Mar
2019

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog entry for St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

In the Book of the Twelve, God’s presence manifest through the natural world is presumed in the book of Haggai.  Haggai’s prophecy began “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1)–that is, August 29, 520 BC, about seventeen years after the fall of Babylon, and the end of the Babylonian exile.  Together with his fellow prophet Zechariah, Haggai called for the community in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which had been in ruins since the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 BC.

 

Haggai 1:3-11  joins fertility and abundance to God’s presence, enshrined and celebrated in the right temple with the right liturgy.  Patrick celebrates this theme positively, through a joyful nature spirituality wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

But in Haggai, this theme is expressed negatively. The failure of the community to rebuild God’s temple has meant disaster–not only for the human community, but also for the land itself.  Just as for Patrick the presence of God, honored and celebrated in true worship, brings life and blessing to the land, for Haggai the absence of God’s temple has brought death, infertility, and drought:

Therefore, the skies above you have withheld the dew,
        and the earth has withheld its produce because of you.
I have called for drought on the earth,
        on the mountains, on the grain,
        on the wine, on the olive oil,
        on that which comes forth from the fertile ground,
        on humanity, on beasts,
        and upon everything that handles produce (Hag 1:10-11).

Haggai challenges his community,

Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses
            while this house lies in ruins?
So now, this is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
    Take your ways to heart.
    You have sown much, but it has brought little.
    You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy.
    You drink, but not enough to get drunk.
    There is clothing, but not enough to keep warm.
    Anyone earning wages puts those wages into a bag with holes (Hag 1:4-6).

As Stephen Cook observes, Haggai makes a clear connection between the temple lying “in ruins” (1:4; Hebrew khareb) and the “drought [Hebrew khoreb] on the earth” (1:11; see Stephen Cook, “Haggai,” “Zechariah,” and “Malachi” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary  [ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David Petersen; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010], 529–539.).

For Haggai, since God’s presence in the temple was the source of life and fertility in all the land, the refusal of the people to rebuild the temple had resulted in God’s absence, and so in infertility and drought.  In the great baseball film “Field of Dreams,” a Voice prompts Ray Kinsella to carve a baseball field out of his Iowa cornfields, saying, “If you build it, he will come.”  Just so, Haggai urges his community to action:

Go up to the highlands and bring back wood.
    Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it
        and that I may be honored, says the LORD (Hag 1:8).

“If you build it,” Haggai assures his people, “he will come.”

We may see connections between Haggai’s temple theology and the modern “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, and success to those who believe the right things, and pray in the right way.  But this so-called “gospel” is actually an outrageous misappropriation of Haggai’s theology.  Haggai does not tell his community what they must do in order to prosper.  Indeed, he lays the blame for their currently unfulfilled lives on their pursuit of prosperity.  Haggai 1:4 asks, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”  The reference to paneling (Hebrew saphun) calls to mind the opulence of the royal palaces of Solomon (1 Kings 7:7) and Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:14).  Haggai’s community, with their “paneled houses,” had aspired to that former wealth and prosperity, and in so doing had placed themselves first, and God last.

But this way of living had not brought them the satisfaction and fulfillment they sought; in fact, it had desolated both them and their land.  Only by obeying God’s command through the prophet to rebuild the temple, and so placing God first, could Haggai’s community not only find the fulfillment that had eluded them, but also heal their land.

This St. Patrick’s Day, may we listen to the message of the saint–a message proclaimed long before him by prophets like Haggai.  May we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2019

Until An Opportune Time

 

My favorite play is a little two-act musical fairy tale called “The Fantasticks,” (music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones). In the first act, two best friends, pretending to be bitter enemies, forbid their children (a son and a daughter) to see one another. Sure enough, just as the friends had planned, the boy and girl fall in love. Next, the fathers stage a phony kidnapping, with the boy “rescuing” the girl and so winning her father’s “grudging” approval. The first act curtain closes on a smiling, hugging tableau, the cast frozen, as in a photograph, in a moment of elation: happy ending!  When I first saw this play, I turned to my wife Wendy and asked, “What could possibly happen now?”

Act two begins with the characters still frozen in their happy-ending poses. But they cannot hold the pose for long. Soon the group hug breaks apart. The best friends discover, now that they are in-laws, a dozen little things they cannot stand about one another. The boy and the girl lose their infatuation and break up. In short, life goes on. “The Fantasticks” turns out to be about what happens after the happy ending.

I thought of that play this week as I read Sunday’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13), the biblical basis for the church spending these forty days in prayer and fasting.  Jesus, in the wilderness, triumphs over the devil, and the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13, NRSV).  The enemy would be back.  Like “The Fantasticks,” Luke reminds us that there are no closing act curtains in life or in history.  The action continues–something always comes next.  We are never “finished.”

There is a reason that Lent—like Easter, like Christmas—is not a moment, or even a day, but a season.  Jesus came to his moment of victory over the enemy after 40 days in fasting and prayer. Of course, this is a problem for our culture of instant gratification!  But it is also a problem for my own Christian tradition, which has so stressed making one’s “decision for Christ”—as though once for all. Paul, wisely, says not that we have been saved, but that we are being saved—we are on the way.

In this life, we are never “finished”—for good or for ill.  No matter how good it gets, no matter how often we succeed, the enemy will return, “at an opportune time.”  The danger of our ever thinking, self-righteously, that we have arrived is that when trials come, as they will come, when the enemy returns, we will be unprepared, and may be undone.

In Luke, the “opportune time” does come.  The enemy makes another personal appearance: when “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (Luke 22:3). This time, the enemy appears victorious: Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured to death.

Yet even this is not the end!  As we will celebrate when these forty days of preparation are ended, Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, hell, and the grave, and is alive forevermore!

In this life, we are never “finished”, friends–no matter how bad it gets, no matter how often we fail.  I have been learning this through the past week, following the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. There, we voted not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons but also to double down on enforcement, trials, and penalties.  After that vote, I posted a screen shot of the tally on my Facebook page, and wrote, “That is that.”  But my former student and colleague in ministry BT Gilligan told me “No!  That is NOT that.”  It has taken me days to realize that of course he is right!
We are not finished.  God is still at work–in me, in our church, in our world.  Confident in the power of Christ’s resurrection, we we need never lose heart!  For while on this side of eternity, there are no closing-act curtains, ultimately, finally, the victory belongs to Christ Jesus.  Thanks be to God.

AFTERWORD:  I preached this message yesterday in Chapel at PTS.  Thanks to Kendra Buckwalter Smith, who invited me, and to my liturgists and co-celebrants at that service, Cici James, Hattie Taylor, and Shawn Weaver.

Jan
2019

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Creative Extremist

 

In most of the nation, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a day rightly dedicated to celebrating the legacy of our greatest civil rights leader.  It is also right that a monument to Dr. King, dedicated on October 16, 2011, stands in Washington, D.C. among the memorials to other American heroes in that city of monuments.  But honoring the hero may mean losing the man. Perhaps it was inevitable that honor and recognition would mute King’s radical call to justice, particularly to racial justice; that as King’s national stature grew, his historical message would be blunted, even obscured.

So, as Newsweek magazine reported yesterday, “Vice President Mike Pence compared Donald Trump to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. . . . claiming both leaders have inspired Americans to change through the legislative process.”

“Honestly, you know, the hearts and minds of the American people today are thinking a lot about it being the weekend we are remembering the life and the work of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the the promises of democracy,’” he said, quoting a passage from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Pence continued on to argue that like MLK, Trump has also “inspired us to change.” “You think of how he changed America, he inspired us to change through the legislative process, to become a more perfect union,” he said. “That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on the Congress to do, come to the table in a spirit of good faith.”

When white Americans have grown so comfortable with Martin Luther King, Jr. as to believe it appropriate to identify him with the very epitome of white privilege, in service of so racist a project as the border wall, it is clearly long past time for us to remember that Dr. King stood for, marched for, was jailed for, and died for, justice and equality. He was, by his own free admission, an extremist!  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including, to my shame, two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Dr.  King  wrote his famous letter in response to these white Christian leaders, who evidently preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Prophetically, King wrote of the church in his own day–and sadly, in ours:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

A truly Christian view of racial justice must begin as Christian Scripture begins: with a radical affirmation of human unity, dignity, and equality.  As Dr. George D. Kelsey, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College, understood (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]), the biblical confession that we are all descended from Adam and Eve means that there is one single human family. Throughout his theology and ethics, Dr. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)

Close reading of Genesis 1 underlines that insight.   On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).  Every form of life God makes comes in kinds–except one.

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, Genesis does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism–including our own.

As Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.  For while Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Especially on this day in honor of that “creative extremist,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may God help us to see and repent of this sin, and to love all whom God loves, as we have ourselves been loved.

 

 

 

Jan
2019

Sun of Righteousness

 For millions of Western Christians, Sunday January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany–a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  More broadly, however, Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!

In Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), that coming day of the LORD is described, as is typical in the Book of the Twelve (for example, see Zech 10:3-6; 12:1-9), as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people:

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the LORD of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch. . . .
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
       on the day that I am preparing, says the LORD of heavenly forces.

But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who are rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

Christian readers of this blog will likely be reminded of Charles Wesley’s use of this passage in his 1739 Christmas carolHark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Charles Wesley’s third stanza is:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In Wesley’s mind, clearly, the “Sun of Righteousness” is Jesus!

For Malachi, it is the LORD who is “the sun of righteousness,” rising with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV, and the words of Wesley’s carol), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple (which faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  As a part of the worship reforms put in place by King Josiah, the horses and chariots of the sun were removed from the temple (2 Kgs 23:11).  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.

 

The Egyptian sun disc, often combined with a winged scarab, was a widespread symbol in the ancient Middle East, even incorporated into the royal seals of Judean kings such as Hezekiah.

Malachi, writing in the Persian Period, was likely familiar with a modification of the winged solar disc from Persian art.  This symbol appears with Persian king Darius’ monumental inscription at Behistun, at his palace at Persepolis, and above the door of his tomb (depicted above); likely, it is meant to represent the Persian creator god Ahuramazda.  But for the prophet Malachi, of course, the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings can only be the LORD!  Depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, Christmas–the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness–is January 7.  So, to our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!

May this new year be for us all a time of healing and renewal. May the Sun of Righteousness rise today, in our hearts, our homes, our country, and our world, burning away the chaff and dross of the past, and empowering us to live anew!

AFTERWORD:  I am reposting this (slightly edited) blog from 2016 for Epiphany.  One further note: while I am in favor of the use of inclusive language in the United Methodist Hymnal, our editors have erred theologically, I believe, in rendering the next-to-last line in the third stanza of Charles Wesley’s glorious hymn as “Born to raise us from the earth.”  Escape from the earth was not Charles’–or indeed John’s–intent.  Instead, it is that we earthlings, we “sons of earth” in Charles Wesley’s admittedly sexist rendering–may be raised to new life, and even attain holiness of heart and life, here and now, in this world that Christ has come to save.  It is an important distinction, I believe.

 

Dec
2018

A Blessing for the New Year

Appropriately enough, the Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for January 1 is the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.  Like many of you, I first learned these words as the Methodist Youth Fellowship Benediction:

The LORD bless you and keep you:
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Others may know Peter C. Lutkin’s familiar musical setting with its sevenfold Amen, or perhaps John Rutter’s version, famously used at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

The priestly blessing has, of course, deep roots in Jewish worship.  Still today, it is pronounced in Conservative and Orthodox congregations by the kohanim: members of the Jewish community who trace their lineage back to Aaron.  The distinctive hand gesture accompanying the blessing is meant to represent the Hebrew letter shin, first letter in Shaddai: an ancient name of God commonly translated “Almighty.”  But it will be more familiar to many (particularly to my fellow Trekkies) from Spock’s Vulcan greeting:

The late Leonard Nimoy shared that the Vulcan salute came from his childhood memories of experiencing this blessing, pronounced numinously and potently in the synagogue.  Of course, Spock’s Vulcan greeting caught fire in popular culture:

It’s been that way to this day: almost fifty years later, people are still doing it. . . .  It just touched a magic chord! Most people to this day still don’t know what it’s all about.  People don’t realize they’re blessing each other with this!

The ancient significance of the priestly blessing is confirmed by archaeology, as well as liturgy.  This passage of Scripture is engraved in miniature on tiny silver scrolls found at Ketef Hinnom, and dating to the eighth to sixth century BCE–making it the oldest written text of Scripture yet found.

