I Hope…

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Advent 2, Year B
Texts: Isa 40.1-11; 2 Pet 3.8-15a; Mk 1.1-8

Advent is apocalyptic. Last week, we heard about stars falling from heaven and the Son of Man coming in clouds, this week it’s the heavens dissolving in fire and the elements of the earth melting away. We do not generally consider ourselves apocalyptic people, which is why it is kind of strange that we should so intentionally remind ourselves every December of these strange and confusing passages of Scripture while we prepare for Christmas. It seems incongruous, at first; what does any of this have to do with a baby in a manger?

Russian Orthodox icon of the Apocalypse. Public Domain.

And yet, at the same time, it is also strangely appropriate that we should read and reread these texts. We know that all things must eventually come to an end, and we need look no further than the headlines to imagine a number of different ends that await humanity. This year, as we enter into the season of Advent, the threat of nuclear war hangs heavier than it has since the ‘80s; we are growing more and more concerned with the changing climate that could raise sea levels and change weather patterns; we are already seeing the effects of water shortages and food shortages in different parts of the world, as well as the mass movement of refugees; we can foresee a time when the resource that provides our main supply of energy is spent.

These are very real threats to human existence and growing more real every day. Compared to these, the promise of the coming Day of the LORD seems ethereal: a fairy tale or an anesthetic to keep us from panicking over the danger we face. When faced with the facts, it is much easier for me to believe that we are going to make ourselves extinct in one of these ways than that we will suddenly be saved from ourselves by divine intervention. Many days, I’m not sure if I believe that Jesus will suddenly appear again and magically herald the dawning of a new era; but I do hope for it.

That is what these scripture readings during Advent offer us: a message of hope. Hope that the story doesn’t have to end the way it seems it inevitably will, hope that things can turn out differently. Instead of a seeing only a world where might makes right and a few powerful men can dictate the fortunes of 8 billion people, the promise of God helps us to hope for a world where peace and justice reign, a world where righteousness is at home.

It is this hope that offers us the opportunity to live differently, to expect the unexpected. It is hope that invites us to reject the very real ways we are contributing to our own destruction through the lifestyles we live and the choices we make and choose a different path: a path of holiness and godliness. This change of direction is what Scripture calls repentance; it isn’t so much a command to change what we’re doing as it is an opportunity to examine ourselves and our world and finally realize what is truly important—a chance to hitch our wagon to a star.

The hope scripture offers is not empty and baseless, but founded on generations of stories of God’s past faithfulness. As we gather to worship, we remember all the ways God has been faithful: from saving Noah from the flood to giving Abraham and Sarah descendants; from delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt to leading them through the desert; from the return from exile to the coming of the Messiah. I find it much easier to believe that we will destroy ourselves than that God is going to swoop in and save us, but these stories of God’s faithfulness give me hope, and sometimes hope is believe enough.

“Hope.” 1886. George Frederic Watts and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of all death that threatens us, God gives us reason to hope for deliverance because God has shown us that even death is not enough to stop salvation. We hope that no matter what might be in store for us, God will still be able to fulfill the promises God has made. And even in the midst of this hope, we are reminded that the fulfillment of the promise doesn’t always look like we expect. The mighty savior that God sent was not a great and powerful king, but a child lying in a manger. He was humble enough to be baptized by someone unworthy to untie his sandals, and submitted to death on a cross rather than conquering his enemies.

As disciples of this savior, we live off of hope. We imbibe hope. It is our hope in God’s promise against all odds that sustains us in the face of certain doom, that allows us to choose a different path because we can imagine God’s alternative. This is the hope that sustains us as we gather around table and font, the hope that washes the sins and cares of the world from us and gives us strength to live lives of righteousness in the face of great resistance. We proclaim the mystery of this hope every time we share in this meal: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Advent is apocalyptic. That is not to say that Advent deals with the end of all things, but the revealing of all things. “Apocalypse” is a Greek word that means “revelation.” When we talk of the apocalypse, we are talking about the time when the truth will be revealed and the world will finally see what God has always intended for it to be. In short, it is the revealing of everything for which we have hoped.

In days like these it is easy to wonder what’s taking so long, why God can’t bring about this revelation now. In these days scripture reminds us that God’s delay is not slowness or laziness or forgetfulness, but grace—salvation, even. God is giving us a chance to live into the hope of God’s promise, to turn away from the death that entices us to our destruction, and to instead choose life. God is patient with us because God isn’t interested in saving the handful of individuals who happen to be ready now; God’s goal is no less than to save the entire universe. Thanks to God’s patience, we still have a chance to change the story and choose a new direction. With God’s help, we may just be able to continue growing together into the people God has created us to be. With God’s help, we may just avert the disasters we are now creating. With God’s help, we may just grow beyond our pettiness into a world that looks more like the one God has in mind… I hope.


Christ is Not a King

November 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Christ is Not a King” recorded in worship (14:31)
Christ the King Sunday, Year A
Texts: Ezek 34.11-16, 20-24; Eph 1.15-23; Matt 25.31-46

Scripture is full of different metaphors for Jesus and what he did. Jesus is a shepherd who leads us like sheep; Jesus is a fountain of living water; Jesus is our rock and foundation; Jesus is the Word, the source of reason and wisdom. His death and resurrection are described as priestly sacrifice, a substitute punishment meant for us, a sin offering, a scapegoat, and a victory of life over death. Which of these are correct? None of them. All of them. Scripture throws all these metaphors at us like a plate of spaghetti thrown against the wall, hoping that some will stick.

Today we celebrate one of the metaphors for Jesus that has stuck with us most strongly: the image of Christ the King. Even in a world where the only kings we know are either figureheads with no real power or ruthless dictators, we hold onto this metaphor and treasure it as a hope for the future. We call this the festival of the Reign of Christ (or Christ the King Sunday) because today we celebrate the fact that it will be Jesus—our teacher, the one whom we follow—who will be the one to preside over that final judgment. This year, we celebrate it by telling this uncomfortable story.

