Category Archives: Uncategorized

Idols in the Time of Pandemic

Last week as I was doing some sermon prep, I came across a new take on an old story and it got me thinking. What if our familiar sanctuary and the liturgy I love have become idols?

Let me back up a little. The story is the one about the Israelites fashioning an idol in the shape of a calf. You can find the whole story in Exodus 34, but here’s the short version. Moses was called up to the mountaintop to meet God; there he would receive the Ten Commandments. He was delayed in coming down and the people got impatient. So, they melted down their gold jewelry to make an image of a god.

I can still picture my childhood Sunday School leaflets that showed that idol in the shape of a calf resting down on its haunches. The point always was that the Israelites had made a false god that they were now worshiping.

In a Sermon Brainwave podcast, Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson suggests that the Israelites were not making an image of a false god; they were making a false image of the true God. Per Jacobson, the Hebrew is a bit different than what usually gets translated. The Hebrew reads, “This (the image of the calf) brought you out of Egypt.” Aaron then built an altar in front of the image, and proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.” The announcement of a festival to Yahweh only makes sense if the Israelites believed they were making an image of Yahweh, not one of the false gods of the Canaanites. So, again, not an image of a false god, but a false image of the true God.

Oh, how very human to recast the living, invisible God into something we can see, something familiar and understandable and tangible. How very human to recast the living God in our own image. The Israelites are a case study in how hard it is to follow an invisible God, especially when you’re in the wilderness.

It makes me think about how hard it is to be the church right now in the time of pandemic. We are in our own wilderness. The old ways of worship and gathering (the familiar life that we had back in Egypt) are gone at least for the time being. And the longer this pandemic goes on, the more impatient we get for the familiar.

And it makes me think about how tempting it is to replace the worship of an unseen God with the familiar things we long for. For instance, the sanctuary.

Our congregation’s sanctuary is stunning. The chancel furnishings were expertly crafted by a member of the congregation. We have a gorgeous tracker pipe organ that not only sounds fabulous, but is an imposing figure of beauty in our sanctuary. We have not one, but two Steinway grand pianos; both sound and look fabulous. Behind the altar is a plain white wall with an imposing backlit cross, and at both ends of that wall are floor to ceiling clear windows that provide a stunning view of Door County beauty. In the summer tourist season, we have 40-50 people singing in a choir and another 200 people in the sanctuary. When we sing, accompanied by both organ and piano, it is something to experience. I love it.

We can’t do that right now and how tempting it is to want to hurry back to that experience rather than to recognize that we can still worship without the room that has become so important to us. How tempting it is to turn that room into the very essence of our worship life. In effect, the room becoming the idol.

Here’s another one. I love the liturgy, the high church liturgy, the liturgy full of formal ritual. Shoot, I’d use incense every week if it were up to me. And I confess that I miss it. A lot. And I confess that in the past, there have been times when I have been way too stubborn and rigid about the celebration of that liturgy, making the liturgy itself and the degree of excellence of its celebration into the thing that was more important than the God the liturgy is supposed to help us to worship.

We’re doing drive-in church now, which is by far the most casual of worship experiences that I have ever planned and led. And I can say that it feels way more like worship than I ever expected it to. I think it has helped me to see that those trappings that I have too often turned into golden calves are just that – trappings. 125-plus people and 70-80 cars keep showing up, not just members of the congregation, not just tourists in for the weekend, but folks from the community who either have never been connected to our congregation, or who haven’t been for a very long time.

All of this has exposed my idols and has become a reminder to me of how easy it is to substitute relatively minor personal preferences or aesthetic sensibilities or the way we’ve always done it, for the true God. The symbols of our faith are important; and they are not all-important.

God promises to visit God’s people not only in the room we love, not only in the liturgy that I love, but wherever, whenever, and however two or three are gathered in Christ’s name. I hope I can remember that lesson even when we return to something that looks and feels a little more normal and familiar.

“So You Want to Talk about Race.”