In keeping with ancient sacred tradition, friends, let us bless one another at the turning of the year with these words, claiming the biblical promise:

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Num 6:27).

A merry Christmastide, happy New Year, and blessed life journey to you and yours.

Dec
2018

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

Micah prophesied in the middle of the eighth century, in a tiny village about 25 miles southwest of the big city of Jerusalem called Morasheth-Gath.  It was a long way from Jerusalem to Morasheth-gath: a distance not so much geographical as social.  As its name implies, Morasheth-gath was a border town, located in contested territory right on the edge of Jewish Judah and Philistine Gath.  Its people were a hard-scrabble lot: rural, not urban; poor, not rich; decidedly lower, not upper class

Perhaps it was this distant perspective that enabled Micah to see so clearly through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders:

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,
         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Such blithe, naive arrogance was dangerous, Micah knew, for the mid-eighth century was a dangerous time, when the cruel military power of Assyria was on the rise.  This crisis called for just, wise, decisive leadership.

In Micah 5:2-5, the prophet recalls the humble birth of David, Israel’s greatest king, in Bethlehem: a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own.  If Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs in this crisis is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, speaking for the LORD, Micah says,

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).

Such a leader would have been the last thing that Jerusalem’s elites wanted.  But Micah is convinced that this is precisely what Judah needs!

The heading I’ve given to this blog post was shamelessly stolen from a Rolling Stones song–chances are, you’ve been playing it in the back of your head ever since you read the title!  Like Micah, Mick Jagger declares, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!”

Micah’s words are quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Judah following a star, looking for a new-born king, they come to the big city of Jerusalem, and to Herod’s palace–because where else would you look for a king?  Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him, and to his guests from the east, Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Sure enough, Jesus, like David, would be born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

We need to hear just how unlikely this sounds!  Because sometimes, in this season, we Christians wonder how Jesus’ own people could’ve missed him–implying, of course, that we would have done a better job.  But an old African American spiritual, with far more wisdom, recognizes the truth:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, we made you be born in a manger.

Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who You were.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord; to take our sins away.

Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see, we didn’t know it was you.

Herod’s scribes, who gave the wise men their directions from Scripture, did not go with them to the manger—I wonder why?  Likely it was because they couldn’t believe that Micah really meant it! Surely Messiah would not actually come in such a way!

Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah for the very good reason that he was born among the poor– not the wealthy, powerful, or influential.  As he grew, he surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  No one ever expected that Messiah would come like this! No one looked for, dreamed of, or wanted such a Messiah! But as Micah, and Mick, remind us “You can’t always get what you want. . . You get what you need.”

Jesus is still an astonishment, friends. He still shows up in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people—the least, the lost, the lowly. So if we would find him, that is where we too must go. And when we are lonely, when we have lost our way, we need only turn our heads to find him right there, beside us.  Because that is who he is.  That is what he does.

Jesus is still not the King we thought that we wanted—but he is the one that we need: the one who “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. . . the “one of peace.”

AFTERWORD:  Thank you to John Magnuson and Todd Leach of Shadyside Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, who invited me to preach in their Advent Vespers series–this blog is taken from that sermon.  Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years to all and sundry, friends!

Nov
2018

A Bigger Table

 

I have a confession to make: I talk to things.  I talk at home to our cat Mocha, which I guess isn’t too odd, but I also talk to cats and dogs that I meet on the street, and to the birds and squirrels in our neighborhood.  I talk to my computer when it is running too slowly.  I talk to my keys, or my phone, or my reading glasses when they have run off and are hiding from me.

So I am right at home with Joel 2:21-27, the Old Testament lesson for this Thanksgiving Day, which begins by addressing the natural world: not only the living things, the animals and trees and green plants, but even the dirt itself:

Don’t fear, fertile land [the NRSV reads, “O soil”!];
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things! (Joel 2:21).

The setting for this remarkable passage is the aftermath of a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  The locusts are described by God as

the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust . . .  my great army[!], which I sent against you (Joel 2:25).

But that is over now, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

Yet the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  Just after our reading in Joel comes the most famous passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
 In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves. (Joel 2:28-29).

The “children of Zion”—“my people”—includes not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged–even slaves.

Nature itself is also caught up in that community: the animals, the trees, the green plants—yes, even the dirt!

Don’t fear, fertile land;
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things!
Don’t be afraid, animals of the field,
        for the meadows of the wilderness will turn green;
    the tree will bear its fruit;
        the fig tree and grapevine will give their full yield. (Joel 2:21-22)

All are told not to fear. All are promised life, from God and by God. All are caught up in God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. Today, reading these words of Scripture, we too hear God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. But we cannot experience those blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us–or we will not find them at all.

Community is who we are, but it is also what we do.  This past week in Denver, I heard Jim Wallis share a profound statement of faith and call to action, coming from an extraordinary gathering of Christian leaders.  Called Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis,  this statement says in part,

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

If we would be free, brothers and sisters, then we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us are free.  We must be willing to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we had not known we had.

We must also extend our circle to include all of God’s world, for Joel reminds us that there can be no good for any of us if that good does not include our suffering earth.  This truth was brought brutally home by the devastating Camp Fire in California, which has left 81 dead and 699 still missing.  While natural disasters such as the Camp Fire are commonly called “acts of God,” eschewing human responsibility, there can be little doubt that we are responsible for this one, through climate change brought on by our own careless greed.  We must do better, remembering to treat the earth with responsibility and care.

On this Thanksgiving Day, sisters and brothers, we are going to need a bigger table, for Scripture reminds us that our family is larger than we had known. Thanks be to God for all our community!

 

 

Oct
2018

Laughing at the Devil

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

We call October 31 not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

This saying of Martin Luther was used as an epigraph to C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil–letters of advice from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell (an appropriately “Halloweeny” read, to be sure!).  The book is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, the Roman Catholic friend who led Lewis into the Christian faith. That connection is particularly interesting, as some of the same Christians who condemn Hallowe’en as a pagan holiday also mistrust the fantasies of both Lewis and Tolkien, fearful of their alleged “occult” influences–despite the explicitly Christian worldview evident in both the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

These waning days of October prompt anticipation, not only of Hallowe’en and All -Saints Day, but also of Election Day on November 6.  The continuing popularity of The Screwtape Letters has prompted the following item, posted on numerous Facebook pages:

I can understand the frustration with our own current political season that prompted this posting.  However, not only is this not a quote from The Screwtape Letters, or from anything else by C. S. Lewis, it is also a position that Lewis was unlikely to espouse.  To be sure, in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape does advise Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism”, in Lewis’ World War II English context) doesn’t matter:

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

However, this does not mean that Lewis believed we should be concerned simply for the salvation of our own souls.  First, while Lewis would certainly agree that sin and salvation are personal, he would certainly not agree that either sin or salvation is private. In fact, so important is the Church that Screwtape advises Wormwood to prevent his patient from attending worship by disillusioning him:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.        . . . When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

Second, Lewis would certainly not agree either that concern for a “broken system” is misplaced, or that trying to fix what is wrong in our world is futile.  The Screwtape Letters was published in book form in 1943, but began as a wartime serial in The Guardian between May and November of 1941–just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  If you decide not to vote in this election, or that your involvement cannot make a difference in the world, don’t think to justify your cynicism by appeal to Lewis–though, come to think of it, Screwtape and his ilk likely are involved.  But our Christian faith also reminds us that we, together with all the saints who have gone before us, are part of something larger than this current political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers!

AFTERWORD:

This is a slightly revised version of a blog first posted in 2016.  The false quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis is once more making the rounds, however, as it probably will every election year–hence this repeat post.

That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  Hallowe’en is also Dad’s birthday.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.

Sep
2018

Opening Lines

 

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene. . .

Call me Ishmael.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Beginnings matter.  Certainly Shakespeare, and Melville, and Tolkien (not to mention Snoopy) knew this well!  The opening lines of a work can pull us in and compel us to keep reading, or leave us cold, and turn us away.

All the more interesting, then, that the Psalm for this past Sunday was the first Psalm.  Indeed, in Codex Leningradensis, one of the oldest and certainly most complete texts of the Hebrew Bible we have, this psalm is unnumbered, set apart as the heading to the numbered psalms that follow.  Many interpreters have proposed that Psalm 1 was composed for this very place and purpose: to open the book of Psalms.

So, how does the Psalter begin?

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night (Ps 1:1-2).

As James Luther Mays observed, “The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence” (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], p. 40).

St. Athanasius famously observed that while the rest of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.  He wrote:

Within [the Psalter] are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. . . . In the Psalter you learn about yourself (from “To Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms”).

So, what do we learn from this Psalm about ourselves, as we are and as we might become? On its face, Psalm 1 contrasts two groups: the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim). But the Psalm is actually not interested in the wicked, who are defined only negatively: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves “will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (1:5).

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in Torah (the Hebrew word translated “law” in Psalm 1:1-2), which in Jewish tradition can refer to the first five books of the Bible, also called the Five Books of Moses.  Psalm 1 affirms that God’s Torah is the source and ground of blessing. This emphasis on Torah reflects the structure of the Psalter, which is divided by four doxologies (Pss 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; and 106:48) into five books, reminiscent of the Torah.

The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms

Jerome Creach proposes that in Psalm 1, Torah refers not only to the written Torah of Moses, but also to the Psalter itself: “The Psalms are a part of the pluriform expression of divine instruction by which the righteous find a secure destiny, hope for their living” (Jerome Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms [St. Louis: Chalice, 2008], p. 139).

Certainly, the language of Psalm 1 does not permit a legalistic understanding either of righteousness or of Torah. In Deuteronomy 15:5, by comparison, Israel is enjoined to “obey [Hebrew shama’ beqol; literally, “hear the voice of”] the LORD your God by diligently observing [Hebrew shamar] this entire commandment [Hebrew mitswah] that I command you today” (cf. also Lev 26:14). None of this legal vocabulary appears in Psalm 1.

Image result for study of Torah painting

Instead, the righteous are here said to “delight” in the LORD’s Torah (Hebrew chapets, perhaps better rendered “desire”).  They “meditate” upon God’s Torah day and night (Ps 1:2). Here, the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation–something particularly appropriate to my own setting here at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Despite the traditional translation of the Hebrew word torah as “law,” the word actually means “teaching.”  Here in Psalm 1, certainly, Torah is not about legalism, but about living, fully and well!  Focus on divine instruction yields for the righteous happiness (Ps 1:1) and stability:

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Ps 1:3).

This arboreal imagery emphasizes both the stability and fruitfulness of the righteous. To shun this divine instruction is to be “like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4): empty husks, dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

In contrast, the righteous are defined concretely, by their relentless pursuit of Torah. Therefore, “the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Ps 1:6). The verb translated “watches over” in the NRSV of Psalm 1:6 is yada’, that is, “know.” In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship. Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God.

In the first Psalm, the destiny of the righteous is to know, and be known, by God—to enter into a relationship with the Divine; to become like trees in God’s garden, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. As I and my students begin this new year in this place of study, I pray that we will immerse ourselves in the pursuit of God’s Torah–God’s instruction, God’s way of life. Scripture assures us that such seekers will not seek in vain; as Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7).

Sep
2018

Beginning Again–Again

This is a season of new beginnings.  Last week classes began at my school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and after a year’s sabbatical, I resumed my teaching role.  So it seems especially right to me that today is Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish New Year!

In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the ten Days of Awe that climax in the penitence of Yom Kippur (September 19)–the Day of Atonement. The sorrow and repentance of Yom Kippur also find expression this Friday, when many Christian churches observe the feast of the Holy Cross of Jesus.  And tomorrow, of course, is September 11.

Like many of you, I find myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and may feel again in the wake of fresh tragedies, Habakkuk knew well.

I am, once more, reprinting below the sermon I preached then.  It seems sadly appropriate today, when (as so many of us feared then) the hearts of so many have turned to hatred of the other, claiming legitimation in the tragic events of that day 17 years ago. It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.  May we join our Jewish sisters and brothers in their resolve to begin this year anew.  And may the cross of Jesus remind us that we follow the crucified Lord, who sided with the oppressed and outcast to the point of sharing their fate, unmasking our hatred and violence and putting to death, once and for all, our sin and rebellion.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.