Christ in Judgment, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47457 [retrieved November 28, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

Matthew’s gospel records a series of awkward parables that make us squirm as because of the way they portray God, and this one takes the cake. It’s not a parable, because parables use familiar images and common-sense stories to tell us about something that is neither familiar nor common-sense. Today, what we hear is (we suppose) a straight-forward explanation of what will happen at the final judgment. It sounds like in order to be saved, we have to make sure we are kind to the right people—Jesus’ secret police, as it were—because if we aren’t, it’s off to the fires of hell we go for all eternity.

What happened to “saved by grace alone through faith alone,” the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation? According to a recent Pew study, 52% of American Protestants believe that good behavior influences whether we get into heaven. After reading this story, it’s not hard to understand why. There’s clearly something deeper going on in this story. I think that this something deeper has to do the root of this whole king metaphor itself.

It’s important for us to remember that “king” and “kingdom” are metaphors. Jesus only ever speaks of God and God’s kingdom in metaphors. He always says “the kingdom of God is like…” or “the kingdom of God may be compared to…” or “the kingdom of God is as if…” This king metaphor stuck because, to his original audience, this story made perfect sense: obviously, a king would sit on a throne and mete out reward and punishment—that’s what kings do! The king is the legislative, executive and judicial branches all rolled into one: he makes the laws, he enacts them, and he punishes those who do not obey.

The surprising thing in the story is not what happens to the righteous and the unrighteous, but rather the criteria for judging righteousness at all. It’s not that kindness is surprising; anyone who has read the bible knows that God cares deeply for the underprivileged and vulnerable. What is surprising is that the king in our time now identifies not with those seated on thrones like we would expect, but rather with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the imprisoned. The shocking truth of this story is that God’s power does not look like we expect it to; that God’s king doesn’t look like a king at all.

“Homeless Jesus,” by Timothy Schmalz. (Notice the nail wounds in the feet.) This statue, installed in several cities, has had the police called on it more than once by people thinking it was an actual transient person sleeping on a bench. That’s how we would treat Jesus if we saw him today.

God resists explanation, which is why Jesus and the prophets and evangelists used metaphors to begin with. Metaphors are like butterflies: one can appreciate their beauty and enjoy them and learn about them, but if you hold onto them too tightly they are destroyed. I think our desperate desire to hold onto this obsolete metaphor is actually destroying our faith in God. It’s teaching us something about God that isn’t true. For the original hearers and tellers of the gospel, this metaphor that made sense; but for us in our king-less world, this image is actually breaking our idea of who God is, causing us to fear and despise the God the story is intended to help us love. Instead of helping us see a God who does justice and loves the vulnerable, this image causes us to see a God who is arbitrary and authoritarian; it undermines the other metaphors for God in scripture rather than complementing them.

There is one thing in scripture which is not a metaphor for God, which reveals God to us directly. It’s not a story or an image or a rule or a book—it’s a person: Jesus. Only he shows us directly who God is. As he tells Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) If we want to know who God really is, we need look no further than Jesus; and Jesus himself identifies with the sick, naked, imprisoned, stranger, hungry, thirsty. If we want to see God right now, today, in our own back yard, that is where we will find God; not in the halls of power, not seated on a throne  or in a board room or living in a white house; not dictating laws or making treaties. God is with the lowest, least, little, last, lost.

What bothers us so much about this story is not the way the king judges his subjects (something that is taken for granted), but simply the image of Jesus as a king. We actually fought a war against the abuses of monarchy. That’s why this story really gets under our skin: the God we know doesn’t behave like a king. And you know what? That is exactly the point of this story. We expect kings to be seated on thrones in glory, and instead the story tells us that our “king” identifies more with the poor and oppressed. We almost always use this day to celebrate the idea that Jesus is king over all creation, but I can’t help but wonder if what this festival really celebrates is that Jesus isn’t a king at all.

“INRI” means “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.” This is the kind of king Jesus is. Detail of a painting by Matthias Grunewald, 1510. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The same is true for the image of God’s “kingdom.” Believing that Jesus will come and take over the seat of government has fooled us into thinking that perfect government can exist, and that we can create it if we try hard enough, just like we can get ourselves into heaven if we try hard enough. But if Jesus isn’t a king, then he isn’t coming to rule over us. Jesus’ way of life stands as a check against government, not as an alternative government. It means that the “kingdom of God” can exist not just anywhere, but everywhere: in the midst of constitutional monarchy, republic democracy, communist state, or even dictatorship.

Maybe it’s time for us to find another metaphor, one that takes what we know to be true about God—what Jesus has revealed to us—and puts it terms we can understand and communicate. Perhaps rather than the “kingdom of God,” the “society of God” works better; a society which is ordered not around power and wealth, but around compassion and generosity. Perhaps instead of understanding the torment of the “wicked” as punishment consciously inflicted on them by a “loving” God for a higher purpose, it makes more sense to realize that it is rather the stress and agony of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. The message of the gospel is that by living as members of God’s society now, before it fully arrives, we will not only find ourselves in “heaven” when it comes, we will find a sense of peace and satisfaction in this life that “passes all understanding” as we live the lives that God has intended us from the foundation of the world. When we live the lives God intends for us even in spite of all the resistance the world will put up against us as it tries to conform us to itself, then we are experiencing heaven right here, right now; even as we wait for its fulfillment.

This is what the story today is telling us: not how to be judged righteous or what it takes to get into heaven, but where we will unexpectedly find the one who shows us how to experience life in the society of God right now. He is not ruling from on high, but lifted up on a cross. He is not wielding a gun or a sword; instead he has a wound in his side and nail holes in his hands and feet, but he is full of life—life that cannot be extinguished by guns or swords. He is not powerful, but weak; and yet, this is our “king,” the one who will ultimately be presented not as a ruler, but as the archetype of what is desirable and good and virtuous in the world. He will not judge who gets into heaven and who gets relegated to hell, but those who trust him and his teaching will find themselves celebrating his return, while those who refuse him and choose instead to rely on guns and swords and bombs and money for power will find themselves hating every minute of heaven on earth—agonizing for eternity because the powers they worship are gone.

