For tonight’s Shrove Tuesday dinner my son requested that we have both pancakes and jambalaya, which is a thing their church in Alexandria does. “Dad, do you have a jambalaya in you?” he asked last week. It was in rotation during his childhood, but I seldom make it anymore because it is a pile of food, and until the pandemic, it was just the two of us.
I went to my 50th high school reunion in 2017, and several of us agreed that if our lives were measured like a football game, we would be in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. That, of course, is something we can only surmise, and, indeed, some of that cohort have died since that time.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has made it more difficult to avoid thinking about one’s mortality, whatever quarter of the game we might imagine we are in.
I turn to the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke to reflect on the mysterious interplay between divine providence and human freedom, and what Jesus might have to say to us about our living of these days, however many of them we are blessed to have remaining.
Once again, as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it has been my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Continue reading
“PITY THE NATION”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (After Khalil Gibran) 2007
Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves Continue reading
It’s cold and damp out today, so I decided to make this gooey Mac and Cheese, even though I know the grandchildren that currently live with me prefer Annie’s (which turned out to be true. (Matthew 7:6)
(Don McGillis was the former Editor of the Berkshire Eagle and a long-time reporter for the Boston Globe. He was also my friend. He died last week after spending the night stranded on Mount Katahdin in Maine and suffering a 50-foot fall. His family invited me to share some words at his memorial service yesterday)
If you can recall the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, you know that today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas, a good day to take your tree down if you haven’t done so already. Continue reading
The Internet is full of kudos for the late great Robin Williams, many of them referencing the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” (which is a line from William’s movie “The Dead Poets’ Society.”)
It would be sad if the original context was lost. The poem is an expression of Whitman’s grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of my favorite poems, and as much as I loved Robin Williams, and appreciate his cometic gifts and obvious humanity, I want us to hold on to the power of this poem about the man that emancipated slavery, saved the union, and changed our nation forever. And I imagine that Robin Williams would be first in line to agree with me.
“O Captain! My Captain!”
BY WALT WHITMAN
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The idea of forgiveness is so ingrained in our cultural and religious traditions that it is easy for us to overlook what an extraordinary idea it is. Although we tend to separate out “forgiving” and “forgetting” the biblical notion of forgiveness is literally “a forgetting,” in that after the act of forgiveness “it is as if ” the grievance never happened.
It is only the aggrieved party who can do the forgiving, and the act of forgiveness “wipes away” the memory of the grievance so that it no longer has any influence on the relationship. So it is that the phrase “I will remember their sins no more” appears again and again in the Bible, for example, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hebrews.
Before this idea of forgiveness took hold there was simply “revenge,” in which affronts were met with retribution, often disproportionate to the original wrong. These “family feuds,” if we want to call them that, could go on for generations, and still do, as we see sometimes, for example, in the Middle East, where memories of affronts are long.
A moral advance on such indiscriminate retribution was the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which prescribed that the response had to be equal to the offense, as, for example, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
But the idea of forgiveness moves social relationships into a whole new key, and goes beyond mere justice. Indeed, forgiveness is an affront to justice, which is one of the perpetual accusations made against the Gospel by its critics.
Israel’s God is a god who forgives, but we may recall that the first covenant in the Bible is the covenant with Noah, and in that story God’s forgiveness has limits. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
So God does not forgive the people and punishes them with a flood. God shows some mercy, enough to save a remnant in the ark, the blameless Noah and his family, and the several species of animals. But God repents of his action, viewing it as a dry run (if you’ll excuse the pun), and promises never to do it again, laying down his arms (so to speak,) and leaving his bow in the sky to remind him.
In Exodus there’s a seeming change in the character and identity of God, in which mercy becomes a key quality. In preparing for today I took two volumes of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the M volume for “mercy,” and the F volume for “forgiveness.” When I found the entry for “mercy” it said, “see LOVE.”
In Exodus we have a particularly important passage for subsequent Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s identity and character. It is Exodus 34:6-7, when God tells Moses to go up Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets. As you recall, God descended in the cloud, revealed the divine name to Moses, and then proclaimed to him:
“The Lord, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.”