Over the past five years (since the Mother Emmanuel murders), part of my anti-racism journey has been a lot of reading and study. My bibliography is closing in on 50 titles. I know that reading and study is not all of the journey, but for me, it’s an important piece. Reading and study are a big part of how I navigate the world.

My pastoral work includes meeting and establishing a relationship with community leaders, and I’ve tried to be intentional about reaching out to BIPOC leaders. I have no other agenda for those meetings than to relate to another leader in the community. While listening is always a key ingredient in relational meeting, it’s especially important when I’m meeting with those whose experience is very different than mine as a white, cis-gendered, male. I’m always hopeful that I will learn something about how I can do better and be better in this anti-racism work.

It’s not uncommon that at some point in those conversations, we turn attention to what we’ve been reading. I want to know what they’re reading and what they think I should be reading. And therein is the reason I picked up this book. Consistently in conversations with BIPOC leaders, this is the book that I should be reading. I’m thankful for the recommendation.

Before writing the book, Ijeoma Oluo was active in a variety of on-line writing platforms in which she answered questions about matters of race. Her posts tended towards addressing the real, practical, on-the-ground questions that kept coming up about how to talk about race; she became known for quickly getting at the core truths surrounding the questions. As she writes in the preface, “My claim to fame was writing commentary on social issues that could be ‘of use’.” This book is an extension of that desire to “give readers the fundamentals of how race worked, not only in a way that they would take into their graduate race theory classes but in a way that they would take to the office or to their Thanksgiving tables.”  

Though I’ve been through two 25-hour anti-racism training sessions, read a lot of books, and led several racism conversations in my congregations, I found Oluo’s direct answers to common questions about race probably more clear and straightforward than anything I’ve ever read.

It’s critical for the white church to engage the work of breaking down the evils of structural and institutional racism. To do that, we have to engage the conversations. Often they will be hard and uncomfortable conversations, and as leaders, we will get pushback. This book offers the pastoral leader excellent guidance on how to frame those conversations and even the language that will be helpful. For instance, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we engage in anti-racism conversations to change someone’s mind, to gain a convert, in short, to win. “Conversations on racism should never be about winning. The battle is too important to be so simplified. You are in this to share and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

She spends whole chapters explaining matters that white people, unfortunately, have a hard time understanding: the connection between police brutality and racism, deconstructing the many misconceptions about affirmative action, micro-aggressions, and on and on. From this standpoint, it’s almost like a reference book for bolstering confidence about engaging these important matters. And all of them are interlaced with her own stories that put a human face on these challenging issues.

Throughout the book, the eyes of my mind opened in unexpected ways. One of the chapters that had a strong impact is the one entitled, “What if I talk about race wrong?” It has served as an encouragement to continue this work even though its hard (I know – that’s part of my privilege that I even get to say that – to decide to continue this work). I know about doing the race conversation wrong. It all started for me when I asked an African-American pastoral colleague if his congregation could help us learn about racism. He replied sternly, “That’s not our job.” Yup. I said that. And thankfully, our relationship was solid enough and he was confident enough to tell me to go do my own work.  Reminding me that I’m going to do conversations about race wrong, repeatedly and royally, she offers the encouragement that I need to have them anyway. And then offers some clear, no-nonsense tips that will increase the chance of a conversation success.

One caution I would raise for pastoral leaders: Oluo is not shy about profanity, including the occasional f-bomb. As always, each needs to make the decision based on their own people and their own situation. In my setting, the profanity wouldn’t prevent me from using it, as long as I let people know what to expect.

I can see clearly why my colleagues have recommended this book. I’m joining the chorus. It ought to be in the toolbox of every pastoral leader.

“That They May Be One”

We tape our services on Thursday, so what has been written and preached has been written and preached.

This is one of those Sundays when I would have been tempted to rewrite on Saturday morning the sermon that I had written on Thursday.

Once again yesterday, the President took yet another opportunity to sow divisiveness and discord in a time when we desperately need to be working together.

What’s ironic is that the divisive salvo happened to fall a few days before the Sunday when tens of thousands of churches will be reading from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 10. The reading ends, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

That’s right. A prayer for unity in a time when the divisiveness and polarization keeps getting ramped up, and the president is the Stirrer-of-the Pot-in-Chief.

I understand that Jesus’ prayer is not a prayer for the unity of a nation-state. It’s a prayer for the unity of the church. What saddens me and concerns me is that the politicization of our response to this pandemic on that national stage, and more and more on the state and local levels is going to spill over into congregations. The President’s pronouncement just made exponentially more difficult and precarious the work of local congregational leaders and pastors who are trying to be responsible and conscientious and are trying to make plans based on the advice and counsel of the public health officials.

I haven’t read of one public health official who says that it’s time to open up the churches. The science of the coronavirus hasn’t changed. Gathering indoors in confined areas is still one of the riskiest ways to contract the virus. It’s still true that speaking and singing and distributing communion are three of the riskiest behaviors for contracting the virus. It’s still true that asymptomatic persons can infect dozens of others before they know they are sick. And it’s still true that the older you are, the greater the chance that contracting Covid-19 will be fatal. Those facts are apolitical, and they are the reason that public health officials have urged patience and caution about churches returning to in person worship.

I’m grateful for the consistent voice of my denominational leaders who are urging caution and patience. (Shout out to you, Bishop Eaton and Bishop Mansholt.) Also for the Wisconsin Council of Churches who not only urge caution, but have done an incredible amount of work in providing detailed guidance about what gradual reopening might look like and how to make a timeline. I’m grateful that the leaders of my congregation are taking that collective counsel seriously.

But I can see what’s happening in congregations because it’s beginning to happen in mine. The leadership is urging caution while a few voices are beginning to push back because they want to be in church again. And the President’s unhelpful words yesterday only give a larger soapbox for that sentiment.

Divisiveness in the church is evil. And it’s always knocking at the door. Read Paul’s letters carefully. In every one of them he has to warn against the factions that are developing in the churches he’s planting. Ironically, in the second lesson that will be read this weekend, the writer of the letter that we call First Peter also ends with a caution, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9) The divisiveness that is always standing at the thresholds of our congregations is now ready to pounce by sowing the seeds of discord over how and when we should open. The society-wide politicization of our response to this pandemic is now about to explode (if it hasn’t already) in congregations. I’m telling you, that’s not the work of the Spirit; it’s the work of Evil.

So, don’t let it happen. Stay together. Like the disciples in that time between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, make this time a time of prayer. In my sermon that my people will see tomorrow, I asked them to pray for discernment for our leaders.

I wish I had also asked them to pray that our plans to gradually reopen don’t cause division, but rather help us to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one.

Thank You, Senator Warren

It’s 6:30 in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

I have had a full and busy day.

I came home to the news that Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the Democratic Presidential primary race.

I am sad about that.

Full disclosure: I’m not sure that I would have voted for Warren in the Wisconsin primary. There are many things that I have liked about her. She was in my top tier of candidates. I also had reasons to support her competitors. I think my decision might well have been a standing-in-line-to-vote decision.

Still, I am sad.

Warren is in many ways the perfect candidate. She is smart, experienced, a track record of getting things done, the kind of assertiveness that is needed to get things done, an impeccable resume, and on and on. She knows politics and the art of compromise. She has a plan for EVERYTHING. She was a strong candidate. The only down side, culturally speaking, is that she is a woman. I’m not saying that as a personal opinion, but as a cultural observation.

What makes me sad is that a Democratic field that started with six strong female candidates, not to mention a strong candidate who is gay and married, has now narrowed to two old white guys. That’s a step backwards.

A deep and strong sexism exists in our culture. It must be addressed. We can and must do better.

The first step is to acknowledge it. For those of us who are white, male, and in my case, old, to shut our mouths and listen to our colleagues who have been the victims of our patriarchy for far too long. And it is also our responsibility, not only to listen, but to call out sexism when we see it.

I serve on the board of a burgeoning not-for-profit organization. We are a mixture of gifts and talents, all of us strong, smart people. I noticed that the strong and smart women were continually being interrupted by the strong and smart men. Old white men. I called them out on it. It was a tense moment. But it also gave us the chance to look at ourselves in the mirror, acknowledge the wrong, and move forward in a way that gave a much more equal voice to the entire board. We need to do better.

This evening, I am sad. I thought we were better than this. I thought we had made progress. I’m not so sure. We have a long way to go.

Was It Disrespectful?

Social media has been abuzz about Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic endcap on last night’s State of the Union speech when she tore up her copy of the President’s speech.

Was it disrespectful?

Of course it was disrespectful.

And my hunch is intentionally disrespectful. I don’t think it was a spur of the moment, act-of-passion moment. I think it was carefully planned. She was expecting an act of disrespect. In turn, she was going to demand respect.

Several years ago, I was a part of a group of citizens that arranged to meet with the then governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn. Prior to his election he had agreed to meet regularly with us as a way to be accountable to the promises he had made in support of some initiatives in our communities. We had met with him a couple of times before and he had always been late. He was scheduled to speak at one of our assemblies. He was late, an hour late. On this particular occasion, we had arranged to meet on the top floor the Thompson building in downtown Chicago. It was the “governor’s floor.” We had made a special request to him to honor our time; we were working people who had taken time off from our job and had to travel downtown from the suburbs to meet with him. Our time was as valuable as his. Except that, apparently, in his mind it wasn’t. We sat in the designated room for 20 minutes after the appointed meeting time and began to talk about what we should do. We decided to wait until half past the hour and if he wasn’t there we would leave. At 3:30 we got up from the table in the meeting room and moved toward the hallway.

About that time, the governor and his entourage appeared at the other end of the hallway. “What’s going on here?” he blustered.

“We’re leaving. Our meeting was scheduled to start a half hour ago and you’re late. Our time is as valuable as yours.”

He blew up, shouting expletives, “Who do you think I am? I’m the governor of Illinois. You don’t walk out of a meeting with me!”

One of our leaders quietly responded, “Governor, you are 30 minutes late. Our time is as valuable as yours. You have had a pattern of arriving late, so we specifically asked you to make it to this meeting on time. We demand that you respect us and our time.” In the end, he calmed down, apologized, and we went on to have a productive meeting.

Respect is a two-way street.

If the tearing up of the speech manuscript was one bookend for the State of the Union speech, the other was the very intentional and obvious snubbing of the Speaker of the House by refusing to shake her hand. Those kinds of official greetings are part of the protocol and liturgy of The State of the Union speech. To skip that protocol was also no accident and was as calculated as was Pelosi’s tearing up of the speech. The President’s disrespect is one more example of a man whose stock in trade is disrespect. He has a long history of disrespecting women by objectifying them and demeaning them, part of a larger pattern of disrespect that includes calling his political opponents names, mocking disabled persons, referring to certain countries as sh*thole countries and the list goes on and on.

Respect is a two-way street.

O Root of Jesse — December 19

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

The last few years I lived in Illinois, I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands tallgrass prairie conservancy in Lee County, Illinois. I was part of a small crew that would walk through stands of prairie grass spotting and removing invasive plants, making room for the remarkable diversity of native prairie grasses and flowers. The steward that I worked with was an encyclopedia of mind-blowing information about the prairie plants that we were making room for. I learned that for most of the prairie plants, the root system is deep and substantial. In fact, most of the biomass of prairie plants is below the surface of the ground. The deep and substantial root system insures that the plants will have water even in the driest summers. They enrich the soil and for some plants provide the network for forming new plants. The deep and substantial root system allows the plants to survive the prairie fires that are so vital to the health of the prairie ecosystem. The root systems of grasses and plants in the silphium family go down as far as 20′-25′.

The roots of Jesus go deep. The O Antiphon for December 19 takes those roots all the way back to David, son of Jesse, shepherd boy who rose to become king. John 1 takes those roots back even further. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him not one thing was made.”

The One by whom all things were made, the One who spans the long reaches of time and space, the One whose existence lies far beneath the surface of the humble birth in Bethlehem comes to us, comes now, comes to save us.

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

O Leader of Israel — December 18

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In the O Antiphon for December 18, Christ is called the Leader of the House of Israel.

Call to mind the great leaders of the nation of Israel: Moses, who let God’s people out of slavery, through the long wilderness wandering, and into the promised land. Deborah, the prophetess who masterminded the assault against Jabin, king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. David, the great warrior king who got his start as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant. Esther, the Jewish queen of Persian who foiled the plans of Haman to have all the Jews in the land killed.

The Messiah was to be the great leader of God’s people all rolled into one. “He will lead his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah proclaimed.

The shepherd who himself was led to slaughter. The shepherd who became the Lamb. The shepherd who was stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns, and led outside the gates of Jerusalem to the place of the skull where in his mighty cruciform power he rescued all creation.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

“What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?”

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler23nkjasc90-largeThis sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on October 14, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Mark 10:17-31. 

Today’s gospel lesson is another provocative story that may very well cause a little squirming. Several years ago, I was having lunch with a a wealthy member of my suburban congregation; we got to talking about scripture, about how to live as a Christian in the world. He said something that has stuck with me for a long time: “Some of Jesus’ words I like, some I find hard, but the one that I have the hardest time with is the one about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I came from nothing and I’ve worked hard for what I have. I don’t think it should keep me out of the kingdom.”  It’s hard for me to argue with that notion.

I want to put at the center of our reflection the question this rich young man asks of Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The content of the question is odd. In a sense, it’s an absurd question. You can’t do anything to gain an inheritance. To inherit something is by definition passive. If my father has an inheritance set up for me, the only way I get it is for my father to die. Then it comes to me. I haven’t done anything for it. My father might choose to give it to me before he dies, but even then, I have done nothing; I simply receive. So, from the very outset, the young man is going in the wrong direction if he wants to discover anything about eternal life.

There’s something else a little odd.  How quickly Jesus changes the subject from eternal life to how the rich young man is to live in this life. If the man is asking about salvation, if he’s asking about his relationship with God, Jesus answers his question by urging care for his neighbor. It’s the same thing that seems to be going on in the lesson from Amos. The relationship between the nation of Israel and God is broken. The symptoms of that broken relationship are not what the people are doing directly to God, but all the ways that they are living out an oppression to their neighbors, especially the poor. Did you catch all the references to justice and oppression in that reading from Amos? The leaders are trampling on the poor, exacting oppressive tax burdens on the poor, offering and taking bribes and showing favoritism when bringing cases before judges. It seems that for both Jesus and Amos, the sign of God’s presence in the community is communal justice, a focus on furthering the common good and caring for the most vulnerable.

And that’s where things get difficult for our young man. See, there are apparently obstacles to the life that Jesus offers to this rich young man, obstacles that have continued from the first century to the 21st century. For both him and us, one of the most serious obstacles is our possessions. My friend that I referred to earlier had a bit of nervousness about that. What if Jesus’ words are true? That’s where the squirm factor comes in. Some of hearing this story this morning are even by your own standards wealthy. Probably many of the rest of you would not consider yourselves wealthy; yet chances are you have stuff, and you have money and you have some interest in either keeping that money or making more of it. And maybe you yearn for more stuff. Even beyond that, simply by virtue of being born in the western world, we are among the wealthiest people on the planet. Compared to the rest of the population of the world, we are probably among the 1%. So, for all of us, Jesus’ words are a warning. What we have can serve as a serious obstacle to life in the kingdom of God. Here’s how that works: If we are determined to hold on to what we have, if we place what we have at the center of our lives, if that’s what we think gives life meaning and purposes, if our stuff and our money become the measure of what life is all about, if our stuff and our money are what we are clinging to for security, then we are holding on to only a fragile and hollow shell of life. Jesus encourages a willingness to let go of the fraudulent and collapsible supports for life, those supports that are epitomized, but not limited to wealth. Believe me, there is a long list of things we are tempted to rely on. No wonder the rich young man went away sorrowful; no wonder the disciples threw up their hands in frustrated despair and asked, “Then my Lord, who can be saved?”

Exactly. I don’t intend to soften Jesus’ words about the difficulty of the rich man entering the kingdom of God. In fact, I think the whole point of it is the impossibility of it, and the accompanying miracle of God calling us into God’s family. So often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes the impossible possible. He feeds a crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He restores sick and dead children to life. A destitute widow deposits her last coin. And in perhaps the most unlikely miracle of all, God takes the crucifixion of God’s Son and turns it into the event that brings life to the whole world. We are reminded again in the first few words of this gospel lesson that Jesus is on a journey; he is heading to Jerusalem; his face is turned resolutely to the mission before him. There in the holy city,  by his death and resurrection, God would bring life to you, to me, to the whole world, indeed to all creation.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing, except to open our hands and hearts to receive the transformed life that God offers to us, a life grounded in the love and grace of God, a life grounded in our own baptism into the death and resurrection of the Crucified One.

What that looks like is that we don’t have to hold onto our possessions with white-knuckled anxiety. We don’t have to live in fear. We don’t have to cling to things because we know that our life does not consist in things. Elsewhere, Jesus says not to worry because God cares even for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.

A number of years ago, the congregation where I was a pastor was doing some work in Haiti. We partnered with an organization and some local Haitians to help build and improve an orphanage and school in one of the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. While in Haiti, we lived and worked with people who had very, very little. No running water, the simplest of homes, clothes that were hand me downs from the US, and no assurance that there would be food on the table tomorrow. Yet, I observed that these were people of deep faith. They relied and trusted on God to care for them today and tomorrow. I must confess that my abundant possessions get in the way of that kind of trust. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.That’s the kind of life I yearn for.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Thanks be to God that this morning, yet again, the Lord Jesus invites us into a new life where we center our lives completely apart from all the things we are tempted to build them around: wealth, career, family, pleasure, prestige, and the rest of the long list. Instead, he offers us real life, to center our lives in the goodness and grace of God, to be transformed once again so that both our lives and our possessions become seeds for the kingdom.

This Is Hard Stuff

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 15, 2018. It is based on the Revised Common Lectionary lessons for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29.


I know what you’re thinking. How is he going to wrestle a sermon out of the beheading of John the Baptist?  I agree. This is hard stuff, these lessons. Give me a good text full of promises, the kind that brings peace and comfort. Give me a story about the way God loves us, a story full of that unconditional grace.  Give me something that I can walk away from feeling good.

Instead we get a prophet who is sent to speak harsh words of judgment to those in power and another that gets beheaded for answering the same call. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

The beloved John the Baptist is executed by beheading. King Herod, the powerful ruler of Judea, gets stuck in a complicated relationship with John, with his wife, and with his stepdaughter. Herod is at odds with his wife over John the Baptist and at odds with John the Baptist over his wife. When he throws a party, has a few too many, and loves the dancing of his stepdaughter a little too much, he makes a boast to the crowd.  “As payment for her fine dancing, I will give Herodias anything in my kingdom.” His boast brings more than he bargained for. Goaded on by her mother who was, of course, Herod’s wife, the fancy-dancing child, Herodias, asks for John’s head.

Or consider Amos, the farmer, the keeper of the fig trees, not a prophet by vocation, but called to speak to the halls of power. His word of judgment threatens the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, reports to King Jereboam that Amos has conspired against him and prophesied his death. For being true to his calling to follow the Lord, Amos is branded a threat to homeland security.

What binds John and Amos together is their mutual commitment to doing what God asked of them without qualification, without reservation, without question. Even when it meant going against the cultural grain, against popular opinion, and even when it had to potential to bring them great harm.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. It’s hard to be that kind of Christian, to be that kind of church. It’s easier and safer just to accept the status quo, to look around and say, well, that’s just the way it is, and to excuse ourselves — the problems are too big, the power too great, and like they say, you can’t fight city hall.

Will Willimon is a contemporary theologian who has written a ton about the church in these days. He used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and then went on to serve as a bishop in the Methodist Church. As bishop he used to get around to visit a lot of congregations. He’d often ask folks what they thought the work of the church is and what they thought the work of the pastor is. Invariably, people would answer that the purpose of the church is directed at their own needs — to bring them comfort, to help them in their struggles, to let them know they’re loved and valuable.

That’s what we want. And knowing what some of you are going through, it seems perfectly logical to proclaim a word of comfort and leave it at that. It’s a whole lot easier than speaking out and taking action against all that rails against God’s justice and God’s righteousness, against God’s intentions. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

They’re hard, in part, because they challenge us against our own self-absorption and complacency.

Self-absorption is a cruel and sinful disease. The relative prosperity and prestige with which many of us are surrounded can be crippling to our relationship with God. In this beautiful room, we can begin to think that our ministry begins and ends here. In our lovely homes with their beautiful Door County address, we can begin to believe that it is we who have provided for ourselves. In the vast variety and abundance of this world, we can begin to believe that somehow it all belongs to us. And we can so easily forget that we are called to be a part of God’s people for the sake of God’s intentions and purposes.

Complacency is the disease of sleep-walking through life, of believing that nothing I could do would ever matter in the big picture. Complacency is to sing “Jesus love me, this I know” without ever getting to the part which asks, so where would he have me go.

That’s why we need a savior. Not a cheerleader or a pep-talk, but a savior. One who can free us from our bondage to self-absorption and complacency. John’s execution is a foreshadowing of the death that Jesus would face at the hands of the misguided powers of empire and church. His body would be nailed to a tree and placed into a tomb. In his body, he would carry our own self-absorption and bury it. His death and resurrection bring our own dying to self and rising to new life in God. God has come among us in Jesus; God has delivered us from the tyranny of the self and freed us to live for God and for others. What God has made us to be is described in poetic paeans of praise in the lesson from Ephesians. Listen:  God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing; God has made us holy and blameless; God has adopted us as God’s daughters and sons and provided us redemption, the forgiveness of our sins according to the richness of his grace.

In this grace, we have been predestined for works, so that our lives and our work are part of the purposes of the One who has called us. It’s his power, not ours, that enlivens our work as church. We are not just do-gooders; we are the body of Christ through whom God intends to work. Viewed apart from the eyes of faith, we have nothing to offer when speaking to power or facing the big problems of our community and our world. But wrapped in the death and resurrection of Christ, we offer ourselves for God’s use. We are called to be a threat to the worldly powers that perpetuate the status quo of injustices and oppression. Like Amos, we are amateur prophets, injecting tension into the status quo because we know the way thing are is not the way things should be. 

The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the office of the prophet in Israel was to remind the king that his sovereignty was limited, that over any pronouncements that the king might make, the pronouncements of the Lord and the justice of the Lord have the final say. When our sole focus is on our own need and our own place in the world, we lose sight of where are are placed in the greater creation and who has places us here. We already know we are cherished and will be cared for; from that vantage point, we keep our eyes peeled for the surprising ways God may be at work in the world.

Ordinary people like us do God’s work and enact God’s vision of the kingdom. In 1976, Millard and Linda Fuller worked with Clarence Jordan and began a project to build 42 homes for low income families outside Americus, Georgia. Since then Habitat for Humanity has built over one million homes, touching the lives of five million people. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Illinois was begun in 1882 when Pr. E.J. Homme opened an orphanage in Wittenberg, Wisconsin with a vision to take care of orphaned children. Today, LSS touches the lives of over 100,00 people through 263 programs at 188 sites in 115 communities throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. A weeks ago, 30,000 ELCA youth and adults descended on Houston, a city ravaged last summer by Hurricane Harvey. High school students — teens — touched a city with the love of Christ.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. They are a reminder and an encouragement that our lives are not our own. When I bless children at the communion table, I tell them, “You belong to Jesus.” Christ has made a claim on you for the sake of the world. We gather in this room to be sent out — as prophets, as the hands and feet of Jesus. No one is exempt. All are called. As the Lord said to Amos, so the Lord says to you, “Go.”

A Big, Beautiful World: A Review of Creation Care, by Douglas and Jonathan Moo

I care deeply about the care of creation. And I care that the church cares about the care of creation. While I believe in general, it has taken us too long to join the conversation, there are some theologians who are calling us to account. This review of Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World,  by Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with their permission.  

In the midst of the cacophony of strident voices in contemporary American politics and culture, one of the loudest strains of shouting back and forth across the fence is with regard to environmental issues, and particularly climate change and human causation. In the midst of the debate, what does the church have to say, and what must the church do? The father and son co-authors, Douglas and Jonathan Moo seek to answer those questions in their new book, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

They begin from the premise that God has given us a big,  beautiful world to live in. As human creatures, we respond with wonder and praise. From that premise flows the notion that it is our responsibility to care for that creation. With regard to the calling to care for creation, the authors frame their discussion around these two specific questions:  1) What do we mean when we talk about the care of creation? and 2) Why is it important to talk about it?  The short answer is that Christians are called to care about creation because we worship the God who called creation into being. Then they go about grounding their apology for creation care in scripture. They seek “a strategy for biblical interpretation that is broad, integrate, and creative.” While acknowledging that both culture and science contribute to our understanding of and response to the call to care for creation, they spend little time on either and a great deal of time laying out scriptural support for creation care.

Our call to care for creation is rooted in the notion that we are always seeking to become who God created us to be. Our care for creation is an inescapable part of who God has created us to be. The human dominion over creation is subsumed under the reign of God, and that reign defines the priorities and purposes of creation care.

The authors spend a significant amount of time and ink relating creation care to Jesus’ new reign. They do so because this is really at the heart of their apology for the Christian call to creation care. “In Christ, we see the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom in which old enmities are abolished and peace is established between God and humanity, humanity and the earth, and human beings and each other.”  Here, the Moos unpack in some detail a number of New Testament passages which speak of new creation, suggesting that part of the new creation is that God will bring all things — the created order included — into an appropriate relationship with himself.

Consistent with their view of the goodness of creation and that God is in Christ reconciling all things to himself, they argue against a cataclysmic, disaster-induced ending the present order. Instead, the eschaton will bring a renewal and fulfillment of this creation; therefore, it is of critical importance that humans steward well this created order. “Creation is not just the stage on which the story of redemption takes place; creation is an actor in that story.”

After a long apology for the biblical mandate for care for creation, the final few chapters of the book move to how the church and individual Christians might contribute to that work. Of necessity is the Christian call to Christlike daily living, which includes appreciation and care for creation. Only in the penultimate chapter do the authors talk about the urgency of the human-induced crisis with regard to environmental degradation. In the face of this crisis, Christians must live faithful lives and form faithful communities that care about the earth. That faithfulness comes in being more aware of the natural work and to contemplate purposefully and engage actively with that world.

The authors write from within the Evangelical community, and the work is intended for that community. In both style and substance, the book is written for a community in which belief must be grounded in specific references to the Old and New Testament scriptures and in the detailed interpretation of those passage.  In seeking to engage that community — and it seems to me that a subtext of the work is to engage that community without causing offense or controversy — the authors don’t push hard and they don’t challenge. There is no attempt to sound an alarm, nor do they paint a dark picture of the consequences of failing to act. It’s a straightforward argument for Christians to take seriously the call to care for the created order. The book is part of The Biblical Theology for Life series published by Zondervan which is intended to bring “groundbreaking academic study of the Bible alongside contemporary contextualization and proclamation.” I would not characterize this work as anything groundbreaking in terms of academic study. (For groundbreaking academic study, I’d be more inclined to look to Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-Honoring Faith or Sallie McFague’s Blessed Are the Consumers.)

On the other hand, the authors have brought a scriptural proclamation to the matter of care for creation and have placed that care squarely into the context of the faithfulness of the church and her individual members. For an introduction to the Christian call to care for the environment, and for a carefully organized apology for the same, especially for those who might not be inclined to perceive the urgency and importance of the stewardship of creation, this might be just the book to read.