The society of God is not something we can create, not something we can legislate or regulate or control. We can and should strive for it, and we ought to seek to make laws that reflect it, but ultimately, it will not be any action of ours that brings about the fullness of God’s will on earth: it will be Christ’s return. He will not return to be our king or our president or our premier or any other kind of ruler we can imagine. Christ will return to be our brother and partner, walking with us like a shepherd, showing us how to live as God’s people.

Until that day we will not see God’s perfection; but we are on the way. We trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit as she leads us along Jesus’ path. We continue to wash ourselves in his death and feed on his life, so that we might experience the joy of God’s society even in the midst of this one. We continue the work that he began—and we continue it faithfully—trusting that when he does come again, he will complete it.

Not Safe, but Good

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

24th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 33A
Texts: Zeph 1.7, 12-18; 1 Thess 5.1-11; Matt 25.14-30

No matter how many times we hear these parables, they always disturb us. No matter what we may learn about them—their context, the cultural assumptions of the original audience, the ways parables are intended to be ironic or subversive—these parables of Jesus in Matthew make us cringe; they make us squirm a little bit in our seats.

As one who has studied these parables and whom you have chosen to help you make sense of them, I could attempt to save this parable for you. I could tell you how I think it is totally faithful to read this parable with the understanding that the greedy, harsh master is actually the master of this world, seeking nothing but money and power; that the two favored servants play the master’s game and do as he expects, and though they are rewarded, they finally serve only to enrich their master, not themselves; and that the third slave—the one who refuses to enable his master’s worship of wealth and instead does the honorable thing by giving the money back—that this slave is Jesus, crucified outside the city while the sun refused to shine and where there was, presumably, at least some weeping and gnashing of teeth by his friends and disciples, and that as readers of the gospel we know that he is vindicated on the third day and shown to be righteous, whatever the greedy master may say.

Hendrick ter Brugghen. “The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I could give you this interpretation and make this story more palatable; but I won’t. I won’t because, although I think that is one good and faithful way to interpret this parable, I do not think that is why Matthew is telling us this story in this way at this time. It is always our temptation to tame these wily parables; to domesticate them and make them serve us by helping us feel more comfortable. The simple truth, however, is that these stories—and the God of whom they speak to us—are not safe. In C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, before Lucy Pevensie meets Aslan the Lion for the first time, she asks her guide, Mr. Beaver, if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

These stories are not intended to make us feel safe. They are intended to unsettle us. They are intended to impress upon us the gravity of our situation. The prophet Zephaniah criticizes the people who say, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm,” the people who believe that God either doesn’t care what we do while we way for the day of the LORD, or that God is unwilling or unable to save us from the very real dangers we face in life. These stories are intended to disturb us, to make us sit up and pay attention, to “make our ears tingle,” as the prophets say. They are intended to remind us that the God we serve is not safe, but also that God is good.

As we read Jesus’ parable, we might be dismayed that God appears to be like this greedy and harsh master; I think Jesus’ point though is that even a greedy and harsh master can give good things to those who are faithful to him; if a sinner can do that, how much more abundant will God’s blessings be to those who are faithful? The stories told by Jesus and Zephaniah and Paul are all intended to remind us that the day of the LORD is coming, and that what we do while we wait is important.

This week is Thanksgiving. It makes me remember Thanksgiving three years ago when our house was broken into while we were way. A thief literally came in the night; had we known to expect him, we would have been ready. After the fact, I spent weeks lying awake thinking about how I could be ready for the next time—all the gadgets and sensors and alarms I could wire up and hook to my phone and whatever else to prevent another break-in. But I also spent weeks thinking about what I would have done to the thief had I caught him in the act. They were not pleasant things. During those weeks after the burglary, I glimpsed the darkness of my own soul.

It is that darkness that clouds our sight of the day of the LORD; it blocks our vision of God’s reign and allows us to see only what is right in front of us: the fear, the anger, and the pain the world can cause us. It tempts us to place our trust in our own ability to fight evil with force and violence, to rely solely upon human measures and means of keeping order. These things are not necessarily bad, but if we place our ultimate trust in the things that promise us “peace and security” in this world, we will be sorely disappointed when those things are swept away to make room for the new thing that God is about to do.

That darkness exists within all of us, but Paul reminds us that we do not belong to that darkness; we belong to the daylight—the daylight of God’s reign. We have seen the seal of God’s promise of redemption and salvation for all creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ who died for us. The light of God pierces the darkness so that we can see what lies ahead, so that we can perceive what is coming. The way of God seems like foolishness to us; it seems to be unable to protect us from danger and distress, but the promise of God is that the day is soon coming when the whole world will be under God’s reign, when justice and mercy and peace will be the law of the land.

When that day comes, those of us live in darkness will be dismayed as everything in which we have placed our trust is swept away. No more war, no more capitalism or communism or socialism—no more “isms” at all to keep us safe and comfortable. No more threat of violence to protect us from those who would do us harm. No more will we be able to depend on our own strength or skill or ability to gain wealth and success for ourselves. It will be a day of great gloom and distress.

But for those of us who belong to the day, who have seen this day coming and have lived according to that faith while we have waited, this sweeping away will not be cause for distress, but for joy—joy because we know that the destruction of everything is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of something better.

To live that faith now is foolishness. It can’t protect us from thieves or burglars, it can’t save us from madmen with guns or hostile nations with armies, it can’t offer us the peace and security we crave. And yet, Paul reminds us that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, that true life is more than peace and security. The life that God has in store has none of the things that we have learned to depend upon for peace and security, and yet we trust in God’s promise that it will be a life in which all tears are wiped away, a life in which death and crying and pain are no more; a life in which justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The oracles of Zephaniah and the parables of Jesus remind us that this God we serve is not safe, and that when this God comes to bring God’s reign on earth, nothing in all creation will be safe from God’s creative and redeeming work. For those of us who place our trust in human power structures and in the work of our own hands, for those of us who choose to bury our riches in a hole in the hopes that it will be safe, this is very bad news.

But for those of us who belong to the day, who can see what the LORD is doing and the promise of life that God is bringing, we can rejoice in knowing that whatever death and destruction may come to us now is only a prelude to the new life which awaits us under God’s reign. We risk everything by investing all that we have been given in that reality which is not yet evident; but instead of being disappointed, we have the promise of a full return on that investment—a full return with interest. That is the promise with which we support and encourage one another while we wait for the day of the LORD.

Sacred Stories

November 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Sacred Stories” recorded in worship (13:23)
All Saints Sunday, Year A
Texts: Rev 7.9-17; 1 Jn 3.1-3; Matt 5.1-12

The Feast of All Saints is a celebration of stories. Stories are how we find meaning. We humans are naturally wired—created—to take the barrage of facts and events and causes and effects that we experience and string them together into coherent narratives that help us to know the people around us, understand our place in the world, and even learn about ourselves. The stories we tell about ourselves and our world are important because they form the foundation of everything we know—from science and technology to philosophy and politics, and everything in between.

Today we gather to celebrate the stories of the people who have shaped us. We focus much of our attention on those who have died—saints of old, ancestors, and recently departed loved ones; but All Saints is not a memorial service to grieve the dead. Instead, it is a recognition of the way their stories have been woven together with ours into the greater narrative of the Church and God’s work in the world. For this reason, All Saints is not just a celebration of the dead, but of the living—and even those not yet born. This is why alongside the names of the recently dead, we read the names of the recently baptized—to honor the stories that God continues to weave together to form the story of this community and the whole Church as it stretches into the future.

For me, All Saints is an emotional commemoration. Next Friday marks 24 years since my mom died, and so I always think of her on this day. I remember the love she gave me and the lessons she taught me; one story about her in particular I cherish is that, in the midst of her sickness, she taught me a different way to think of how God was at work. She never believed that God had made her sick, or that God had failed to heal her; but she did believe that whatever happened to her, God would be with her and with our family and would help us continue on. I didn’t come by this lesson because of what she told me, but by how she lived. No matter the fear, the doubt, the frustration she faced, she always lived the truth of that belief.

My mother, Roxie Novak, with me in 1993. She died later that year.

Hers is not the only story I remember today. I also remember the stories of Olaf Borge and Karla Neumann Smiley. Olaf was a retired pastor in my congregation who was convinced that I should go to seminary, even though I tried to tell him I wasn’t interested. Karla was my campus minister in college. I shared with her how people like Olaf wouldn’t take the hint and leave me alone about being a pastor, and she commiserated with me about how some people couldn’t take hints. I thought she was on my side; but she gave my information to a seminary recruiter at a Lutheran Student Movement gathering. When I got home from the event, I found out that Olaf had nominated me for a full-tuition scholarship to Luther Seminary. The timing of those two things was enough to give me pause and rethink whether I might be called to ministry. Both Olaf and Karla were at my ordination; Olaf in his walker, and Karla in the pulpit, preaching.

I remember the story of Kurt Queller, a friend and professor at the University of Idaho who first began to open my eyes to a new way of reading and understanding the Bible. I remember Neil and Karen Morgensen and David and Edie Block, our wonderful neighbors in Watertown, WI during Stephanie’s internship who made that neighborhood feel like home while we were there. Neil even helped me get a job at the Trek bicycle warehouse while I waited for assignment and ordination. I remember Bill and Grace Scheuttler, an elderly couple at my own internship in Pottsville, PA who took it as their personal mission to make sure their young vicar was had all the love, attention, assistance, and food he needed.

I remember Mike and Eunice Niebaum, and Rick and Judy Aznoe, and John and Ruth Allen—my friends’ parents who were like family to me as I was growing up; and Karen Spencer and Josie McClean, my high school Science Bowl coaches. I remember Betty Grant, my fifth grade teacher who spent countless afternoons after school with me, pushing me to apply myself and keeping me from being swallowed up in the chaos of Mom’s illness and death—I remember that she showed up for me at Mom’s funeral.

I could go on, but you get the picture: as I look back, there are a million stories I remember today of people who are alive and people who have died, and the same is true for each of us. I don’t remember these people because they were extraordinary; they were just normal people doing normal things. They weren’t at all special, except to me—and that is what makes them memorable.

That is what it means to be a saint—to be special. The word “saint” is derived from the Latin word sanctus, which means holy; to be holy is to be set apart for a specific purpose, namely for God’s purpose. The people we call saints are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They are not special except to God; but because they are special to God, their stories and God’s story are intertwined, just like the stories of all the people I talked about are intertwined with mine.  What makes a person a saint is not supernatural faith or extraordinary actions or magical abilities; what makes a person a saint is that their stories have been touched by God’s story; and because of that we are able to see God’s stories in theirs.

Battistero Padova. 14th Century Fresco by Giusto de’ Menabuoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That’s what is so shocking about the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus doesn’t pronounce blessing the way we think about it: he doesn’t say “blessed are the pious, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the wealthy or the fortunate or the happy.” He says “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek.” These are not what we consider blessing. None of these people are happy or lucky or content; they are beat up and burnt out. Jesus isn’t trying to tell us what blessing is or what it looks like or what we need to do to be blessed, he’s trying to point out to us who are God’s saints—the people whose stories point us to God’s.

It’s hard to know exactly how to translate the word that Jesus uses into English, but the Latin translation used is beatus, which is why we call these the “beatitudes.” Beatus is also the root of the word beatify, which is part of the process of officially recognizing someone as a saint. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that’s what Jesus is doing: he is beatifying the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the hungry for righteousness, the compassionate; telling us that these people who are at the bottom of the ladder—who are vulnerable and oppressed and forgotten about—are saints, not because of what they’ve done or how they behave, but because they are special to God, because in their stories, we can see God’s story. It is in the least, the last, the lonely, the little and the lost that we can most clearly see the story of God—the story of the Creator of the Universe who gives up divine power and glory to become a human person, a peasant, and to be crucified on a tree. Because God chose to enter into the darkest, ugliest part of the human experience, even the darkest, ugliest parts of humanity reflect God’s glory. Even death itself tells God’s story of life.

That’s the real reason why we celebrate this feast today, why we remember and tell the stories of these people who are special to God and to us, even if they are special to nobody else. We celebrate this feast because these people and their stories point us to the story of God. These imperfect, flawed, sinful people are able to reflect the glory of the Almighty God because God has entered into their stories and inhabited them. God has adopted them as children, and so they have become like their Father, tellers of the divine story. We need these storytellers because the story they tell—the story we tell with them—is the truth that can set us free from the lies the world tells us about ourselves.

The story of the world says that we do not matter. The story of the world says that only the people with the biggest sticks, the most money, the loudest voices get to determine write the ending. The story of the world is shaped by wars and coups and corruption; it is written by the victors, while the losers are lost and forgotten. The story of the world revolves around kings and emperors and presidents, and so we fight and clamor and live and die for them; but salvation does not belong to these. Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.

Adoration of the Lamb, 9th Century manuscript illumination. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46639

The true story of God tells us that real power is not the ability to kill or coerce or destroy. True power is not wielded in violence, but in love. True power does not inflict death, but neither can it be overcome by death. True power is not the power of a lion who suffers want and goes hungry, but that of a Lamb—a Lamb that,  having been slaughtered, is yet victorious. This story to which the saints and martyrs through the ages have borne witness. This is the story that is told in the lives of all who have been adopted as God’s children in baptism, the story that shines through all the stories we remember today. It is the story in which we are washed at baptism, the story we taste at this table. It is the story that sets us free from the lies of the world.

What makes a person a saint is that their story points people to God’s story because that person is special to God, and they have been changed by God—washed and made pure in the blood of the Lamb who was slain. Today we rejoice in the saints whom God has gathered and continues to gather around this font and table. We rejoice for the people whom God has given us to help us see the truth of God’s story; and we rejoice that each and every one of us has been adopted as God’s children—God’s saints—and that through us, God’s story continues to be told.

Abiding Truth

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Abiding Truth” recorded in worship (12:19)
Reformation Sunday
Texts: Jer 31.31-34; Rom 3.19-28, Jn 8.31-36

As I read the gospel lesson, there are two very interesting words that jump out at me. The first is truth. Truth is a slippery word; it seems very concrete and clear at first, but when we pick it up to examine it, we find it hard to hold on to. We have been taught that truth is immutable; it is something that is provable and solid. Truth stands in dialectical opposition to myth, deception and falsehood. And yet, our human experience also teaches us that there is often more truth in myth than in fact, that truth can be and often is used to deceive, and that what we have long held as true can quickly be proven false.

Jeremiah, Paul, John, and even Martin Luther all realize the same thing: the truth cannot be proven, it cannot be taught, it cannot be learned or shared or even pointed out. This may seem nonsensical, but psychological studies are showing that even when faced with airtight evidence, people are remarkably resistant to changing their point of view; simply put, facts alone are not enough to persuade us to reexamine what we hold to be true. So how can truth be known? According to Jesus, truth can only be met; it is only known through relationship.

As we commemorate the Reformation this weekend, we are commemorating the concept that the truth of God cannot be reduced to observance of the law, to adherence to a set of beliefs, to a list of theological theses (not even 95 of them!), or to a 5-step program of asking Jesus into our heart. The idea that fueled the Reformation is the same idea that we find in Jeremiah’s prophecy, in Paul’s letters, and in the gospel of John—the idea that the truth of God is know fully and known only in the person of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of his gospel, John writes, “No one has seen the Father; it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” (John 1.18) Jesus, the Word of God, becomes incarnate so that through him, we may experience the truth of the Father; a truth we can only know through relationship with him.

This brings us to the second interesting word in our gospel text: abide. The Greek word John uses is translated many ways: “continue,” “remain,” “dwell,” “have a place in”… I like the word “abide” because it’s not one we commonly use. Like the Greek word John uses, it has a very complex meaning with many different connotations depending on its context, yet they are all connected to a common theme of continuing presence.

Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you will be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free… A slave does not abide in the household forever, but the Son abides there forever.” Later, in chapter 15, Jesus expands on the meaning of this word: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15.4, 10) Whatever else it might mean, it first and foremost means to remain in relationship with. Jesus is the Truth of God who abides with us; we can only know the truth by knowing Jesus, and we can only know Jesus because he abides with us, and so we   abide with him, remain in relationship with him.

This is fundamentally what our baptism is about. God invites and adopts us without our consent or decision, but the daily task of the baptized is to continually die with and be raised to new life with Christ. We are daily invited to choose to abide in the Truth of God who shares his life with us through baptism.

Today as our young people make public affirmation of their baptism, that is what they are doing. They are not declaring that they have discovered the full truth of God, or that they have learned all they need to learn, or even necessarily that they are ready to make an informed decision; they are publicly affirming that they wish to continue abiding in Christ, to continue having a relationship with the One who reveals God to us. What they do today publicly, each of us does every day privately. Some days we succeed, and some days we fail. Some days we choose to abide, and others we choose to forsake; but no matter what choice we make, the Truth of God continues to abide with us forever. In baptism he calls us by name and who has adopts us, freeing us forever from the slavery of sin.

This message of freedom and this invitation to abide is especially appropriate today because they are what the Reformation is all about. We do not celebrate Martin Luther today; Reformation Day is not a celebration of how he rediscovered the truth and attempted to reform the Church. Today, we celebrate Holy Spirit, which is why we wear red—the color of fire—because today we commemorate how the Holy Spirit found Luther and opened his eyes so that he could meet Christ again for the first time. In that relationship, God set him free from his guilt and his anxiety. Having been set free, he could have simply rejoiced in God’s grace and gone about his way; but instead, he chose to abide in the word of Christ and, in so doing, he forsook his own comfort, his own reputation, even his own safety, and he exercised his freedom by sharing the good news with everyone. Because he chose to abide in the Word of God, God was able to work through him to bring renewal to the whole Church.

It is especially appropriate that our young people should affirm their baptism today because the lives and decisions of Luther and all the reformers are examples of what Jesus’ freedom looks like. In Christ, we have been made perfectly free masters of all, subject to no one—we are free to live comfortably in God’s grace without the need to earn or prove or display God’s love for us because God’s grace is complete; and yet, in Christ we are also perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all. If we truly abide in Jesus’ word, we will follow in his footsteps, even as they lead to the cross. We will find ourselves compelled—not by fear or obligation, but by joy and excitement and enthusiasm and passion—to bring the good news of God’s saving grace to all the world.

The freedom Luther found in Christ was what enabled him to confidently and persistently proclaim the gospel, which is how Jesus continually frees the Church from captivity to sin and death. That is what the Reformation is all about—not something that Luther and a bunch of other people did 500 years ago, but the ongoing work of God to renew and reform us that has been going on since God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt. This is the freedom to which we are called in our baptism: the freedom to serve others so that they, too, may come to know and abide in the living Truth of God.

This morning, as Carrick and Autumn, Jamie and TK, Ben and Alex will come forward to affirm their baptism, reminding all of us of the promises of our own baptism—both the promise of salvation and eternal life that God makes to us, and the promises we make in return: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and come to the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice throughout the earth. Along with these young people who will proclaim their own intention to abide in the word of Jesus and take on these promises themselves, we are also invited to join them in embracing our own baptismal freedom to live out these promises.

And before we leave this place, we will all be refreshed with body and blood of the living Truth of God so that we might have the strength to fulfill these promises. As we partake of God’s Truth, God’s will and God’s law are written once more on our hearts. Because the Truth of God has come to us as a person with whom we can have a living relationship, we no longer teach one another or say to one another, “Know the LORD,” for we all know the Lord—we all know the Jesus who feeds us at this table, who washes us at this font, who abides among us in this community. As long as he abides in us and we in him, we know the Truth of God, and that Truth is what sets us free to be the people God has created us to be.

Thrown Out of the Party

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Thrown Out of the Party” recorded in worship (13:35)
19th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 28A
Texts: Isa 25.1-9; Phil 4.1-9; Matt 22.1-14

Two weeks ago, we were at Pr. Stephanie’s sister’s wedding. The brides are 6 years younger than us, and at the wedding I was reminded just how much younger that is because, while Stephanie and I began pooping out around 9 or 10, for Lisa and Kelsey and their friends the party was just beginning. By 11:30 I was ready for bed, but I was having a wonderful time watching the other revelers have so much fun. It was delightful to see all the exuberance and energy on the dance floor. Their joy was contagious. Even as I sat watching, I was aware that it was a truly beautiful moment.

Lisa and Kelsey’s first dance as a married couple.

The same is not true for the guests at the wedding in the parable. Unlike the guests at Lisa and Kelsey’s wedding, they are not attending because of their love for the king or his son, or even his son’s bride. They are there because they have just seen what the king will do to them if they refuse to participate. They are all dressed in wedding finery, drinking and eating and dancing, but instead of being filled with joy and exuberance, their hearts are filled with terror.

We naturally assume when reading parables that where there is a king, he must represent God. This king even has a son who is being married; God’s son is Jesus, and the marriage feast of Jesus the Messiah is a common image for the end of time in both the Old and New Testaments. If God is the king and Jesus his son, then the guests must be humanity.

The first invited are those pious-acting religious people of Jesus’ time—the Pharisees and chief priests—who are nevertheless hypocritical and refuse God’s invitation to the wedding feast; they will be killed and their city (Jerusalem) will be burned. The second invited are the Jews and Gentiles who hear Jesus’ invitation and accept; but if they are not clothed in righteous deeds of discipleship, they can still be thrown out of the party into the outer darkness. Does that sound about right?

It is hard to escape the feeling of unease, even disgust, at the violence of this parable which Jesus says “may be compared to the kingdom of heaven.” If this is what God’s kingdom is like, then this king must be what God is like; and if God is like that, then we are all in danger of being caught with our pants down, as it were—lacking the necessary robes of good deeds and becoming the victims of this murderous God’s wrath. One thing is for sure: if this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then we are all dancing and drinking and pretending to be happy while all being uneasy at best and terrified at worst that the king will show up and find us out as frauds.

This parable reminds me of a story told by Seneca about the Emperor Caligula. The emperor, having just executed a member of the equestrian class as his father begged for his son’s life,

invited [the father] to dinner on the same day [so as not to act with utter inhumanity toward him]. [The father] came, his face revealing no reproach. The emperor caused a half-liter [of wine] to be poured for him and placed someone next to him to watch him: the poor man endured it no differently than if he had been drinking his son’s blood… On the very day on which he buried his son, or rather, on which had not buried him, he reclined at the table as the hundredth guest and tossed down the drinks, … and without shedding a single tear, without allowing the pain to emerge through a single sign: he ate as though his plea for his son had succeeded. You ask why? He had a second son. [Seneca, De ira XXIII, 3-4]

The kingdom in the parable sounds an awful lot more like the reign of Caesar than the reign of God; and I have to wonder if that’s exactly the point Jesus trying to make.

The parable, you see, has a deeply political context. In the scene Jesus lays out for us, a king would invite subordinate elites—members of the ruling class who owed him homage—to the wedding of his son. Their presence would show not only their loyalty to the king, but also their recognition of the authority of his heir. By refusing to come, they are committing treason. This is further shown by how they treat the king’s messengers: they mistreat and kill the slaves to the king intentionally show what they think of him.

A human king in this situation has one and only option: the rebellion must be put down. In the previous parable about the vineyard, Jesus’ audience themselves pronounce what ought to happen to the tenants: they decree that the landowner should “put those wretches to a miserable death.” From a human perspective this is (like the king’s violent response) the only course of action that makes sense. Equivocation is weakness; mercy invites trouble. If the king does not respond strongly and swiftly, his enemies will sense his weakness and attack him. If the landowner does use force, his property will be lost.

This is how we think. This week, a member of our congregation shared with me a story about a friend of hers who had a son serving in the war in Iraq. This woman woman considered herself a “good Christian,” and yet also honestly believed that the only way to win the war was to slaughter all Iraqi children so that they would not grow up to be terrorists. A friend recently confessed to me that deep down, they hoped that somebody would assassinate our president. In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Las Vegas last week good, Christian people zealously proclaim that the only solution is more guns, so that we can shoot and kill the bad guys before they shoot and kill us. If time travel is ever invented, the first future chrononaut will likely go back in time to attempt to kill Hitler.

This is how we think! We fight preemptive wars, we build nuclear deterrents, we posture and threaten and retaliate. Throughout the ages countless philosophers, despots and heroes have imagined perfect societies—and they all have relied upon one type of violence or another to achieve them; whether physical, psychological, economic, or spiritual. Each and every human attempt to throw the marriage banquet of peace and justice has been either preceded or succeeded by massacres and purges. Even Isaiah’s enticing promise of the banquet spread for all people on God’s mountain is embedded in the images of the utter defeat of Israel’s enemies.

Into all this mess enters Jesus who alone offers us an alternative to the never-ending cycle of violence. Into the room full of terrified guests whose shaking knees are hid underneath wedding robes walks a man who refuses to put on false gaiety, who gives the lie to the illusion of celebration at this abomination of a wedding feast. When confronted by ruthless political or religious authorities, he is speechless, like a sheep before its shearers is silent; and he pays for this insolence with his life.

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896. The Marriage Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55983

You see, in the story we tell—the gospel—God is not the one who threatens or does violence; God is the one who submits to violence only to rise again—living proof that violence by its very nature is impotent. God rules with mercy, with love, with grace; God is the one who cries out forgiveness from the cross for the ones who are killing him. This is such foolishness to us that we would rather see God in the capricious tyrant of the parable who maintains his authority through murder and mayhem than in the figure of the dying Christ. We would rather believe in a God who blackmails us into salvation with the threat of hell than one who opens his arms to us as he suffocates to death stretched upon a tree.

Just so, Jesus comes to us ruthless people and slakes our thirst for blood with his own—a living sacrifice to us and to our barbaric codes of justice. The miserable wretch allows us to put him to death so that he may rip away once and for all the shroud of violence that is spread over all nations and wipe away the tears from all faces.

It is Jesus, the unclad wedding guest who, in allowing himself to be cast into the outer darkness, shows us that is not he, but rather the emperor who has no clothes. Having been bound hand and foot and cast out of the banquet, he reappears to extend to us the invitation to the true wedding banquet: a feast of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear, where death is destroyed forever, no longer used as a weapon of subjugation. Many are called, but only one is chosen to show us the way of life.

The meal around which we gather this morning is the appetizer to that feast. As we eat and drink, we are changed: we come to this table bloodthirsty, but we leave sanguine—filled with hope and confidence and joy for the reign of God, as the eternal life of Christ which is greater than death becomes our own. With his death, Jesus convicts us and our worship of violence and with his resurrection he proclaims to us the power of the One True God who calls all the nations to reject death and gain eternal life; and who chooses those few of us in the Church to share the good news of this new reality with the world.

Every day as we appeal to the forces of death and violence to coerce, to compel, to constrain the world to our will, the living Christ stands as testimony to the will of God that is far greater and far more benevolent than our own. Where we would bring murder and destruction, God offers life and salvation: a seat at the marriage supper of the Lamb, the feast that has no end. As we read the parable, we should hear an invitation: the dinner has been prepared, and everything is now ready; taste and see the reign of God has come near!

Crossan, Linda. Beloved, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55303. Original source: Linda Crossan, Second Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN

Younan Goes to Mosul

September 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Younan Goes to Mosul” recorded in worship (12:43)
16th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 25, Year A
Texts: Jonah 3.10-4.11; Phil 1.21-28; Matt 20.1-16

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a man named Younan. Younan was one of thousands of Christians who had fled from his homeland as the Islamic State was coming to power and gaining territory. When IS militants invaded his home, a small village in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Younan and his family fled, but sadly his wife and children did not survive the escape. After spending months in a refugee camp, Younan was lucky enough to be one of those granted asylum in the United States, eventually settling in Detroit.

Younan had always been a pious man, and became even more so after resettling in the US. Every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life. May your name be ever praised. Please bless and keep my beloved family in your care until the day of resurrection, and please bring swift and unrelenting justice to the wicked. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Every day was a struggle; he had to learn English, find work, locate an apartment… The end of every day found him exhausted, but every day he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life…”

Years passed, Younan slowly began to feel more at home in his new city. He had Iraqi friends and neighbors, people from places he knew. They never talked about why they had come, but they didn’t need to; the anger and the sorrow was written on their faces, it was an aroma that surrounded them. Younan found work as a janitor—a far cry from managing the market back home—and slowly began making a life for himself. And every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you…”

Tomb of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul (prior to its destruction by the Islamic State).

One night, as he prayed, God spoke back. “Younan,” God said, “get up. I want you to go to Mosul. Tell them that I am unhappy with their evil deeds and that I am going to destroy them.”

Younan replied, “Wait, you want me to go where?”

“Mosul,” God said.

“Please excuse me, Almighty God. I think I must be going mad. I thought you just said you wanted me to go to Mosul, the Daesh stronghold, to the filthy rats who killed my family and tell them that you are going to destroy them.”

“I did,” said God. “Now go.”

Anger overtook Younan. “If that’s what you want to do, then do it already! Why should I warn them? Why should anybody warn them? Nobody will shed a tear for them!”

But God was silent. Younan sighed. Deep inside, he knew that’s not how it works.

So, Younan went. But instead of Mosul, he packed his bags and bought a ticket for Beijing where he hoped among the mass of people, he might escape the Almighty’s notice.

He flew out of Detroit the next day to Chicago, where he connected to LAX. The entire trip was nerve-wracking; he kept waiting for something to go wrong—a cancelled flight or a missed connection—but nothing happened. Now as he boarded his flight to Los Angeles, he finally began to feel more at ease. Surely, if he had gotten this far, he would make it the rest of the way. The engines throttled up and the big jetliner began to climb, and Younan settled into his seat and began to nod off. “One more stop in LA,” he thought, and then I’m home free.” Smiling, he fell asleep.

He awoke to an elbow being jabbed into his ribs. “Wake up!” his neighbor hissed under his breath, “They’re looking for you!”

“Who is?” Younan asked, confused.

“The Sky Marshall,” his neighbor whispered. “They’re going row-by-row, looking for a guy who fits your description. I heard it on my way to the bathroom.”

Younan was about to say that was ridiculous, why would anyone be looking for him, but 10 rows up, he saw a man with a thick mustache and aviator sunglasses with his polo shirt tucked into his belt standing in the aisle talking to a seated passenger. His left hand rested on the seat back as he leaned over, and in it, he held a composite sketch that looked an awful lot like Younan.

His hands shook with fear as he reached into his carry-on to find his passport and asylum papers; they were gone, nowhere to be found. Slowly it dawned on him that this is what he had been worrying about all day. This was God’s hand closing around him. Younan sighed, got up and walked up the aisle to the man in the polo shirt.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I believe you are looking for me?”

“Thank you for making this easy,” the man said as he hand-cuffed him and took him to the back of the plane.

From the Bible de Souvigny, Jonah being thrown into the sea. Original source: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/ae/43/0d/ae430d990122419907b5fde2590eaa69–art-initial-french-school.jpg

As soon as the jet touched down in Los Angeles, even before the jet bridge was extended, Younan was taken down a ramp and thrust into the back of a black van, where a heavy cloth bag was placed over his head. “Don’t worry,” a voice said, “Everything is going to be fine.” But Younan did not believe it.

After hours and hours of blind van rides, plane flights, and being led down wandering hallways, he was seated on a metal chair and the sack was removed from his head. He found himself in a stark cell somewhere deep underground with only a latrine, a bed with a hard mattress, and the chair. The guard who removed the bag took off his handcuffs and closed the doors as he exited the cell.

All night, Younan sat wake, terrified. Where was he? What would they do to him? He prayed again, this time in fear: “Almighty God, I’m sorry I tried to run away. Please deliver me, and I promise I will do whatever you ask!”

Time passed. He couldn’t see the sun to tell, but based on the meal schedule, he figured it was about three days. He kept expecting to be beaten, to be waterboarded, or at very least to be asked some questions, but there was nothing. He ate, he slept, he waited. He prayed. Finally, something happened. A guard appeared and brought Younan up through the bowels of the complex to the surface. He removed Younan’s restraints, opened a door to the outside world, and—without a word—shoved him out into it.

After days in the dark, the sunlight was blinding. Younan heard the door slam shut and lock behind him as he blinked at the brightness that was slowly resolving into endless sand dunes and a road. He looked back at the building from which he’d just been freed; it looked like nothing more than an abandoned warehouse. An old pickup was approaching him on the road in a cloud of dust. When it reached him, the driver stopped and leaned out the window. He asked Younan, in Arabic, “Need a lift?” Not knowing what else to do, Younan climbed into the truck.

Once more, he heard a voice. “Let’s try this again,” God said, “I want you to go to Mosul. I have a message for them.”

“Where can I take you, my friend?” the driver asked as he pulled away.

“Mosul?” Younan answered, to which the driver responded. “Ah! Just where I was headed.”

When Younan got to Mosul, the driver dropped him at the edge of town and left him standing in the street. Mosul is a big city, 660,000 people. Without knowing what else to do, he began walking the streets, shouting, “40 days more, and Mosul will be blown to hell!” He walked all day, shouting his message—and nothing but this message—before giving up around nightfall and leaving town.

As it happened, the IS militants who heard his message began talking. They gossiped among one another, and the gossip spread. Over the coming days, the gossip made it to the head commander of the Islamic State in Mosul. Much to everyone’s surprise, the commander issued an order to all militants: they were to return all confiscated property to its rightful owners, they were to release all hostages and slaves, they were to turn in all weapons and equipment, and they were to beg forgiveness from the civilian population of the city and cast themselves upon God’s mercy—all this by official decree of the Caliphate. Much more to everyone’s surprise, the decree was followed to the letter. And God saw that they had realized their mistake and changed their ways, and so God decided not to destroy the city.

Rashid, al-Din. Yunus (Jonah) under the gourd vine and with the whale, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55970. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crcedinburgh/9322244680.

Younan was furious. He hissed and spit as he prayed to God, “Almighty God, I knew this is what you would do! I knew it! This is why I didn’t want to come, because I knew they would escape judgment! I knew that you are gracious and merciful, and that you would waste that grace and mercy even on these animals. Well fine, they have their grace, but where is my justice? Where is my family’s justice? Where is the justice for all who have been murdered by these dogs?”

The voice spoke, “Is it right for you to be angry? Every night, you pray to thank me for being gracious and merciful. Every night, you weep for the lives you have lost. Is it not right that I should not also weep for the 660,000 lives who might be lost in Mosul? Is it not right that I should extend to my loved ones the grace and mercy that I have given to you, my beloved? The prophets of old dreamed for so effective a message, they preached and cajoled and wept and wailed for years and years, and few of them ever had the success you have had today. Should you not be overjoyed that the kingdom of heaven has come near?”

But Younan was not overjoyed. As the sun beat down on him and the dust filled his nostrils, he couldn’t help but think that, to him, this heaven felt an awful lot like hell.


As you may have guessed, the name Younan is an Arabic variation of the name Jonah. Mosul, a city only recently liberated from the Islamic State, also happens to be the site of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire who conquered and exiled Jonah’s home country of Israel. Jonah’s story is darkly comic because of all the characters in the story—even the whale—the prophet of God is the least godly. It is a fable about God’s mercy, God’s tenacity, but mostly it is a fable about God’s grace and how far from it we often fall. When the chips are down, are we any more godly than Jonah?