Now this passage is really packed with things to ponder, but I want to highlight three for you.
1. First, this is a big moment in the history of God and his people. The revealing of the divine name tips us off to it, and right after this is the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant. To reveal one’s name is to be in relationship. God chooses to be in relationship with Israel, and renews the previous covenants.
2. Second, while we in our day tend to focus on the individual, and on individual sins, notice that here the emphasis is collective to the people as a people.
3. Third, the relationship is not only collective it is trans-generational, the promise applying across multiple generations.
I would guess that most of what we talk about in this Lenten study over the next few weeks will be about individual acts of forgiveness applied to willful, intentional sins. But the early understandings of forgiveness in the Bible were almost always collective, and almost always for inadvertent sinning.
So I need to say a word about why divine forgiveness was a necessary condition for God and Israel to be in relationship. This is a little hard for us to get our minds around because we tend to think of sin as a moral category, and it was also for Israel. But sin was frequently, perhaps even more frequently, thought about not as morality, but as purity.
God was understood to be holy and humans were not, the creator and the creatures were in different categories. And so we see the development of the elaborate holiness codes in Leviticus, which were designed to produce ritual purity in people so as not to offend God. Even so, it was impossible to keep all the myriad laws required.
Remember I said most sins that needed to be forgiven were inadvertent. So it wasn’t flagrant sinning like robbery, murder, or adultery, the ones we think of in moral categories, which needed to be forgiven so much as the infractions against ritual purity.
This is part of the backstory behind some of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees who were zealous for the law, the maintaining of ritual purity.
I don’t think I am stating it too strongly to say that our very humanity makes us in need of forgiveness from the God who is holy. And that is why when God chooses to be a forgiving God it is a precondition for us to be in relationship with God at all.
And again, I think if we look at the grand arc of the whole Christian Story in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we see how the very identity of God can be understood in terms of forgiveness, the fruits of mercy and love. So much so that, after Good Friday and Easter, the early disciples of Jesus, all of them Jewish, as he was Jewish, came to call him “Lord,” the name previously reserved for God alone. It is quite remarkable. They saw in his love, mercy, and forgiveness congruence with the character and indenty of their God.
Before I move on to focus on the New Testament I need to mention something else relevant to the idea of forgiveness that will come into play later: that is that the priestly cult in Israel saw one way to blot out the memory of sins was through a blood sacrifice of an animal as an atonement or expiation. The people around Jesus’ had either participated, witnessed, or at least knew about such ritual blood sacrifices from the daily operations of the Jerusalem temple. So when we talk about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, we are missing the original referent of the metaphor, which is partly why the idea is so hard for us. It’s a dead metaphor. I’ve written a book about all this if you want to know more (see When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Wipf and Stock, 2010)
All these understandings about God’s holiness get carried into the Christian era, so the New Testament also understands sin as an offense against God’s holy law or against another human being. As in the Old Testament forgiveness involves the wiping from memory of the offense by the one affronted so as restore harmony in the relationship.
The seriousness of sin is one of the chief preoccupations of the New Testament. Humans cannot by themselves avoid God’s condemnation. So Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And St. Paul flatly declares in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
This is the predicament of the human condition, and the context of Jesus’ ministry. In the retrospective look of the apostolic age it was understood that, as it says in 1Timothy 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Our best example of forgiveness at work is in “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) which I know some of you have been studying. One of the key features of that story is the father’s eagerness to restore his relationship with his lost son. Notice the father forgives the prodigal before the son even has time to deliver his little repentance speech. We should recall that the whole purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of the broken relationship. And in this parable the older brother, who didn’t leave, didn’t sin, and kept all the rules, thinks it is unfair that his deadbeat brother is restored. And it is unfair, because forgiveness is driven not by justice but by love. The older brother thinks he has earned his father’s love by his own achievements. But you don’t earn love. The father loves the prodigal not because he is good, but because he is his.
