wanting is not the same as having – when Jesus tells his disciples to shake the dust off their feet, it sounds a bit like judgment, but I do not read it that way – even if the communities to which the disciples go reject the message, that does not mean that God rejects them – we do not determine on whom God showers God’s love – that is not up to us, but to God alone
  • I read the statement to shake of the dust as a way to say to the twelve and to us that we should not let the past deter us from our mission, that we should not allow the past to become a burden – shaking the dust from our feet is not a judgment – it is keeping our focus on the work and the world before us, on what is ahead of us

III. Conclusion

  • Jesus prepares us all for the journeys of our lives by promising that wherever we go and whatever we do, he will be with us – he gives us authority to proclaim God’s love for all people and to resist the powers of evil and this present age – and that is all we need for the journey, wherever it may take us

Lamplighter Article, July 2021

Monday, 28 June 2021

Dear Friends,

If you have been a Facebook user for any amount of time, you might have seen a meme in which there is a photograph of a group of young, African children sitting in a circle with their feet toward the middle. The caption of the photograph tells a story about an anthropologist offering the children a prize of a basket of fruit to the winner of a footrace. When the anthropologist gave signal to start, the children all joined hands and ran together to the finish line, then shared the fruit equally among themselves. The anthropologist asked why they had not run the race as a competition so that the winner could have had the whole basket as an individual, one of the children replies with the word, “Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if the others are sad.” In most translations into English, “Ubuntu” is something like, “I am because we are.”

Another image regarding Ubuntu is of a person seeming to be crying while standing in the middle of a group. The caption explains that in some South African cultures, when someone does something wrong, they are placed in the center of the village with their people all around. For two days the village tells the person all the good that they have done, believing that every person is good and sometimes makes mistakes, thus requiring the encouragement and affirmation of the people to get back to that true, good nature within. This, too, is Ubuntu, translated in this case as “humanity toward others.”

For some of us, these seem like little more than idle talk. We are so invested in winning, in being first, the best, the top of the heap, that we cannot conceive that there is any other way of being human. Might makes right, we say, or more usually maybe do not say but only think. Life is a zero-sum game in which being a winner means that someone has to be a loser, in which a gain on one side necessarily means a loss on another side. We believe that being the winner of the game is way better than being the loser. Losing is for losers and we are not losers. Our zero-sum-game approach to life makes everyone else, everyone who is not “us,” an enemy to defeat or destroy, an obstacle to overcome.

Such a competitive way of life, with its divisions and barriers, dehumanizes us all, not just our “enemies,” whoever they might be; people from other nations, people who worship other gods or worship God with a different name, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different from ours, people who are poor, people who are broken in ways that we cannot understand. Once we have dehumanized others, and ourselves, we can go on to justify mistreating them however we see fit to do.

Here is what Jesus says about that way of life: Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all (Mark 10.43b-44). And this: The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 21.11-12)

“I am because we are.” Our lives are never simply our own. There are no self-made people. We live together in community, one people, one human race. Our work is always to love one another, to recognize in the faces of others the mirror image of ourselves. To see in them the image of God.

Ubuntu.

Grace and Peace,

Tommy

Fear and Trust

Monday, 28 June 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

27 June 2021

I. Two Daughters

  • We all know these intertwined stories about two daughters very well – we have heard them many times and probably we have heard many sermons on them many times – we hear them often, but do we really hear them? – we know that they are healing stories, but that is not all they are
  • We have to go back into Mark 4, where, after Jesus has been teaching by telling stories, he gets into a boat with his disciples to go east across the Sea of Galilee to get away from the crowds – while on the sea, a windstorm arises, the disciples have a struggle against the weather, and Jesus sleeps in the boat – the disciples find this irritating and wake him up, asking if he cares that they are dying here – then Jesus does something they do not expect – he calms the storm – then he asks them why they are afraid, have they still no trust in him?
  • Across the sea, on the east side, Jesus and his gang run across a demoniac living in a graveyard – his community has not sent him there – he has escaped the restraints into which they put him and chooses to be there – Jesus casts out the demons, killing a herd of swine – and when the people of the nearby community hear of it, when they come out of the town and see the man in his right mind and the huge number of dead pigs, they are afraid and ask Jesus to go away
  • Back west across the sea they go, where the Jesus band runs into the crowds they had gone to the east side to escape – in the crowd is a leader of a local synagogue – he repeatedly asks Jesus to come heal his daughter who is near death – without a word, Jesus goes with him
  • Already in Mark’s Gospel, there have been several healings, both of named and unnamed people – already the stories have conditioned us to expect success in the healing, and so we are not surprised when Jesus goes with the synagogue leader – before we get to the leader’s home, however, someone else intervenes
  • A woman who has been through hell for twelve years timidly, secretly, quietly comes to Jesus, trusting that if she but touches Jesus’ clothes she can be healed – the way that the Evangelist describes it is amazing storytelling, building tension until it becomes almost unbearable – literally, the Greek says something like this: And a woman – having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind – touched his cloak – the tension builds until the moment of healing – and she knows she is healed
  • Jesus senses that something has happened and asks who has touched him – the disciples cannot believe he can ask such a question, but Jesus waits for someone to admit what has happened – the woman comes back in fear and trembling, and tells Jesus the whole truth – Jesus calls her “daughter” and says that her trust in him has healed her, saved her, made her whole – then he completes her healing by blessing her and sending her on her way in peace and restoration
  • Imagine the anxiety of the father of the dying young woman while all this is going on – imagine his fear and impatience with Jesus – time is critical to him, and, sure enough, the worst happens – word comes that his own daughter has died – the time has come to let the teacher go on his way – Jesus’ response is a familiar one – he tells the father not to fear, only trust
  • The scene at the house is quite something, with wailing and mourning – Jesus tells the gathered mourners that they are mistaken – the girl is not dead – she is only sleeping – and they laugh at him
  • Taking the girl’s parents and three of his disciples, Jesus sends everyone else away and takes her hand speaks to her, only to her – I imagine that he whispers to her when he tells her to get up – [whisper] Get up, little one, get up – she rises and walks around, and the witnesses are astounded – here is where we learn that she is twelve years old, the same number of years that the woman has been ill
  • Finally, Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet about this and, I love this part, he tells the parents to feed the girl – if nothing else, feeding her will tell the ones outside that the joke is on them, that the girl really was only sleeping, even if we know the whole truth

II. Fear and Trust

  • To be sure, these two stories, which the Evangelist mixes together for some dramatic effect and to allow them to comment on each other, these two stories say something about Jesus’ healing abilities – they are each a kind of miracle story – the story of the unnamed woman tells us that Jesus can heal even when he does not intend to do it – after all, he has no idea that the woman is coming so stealthily to get something from him, and yet her trust in him draws something from him to accomplish her healing without his participation – the completion of the healing he offers to her comes after the disease has left her
  • The story of the young woman tells us that Jesus can even bring healing when the situation is far beyond any expectation for it – the stories are about healing, but they are also more than that
  • The stories are also about something else – given the context and all that has happened leading up to these stories, I think that the stories are also about fear and trust, about trusting in God being at work in and through Jesus when such trust seems foolish, about trusting in the presence of God in Jesus being able to sustain us when there is no hope – about trusting that God’s Vision is life for all
  • Notice I have not said anything about ritual purity, even though there are issues about such things in the stories – I do not say anything about them because Jesus does not and nor does Mark – if these were important issues, I think that Jesus would have addressed them – the woman had been ill, but now she is well – the young woman had been dead, but now she is alive – purity issues here do not matter – what matters is that there is fear and there is trust
  • Fear and trust are not strangers to any of us – we live our lives with both of them, and, like these two stories, they are intertwined in us – trusting God to be present at all times in our lives is rarely easy for us – even Jesus wondered why God had abandoned him on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you,” Jesus cried (Matthew 27.46║Mark 15.34) – the wonder and tragedy is that God had not abandoned him, but he felt as if God had
  • We, too, feel that sometimes God abandons us when life gets hard – being human, naturally we feel afraid in those times – in times of loss and uncertainty, in times of sorrow and pain, we are often afraid – and in those times, I imagine Jesus saying to us, “Stop being afraid; trust me”
  • God does not leave us alone, unaided – God is always with us – the struggle is to trust even when we are afraid – the unnamed and ill woman trusts that she needs only to touch Jesus’ cloak and she will be well – her trust in him heals her – the leader of the synagogue trusts that Jesus can heal his daughter even when she seems to be beyond help – and Jesus tells him to give her something to eat
  • When our lives spin out of control, when we are afraid of what the future might bring, we stop thinking clearly and make bad decisions – those are the times Jesus draws near and tells us to let go of our fear and trust him

III. Conclusion

  • Here we have two stories of women who are powerless in their situations, who cannot control what happens or what will happen, and in the midst of an all too human fear there is healing for them
  • Fear and trust come together in us – God does not want us to live in fear or anxiety – let us rather live in each moment as it comes, and trust that we are never alone, whatever may happen – Jesus is with us – let us trust in him

The Seed Grows

Monday, 14 June 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

13 June 2021

I. Introduction

  • On our first Thanksgiving on Long Island, my parents came for a visit – this was a big deal – for as long as I could remember at that time, my parents had hosted the Faris family Thanksgiving dinner – for them to leave Bedford to come to New York at Thanksgiving was really something
  • As a special treat, we took them to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular – it is a huge show with ice skating, dancing (especially the Rockettes, which my dad really enjoyed, go figure), all culminating in a retelling of the biblical nativity stories, complete with a bunch of live animals, including a couple of live camels
  • As we exited Radio City Music Hall, my dad asked how far we were from Times Square – it was about a ten or fifteen-minute walk to Times Square, the evening was cool, but pleasant, the streets were brightly lit, and there were large crowds of people, so we walked
  • As we entered Duffy Square, which is immediately north of Times Square, Daddy’s eyes lit up and he pointed across to Times Square and said, “That was where the USO was during World War II” – we were all stunned, and he began to talk about being at the Merchant Marine training school at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, about going to Times Square many times to go to the USO, about riding the trains and subways and going to Ebbet’s Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play baseball
  • I was forty-something years old, and, although I knew Daddy had been in the Merchant Marine, I had never heard any of this before, and had they not come to New York for a visit, had we not gone to the Christmas Spectacular, had we not walked to Times Square, I might never have heard about any of it
  • That is the way of stories – if we do not tell our stories, they die with us

II. Jesus Sows Some Seed

  • Telling stories is one of the primary ways that Jesus teaches – as you just heard at the end of our reading, in fact, the Evangelist tells readers that Jesus does not speak to “them” except in parables, or stories (Mark 4.34) – Jesus is quite the storyteller – his stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes silly, sometimes frustrating, and always a challenge to hearers and readers
  • In today’s reading, we have two stories that say something about sowers, the seeds they sow, and what happens afterward – the stories also have something to say about the Vision of God, but neither Jesus nor the Evangelist tells us what that something may be – and, as is the nature of stories, every one of us may have our own understanding of what the stories say to us – or, we may ignore the challenging part and just enjoy the stories, which is true of the first hearers, as well
  • The first story begins by comparing the Vision of God to a sower scattering seed on the ground and walking away – for the sower, that is all there is to do until the time of harvest – the sower goes on with life, sleeping and rising day and night, doing whatever else there is going on – while doing all these other things, the seed grows – the seed and the earth need no help in Jesus’ story, and the sower cannot explain what happens and does not have to
  • In Jesus’ story, all that has to happen for the seeds to sprout and to grow is for the sower to scatter the seeds and for the ground to do its work – the earth is naturally fruitful, so the plant grows, stalk, head, full grain – and then the sower becomes the reaper gathering the harvest
  • The Evangelist goes on with another such story, perhaps putting it together with the first because both have to do with seeds and growth – it is a story of the mustard seed, the smallest seed, that grows into the greatest shrub, with large branches that provide cover and nesting places for the birds of the air – this is not the story of faith the size of a mustard seed (see Matthew 17.20║ Luke 17.6) – that is another story altogether
  • One of the wonderful, and, for many of us, uncomfortable, things about stories is that there is so rarely a single meaning or interpretation of one – Jesus could tell these stories to crowds of people and the hearers might be entertained, but as stories are wont to do if they are good stories, they stick with the hearers and make them think – As far as the Evangelist tells us, Jesus does not offer interpretations of these stories – instead, he leaves the interpretations to the hearers – I think that some of the hearers would think so much about the stories that they would begin to get a glimpse of what Jesus was saying – and when the Evangelist says that Jesus explained everything to the disciples, I picture a teacher sitting with a group of students asking them about the meaning of a story or of a poem – rather than a lecture, I picture a discussion – but that may just be me
  • The effectiveness of Jesus’ stories is that they are so familiar to his audience – they would know, for example, that Jesus is exaggerating when he calls the mustard seed the smallest seed on earth, which it is not, by the way, and the mustard plant the largest of the shrubs, which, again, it is not – maybe he does it for effect, maybe he does it for a laugh, but the audience would get the joke, whereas we take it all so seriously – they would be familiar with the images Jesus raises
  • At the same time, Jesus is saying something surprising, something to catch his audience off their guard – to what does Jesus compare the Vision of God? To a giant redwood? To a majestic oak or elm? To the towering cedars of Lebanon – no – he compares the Vision to an everyday plant that is useful for seasoning and for medicine, a plant that is invasive and difficult to control, but otherwise unremarkable – like the seeds that are sown in the first of today’s parable, the earth produces of itself – and the image is nothing so grand or beautiful as a great tree, but a common little, useful bush
  • Jesus intends his surprising image to be instructive to his audience – he startles the crowd by giving them the opportunity to re-imagine an image that they thought they already knew – and maybe the same thing is happening today as we read the text

III. The Seed Grows

  • At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he announces that the Vision of God is here – the Vision has already come – when he shares these two stories, the Vision is still present – it is in the lives of the hearers – today, the Vision lives within us and we are its embodiment – we are not the whole of the Vision, but we are one expression of it – let us say that we are one branch of the shrub – we may not know how the Vision grows – we may not always be able to see it grow – we may think at times that it is dying rather than growing – but the story goes on
  • I think that one way we participate in the spreading of the seeds of the Vision and in its growth is by telling our own stories and the story of Salem Church – there is no formula that we must follow in telling our stories – there is no set pattern to guide us – all storytelling has a context, including our stories – and every time we tell them, we may emphasize different parts of the story – but they will always only our stories – they are not anyone else’s stories to tell – if we do not tell our own stories, then no one will
  • As we tell them, we scatter more seeds of the Vision – and then the seed grows – we cannot explain the growth and we cannot understand it, but it happens – it happens because the Vision of God is about transformation – in Jesus’ stories, the seed is one thing and it goes into the ground – the plants that arise from the seed are, in a sense, another thing – they are different from the seed and yet still essentially related
  • As the seed grows, we can neither cause the growth nor control it – we cannot direct the transformation either within us or in the world beyond us – that is the work of God through the Holy Spirit – all we can do is to give our consent to the transformation and to cooperate in it with the Holy Spirit in accomplishing it – we can also prohibit it – that is up to us
  • Whatever we choose to do, the seed grows – the stalk, the head, the full grain in the head, the shrub, and the shelter in its shade for the birds of the air – God wills it – God directs it – and the seed grows

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us not allow our stories to go untold – rather, let us go and sow our gospel seed – let us go and live lives of grace, love, hope, and life – let us go scattering seed everywhere we go
  • And by the grace and abundant life of God, the seed grows

Hearing the Sound of God

Monday, 7 June 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

, Higginsville, Missouri

6 June 2021

I. Introduction

  • Here we have one of the more widely familiar parts of the Hebrew Bible – as Christians, however, we have overlaid an interpretation of the story that its original authors and editors did not intend – this interpretation has caused us to focus on one part of the story at the expense of a larger one
  • We have also made the mistake, too often, of taking the story as literal history – when we do that, we have to overlook, or accept, a talking serpent and God walking in the cool evening breezes – as with the Christian overlay of the story, a literal reading makes the story smaller, limits out understanding
  • Let us try to lay aside our usual understanding to take a look what the story has to say to us today

II. Eyes Open

  • We all know how Christians have understood the story about the trees and the man and the woman in the garden – everything we need to know about that is that we have always called it “The Fall of Humankind” – well, actually, it has been “The Fall of Man,” but you know me – I like to be inclusive – for Christians, this has been the story about how sin came into creation – this is our “original sin” – I do not say that the Christian interpretation is wrong, only that it is not the only way to look at the story
  • Here is the thing, our Jewish sisters and brothers do not see the story as one about a fall – it is for them more a story about human beings and our relationships with God and with the creation – it is also a story about how God deals with us
  • The background, of course, is the garden in which God places first the man and later the woman – the garden is creation in its proper order – there are peace for all creatures and abundance – God, humans, and creation all living in right relationships – the humans have work to do, i.e., to till and keep the garden (Genesis 2.15) – the human beings have freedom to do as they please in the garden (Genesis 2.16) – but freedom has its limits in the garden as in all of life, and God commands that the man not eat of a particular tree (Genesis 2.17)* – later, the woman and the man are naked and they are not ashamed – their shame, however, has nothing to do with sex – in Creation in its proper order, there is no shame, there is no fear – instead, this is an image of the embodied Vision of God – but as we know, the Vision will not last
  • You see, there is a serpent in the garden – the serpent is not the devil – it is not God’s heavenly adversary – it is a serpent, a crafty and clever animal – and it asks a simple question – the question is simple, but it also slightly distorts an earlier statement – the serpent asks if it is true that God has prohibited the woman and the man from eating from any tree in the garden – the woman is a bit clever herself, and she corrects the serpent – God has prohibited only one tree
  • With that simple twist, however, the serpent places a small doubt in the woman’s mind – and with that small doubt, what was an acceptable prohibition becomes a nearly intolerable limit on her freedom
  • When she looks again at the tree, she sees that it is good to eat, and good to look at, and the opportunity for knowledge is just too delicious to let pass – so she takes some fruit and eats it and gives some to the man, who is with her, and he eats it, too – and that is when their eyes open – they have enough knowledge to realize that they are naked – at this moment, the text does not say that they are ashamed, only that their eyes are open – and with open eyes, they make temporary coverings for their bodies
  • Then they hear the sound of God walking in the cool evening breeze and the man and the woman hide from God – when God asks where the man is, the man replies that when he heard God walking, he hid because he was naked and afraid – as suddenly as taking a piece of fruit from a tree, the work has come to a halt, the humans have forgotten their freedom, and they have stopped thinking about their relationship with God – the language is all centered on “I” – “I heard…I was afraid…I was naked…I hid”
  • God knows what has happened, but still gives the man an opportunity to own up to what he has done – the man takes the moment to blame God, first of all, then the woman, saying, “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit…” – in the same way, the woman blames the serpent – the serpent does not get to say anything, but whom could he blame anyway but God?
  • As with all the choices we make in this world, the serpent, the woman, and the man have to face the consequences for their choices – those consequences appear harsh – everything that might have been easy becomes difficult – there is conflict between the humans and the natural world, and between the humans – everything has become twisted, off kilter – creation is no longer in its proper order, no longer in the order God intended and created
  • Even so, the woman and the man do not die – according to God’s warning (Genesis 2.17), they should be dead, but they are not – their lives have gotten much harder and more painful, but they are alive – they have disobeyed God, which should mean their deaths, but God asserts that they will live, and even makes more permanent clothes for them (Genesis 3.21) – even in judgment, God’s grace is present – in matters of life and death, God chooses life for the Creation and for God’s creatures

III. Hearing the Sound of God

  • The story is not about the evils of sex or knowledge – the humans knew what they were doing was wrong before they ate the fruit, so they already had some sense of right and wrong – neither is the story about how sin came into the world – this is not a story about crime and punishment – the story is about how God treats us when we rebel, when we disobey – this is what God does: God allows us to reap what we sow – our actions and our choices have consequences and God does not shield us from those consequences – this judgment, God’s judgment, is mercy, as it always is
  • Our usual way in times of trouble is to emulate the man and the woman in the garden – when our lives become distorted, we blame our parents – we blame our siblings – we blame our spouses and our partners – we blame our coworkers – we point at forces beyond our control – “the devil made me do it” – we human beings try with all our might to make sure that we do not accept responsibility for what goes wrong in our lives
  • Even so, God knows – God knows what we have done and, beyond allowing the consequences to have their effect, God does not judge us without mercy – God’s grace still covers us – God’s love still surrounds us
  • God comes walking in the garden of this world and when we hear the sound of God coming near, we need not hide – rather, our best choice upon hearing the sound of God is to draw nearer and trust in God’s mercy for us and for everyone

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us let go of the image of a harsh and condemning God – let us see the image of God that this story gives us – hearing the sound of God walking with us in our lives is not a threat, but a gift
  • May we all be blessed to hear the sound of God moving in us, through us, and with us as we journey through this garden of life

*The three-part structure of “vocation, permission, and prohibition” comes from Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 46-50.

Heirs of God

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

30 May 2021

I. A Spirit of Adoption

  • As we look at the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, we need to see it in its entirety – Paul knows Greek philosophy, some of which posits a way of thinking that we call dualism – dualism divides things into two categories – this and that, black and white, right and wrong, us and them, good and bad, whole and broken, matter and spirit, all of these pairs and many others are examples of dualism in practice
  • As he writes to the Roman followers of Jesus, Paul employs such dualistic theology, dividing the world into those who live under the law of sin and death and the law of the Spirit of life (8.2) – he encourages the Romans to live in the Spirit because the Spirit is life – and if the Spirit of life lives in the Romans, then the Spirit of life will give life to them
  • After our reading for today, Paul goes on to talk about the whole creation groaning like a mother giving birth, waiting for the fullness of the life of the Spirit to become apparent – the Spirit is at work in the world and in the children of God, so the coming of the fullness of life is a foregone conclusion – the fullness is already here, and creation waits of its completion – it is going to happen – and in the meantime, nothing in all of creation can separate anyone from the love of God in Jesus Messiah (8.39)
  • For Paul, all the work required for people to be able to live according to the Spirit has already been done, and God has done it – what the Romans have to do, and what followers of Jesus in all times and places have to do, is to allow the Spirit to transform them – that is what the Spirit does – the Spirit transforms – the Spirit transformed a ragtag group of nobodies into a movement that spread throughout the world – the Spirit transformed a fisherman named Simon into a preacher named Peter – and the Spirit will transform us, too, if we allow the transformation to happen
  • In this reading, Paul says that the Spirit transforms a spirit of slavery and fear into a spirit of adoption – this is a big deal – in the Roman world, once a person made someone his heir, there was no distinction between heirs by birth and heirs by adoption – and for Paul, the Holy Spirit transforms strangers and enemies of God into children and heirs of God – not only are Jesus’ followers heirs of God, they are joint heirs with Christ – all that Jesus receives, the adopted children of God receive – Paul reminds readers that Jesus suffered because of his relationship with God his Abba and that Jesus’ followers might similarly suffer because of relationship with God their adoptive Abba – you probably know that Abba is an intimate term, with more of a sense of endearment than of formality – think mommy or daddy rather than mother or father
  • Suffering is not the only lot of heirs of God – there is also glory, but not a glory about which the heirs may boast – it is not glory that is inherent, but glory that is inherited – it is glory that God confers freely, not that the heirs earn
  • Most of all, the heirs of God inherit abundant life and joy – Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ joint heirs receive the life of the Spirit as God’s gift of grace
  • This gift is unconditional, and yet is places responsibility on the children of God – the responsibility is that God’s children must put to death all that leads to death – that may sound like a sort of a paradox, and yet that is what living according to the Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to do – because of the life of the Spirit that lives within God’s adopted children, living according to the flesh is no longer tenable – the old ways, the old life, have no power over God’s children – thus, the children put to death the deeds of the flesh, the ways of this world, the ways of empire and control and violence, and live in the life that God gives by the Spirit

II. Heirs of God

  • By the same power and life of the Holy Spirit that enabled Paul to write these words of transformation to the Jesus People in Rome, Paul writes these words to us – and they are no less powerful and transforming now than they were then
  • We still struggle with living according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh – keep in mind that “flesh” does not simply refer to the physical world – it refers to all that stands in opposition to the ways of God as Jesus revealed them and that the Spirit empowers us to follow
  • As heirs of God, God gifts us with a sort of a living legacy – as the lectionary group I meet with discussed this text, one of my colleagues raised the issue of inheritance – in worldly terms, children do not generally receive their full inheritance from their parents until the parents die – but God does not die, so how can God’s children receive an inheritance from God
  • Perhaps we should not get too far into the weeds of human understandings and issues of inheritance – God does not die – God’s well of life is limitless and never runs dry – through the Holy Spirit, God offers life to all without diminishing God’s life in the least – this is what I mean by saying God offers us a living legacy – as heirs of God, God offers life to us and invites us to share in that life
  • We share in God’s gift of life by giving it away to others – being heirs of God does not mean that we keep for ourselves the gift that God offers – we find the life of God’s Spirit by sharing it freely and widely with everyone we meet – heirs of God must not be stingy or miserly with the inheritance of life that we receive – like our Abba, like our brother and co-heir Jesus, heirs of God are generous with love and life, with forgiveness and mercy, with grace and joy – all the gifts we receive from our adoptive parent, we share freely

III. Conclusion

  • The adoption has already happened – it happened when Jesus came into the earth, died to demonstrate the infinite extent of God’s love for all people, and was raised by God to show us the power of the life of the Spirit over the powers of the earth, the ones that required Jesus’ death
  • Yes, the adoption has already happened – the Spirit of life is alive in us – and as heirs of God, we already have received our inheritance – the promises of God are already ours – and God calls us and empowers us to share those gifts with everyone whom God loves

Lamplighter Article, June 2021

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Dear Friends,

One of the great works of literature in the United States is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. It is also a book that few of us ever actually read. Believe it or not, I did read it many years ago, and I have sometimes facetiously referred to it as 600 pages of nineteenth-century whaling minutiae followed by thirty pages of heart-pounding excitement. That is more than a bit unfair, but not entirely inaccurate. Even so, it really is a good book, just not an easy one to read.

Forty-one chapters into the story, the narrator, call him Ishmael, describes Captain Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale, Moby Dick. In that description, we read these words: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”

This is a description not only of obsession but also of madness, of insanity. A part of Ishmael’s description is that this madness is “all truth with malice in it.” After what we have been through in the last several years, all of which intensified even more during the pandemic, I have come to believe that there are many of us who live “all truth with malice in it.”

When I was working on my dissertation, I realized that a good deal of the opposition that my subject faced as he spread the word of his belief in the imminent return of Jesus, was due to his absolute belief that his interpretation of biblical prophecies was the only logical interpretation, and maybe the only possible true interpretation. So sure was he that he had found the great hidden Truth of scripture that he could not admit the possibility that he could be in error.

So it is, I believe, with all of us when we conflate “my truth” with “the truth.” Whenever we think that we possess the whole truth, whenever we think we know the full depth and breadth of truth, then we are only a short step from believing that anyone who has another “truth” is not only wrong but quite possibly evil, as well. Believing that we have the whole truth of anything, we draw a line in the sand, so that those who agree with us are on the right side and those who do not agree with us are on the wrong side. It is a dangerous situation that we create, dangerous for others and for ourselves.

All my life I have heard people chide Pontius Pilate for his question during his interrogation of Jesus in John 18.38: “What is truth?” But maybe that is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves and should ask ourselves every time we speak or write a post on social media. Before we click “post,” we should consider, “What is truth? Is this truth, or is it my truth only?” Maybe asking the ourselves those questions would remind us that while “The Truth” exists somewhere, it does not dwell fully in us, it cannot dwell fully in us. We are finite creatures, and we can only reach occasional glimpses of the whole Truth, out of the corners of our eyes, as it were., like Moses getting a glimpse of God’s backside because seeing all of God would likely kill him (Exodus 33.17-23).

Instead of speaking all truth with malice in it, I suggest that we learn to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4.15). Paul uses this phrase in a conversation about the unity and maturity of the body of Christ. Speaking the truth in love is a demonstration of our growing unity and maturity, of growing in every way to be more Christlike. Speaking the truth in love is never hurtful, never belittles another, respects the other, and values right relationship with the other over controlling the other.

Our world has enough of all truth with malice in it. Let us seek the Way of Jesus for a while and see where that will take us.

Grace and Peace

Tommy