A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: July 9, 2017: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

My post from three years ago, worth another look.


Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the…

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A Provocation: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: July 5, 2020: Romans 7:15-25a

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 
For I do not do what I want, 
but I do the very thing I hate.

7:16 Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

7:17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, 
that is, 
in my flesh. 
I can will what is right, 
but I cannot do it.

7:19 For I do not do the good I want, 
but the evil I do not want is what I do.

7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, 
it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, 
evil lies close at hand.

7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,

7:23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, 
making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

7:24 Wretched man that I am! 
Who will rescue me from this body of death?

7:25a Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Lutheran theologians love this passage. We have found it amenable to our basic theology, that God alone can save, since humans need to be delivered from “this body of death” because we “do not do the good [we] want, but the evil [we] do not what is what [we] do.” On this reading, Sin is an ontological force with eschatological impact (I have said that in recents posts, as well), which means that there is a puzzle at the heart of human action. For all our strength, and for all our good intentions, we find ourselves doing damage when we aim to do good.

This is a strong theology, worthy of respect. It produces useful insights.

But it is not the only way of reading Paul’s words in Romans 7.

The key to another way to read comes in Paul’s statement in v. 16:

Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

The first thing to consider is that, for all his help to Lutheran theology, Paul was not a Lutheran. He was Jewish. And that means that when he talks about “law” you should translate the word as “Torah,” which is something very different from what Lutherans mean when we talk about Law over against Gospel. In that antagonistic opposition, only the Gospel makes alive, and the Law only kills. As a result, some Lutherans read v. 16, and then imagine that it is a good thing that God gave us Law so that it could kill us.

Jews do not imagine things that way. Lutherans should listen when Jewish theologians notice the danger that comes with imagining that God wants to kill us and that we should see this as good.

Before you fire off a volley of passages from the Bible or regale me with a flurry of stories in which killing might be somehow good, please remember that I read the Bible as vigorously as you do, and that my narrative imagination is probably as strong as anyone’s. I know those passages, too, and I have long reflected on those stories.

From Jewish friends and interpreters I have learned to hear v. 16 differently, and in a way I (as a Lutheran) find illuminating.

For instance:

Now, if I find myself wanting to do something, and still not doing it, I have just agreed that the practice of studying Torah is both good and constructive. Studying Torah, the rabbis teach, forms us so that we have a sense of what is worth doing (and worth avoiding) that goes beyond our natural self-serving ego-centrism. So, the fact that I find myself critiquing my own behavior is evidence that a life devoted to Torah pays off very well indeed. It means that I do not have to wait only for someone else to call me on my mistakes. Learning Torah makes me able to do that, as well. That is good.

Lutherans and Jews might just agree about this, so far.

Verse 18 is where they will part company. Lutherans like the customary English translation that affirms that “nothing good dwells within me.” But that is not really what Paul has said in v. 18. In Greek he says:

οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν…

This is better translated as “For I know that it does not dwell in me (that is to say, in my body) ἀγαθόν does not dwell there.” The word in Greek (ἀγαθόν) is common, and complicated. It refers to that which is admirable. It refers to noble behavior. It refers to what an earlier generation might have called “being worthy,” living a life of real worth. Paul is saying that human being is an accomplishment, a work of art, even. He means what we mean when, confronted with people acting like idiots, we say, “Who raised those people, anyway?” He is referring to what we also observe when we notice that nurses act like nurses and pastors act like pastors. He is pointing to the reason that friends of mine who have been in the Marines sometimes have Semper Fi bumper stickers on their cars: once a Marine, always a Marine.

Paul is not saying that nothing good inheres in human nature. Far from it. He is saying that the people we admire are people who, through training or good up-bringing, have gone beyond just doing what is comfortable or easy. That takes training.

I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. We are again realizing how deep racism runs in this country, where human beings were held as slaves until very recently, where the Confederate battle flag was added to state flags in southern states as a protest against desegregation in the 1950s.

I think we are all thinking about this. In differing ways, to be sure, but I think we are all wrestling with how we respond to the call to become anti-racist. That is not a simple matter. A person called in to a radio show and asked: “Am I right? Are we now supposed to say ‘Black’ instead of ‘African-American?'” People talk about the efforts they have devoted to “seeing the person, not the color.” Sometimes they quote Dr. King and talk about the “content of their character.” We will not do well in this present moment if we write off their distress as hypocrisy. If for no other reason than such a dismissal is far too easy and far too lazy.

I was listening this morning to Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. This is a fascinating on-going discussion about things that matter. (Go find it online at: https://onbeing.org/ ). Today Tippett was talking with Jason Reynolds, an author that my son put me onto. (My son was right: Reynolds is remarkable. Read his work.). They were talking about what it is, and is not, to be anti-racist. They were noticing some of the same things that we all have wrestled with. I will quote Reynolds’ reply at some length.

Reynolds:Not like that, Krista. I know the language is tripping you out. [laughs] What I’m saying is, — there’s no finish line, is what I’m saying. There’s no finish line. So there’s no finish line. There’s this idea that people are gonna read this book, or they’re gonna read all the books, and then, all of a sudden, they’re going to “be” anti-racist. And what I’m saying is — and that’s also a very American thing, this idea that there are winners and losers, that there’s a binary that we live in, a bifurcation when it comes to that which is a failure and that which is victorious. The truth of the matter is, this is about journeymen, journeyfolk. Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it. And so we have to be vigilant, to continue to figure out what the new versions of these ailments are so that we can continue to tear down that house. But there’s no end goal. There’s no — and I think that’s how humanity and anti-racism connect.

I think Reynolds has, in one swing, hit both what is so unsettling about this moment in our wrestling with racism and what is at stake for Paul in Romans. There is no finish line. There is no stopping point, no place where we can arrive and then just not have to think about it anymore. If we could just get the language right, then we would be not-racist. If we could just have enough Black friends, friends with whom we just laugh and scheme and plan and tell dumb jokes, friends whom we think of just as friends, then we would be demonstrably not-racist. There are many finish lines that we dream up, not usually consciously.

If we imagine that there is a finish line that we can reach and stop, we will say with Paul: ” O wretched man that I am!” And then we will call in to radio shows and ask questions that will sound odd and uncomfortable.

I think we all feel odd and uncomfortable these days. Wrestling with race is that difficult. The language changes. We work legitimately hard at the political task of correcting injustice and improving the functioning of police forces, and then realize that the roll call of young black men killed in police custody continues to grow and that our political efforts have been blunted and turned into a a tacit defense of the status quo. We hear the pain and anger and even rage expressed by our friends and we realize that they have never for a moment had the opportunity (or desire) to be “color-blind.”

Reynolds is especially helpful at this point. He says:

Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it.

The world, and our life in it, continues to evolve. Wrestling with racism continues to evolve. Paul, as a Jew, understands this. He knows that we are captive to the past and to our own self-serving egotism. He also knows that God has always understood that. So if the question on the table is: “Who will deliver us?”, the response is: God will, because our captivity is not a surprise to God. Likewise, if the question on the table is: “How can we carry on this odd, difficult, unsettling, risky conversation about race?”, the response is related: God will, and we will sustain each other. It will be odd and unsettling, and the risks will be real, but God will sustain us because people like Reynolds will remind us that there is no finish line. And, as we engage each other, we will sustain each other.

And that is the real reason I think Jewish readings of this passage are more helpful than Lutheran readings (as much as I have learned from them). This may be a matter of ontology, the way things really are, but it is not settled by appealing to eschatology, the endpoint or finish line. This is a matter of working out the practice of Torah, which shapes us as human beings.

We will still find our selves doing what we would not choose to do, and saying what we never should have said. And we will engage, again and again, in the daily work of faithfulness. Because, to my ear, that what the work of anti-racism comes down to: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God and each other.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: June 28, 2020: Romans 6:12-23

6:12 Therefore, 
do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, 
to make you obey their passions.

6:13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, 
but present yourselves to God 
as those who have been brought from death to life, 
and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, 
since you are not under law but under grace.

6:15 What then? 
Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? 
By no means!

6:16 Do you not know that 
if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, 
you are slaves of the one whom you obey, 
either of sin, 
which leads to death, 
or of obedience, 
which leads to righteousness?

6:17 But thanks be to God that you, 
having once been slaves of sin, 
have become obedient 
from the heart 
to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted,

6:18 and that you, 
having been set free from sin, 
have become slaves of righteousness.

6:19 I am speaking in human terms 
because of your natural limitations. 
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity 
and to greater and greater iniquity, 
so now present your members as slaves to righteousness 
for sanctification.

6:20 When you were slaves of sin, 
you were free in regard to righteousness.

6:21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? 
The end of those things is death.

6:22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, 
the advantage you get is sanctification. 
The end is eternal life.

6:23 For the wages of sin is death, 
but the free gift of God is eternal life 
in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Two things catch my eye immediately. The first is that this passage from Romans uses enslavement as a metaphor. This is, of course, a letter than knows nothing of the race-based enslavement that was still practiced in the United States a couple of decades before my grandfather was born. The difference does matter. Slaves were numerous in the ancient Mediterranean world, some were prisoners taken in war, some were debtors, some were just born into it. Slaves made up a significant percentage of the population (perhaps even as high as 40%), and people with power saw that economic structure as both normal and advantageous. Even people who did not own other people understood that that was just the way society was organized.

Once an evil and unjust social structure is transformed into something based on race, the evil is compounded, and the injustice screams for redress.

And it is worth noting that enslavement provides, in this passage, an image of an evil that has been escaped. Paul assumes that holding people as slaves is common and normal, but also assumes that freedom from enslavement is a positive good.

Of course, once this “common and normal” injustice is linked to race, the matter of achieving freedom is complicated. Those with power, in fact, invent race as a way of justifying their privilege and preserving it. In such a system, anyone whose skin is black is created (by the people with power and privilege) as a person who OUGHT to be held as a slave.

The difference between then and now does indeed matter. But we only live now (just as Paul only lived in his “now.” And in our present moment, enslavement is not a metaphor. It is a memory just barely out of the reach of people born when my grandfather was a child. It is a reality that still hunts people in our present world. This morning I learned on the news that Bubba Wallace, a Black man who is a NASCAR driver, found a noose hanging in his garage. Lynching is a crime that seeks to preserve the “right” of white people to perform violence, torture, and murder on people who are Black.

“Perform” is an important word in this sentence. It is a perverse kind of theatre: the performance creates a reality that seeks to impose itself on the world in which we live. This perverse kind of theatre seeks to recreate race-based enslavement by allowing “masters” to “lay it on well” (to quote Robert E. Lee) when flogging Black people. (Wesley Norris, “Testimony of Wesley Norris”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866.)

The fact that lynching is still performed means that this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot be read casually, especially by white people.

The second thing that caught my eye was the way enslavement is used metaphorically in this passage.

This passage is one of the foundations for the way Lutheran theology reads its understanding of sin: sin (or, Sin) is not a matter of specific errors that can (and must) be corrected. Sin, for Lutheran theology, is an ontological reality with eschatological consequences. It is understood to fatally infect each and every human being and to be unaffected by our efforts to eradicate it.

This powerful understanding of Sin shapes the way Lutheran theologians talk about the place of racism in American society. A few weeks ago I shared on Facebook a meme I had run across: It’s Not Black Against White; It’s Us Against Racists.” I approve of that sentiment.

A friend, a highly skilled Lutheran theologian, disagreed with me. He pointed out that racism infects all of us and needs to be addressed by each of us through careful self-examination.

He, of course, is right. The way a Lutheran theologian would be right about this.

But I think that he is also wrong.

I do not care at all about NASCAR races. I’ve never seen one, even on television, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I have friends who love racing. Good for them. I do not care about NASCAR, but I care deeply about catching and punishing the racist who hung the noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage. I care deeply about blocking the racist schemes that rig voting procedures so that Black voters are disadvantaged. And I care deeply about calling out anyone (president or not) who makes racist tropes acceptable in public. When such things go on, my ethical conclusion is that all of us have to act together to oppose the racists who want to normalize their aggressive bias.

My friend is right, and he is wrong, I think. I think there are two separate issues at stake here. Racism runs deep and it infects all of us whose lives and advantages are shaped by the institution of race-based enslavement of people, now just 150 years out of public practice and full “legality” in the United States. The invention of “race” needed to maintain that system of power and privilege runs as deep as our DNA and we each and all have a responsibility to root it out. But as we do that long, painstaking work, we also have to confront, as a society, the acts of overt violence committed by actual active racists. I am sure that final elimination of such acts will require that we all engage in that long, painstaking work, but I am not going to hold my breath until racists with nooses can be brought to see the light. For now, while we listen and work and vote and examine ourselves, we also just have to block the racists. I will worry about their hearts and minds later.

And I will worry about how my own heart and mind gives them liberty to hang a noose in a driver’s garage.

And so I read Paul’s letter. And it seems to me that he also sees that there are two tasks in front of his readers, who are the non-Jewish apprentices to messianic faithfulness who live in and amongst the larger Jewish community (which is a mixture of non-messianist and messianist people). Paul says to them: You once served a system of power that leads only to death. He calls that system of power by a strong theological name: Sin.

He is, of course, speaking of the system, not the individual sins. He is speaking of the Roman order, that enforced its power and privilege through the use of violence, an example of which was shown when Rome lynched the messiah. Another example of this enforced system was the holding of slaves, whose forced obedience cemented the power and privilege of the Roman elite.

Which means, by the way, that Paul’s argument is that his audience has been set free from having privilege and power. Think about that slowly.

You have been changed, Paul says. You have been made free. Your nature has been altered by the free gift of God. So far, so Lutheran.

But Paul also tells these Roman changelings that this change of nature is not some mystical, invisible change that allows you to live the way you formerly did. He notes that they “have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” The phrase “from the heart” indicates that Paul thinks that the miracle promised by Jeremiah has come to pass, but the rest of v.17 is simpler, and more important. The “form of teaching” that he talks about is plain everyday Torah observance. Jewish thought has never been too impressed with mystical invisibility. Jewish life focuses on the nuts and bolts of doing Torah, and expects that these simple acts will shape you into a person who lives a life that points to the God who loves all of Creation.

Paul says: a miracle has happened here, and appears to believe that a change so basic could only be accomplished through a miracle. He was not going to hold his breath until Roman privilege surrendered. But Paul is also saying that, in the messy aftermath of that miracle, the way forward follows Torah. Do the good that Torah teaches: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. But also, block the bad that Torah also blocks.

And so the takeaway from Romans 6? Don’t be a racist. Put more biblically: No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness. And block racists and their vicious acts. Such acts lead to greater and greater iniquity, and finally result in death. We have had enough death.

Maybe we will succeed in rooting out racism. Maybe there will be a miracle. But until it is clear that such a miracle has happened, do Torah. Do Torah. Do Torah.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 2, 2017: Matthew 10:40-42

To be a Christ-ian is to be involved in the work of the messiah: turning the world right-side-up. This is a moment to reflect slowly and effectively on what that will require.


Matthew 10:40-42
10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A Question or Two:

  • What is a prophet’s reward?
  • What is a righteous person’s reward?

Some Longer Reflections:

Again a scene about welcome.  This time the welcome is shared, distributed.

This is also a scene about reward, which is tied to welcome, and therefore is shared and distributed as is welcome.

It makes sense that those sent out are linked with those…

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A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2020: Matthew 10:24-39

     24     A disciple is not over the teacher
              Nor is the slave over his master.
25               It is enough for the disciple
                        that he become like his teacher,
                        and the slave like his master.
                   If they called the master of the house
                   how much more the members of the household?
26     So do not fear them:
              nothing is hidden
                   that will not be revealed;
              nothing secret
                   that will not be known.
27                    What I say to you all
                             in the dark,
                                  you will say in the light.
                        What you hear into the ear,
                             proclaim on the house.
28     Stop being afraid
              because of those who kill the body,
                   the life they are not able to kill.
         Continue to fear more the one who is able
              both life and body to destroy in Gehenna.
29     Aren’t two sparrows offered for sale at 1/2 penny?
              One of them does not fall on the earth
                   without your father.
30          Of you even the hairs of your head
                   all are counted.
31     Stop being afraid.
              You are worth more than many sparrows.
32     Anyone who agrees with me
              before people
         I also will agree with him
              before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
33     Whoever denies me before people,
              I also will deny him before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
34     Do not suppose
              that I came to throw peace on the earth.
                   I did not come to throw peace,
                        but rather a sword.
35                    I came to divide 
                             a person against his father
                             a daughter against her mother
                             a bride against her inlaws.
36                    A person’s enemies?:
                             the members of his household.
37                              The one who loves father
                                       or mother
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
                                  The one who loves son
                                       or daughter
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
38     Who does not receive his cross
              and follow after me
         is not worthy of me.
39     The one who found his life
              will destroy it;
         the one who destroyed his life
              because of me
         will find it.

The easiest thing to do is to cause division. The second easiest thing is to scold people for causing division.

All you have to do to cause division is to begin with the assumption that you understand more than anybody has ever understood. This takes several forms. If you are old, you can begin with the assumption that anyone younger than you is simply too green, too naive, too idealistic to really get it. If you are young, you can begin with the assumption that your intense experience of the current chaos has everyone as baffled as you are. If you are progressive, you can begin with the assumption that anyone less passionate than you are is refusing to respond to the crisis of racism in this country. If you are conservative, you can begin by assuming that anyone who says Black Lives Matter is a violent terrorist of the sort that your favorite “news” outlet warned you about. If you argue that it is time to defund the police department in Minneapolis, you can begin by hearing questions about policy and procedure as obstructionism. If you object to proposals that call for defunding, you can begin by refusing to listen to the nuanced arguments that are offered under the “defunding” slogan, which did indeed catch your eye.

You will have noticed that I structured each of these instances as a two-sided opposition: either this side or that side. If you look at the world as if it were always and only a two-sided opposition, it is even easier to cause division. Binary oppositions require you to choose sides, and they do NOT require you to listen.

It is easy to tear the world apart if you don’t listen.

And so now we can commence scolding each other for tearing the world apart. That is easy. And we love to do it.

I think the scolding is more dangerous than the picking of sides. The scolding too often comes down to just wanting everything and everyone to settle down and just let things go back to normal. This is easiest to see when the scolders are comfortable and privileged.

I am old enough to have seen many waves of impassioned calls for root-level reform sweep through our politics.

I am old enough to have noticed a pattern:

  • At first the calls are ignored.
  • If the calls for reform do not go away, timid proposals are offered.
  • If these proposals to make cosmetic changes are rejected, then politicians become increasingly passionate themselves.
  • Senators who had scoffed at the initial calls for reform go on the record as recognizing the life-changing crisis of the moment and promise to convene task forces and working groups.
  • Sometimes those groups even come forward with proposals.
  • And occasionally those proposals are even substantive and are implemented.
  • And then those serious attempts at root-level reform are weakened, step by step, by executive orders, or disingenuous signing statements, or by the stubborn efforts of entrenched powers.

You can study the decades-long history of attempts at reforming the police force in Minneapolis to see every part of this pattern. Real, substantive reform is finally blunted and blocked by entrenched privilege and power.

And then we go back to scolding people for demanding change.

In this scene from Matthew’s story, Jesus promises division. He promises even violence, since a sword is never a metaphor.

He promises violent division because he, as messiah, is engaged in the work of turning the world right-side-up.

That needs to be thought about carefully. If turning the world right-side-up were simply the work of ideology, then it would be impossible to distinguish the messiah from all the binary-opposites who refuse to listen to each other. There will be the usual violence between partisans, sometimes set off by instigators who have been waiting for such a moment to start their own private revolution.

I think the work of the messiah is more important, and more difficult than that. The work of the messiah pushes always for justice. The work of the messiah recognizes always that privilege and power will attempt to wait out and overturn anything that is inconvenient. And the work of the messiah refuses to stop pushing for justice, for equity, and for an end to any system that holds people as slaves, or tries to pretend that such things never really happened.

That is why there will be violence.

When it becomes clear that it will not work to wait out the demand for reform, those in charge of protecting power and privilege will work to stamp out what they cannot wait out.

This is where all this becomes difficult and dangerous. The easiest thing is to choose sides and go to war. And the second easiest thing is to scold for choosing sides.

The work of the messiah is harder than either of those options. The work of the messiah honors the complexity of the problems we face, and refuses to let that complexity be the pretext for, once again, doing nothing while pretending to make valiant efforts. The work of the messiah begins by listening to people whose experience of the world we cannot understand. My grandparents came to the United States in the belly of a boat, in steerage, but their experience of desperate hardship does not compare to the experience of people who were captured, chained, and sold.

My mother’s father was scorned and called a “Bohunk” who was stealing jobs from real Americans, but his experience does not compare to the experience of people who have to learn, over and over, that white men who murder people during a church Bible study survive (and are even taken out to eat), while black men who are accused of passing a phony $20 bill, or of selling loose cigarettes, or who are jogging down the street, are murdered, and the murderers historically go free most all of the time.

My friends who have family members in Law Enforcement know that every shift could be the one they fear, the one where everything turns violent, the one you don’t come home from, but even this unimaginable experience does not compare with the experience of my friends who have this same worry every time their son walks to the store or drives to work or jaywalks.

The work of the messiah requires listening, and then working until real change is made. The work of messiah requires being vigilant so that this difficult will not simply be undone once the spotlight is no longer on the problem.

The work of the messiah requires learning, over and over, that this is why the messiah Christians follow could only do that work by being raised from death after being lynched by the forces of power and privilege, the forces that know that what they can’t wait out they have to stamp out. The only answer to such power and privilege comes with the stubbornness of the resurrection.

The work of the messiah requires the resurrection.

A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

It is surprising how much today is like three years ago. And disturbing. So the question remains: is God engaged in turning the world right-side-up?


Matthew 10:24-39
10:24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

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A Provocation: Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 14, 2020: Matthew 9:35–10:23

35     Jesus was passing by all the cities and villages.
              He was teaching in their synagogues
                   proclaiming the good news of the dominion
                   healing all illness and all softness.
36     After he saw the crowds
         he felt it in his gut for them
              because they were skinned alive
              and throw down,
                   like sheep without a shepherd.
37     Then he says to his disciples:
              The harvest is large,
              the workers few.
38              So ask the lord of the harvest
                  so that he cast out workers
                       into his harvest.

Chapter Ten
1     After he called to him his twelve disciples
       he gave them authority of unclean breaths
            so as to cast them out
       and to heal all illness
       and all softness/infirmity.
2     Of the twelve sent out
       the names are these:
            first, Simon
                 (the one called Peter),
            and Andrew
                 (his brother),
            and James
                 (son of Zebedee),
            and John
                 (his brother),
3          Philip and Bartholomew,
            Thomas and Matthew
                 (the tax collecting traitor),
                 (son of Alphaeus)
            and Thaddeas,
4          Simon
                 (the Canaanite),
            and Judas
                 (the Iscariot)
                      (the one who handed him over).
5     These twelve Jesus sent out.
       After ordering them,
        he said:
             Do not travel on a Gentile road.
             Into a Samaritan city do not go.
6           Go more to the sheep,
                  the lost sheep,
                  of the house, Israel.
7           As you go,
                  The dominion of the heavens is so close.
8                Weak ones,
                       heal them.
                  Dead ones,
                       cast out.
             As a gift you received;
             as a gift, give.
9           Do not acquire gold
                  or silver
                  or copper
              into your belt;
10          no knapsack for the road,
              no two undershirts,
              no shoes,
              no walking stick.
                   Worthy is the worker,
                   worthy of his food.
11          Into whatever city or village you go,
             inquire who in it is worthy,
                  and there remain up until you leave.
12              When you come into the house greet it:
13                   if the house be worthy,
                            let your peace come upon it;
                       if the house be not worthy,
                           let your peace to you return.
14              Whoever does not receive you,
                       and will not hear your words,
                            as you are going out of the house 
                            or that city,
                                 shake off the dust of your feet.
15              Amen I say to you all:
                      more bearable it will be
                      for Sodom and Gomorrah
                           in the day of separating
                      than for that city.
16               Look:
                        I am sending you all out
                        as sheep in the midst of wolves
                             So be sensible,
                                  like snakes.
                             Be guileless,
                                  like pigeons.
17                         Beware of people:
                                  they will hand you over into sanhedrins
                                  and in their synagogues they will flog you.
18                         Before leaders and kings you will be driven
                                  because of me
                             for a witness to them
                             and to the Gentiles.
19                         Whenever they hand you over,
                             do not worry how or what to say.
                                  It will be given to you all
                                       in that hour 
                                  what to say.
20                              It is not you who speaks
                                       but the breath of your father
                                       the breath speaking in you.
21                         Brother will hand brother over to death,
                                  and father, his child.
                             Children will rise up on their parents
                                  and they will kill them.
22                         You will be hated by all
                                  because of my name.
                             The one who endures to the completion,
                                  that one will be rescued.
23                         Whenever they hunt you all
                                  in that city
                                  flee into the other one.
                             Amen I say to you all:
                                  No way will you complete the cities of Israel
                                       up until the son of adam comes.

The violent language in this scene is dangerous. Christians have used it to teach themselves that anyone who disagrees with them is persecuting them. That is a dangerous, and narcissistic, way to live. There are, indeed, places where Christians are not in the absolute majority and do not hold political and social power, and in some of those places the groups that hold power are opposed to Christianity. And, indeed, there are violent ideological groups that attack Christians in some of those places.

But Christians are not persecuted in the U.S. People disagree with us. Which is good. Disagreement sharpens your thought and teaches you to hear things you would never otherwise hear, but is it not persecution.

The language in this scene flips from sending people out to accomplish a life-giving mission (“Weak ones, heal them. Dead ones, raise”), to giving reasonable advice (“As a gift you received; as a gift, give”), to demonizing opposition (“…more bearable it will be for Sodom and Gomorrah…”). When things get to the point that we need to bring in Sodom and Gomorrah, all the safeties are off. That language is dangerous. And it is distressingly familiar. You’ve heard it. So have I.

  • People say: “I don’t see how a leader of a church or especially our local pastor could….”
  • People spread misinformation and disinformation the way clowns throw candy during a parade.
  • The editor of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden Alabama, in an editorial, called for the KKK to “night ride again.” He subsequently said: “”If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we’d all been better off. …. We’ll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them.” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/editor-alabama-newspaper-calls-ku-klux-klan-night-ride-again-n973066?fbclid=IwAR01lEdbEiMiiZkYddPhl4gTTwKFxO7vfldkVzJMbs_ggaUPbXAI7ks329E )
  • The current president finds “very fine people” amongst white supremacists and Klansmen, and suspects that anyone who questions him or objects to police brutality must be a terrorist from Antifa. (I’m anti-fascist. I imagine you probably are, too, or should be.)

There are examples everywhere, and we all have heard them.

I am not wishing for a return to some imagined “golden age” when everybody just got along. There was no such age, not in the dim past, not three weeks ago, though those of us in the dominant majority culture sometimes find ourselves wishing we could just “go on with our lives.” But of course “going on with our lives” is impossible for people who have to teach their children how not to be attacked by police officers. That’s, like, the point.

And no one should ask for an end to anger from people who look at their children and have to wonder if they will be the next Ahmaud Arbery, the next Breonna Taylor, the next George Floyd. The list goes on, and history gives us no reason to believe that it will stop. No one should ask for an end for anger until there is an end to privileged self-interest that calls for quiet, promises to do better, and then forgets about all of it and gets on with its life.

What I find fascinating in this scene in Matthew’s story, though, is that the opposition that Jesus tells his followers to expect comes because they are sent out to announce that the messianic age has arrived and God is proceeding to turn the world right-side-up. Christians tend to think of this as a religious message, something about forgiveness and heaven and piety, not to mention pie in the sky by and by.

It is not.

Jewish thought looks at the world and sees that it is upside-down, and out of that recognition came the notion that God would send messiah to correct what was deeply wrong. That means that the message Jesus commits to his followers has its roots in the fear and anger that go with living in a system that runs on injustice. The message takes its energy from people who have learned that, while it may be the case that the large majority of police are well-intentioned and trustworthy, there is little you can do when the force closes ranks to protect another rogue officer who is rightly charged with murder. And when the police force itself precipitates violence (and there are credible reports of this in every decade of my life, and of my father’s life), there is little anyone can do. Or hope for.

In this scene in Matthew’s story, Jesus and his messengers announce that the time of abuse, brutality, and casual injustice is over. This message is not well-received by privileged people in positions of power. Governors and kings will accuse such messengers of treason and terrorism. I do not mean to pretend that there are not traitors or terrorists in the world. I just mean to point out that governors and kings find terrorism to be indistinguishable from opposition.

This odd little scene with its dangerous language is strangely appropriate for this moment in our history. Perhaps our task is not to figure out how we read the text, but to let the text read us. Those impulses within us that just want it all to calm down so we can go back to our lives put us on the side of the governors and kings. That is worth thinking about slowly. The scene, however, also points out that those moments when we get glimpses of the reasons for the fear and anger and desperation are moments when we actually hear what it is to wait for messiah.

This is a moment to listen to people who have been afraid for far too long. This is a moment to pray and work for the world to be turned right-side-up. This is a moment to realize that things are going to change because they have to change. This is a moment to listen for messiah. Especially from voices that you have never listened to before.

A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: June 18, 2017: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

A Provocation for an era in which “dominating the streets” isn’t a poorly written line in an adolescent movie, but a “presidential” statement. A reflection on vulnerability, and why we fear it, in ourselves and in others.


Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son…

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A Provocation: Trinity Sunday, First Sunday after Pentecost: June 7, 2020: Genesis 1:1–2:4a

1At the beginning of God’s creating of the skies and the earth, 
     2the world was a wild chaos, 
           darkness over the face of Abyss, 
      breath of God 
           moving gently over the face of the waters.  
3God said 
          and there was light.
4God saw the light.
      Ki Tov!
           Oh, how good!
 God separated the light from the darkness.  
5God called to the light: 
and to the darkness called:

Sunset, dawning, one day.

6God said: 
     “A dome, amidst the waters!” 
     “Separate waters from waters!”
7God made the dome 
     and separated the waters that were below the dome 
     from the waters that were above the dome.
          It was so.
8God called to the dome:

Sunset, dawning, second day.

9God said: 
     “Waters under the skies, gather!” 
     “Dry land, appear!”  
          It was so.  
10God called to the dry land:
And to the gathering of the waters called:
God saw.  
     Ki Tov!  
          Oh, how good!
11God said: 
     “Earth, grow grass!  
     Grow plants that bear seeds! 
      Grow trees that bear fruit upon the earth!”  
          It was so.
12The earth brought forth grass,
      plants that bear seeds, 
           after their kind,
      trees that bear fruit, 
           in which is their seed, 
                after their kind.
God saw.  
     Ki Tov!  
          Oh, how good!  

13Sunset, dawning, third day.

14God said: 
     “Lights in the dome of the skies, 
          separate the day from the night!  
          Stand for signs, 
               for seasons, 
               for days and years!” 
     “Lights in the dome of the skies, 
          15provide light upon the earth!”  
                It was so.
16God made the two great lights, 
     the greater light 
          for ruling the day 
     and the smaller light 
          for ruling the night, 
     and the stars.
17God gave them to the dome of the skies
     to provide light upon the earth, 
     18to rule the day and the night, 
     to separate the light from the darkness.
God saw.  
     Ki Tov!  
          Oh, how good!  

19Sunset, dawning, fourth day.

20God said: 
          swarm with living beings!” 
          fly across the earth, 
          across the dome of the skies!”
21God created the great sea-serpents
     and all living beings that creep, 
          with which the waters swarmed, 
               after their kind
     and all winged fowl 
          after their kind.
God saw.  
     Ki Tov!  
          Oh, how good!
22God blessed them, saying: 
     “Bear fruit, 
     be many, 
     fill the waters in the seas, 
     let the birds be many on earth!”

23Sunset, dawning, fifth day.

24God said: 
          bring forth living beings, 
               herd animals, 
               creeping things, 
               wildlife of the earth!”  
                    It was so.
25God made the wildlife of the earth 
     after their kind, 
and the herd-animals 
     after their kind, 
and all creeping things of the ground 
     after their kind.
God saw.  
     Ki Tov!  
          Oh, how good!
26God said: 
     “Let us make a groundling, 
          in our image, 
          according to our likeness!  
     Let them be responsible for the fish of the sea, 
          the birds of the skies, 
          all the earth, 
          and all creeping things that creep upon the earth!”
27So God created a groundling, 
     created it in the image of God, 
          male and female God created them.
28God blessed them.  
God said to them:
     “Bear fruit!”
     “Be many!”
     “Fill the earth!”
     “Control it!  
     Be responsible for the fish of the sea, 
          the birds of the skies, 
          and all living things that crawl upon the earth!”
29God said: 
          I give to you 
               all plants that bear seeds that are upon the face of all the earth, 
               and all trees in which there is tree fruit that bears seeds,
                    for you shall they be for eating;
               30and also for all the living things of the earth, 
                    for all the fowl of the skies, 
                    for all that crawls about upon the earth in which there is living being—
          all green plants for eating.
               It was so.
31Now God saw all, 
     everything made.  
               Ki Tov!
                    Oh, how good!  
                         Oh, exceedingly good!

Sunset, dawning, sixth day.

2:1They were completed, 
     the skies and the earth, 
          with all of their host.  
God completed on the seventh day all the work, 
     all that was made, 
2and then God ceased on the seventh day, 
     ceased from all work, 
     ceased from all making.  
3God blessed the seventh day.  
     God made it holy, 
          for on it God ceased from all work 
               that by creating God had made.  
4These are the birthings of the skies and the earth.  
     THIS is how they were created.

George Floyd.

It matters to say his name. It matters to say all of the names. All of the names of all of the black and brown people who have been killed in police custody.

The problem is that there are too many. Far too many.

George Floyd.

“At the beginning of God’s creating of the skies and the earth, the world was a wild chaos….”

That is maybe as far as any of us needs to go this week. “The world was a wild chaos….”

Last evening we sat on our front porch, eating dinner and watching cars drive by. Our street is fairly busy on most days. It was much busier last evening. A few blocks from our house there was a protest gathering, organized by people we know, and respect. I could not attend: my lung condition has me staying home from everything, even things that are crucially important. So we sat on our porch, eating and watching cars.

As the march started thinning out, people who were leaving the mass gathering (someone estimated there were 3800 people there) started drifting past our house. We sat on our porch and waved. They waved back. We knew some of those who drifted past our house. We thanked them for attending the gathering. They thanked us for caring. And we ate and watched cars.

It was odd. We noticed that something like 1 in every 6 cars had no license plates. We eat on the porch a lot. We had never noticed anything like this before. It was odd.

Of course we had read trustworthy reports out of Minneapolis about groups who were going from city to city, instigating and accelerating the violence that sometimes leapt out of the angry gatherings protesting the murder of George Floyd. We had read that such groups sometimes removed the license plates from their cars. We noticed that as the evening went on there the ratio become something like 1 in 3 cars had no plates.

After the sun set, and after the crowd had diminished considerably, (at least according to one person I know who was there) cars drove up and belched out young white men who started throwing rocks at the police. People who were there mentioned that police officers had, on several occasions, joined the protesters when they stopped to take a knee in intersections. People who were there joined arms and stood between the police and the people who were throwing rocks at them.

We watched all this on television. The violence became more pronounced. We went to bed around midnight, just in time to hear what probably was fireworks being shot off in our neighborhood. It could also have been small arms fire. I know that people who are experienced with firearms say they can tell the difference between the two sounds. I cannot. So we called the police, and then laid awake awhile, wondering. It was probably fireworks. Someone wanted to scare people in the neighborhood, I suppose.

Over the past while, ever since George Floyd was murdered, but (in fact) for as long as I can remember, back to when I first heard of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., people have been telling us all to be patient. Read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” again.

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

Over the past while, people have also been telling us to be patient with looting and arson and violence. Sometimes these people have found a different quotation from Dr. King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Some of the people who have mentioned this quotation live in towns where no one has thrown a rock except to skip it on the surface of a very Mayberry-like lake. It is easy to urge patience when you don’t have to count cars without license plates, or wonder what the difference in sound would be between firecrackers and firearms.

Other times I have been reminded of the quotation by people who are living in the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis. These people say it after coming home from a day of clearing rubble left from the riots. They say it as they prepare for a night of trying to protect neighborhood shops from attack, and they say it with the smell of smoke and teargas still hanging in the air. The quotation sounds less superficial when these people say it. You can hear the grief and deep weariness in their voices.

This morning I heard the mayor of St. Paul, MN, say “We are asking for peace, but not for patience.” I heard the same grief, weariness, and anger in his voice that I have heard in the voices of people in the affected neighborhoods, and in the voices of Malcolm and Martin.

“The world was a wild chaos….”


The storyteller recognizes a world very like ours. The world is painted as a chaos that could kill you. The storyteller uses the wild ocean as the image for dangerous chaos. As a Great Lakes boat captain once told me, “You have to remember: the lake does not care whether you live or die. The lake doesn’t care.” The world was a wild chaos.

But then the storyteller does something subtle. The storyteller blows a breath from God (in Hebrew: ruach, in Greek: pneuma, in English: breath, wind, spirit, Spirit) across the surface of the raging water. Wave crashes into wave, currents collide. And breath from God moves gently across the face of the water. To say that it moves “gently” does not imply that it moves weakly. To say that it is a breath from God establishes that it moves steadily and stubbornly, roughing up the face of the water.

The steady stubbornness matters, as does the fact that the image is of a breath, a wind. The wind can only blow in one direction at a time. And if the image gives God a mouth to blow out of, God can only blow straight ahead. Steadily and stubbornly.

That means that, for all the chaos, there is a direction to God’s blowing, a push with one aim. And I listen again to Dr. King for a sense of what that direction has to be:

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

Four days after Dr. King said these words, he was assassinated. The world has always been a wild chaos. It still is.

But the breath of God blows in the direction of justice, and justice is the only solution to the chaos of this moment. There will always be bad cops. There will always be inequalities in neighborhoods and in schools. There will always be people driving around in cars with no license plates, hoping to start a race war. The world is a wild chaos. But the steady stubbornness of the breath of God is the model for how we have to live in the middle of chaos. Protesters have turned provocateurs over to the police. Teachers continue to push back against racist assumptions; teachers continue to put books in the hands of children, books written by authors with black and brown skin, books that honor the world children actually live in.

And today on television I saw two officers restraining a protester on the ground. One of the officers had his knee square on the man’s neck. The picture echoed the murder of George Floyd. And then the other officer grabbed the knee, yanked it off the man’s neck, and forced his partner to act differently. He did not do it gently. There was no doubt as to his intention. His strength left a mark, I expect. And maybe he changed the way his partner will do his job.

The breath of God is blowing across chaos in the direction of justice. I hear it in the voices of people who live in the Longfellow neighborhood. I hear it in my students from all over the political spectrum. I hear it in these words from an honorable man who lives in Minneapolis.

Anger and anxiety can be motivators for action if we direct them effectively and the change we need to make is going to take action from significantly more white folks than have been previously engaged. AND those of us who already have been engaged need to do more. Every single goddamned day until we win. (And winning doesn’t come with justice for George Floyd. That’s one step along the path to winning, NOT the entire destination.)

The breath of God is blowing in the direction of justice. And since the breath in us is the breath of God (at least according to the rabbis and the Apostle Paul), we have to add our breath, our voices, and our steady stubborn work to make the change that needs to be made.

George Floyd.

A Provocation: The Day of Pentecost: May 31, 2020: Acts 2:1-21

1     And when it was completely filled, 
            the day of Pentecost, 
       they were all together in the same place.
2     And it happened: 
            it snuck up on them, 
                 out of the sky 
                 a wailing roar 
                      just as of a violent blast of wind 
                     a wind that carries things away, 
                          and it filled the whole of the house where they were living
3     and they appeared to them, 
                 tongues like fire 
                      and they sat upon each one of them
4     and they were filled, 
       of holy breath 
       and they began to speak intimately in utterly different tongues, 
            exactly as the breath gave speech to them.
5     Now there were,
            in Jerusalem settled, 
                     men well-taken-in-hand 
                     men from all the Gentile nations, 
                         all those under the sky.
6     But when it happened, 
            this sound, 
       they came together, 
            the whole group of them 
                 and the group was all stirred together in confusion, 
                     because they were hearing, 
                          each one, 
                          in their own idiomatic dialect, 
                               they heard them speaking intimately.
7     But they were ecstatic and amazed, 
       they said: 
            Don’t look, 
            but all those are, 
                those speaking intimately, 
8     So how do we hear, 
            each in our own idiomatic dialect,
                the dialect in which we were born?
9                   Parthians and Medes and Elamites and people settling in Mesopotamia:
                     Judean, yes, and Cappadocian, Pontan and Asian,
10                 Phrygian, yes, and Pamphilian, 
                     Egyptian and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, 
                     and resident aliens in Rome,
11                      Jews, yes, and converts, 
                    Cretans and Arabs: 
       we are hearing them speaking intimately 
            in our particular tongue 
            the great things of God.
12     But they were ecstatic, 
         and they were trying to puzzle it out, 
              this stranger to that one. 
                   They said: What does this want to be?

I have written on the miracle of understanding that happened at Pentecost, and I have reflected on the storyteller’s choice to present this understanding as taking place with our existing differences fully intact and on display. See my Provocation from 2017: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/a-provocation-the-day-of-pentecost-june-4-2017-acts-21-21/

I have been listening to us as we talk to each other. Now would be a good time for another miracle of understanding. Some years ago I was talking with a friend who was active (and prominent) in local politics. We were talking about the purpose of political engagement. I come from a family that is passionate about politics. We follow issues, and we vote in every election, just as we have done for generations. I told my friend that I had been raised to believe that the point of politics is to bring people together.

My friend laughed at me. Probably rightly. My friend, after all, also came from a family that was politically engaged and, unlike me, they had been active in elective politics, seeking and gaining political office on a local level.

The point of politics, they said, was to separate people. “No one goes into politics unless they know a wedge issue when they see one, and no one gets elected unless they learn how to use wedge issues,” they said.

My friend is probably right. But I still pray and work for miracles of understanding. We surely do disagree with each other, and I was raised to expect that those disagreements make us smarter than we would be otherwise. I was raised to value friends who were willing to argue with me stubbornly. Sometimes those friends even change my mind. Other times they help me understand that there are some durable disagreements that we will have to plan around, the way people building a road plan around hills and swamps, if we are ever to work together on the biggest problems we face.

My father-in-law and I probably disagreed on just about everything political. I come from a long line of social democrats, with various agrarian radicals hanging around in the group. My father-in-law spent much of his career working for oil companies. One of the best gifts he gave me was his willingness to argue, stubbornly, with me. We probably never changed each other’s mind, and we did not always manage to argue well and wisely. But when we did, I learned to understand another side of the problems we agreed were important, a side that my own family of origin did not equip me to understand very well at all. When I read the Pentecost story, I think of my father-in-law and of the miracles of understanding that sometimes happened when we talked in his living room.

I have been listening, however, to the way we are talking to each other these days. Irritation and seething anger are becoming normal. Wedge issues are everywhere, to the point that even naming the novel corona virus as a threat is attacked as “fear tactics” and “partisan politics.” Concern about the mounting death toll (100,000 people in three months) is labelled as evidence of “our sniveling, 21st-century commitment to safety.” People who disagree are told “go back to kindergarten where the little kids play.” (If you want to find similar cheap shots, do what I did: read the comment section on any COVID-19 article.)

We appear to love to scold each other, sometimes about serious issues, and sometimes not. I was reading a recipe on a cooking blog, and the writer prefaced their comments as follows:

I was just reading through over 100 comments I needed to approve and I was blown away at how rude some people can be. There were a few comments with people actually cussing me out over a failed recipe and telling me the way I wrote the recipe couldn’t possibly be right.

This Pentecost I am thinking about how difficult it is to understand each other. The problems we have to solve extend well beyond the need for a coherent response to COVID-19. That is only the beginning.

  • Attempts to deal with the tangled issues of structural racism draw calls to “take our country back.”
  • Attempts to protect our environment result in people telling stories of every pointlessly rigid inspector they have ever heard of, and pretending that those anecdotes of officious over-reach are the only kind of environmental regulation we have ever had.
  • Small businesses all over this country are in real peril and the public political presentation of the issue pretends that we are faced with a simple either/or choice: kill businesses or kill people.

Nothing is that simple. Nothing has ever been that simple. Or that cruel. But if you are listening like I am, you hear the discussion being forced into that rigid mold. And now even our desire to meet together as congregations is being weaponized to drive wedges between people. Pastors who argue that we need to be wise and careful are attacked by parishioners who have been told that caution is a sign of left-wing politics. Socialism, dontcha know?

The real world is really complicated.

The Pentecost story leaves the complications in place. The people from all over the known world came to Jerusalem with languages and cultures that were incomprehensible to the other people who came to Jerusalem. Even when they understood the same telling of the great things God can do, they understood it in languages that were still mutually incomprehensible.

I’m a good enough student of American political history to know that there never was a golden age when everyone agreed on all the essentials. Our languages have always been incompatible and we have been held together as much by our conflicts as by our moments of consensus. Our life together is fragile and tenuous. Cynics understand politics only as the practice of wedging people apart. If the cynics prevail, we all lose.

If we are going to challenge the racism that deforms our life together, we need to learn to hear voices we have never heard before. If we are going to address our history of environmental cannibalism, we have to learn to listen beyond our pretty little idealistic schemes and we need to abandon the notion that the solution to living together in God’s Creation is laissez-faire anything. When I was young, Westminster Abbey was soot-black from the smoke of laissez-faire industrialism, the air of Los Angeles was brown and thick, and the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the thirteenth recorded time. (We were told at the time that this was to be expected because the Cuyahoga was a “working river.”)

If we are going to address the problems in front of us, we are going to need all of us working on them. We are going to need to ignore the cynics. We are going to need to hear the idealists without imagining that the way to fix things is to burn them down. We are going to need to stop shaming as “wimps” the people seek safety in this dangerous time. We might even need to learn to imagine that listening to and protecting each other is a way “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”

We are going to need something like Pentecost.