I’d like to quickly point to two more features of the New Testament idea of forgiveness. The first I have mentioned already: the death of Jesus, which in miniature focuses the whole gospel story. Here the sinless faithful Messiah, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by sinful humanity, obediently goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who killed him. It is a loving act of atonement.
The second feature, which will come up in our questions, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, and elsewhere, Jesus is saying that the capacity to receive forgiveness is somehow intimately connected to our capacity to forgive. In Matthew 5:23-24, for example, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is as if only those who can forgive can understand it enough to receive it.
( I gave this Lenten Study presentation on March 9, 2014, at the First Congregational Church (UCC), Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)
Picture: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
What is vocation? We typically think of vocation as our job or profession, but the idea is much larger and richer than that, so let’s take a look at it, starting with a little word study.
Vox is the Latin word for “voice,” as in Vox Populi, the “voice of people.” The Latin verb “to call” is vocare, as it still is in Italian. The noun form is vocatio.
There is a whole cluster of English words that have these Latin words as their root, words that refer to voice, to speaking and calling. For example, when we “speak out” we are being “vocal.” The whole collection of words we use to speak is our “vocabulary.” And, of course, a person’s calling is his or her “vocation.”
In Christianity (and its mother Judaism) our God is a God who has a voice, a God who speaks and calls.
But God’s speaking is different than our human speaking in an important way. We make a distinction between human speech and action.
But for God there is no such distinction: the Word of God doesn’t just say something, it does something. So, for example, in Genesis 1, God creates the worlds with a word. Recall how God said, “Let, there be light! And there was light.”
And recall also how God says in Isaiah 55, “My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that which I purpose.” Isaiah himself is an example of a prophet, a person called by God to speak for Him, so that when the prophet speaks, his words are heard by the people as the Word of God.
Likewise in John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is called “the Word of God.” John 1: “In the beginning was the Word” intentionally mirrors Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
But to say that Jesus is “the Word of God” is to say more than that he speaks the Word of God, as Isaiah did or the other prophets did.
No, in Jesus, we see this intimate connection between speech and act, between word and deed. Because Jesus is both the one who speaks the Word of God, and he is also the one who accomplishes it, by his life death, and resurrection.
And so we see in today’s Gospel from John, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the first disciples, which sets in motion the drama of the rest of the Gospel.
Why does Jesus call disciples? To answer that we need some background on what Jesus’ ministry was all about. First of all, Jesus comes into a time and place where God was expected. The people had been waiting, longing, hoping for the coming of God’s reign in the form of his anointed one, which is the word “messiah” in Hebrew, and “Christ” in Greek.
The role of John the Baptist in the story is important because many at the time thought that John the Baptist was a figure like Elijah. Elijah was often thought to be the one who would come before the messiah, a forerunner figure.
Many people saw John the Baptist in this same light, and his appearance in the wilderness raised expectations for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus shows up preaching and teaching many thought he was the expected One.
In our reading today the evangelist describes Andrew and Peter as disciples of John the Baptist, who leave him to follow Jesus.
So Jesus calls disciples for a very particular reason, which is hinted at by his calling twelve of them. This mirrors the twelve tribes of Israel. This is just one of many indications that Jesus understood himself to be the carrier of God’s special calling of Israel.
And what was Israel’s special calling? We get an inkling of it in our Old Testament reading today, where God says to Israel, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:1-7)
In theological terms we refer to this special calling as “election.” In the Bible election is never for itself. No, election is always to accomplish the purposes of God.
The “chosen people,” whether we are referring to Israel or the church or both, are not called because they are better than others, but because God has use for them. And if we pay careful attention to the stories of the people God calls in scripture, it becomes quite clear that God doesn’t call the qualified, but rather qualifies the called. Think of Abraham and Sarah, well past their prime, Jacob, the liar and thief, Moses, the murderer, and Mary the poor teenage unwed mother. These are people like us and people we know.
So once again, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s really interesting Rick, and we’re glad you got to use your high school Latin, but what’s all this got to do with us?”
And the answer to that is that it has everything to do with our identity as a congregation and our understanding of our mission. In other words, our vocation informs both “who we are” and “what we do.”
I am talking about our vocation as church. We don’t just come to church, we are called to be the church. There’s a difference.
Here’s a hint about our calling. In the Call to Worship for this morning I referenced the UCC Statement of Faith several times. Twice it refers to God’s call. The first call is in the beginning: “God calls the worlds into being.” There’s Genesis 1 again.
The second call from God is through Jesus, “He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”
So the church is called as an instrument of God’s purposes, and those purposes are the same as in the original creation.
To begin to think about ourselves that way, as being called for God’s purposes, will change both our identity and mission. We are not merely a voluntary association of individuals with a benevolent and spiritual focus, although we are that.
But we are more than that, we are called, we have a vocation.
This concept of vocation was very important to our Puritan forbearers here in New England. We talked about this in our Men’s Book Group on Wednesday. Before the Reformation vocation was understood to be only for the religious life, for the monk, nun, or priest.
The Reformers changed that. Luther and Calvin believed that there was a general calling to repentance and a godly life for all Christians, and there were particular callings to life’s several vocations, as we understand them today.
So calling was no longer just for the clergy, and it still isn’t. Calling is for us all, and what are we called to be? Disciples of Jesus. And what is a disciple? A disciple is quite simply a follower or a student. One who hears the call of Jesus.
Jesus called those first disciples by asking them, “What are you looking for?” And later he invites them to “Come and see!”
And they might not have known what they were looking for, as many of us do not, but they knew it when they saw it. And they said, “We have seen the Messiah.”
They heard the call and answered it.
I want to talk now about the power of words as it relates to our callings, and I can think of no better example than Martin Luther King, who was a very important influence on me, and on my own call to ministry.
I was fourteen when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial. I was there last month and felt as if I was standing on holy ground.
I had grown up in the church, but in Dr. King’s speech I heard a new power in some familiar words. Dr. King’s father was a minister, and Martin grew up in the thought-world and language-world of the church.
The African-American church had retained the moral grammar of the faith that had been largely lost in the mainline church, the language of justice and righteousness, and in the civil rights movement Dr. King and others gave it back to the whole country as a gift in their words.
When I first heard Dr. King’s words they rang true. They had behind them such moral force. His use of familiar scripture, such a Isaiah 40, “Every valley shall be exalted,” and of shared national language such as the words of “My Country ‘tis of Thee” re-awakened the moral imagination of much of the country.
In Dr. King’s speech fifty years ago I became awakened to the power of words to shape the life of individuals and societies, and years later I discerned a call, there’s that word again, a call to the ordained ministry.
And throughout my long ministry I have often pondered the power of words, to heal or hurt, to inspire or dampen the spirit, to free or repress. And I believe that a society that de-values words is at risk, because it ceases to know when it is lying to itself, and can’t recognize truth when it hears it.
But the right word at the right time can change a life or change a society.
I invite you to recall such moments in your own life. Perhaps you were listening to a sermon, or the words to a hymn, or a scripture reading, and suddenly those words were not something you were just overhearing, but words that were addressed to you.
And it is in such moments that “vocation” takes place; when you hear the voice of God calling. And when that happens there is no turning back, because the Word of God has a life of its own in your life.
You know how Brent (our pastor) often begins worship with the words “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” This language is part of what we in the United Church of Christ call “the extravagant welcome of our God.”
These are good words. The purpose of this welcoming language is to create no barriers that will keep people away from our life together here, and several people have told me how reassuring it is to them.
But, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you there is danger in all this extravagant welcome, and it should come with a warning label.
Because once you say to yourself, “I feel welcome here. This could be my church,” a new thing may happen. You are very likely to have one of those moments I just described, when the words you hear become the Word of God that feel as if they were directly addressed to you. Then you hear the call of God and recognize your vocation. Then you move from attendance to discipleship, from observing Jesus to following him. Then you accept “the cost and joy of discipleship.”
Those moments will change your life.
So what is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be?
What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be?
And let the people say: Amen.
I preached this sermon at my home congregation, the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on January 19, 2014.
(Picture: The Calling of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio)