More Questions Than Answers

July 9, 2017 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22.1-14

This story may be the most difficult and troubling story in the entire Bible.

When we get to the end of the reading, I don’t want to say, “Thanks be to God.”

There has been lots of commentary through the centuries trying to explain the story—to make it not seem as terrifying as it is: a father being willing to offer his son as a burnt offering to God.

Genesis 22 says this is a test God administered to Abraham to determine the strength of Abraham’s faith. This idea of someone being tested was a common theme in ancient literature—and is common as well in contemporary literature, such as the Harry Potter series.

Some scholars have said this was a story to point out that while other religious groups in the Ancient Near East sacrificed children to gods, the God of Abraham would never require that as illustrated by the provision of a ram just in the nick of time.

But other scholars say there is scant evidence that there was any child sacrifice going on anywhere at that time. To this point, Carol Delaney, anthropologist and theologian, writes, “Most examples of known human sacrifice come not from primitive and/or nomadic societies but from highly complex, sophisticated and cosmopolitan ones.”[1]

A side-bar to illustrate Delaney’s point. The Hunger Games is a contemporary story about sacrificing young people. It’s fiction but still illustrative and comes out of our current culture where many young people feel unsure about the trustworthiness and security of the world around them. I would argue that any society that tolerates poverty as we do in this country is guilty of human sacrifice.[2]

There are so many connections between poverty and all kinds of poor outcomes, including death. There’s information on concentrated poverty in Louisville[3] on the bulletin board near the back parking lot door if you want to take a look at what’s happening in our city.

One specific connection I want to mention this morning about our toleration for poverty and human sacrifice. Maybe you saw Jim Bruggers’ article in the Courier-Journal about neighborhoods with poor air quality and the highest risk of asthma symptoms and attacks.[4] If you overlayed Joshua Poe’s story map that illustrates the modern day consequences of red-lining in Louisville,[5] with the map of high risk for asthma, you would see a lot of neighborhoods who suffer economically because of the legacy of red-lining are also the neighborhoods with the highest rates of asthma. And asthma is a killer.[6] It can be managed but that requires access to health care and money to pay for doctor visits and prescription medicine. And if you are poor, you have fewer of those options.

Back in Genesis, some commentators point out Abraham’s great faith to give up the son through whom God promised the covenant would continue. God asked something of Abraham that most fathers (and mothers) would recoil from. Yet Abraham did not question God. He passed the test God set before him and some say this reflects his great trust and faith in God.

For me, none of those explanations take away the horror of a father not questioning the God who would ask such a thing of him. What kind of father would not even pause to say, “Are you sure?” The explanations for this story don’t take away the terror of a father binding his son like an animal and raising his arm in mid-air ready to kill him.

And what kind of god is this who would test a person in this way? If someone told you that God told them to harm or kill another person, wouldn’t you say, “That is not God talking to you”? And if this is what God asks—to murder another person—is this a god to whom we want to be faithful?

In order to deal responsibly with this story we must acknowledge its terror. At the end of the day, I have no theological moves to undo its troubling content. Every thing I read that tries to clean up the story or dilute its horror, for me, only ends up with more questions or with conclusions about God or about human beings that I cannot live with.

So today I’m not going to be able to package this up neatly. I can’t explain it away or say it’s not really what it seems. We’re going to be left with a text that is significant and which we must hold lightly, be willing to let it speak to us and be willing to speak back to it as well. As Mark said last week, many of these stories in Genesis come with far more questions than answers.

This story is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And all three religions have struggled with it. We each call it by different names:

Christians typically call it the sacrifice of Isaac (pre-figuring another Father’s sacrifice of another Son in the New Testament Gospels).

Jews typically call it the binding of Isaac with the focus on Isaac and his response. Isaac did not choose his fate but was chosen; as the Jewish people did not choose but were chosen by God.

The Qur’an doesn’t name the son but most Muslim commentators say the son Abraham took to Mount Moriah to offer up was Ishmael.[7]

While our three religious traditions read the story in different ways, “all three faiths agree that this story raises some of the most difficult questions ever posed by and to humankind.”[8]

The biblical text gives us no psychological analysis of either Abraham or Isaac. That is not the writer’s interest. However it certainly can be ours.

And so while the story does not address this, we can ask: What kind of damage does a father do to a child when he demonstrates he is willing to kill him because he heard God tell him to? What kind of damage does it do to a father to be willing to slaughter his child—even if God intervenes at the last minute?

Twelve years ago when I preached on this story, a ten-year old boy in our congregation and his father came up to me after the service and that ten-year old looked me square in the face asked, “Do you think Isaac could ever look his father in the eyes again?” I have remained haunted by that question from a boy who was clearly imagining the horror of this story.

And the truth is Isaac disappears in this story. He doesn’t come down from the mountain with Abraham and he barely shows up again until the time when he and his brother Ishmael meet to bury their father.

I have no answer to wrap this story up neatly. But I have one final observation.

The first sentence of the story tells us God is testing Abraham. We don’t know why. We just know that’s what this story is going to be about.

Years ago God had asked Abraham to leave the land of his father, to leave his relatives to go to a land that God would show him. In doing so, God asked Abraham to leave his past behind. Now God asks him to let go of his future, his son, as well. So Abraham stands in front of God with only the present—no past and no future to hold on to.

Now why this test? Indeed why any test? Does God bring calamity to us in order to see how we’ll do? I don’t like that view of God but we do see it again in the bible in the story of Job. And the apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth talks about God allowing us to be tested.[9] Even in the face of that, I do not believe God brings things like cancer or the death of a child or a car wreck or whatever other tragedy. I do believe God can bring good out of terrible circumstances and that God accompanies us in terrible circumstances but I don’t believe God brings those circumstances about in order to make us grow or to see if we’ll be faithful.

So this is one of those places I have to hold the text lightly. The story says God tested Abraham. That’s how the writer understood what was going on.

But test or no test, this story seems to say that even if you are the one with whom God has made a covenant, that doesn’t protect you from suffering. God promises to be with us but that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer.

And what we see at the end of the story is that God provides. Abraham says this to Isaac when Isaac asks,

“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering, dad?”

“God will provide, my son.”

Perhaps that was Abraham’s prayer every step of the three-day trek to Mount Moriah. “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.”

That word provide also means “see.” So some translators translate the name Abraham called the place where the ram was discovered, “The Holy One will see.” And so the One who sees is also the One also provides.

So when we stand inside the story and wonder what it is all about, perhaps it is the reality of life, that even as God’s people, we are not spared suffering and anguish. But neither are we alone. We are seen by the God who provides for us even in our greatest need.

In this story, God is the God who tests. But in this story God is also the God who sees and provides. And so, perhaps, even in this terrifying story we might find a glimmer of Good News.

* * * * *

[1] Carol Delaney, “Abraham and the Seeds of Patriarchy,” Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 132.

[2] 21% of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold which is actually a very low threshold for what families need to cover basic expenses. When you look at what it takes to cover basic expenses, 43% of children live in low-income families who struggle to make ends meet., accessed 8 July 2017.

[3], accessed 8 July 2017.

[4], accessed 8 July 2017.

[5], accessed 8 July 2017.

[6] For more statistics on asthma, hospitalizations, deaths and the racial/ethnic disparities in asthma hospitalizations and deaths:, accessed 8 July 2017.

[7] Bill Moyers, Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, 105-106.

[8] Ibid., 106.

[9] 1 Corinthians 10.13.

Chaos and Order

June 18, 2017 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1.1-2.4a

This morning, we begin a summer long preaching series from the book of Genesis. We won’t get to all of Genesis because it’s 50 chapters long and we have 11 weeks in this series. But we’ll hit some of the highlights and the lowlights.

We start in chapter 1. Genesis 1 comes with a lot of baggage. One of the commentaries I was reading has a section called “Further Reflections” in which the author, Miguel De La Torre, who teaches at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, addresses on some of the contemporary questions that are related to the stories in Genesis. And so there it was, on page 17, “Creationism.” And where does he go to talk about creationism? You guessed it. Northern Kentucky and the 70,000 square-foot, $27 million, Creation Museum.

De La Torre unpacks some of the issues around the fundamentalism of creationism and then he notes that “it is rare to find any biblical and theological scholars of color participating in the creationism debate. When…people live under repressive structures,” he says, “they turn to the Bible for the strength to survive another day, not to figure out how long a day lasted in Genesis 1.” De La Torre continues, “Most people of color look to the text to find guidance in dealing with daily life, a life usually marked by struggles and hardships. Debates over the scientific validity of the Bible becomes a luxurious privilege for those who do not endure discriminatory structures.”[1]

That is also a reminder to a related understanding that for the writers of the Bible, the question for them was not “Does God exist?” That’s not the question they are asking. But instead, “What is the character of this God who we claim exists?”[2]

That’s a big part of how I’m reading Genesis for our preaching series. Who is this God? And then, how do people relate to this God and how does this God relate to people?

This beginning in chapter 1 is the cosmic story of God. It’s the Hubble telescope view looking far into space and, turning around and looking in the other direction, it’s the view of the beautiful blue sphere of earth from space.

In chapter 12, we will zoom in close on one family who God will bless that they may bless all the families of the earth. And then through the rest of Genesis, we see the unfolding of the family of Abraham (and Sarah—oh, and Hagar, with whom Abraham also had a child), the family of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac (and Isaac’s wife Rebekah), the family of Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob (and Jacob’s wife Leah—oh, and Jacob’s other wife, Rachel—and Leah’s maid Zilpah and Rachel’s maid Bilbah, with whom Jacob also had children) and finally the family of Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah.

But back to the beginning.

Actually, while the translation in most Christian Bibles says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” the standard Jewish translation is “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.”[3] Which gives the impression that this is not the story of the absolute beginning, and, actually, we would say, theologically, God has no beginning. Even at this point in the story there is something—the earth was a formless void with darkness covering the face of the deep. Another translator says the earth was “devastation and desolation.”[4] Clearly, there is something already there in addition to God. And a wind from God—which could also be translated as “the spirit of God”—sweeps over the face of the waters. There is not nothing. Which if you’ve ever heard people say “God created the world ex nihilo” (which means “out of nothing”) that’s really not the biblical story.

When everything was chaotic, without form, God said, “Let there be light” and began to bring order to the chaos. And through each movement of the formation of the cosmos, there is more and more order—not uniformity, not order as in everything lines up or looks the same, but less devastation and less desolation, less formlessness. In fact, more and more different forms that God calls good.

The final form in creation are human forms.  (A side note: The word create and creation come from the Hebrew root that means “‘to form or fashion’ by means of cutting; it means to sculpt.”[5] And so some people speak of God as a sculptor.[6]) In verse 26 we hear God say, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Jewish readers over the centuries often understood this “us” to mean “the heavenly host of angels from whom God took counsel.”[7] Christian readers have come to identify this as the Trinity, which, of course, would not have been in the early story tellers’ minds.

However we understand the “us” in whose image we are made, there is an indication of relationship. There is relationship at the heart of the Divine—which we Christians talk about in terms of the interrelatedness of the triune God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. Relationship, of course, is required in the charge God gives to the humans to be fruitful and multiply. And God initiates a relationship of blessing and provision with the humans. If Genesis 1 is indeed addressing the question of who God is and who we are, these relationships are all part of the Divinely sculpted order and form of the cosmos.

But…relationships also bring chaos. Perhaps some of you have experienced that before. Relationships can be chaotic. Sometimes it’s the traumatic chaos of domestic violence or addiction or death. Sometimes it’s the busy chaos of children or a life overly full of activities with friends and family. Sometimes it’s the chaos of the splintered, broken world around us.

While God brings order and form out of chaos, God is not absent from the chaos. In the beginning of this story, God is present in the formlessness and the devastation and the desolation. The Spirit of God is hovering, sweeping over the deep waters.

Where ever the chaos finds us, God is present there.

In the story of the four generations of the family of Genesis, we are going to encounter a lot of chaos. God sculpts order and form and chaos returns, again and again we will see that cycle. Perhaps there will be part of this original family’s blessing or chaos that reminds you of your own experience—your own family—your own life in this world.

I heard an author on a radio program yesterday. Her book is titled, Where Ever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To. I think that’s a great title for the book of Genesis. There’s craziness in here. Dysfunction and outrage. People who are broken and deceitful. There’s disappointment and heartache. And also blessing and surprise and a God who keeps showing up in the chaos and the order. Perhaps as we explore these stories, we will experience God showing up in our own lives in ways we did not anticipate. Hovering in the chaos. Sculpting new order and form. Bringing unexpected and undeserved blessing to our lives and to our world.

* * * * *

[1] Miguel De La Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 19.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 5.

[4] Loren R. Fisher, Genesis: A Royal Epic, 2nd ed., (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 37.

[5] Ibid., 37, n.1.

[6] John Thornburg writes “God the sculptor of the mountains” in his beautiful hymn text by the same name.

[7] De La Torre, 20.

What Sustains Our Witness

May 28, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Easter
Acts 1.6-14

Introduction: In the first chapter of Acts, we hear that the risen Jesus appeared many times to the apostles and continued to teach them about the realm of God. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Read: Acts 1.6-14

Recently a friend was telling me about an illness in her family. She described the intentionality in which her family prayed together, giving thanks at the end of each day for the medical staff who were helping them and the many people who they knew were holding them in prayer.

She told me about a time several years ago when another illness struck her family. At that time, she mostly worried about all the worst possible outcomes. She lost sleep and, reflecting now all these years later, she was conscious of how all the energy of worrying didn’t change the outcome one single bit and only made her miserable.

With the current illness, there is no promise it won’t recur but that has not been what she and her family have focused on each day. In their prayer each evening they are conscious of the gift of each day and the blessing of being together. They give thanks for the miracle of medical advancements and for the love and care from others that is sustaining them.

I was thinking about this conversation with my friend as I read the Acts story this week.

In the Christian year we are at the last Sunday of the season of Easter. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost. So the story in Acts is at this transition where Jesus is about ready to leave and before he leaves, he promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles and they will receive power from the Spirit. That arrival of the Holy Spirit is what we will celebrate next Sunday.

The first question the apostles ask Jesus when they’re all together in Jerusalem is, says Willie James Jennings, a nationalist question.[1] (You might recall Jennings was the 2015 Grawemeyer Award winner in religion for his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.) The apostles want to know when they will get to rule their land and impose their will on others. They’re still thinking that Jesus the Messiah is going to reassert the political kingdom of Israel and drive out the Romans.

Jesus says they have it all wrong about him. Instead, he says the question to ask is, “What is the work you are to do now and how will you do it?” And the answer to that is the apostles are called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they are to tell and demonstrate the good news about Jesus—about his life, and death and resurrection—to the whole world. But they won’t do it on their own. They will have power from the Holy Spirit to do this.

And then Jesus leaves—right up into the sky where he disappears into a cloud. And just like when the women in the gospel of Luke go to look for the body of Jesus at the tomb and are met by two men in dazzling clothes, the apostles now are also met by two men who say, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear what Jesus said?” Stop looking up expecting Jesus to return and start looking out into the world and your mission in it.[2]

Hearing that, I would sort of expect the apostles to charge ahead and say, “Okay! What are we going to do? What’s the plan? Who will do what? Who will go where?” and get started on this work Jesus has given them.

Or, I would expect them to freak out. “What? Be witnesses all over the world? How would we ever do that? Won’t we get in trouble in the Roman Empire talking about Jesus all over the place?” There is likely some fear for them because this Greek word “witness” can also mean martyr and I imagine none of the apostles were too keen on that.

But the writer of Acts tells us the apostles neither go full steam ahead nor do they freak out. Instead, they gather together with some of the women disciples and they pray. Not just a quick perfunctory prayer. They constantly devoted themselves to prayer.

This is typical of what happens throughout the book of Acts. The followers of Jesus are devoted to prayer. They aren’t only praying—like a monastic community that is cloistered away committing itself wholly to prayer. For the early followers of Jesus, prayer is an integral part of their action. Again and again, prayer precedes the decisions and directions the disciples take.

What’s so striking to me about this story is this response of prayer. Because the whole book of Acts is uncharted territory. It is the story of the church continuing “the work of Jesus and  [continually] rethinking its own self-understanding as it reinterprets what it means to be disciples of Jesus in new times and places.”[3] The response to this new thing is not worry or anxiety or “we can’t do that!” but a community praying together.

This seems so illustrative for our world right now and the life of the church as so much is changing around us. The first page of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world…and for its service to God.”[4] Just like those first followers of Jesus, we too are given everything that is necessary for the work we have been given as disciples. Not so much in a fixed box of rations and supplies but through the power of the Holy Spirit and through prayer. Together. With one another. This is what sustains us.

And this seems true for our own lives as well. As so much changes in our lives—health, relationships, work, family, geography, finances—what can we do? It is natural to worry, to be anxious, and to cry out, “I don’t want it to be this way!” And there is something else we have to sustain us: The power of the Holy Spirit and prayer and being together.

Prayer doesn’t make everything work out the way we want it. But in praying, and in praying together, we are accompanied, we are not alone. Those early disciples didn’t go their own way separate ways to pray. They stuck together and prayed, waiting for the wind of the Spirit to arise, to show them the way to go.

My friend whose family is once again visited with illness doesn’t know what will come next but she and her family have chosen to pray together and to invite others to pray with them. To give thanks for all their blessings, even among this illness they would never choose in a million years, and to open their lives to the healing, sustaining Spirit who arrives in surprising ways.

May we, too, devote our lives to prayer and prayer together that we may find ourselves sustained by the Spirit who promises to accompany us in all the circumstances of our lives.

* * * * *

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 17.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 367

[3] Ibid., 363.

[4] Book of Order, F-1.0202.

Is Your Mind Too Small?

April 23, 2017 – 2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31

Preliminary Remarks: The gospel reading this morning is from John’s gospel. I like John’s gospel a lot because there’s so much depth and breadth to the writing and to the mysteries and wonders it points to.

But there are also distinct difficulties in preaching from John’s gospel. One of them is the language of “the Jews.” We hear it in this passage so I want to unpack it just a bit before I read the gospel.

Jesus, his disciples, and almost all members of the earliest Christian community were Jews. It’s only sometime after the death of Jesus that the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah began to have a separate identity from those who didn’t. For the writer of John’s gospel “the Jews” primarily referred to those who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and particularly the religious leaders who did not see Jesus in this way. As one commentary puts it, “The conflict that develops between the Jews and Jesus and his disciples was an intramural Jewish conflict, as Catholic/Protestant conflict at the time of the Reformation was not the persecution of one religion by another but an intramural Christian conflict.”[1]

Unfortunately, John’s gospel has been used over the centuries to support anti-Semitic racism because of his repeated, negative reference to “the Jews.” But this is a misuse of the gospel. So as we often do in reading John’s gospel, I’ll use “religious leaders” instead of “the Jews” directing our attention to the theological dispute in John’s gospel rather than a racial or ethnic dispute.

Read John 20.19-31

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the other disciples on the evening of the resurrection. The other disciples are together and afraid. The religious authorities colluded with the Roman Empire to destroy Jesus.[2] So it’s not unrealistic for the followers of Jesus to think they would also be in the crosshairs. In this setting, Jesus appears and shows the disciples his hands and his side—and seeing his wounds, they know that it is Jesus. It’s not some ghost. Not some unembodied spirit. This Risen One has the wounds of the One who was crucified. So the disciples, except for Thomas, see Jesus’ wounds and believe it is Jesus but when Thomas asks for the same experience, he is often criticized, unfairly I think, as a doubter.

As a side note, the nails, blood, and spear thrust of the crucifixion are all unique to John’s gospel. While John has the highest Christology (meaning we experience the divinity of Jesus more in John’s gospel than the humanity), John is also the most insistent that Jesus is also truly human. The first chapter of John’s gospel says, the Word [true God] became flesh [true human].[3] Now the gospel ends with that same mysterious combination—Jesus is both raised from the dead and physically wounded—both God and human.

A week later, Thomas is with the disciples and Jesus appears again. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side and hands and in response Thomas makes a profession of faith.

The criticism of Thomas as a doubter is often picked up again when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Instead of a criticism of Thomas, I think this is Jesus turning to us—breaking the fourth wall, as they say in the theatre—to address those of us listening to this story in the generations that follow. Because none of us will have seen Jesus in the flesh but that does not mean we cannot come to believe.

This sermon has its roots in the hymn that Phillip suggested to follow the sermon. The hymn is specifically about Thomas and his encounter with the risen Jesus.

Hymn writer Tom Troeger wrote these words in the second stanza.

“The vision of [Thomas’s] skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.”[4]

While Thomas often gets a raw deal as a doubter in many interpretations of John’s story, this hymn text got me thinking of the multitude of ways we fail to see what falls outside of our expectations and our conclusions.

The other day I was looking for a book. I was quite sure where I had last put it on the shelf but I couldn’t find it. I knew I was looking for a book with a white cover and spine and maroon lettering. I looked through all my bookshelves twice and still could not find it. Later in the day I looked one more time for the book I couldn’t find. This time, instead of scanning for what I remembered the spine of the book looked like, I slowly read each book title on the shelf where I thought I had put the book. And, what do you know? I found it. While I was convinced I was looking for a book with a white cover and maroon lettering, it turned out it was a maroon cover with white lettering.

Now that’s a small example of the way we see what we expect to see and we don’t see something new. But it happens in large ways too.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Touch. See. Believe.”[5] Jesus does not condemn Thomas’s inability to see. He offers Thomas what he needs.

Faith needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Faith gets narrow-minded when our minds are small. When we think what is true has to be protected and guarded because somehow it is fragile or subject to damage.

John Calvin said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Which I take to mean there is no reach of our minds, in our search for what is true, that can take us outside of the realm of God. There is no discovery that can somehow threaten God. There are discoveries that can unsettle our minds about God. There are discoveries that can upend what we thought was true. But there is no truth that would, by definition, take us away from God.

Which is why, on this weekend of The March for Science, that has happened around the world in 600 cities on six continents, it feels like a good time to affirm that science and religion can be friends. One can be a follower of Jesus and a scientist without having to check your heart and mind at the door of the church or at the door to your classroom or office.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this week, “one of the great things about science is that it is an entire exercise in finding what is true.”[6] Which could also be said of religion. We want to know what is true.

Just like faith, science needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Because we don’t know all there is to know. And, likely, we will never know all there is to know. Science, too, gets narrow-minded when our minds are small.

A number of you know my undergraduate degree was in Biology with an emphasis in nutrition and anatomy and physiology. But I delayed my chemistry sequences in order to take classes in the School of Religion…which is part of the reason why I’m here instead of teaching biology or giving talks as a Forest Ranger.

When I studied anatomy and physiology I was constantly amazed at the wonder of our bodies and how they work. For me, that all the systems of our bodies function as they do leads me to give praise to God for this amazing creation. And I can also marvel at the evolutionary changes that have happened as single-cell organisms over billions of years have become us. That too speaks to me of an amazing wonder in creation.

And as a person of faith I read the creation story in Genesis and hear the theological questions it asks about the nature of God and the nature of creation and of human beings. I can read that without needing to compress those questions into a scientific explanation that the universe was created in six days. Religion asks questions like, “What is the nature of God?” and “What is the purpose of human beings?” while science asks questions like, “Where did people come from?” and “How was our galaxy created?”

As a person of faith and as a scientist I marvel at the engineering feat of how the two new bridges were built across the Ohio River and give thanks to God for the intellectual knowledge and the technological capacity and physical labor that go into building a bridge.

As a person of faith and as a scientist my heart can be broken by the reality of cancer and know that researchers are working every day, using their God-given gifts, to understand how cancer changes normal cells into abnormal cells so scientists can develop new treatments and cures.

Often what we think we know is, in truth, a small world of facts (or, these days, so-called “alternative facts”—also known as half-truths and lies). Even in 2017, with all that we know about the world, there is still so much to be curious about, to be surprised by, things that we miss when we get stuck in a small world of facts—whether those are religious facts or scientific facts.

So may we, scientists and Christians alike, in service to God and to humanity, cultivate an open, curious expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised so that together we may discover what is true.




[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.

[2] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “John 20:19-23 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Volume 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 320.

[3] Boring and Craddock, 358.

[4] Thomas H. Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #256.

[5] Martin B. Copenhever, “John 20:19-31 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 396.

[6], April 19, 2017 post, accessed April 22, 2017.

Do Not Be Afraid

April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Matthew 28.1-10

Easter Sunday is a strange day. On the fact of it, it is a glorious day of celebration. There are beautiful decorations, the music is wondrous, our spirits are lifted up. Here in Kentucky we are far enough south, and climate change is moving our growing zones northward, to make seeing the evidence of spring all around us a usual part of our experience on Easter. At Central we have a delicious breakfast feast and we welcome family, friends and neighbors. So many signs around us point toward a magnificent day.

At the same time, the story whose message we celebrate, is set in a graveyard. The story in Matthew’s gospel takes place in a cemetery.

The location of our story is a place of death. Of endings. Of sadness. Of emptiness. Of hopes dashed against the rocks.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did not get up that morning and say, “Let’s go see what’s happened at the tomb. It’s such a glorious day to be alive.”

I imagine the two Marys went to the tomb that morning simply to be there—in the manner of the Jewish tradition of shiva—the seven days after a person’s death during which time friends and family sit together, acknowledging their grief, remembering the life of the one who has died—being present with the memories and the loss and with one another.

I suspect that’s what the two Marys were doing that morning when they decided to go back to the tomb. They wanted time together to remember their teacher, their friend. The One in whom they thought their lives—the lives of their people and the world—might really be different.

It’s really hard for us to hear this story and put ourselves in their place—because we have heard the ending—and we know what’s coming next.

But for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sitting there in the cemetery, it is over. Death has had the last word. There is nothing more.

* * *

And is this not also where many of us sit—even on Easter morning?

– A friend wrote this week to ask for prayer for two teenage friends driving home from spring break—they were in a car wreck and the father, who was driving, was killed.

– Other friends and friends of friends have been diagnosed with cancer.

– Two friends who have experienced multiple miscarriages now grieve two stillborn babies.

– Friends whose mothers, whose fathers, whose spouses have died.

– We have seen the faces of Syrian children who have been gassed.

– We have heard about the murder of 45 Coptic Christians in Egypt in church on Palm Sunday.

– We have read the news of the US bombing in Syria and Afghanistan.

– We are experiencing the legacy of white supremacy that continues to dehumanize all of us.

And, we, too, wonder if the last word doesn’t indeed belong to death.

* * *

Back at the 1st century tomb, the ground began to tremble and shake. If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, it is quite a frightening experience. There is no place to go to get away from it. All you can do is wait for it to be over—and pray you are still able to stand up when it’s through.

Then an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone that was blocking the entrance to the tomb.

In the Bible, when an angel arrives, people tremble and shake. They wonder what terrifying event will happen next. And the first words out of the mouths of angels are: “Do not be afraid.”

From our vantage point, if we were Mary Magdalene or the other Mary, knowing what we know now, we might yell, “Yippee!! He’s done it! I knew it! I knew it!” and give high-fives all around.

But for the two Marys, this is a very disorientating experience. That Jesus should be raised from the dead was not what they were expecting at all.

The angel sends them back to Galilee and they leave the cemetery quickly, running to tell the disciples, filled with fear and great joy.

Fear and great joy.

Isn’t that also how many of us live? Maybe it’s the reality of human existence to live with both fear and great joy.

The news of the resurrection doesn’t mean everything is solved; that all suffering is eliminated. We live on this side of the resurrection, but we also know that death still deals us a hand we don’t want. We know that people we love still leave us. Addictions still wrestle us to the ground. Cancer still mutates our once healthy cells. We lose our jobs. We can’t pay our bills. Depression follows us around like a stray dog. We are falsely accused. We suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We know the world is not yet completely transformed by the resurrecting power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And what is this resurrection? Sometimes we confuse it with being a belief in “life after death.” We mix it up with the idea of the immortality of the soul which is a theory about human nature that says there is something within us that cannot die. But resurrection is not about human nature. Resurrection affirms something about the nature of God—who acts even for those who are dead. Jesus did not raise himself. God did it. “He has been raised” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Christian hope is in the resurrection, not in immortality. It is hope in God not in ourselves.

The first line of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “In life and in death we belong to God.” The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What exactly does that mean about what happens to us after we die? We don’t know for sure. There are lots of ideas that come from the Bible and from Christian tradition and cultural speculation. No matter what the details turn out to be, what we can trust is that even in death we are not separated from God—and we don’t have to be afraid.

* * *

As the two Marys leave the cemetery caught up in fear and great joy, Jesus met them and he too, says, “Do not be afraid.” The root meaning of that Greek word that we translate as “met” means more than they just ran into each other on the road. It means Jesus “joins and accompanies them.”[1] He is with them in that place of fear and great joy and he promises that he will be with them and the other disciples in Galilee—when they all return to their homes and their work and the ordinariness of their lives.

If resurrection is a trustworthy promise about death, it is also a trustworthy promise about life: that nothing in life and nothing in death can separate us from the love of God. Resurrection then is also a promise that we are not alone. We are joined and accompanied by the risen Christ in the places of fear, in the places of great joy and also in the ordinary places of our lives.

The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of death but it has changed the reality of death. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of suffering but it has changed the reality of suffering. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of injustice but it has changed the reality of injustice.

Death and suffering and injustice are not the last word. As we often sing in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

[God’s] goodness is stronger than evil;
[God’s] love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.[2]

Do not be afraid.

*  * * * *

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 102.

[2] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger Than Evil,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #750.

Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

* * * * *

[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.


March 26, 2017 – 4th Sunday in Lent
John 9.1-41

(This sermon begins with a back and forth conversation as the scripture is read.)

Ann: This story in John’s gospel is about being blind and being able to see. The story functions on a physical level of literally being blind and literally being able to see. It also functions on a metaphorical and spiritual level of being able to see or being blind to what is true.

Act One: Jesus Heals a Man Who Was Blind from Birth

Katherine: As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

Ann: Hold on! Hold on! I really dislike this verse! The idea that God made the man be born blind so that Jesus could heal him and God could be glorified. I do not like this at all—as if God would plan suffering for us so that good could come out of it. I do believe God can redeem suffering but I don’t believe that it’s God’s plan or desire for us to suffer. Suffering is a part of life but not because God picks us out to inflict it upon us.

You know what I just learned this week from biblical schools Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring (who is not, actually boring)? In verse 3, in Greek, there is no “he was born blind so that.” It’s a bad English translation. In a more literal translation, the verse would read, “Jesus answered ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but God’s works might be revealed in him.” The sense of the Greek sentence is that the presence of the man who is blind provides an occasion to do something about it and as Jesus heals the man, God is glorified.[i] It has nothing to do with God intending for the man to be blind.

Okay. Go ahead.

Katherine: [Jesus continues]We must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then [the man] went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

Ann: Isn’t this what we want to know too? How? Show me some evidence and I’ll decide if it’s for real. We’ve all got our own set of criteria for what is real and what is true and we want information so we can make a judgment based on that criteria. What throws us off kilter and what we often resist is letting ourselves and our understanding be transformed by something we don’t (yet) understand—in this story that is the power and glory of God.[ii]

Katherine: 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

Ann: Act Two: The Religious Leaders Investigate the Healing

Katherine: 13 They brought to the [religious leaders] the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

Ann: The religious expectation was that a truly religious person did not work on the Sabbath—that included not healing someone. You could do that the next day. The man was not going to die of blindness in the interim hours.

Katherine: But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

Ann: People who observed Jesus had different expectations. One expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he would obey the law and not work on the Sabbath. Another expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he can heal people. Expectations of how it’s supposed to be can keep us from seeing what is true.

Katherine: 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The [religious leaders] did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the [religious leaders…for they] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

Ann: This word “know”—“one thing I do know” the man says—shows up multiple times in the rest of the story. It comes from a Greek word that means to have sight (that is, physical seeing) but it is also connected to comprehension (that is, mental and spiritual seeing).

And the Greek word here for “see” is a word that suggests to see something physical, with spiritual results (that is, perception or comprehension).

What the man says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see,” is both a literal statement and a metaphorical declaration.

Katherine: 26 They said to [the man], “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Ann: Here again is a clash of expectations about what can possibly be true. What is obvious to one person who has encountered Jesus is completely opaque to another. Who can see and who can know are hard to comprehend from different vantage points. Our preconception of the truth can blind us from seeing what is true.

My sister told me about a class she took on marriage years ago. The biggest take-away, that we both remember all these years later, was recognizing “What is obvious to me is obvious to me.”

Act Three: Jesus and the Man Meet Up Again; Who Can See and Who is Blind?

Katherine: 35 Jesus heard that they had driven [the man] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of [Humanity]?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the [religious leaders] near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Ann: The Word of God
All: Thanks be to God.

In chapter two of James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone reflects on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, who he describes as “widely regarded as America’s most influential theologian in the twentieth century…with wide influence in the secular political world.”[iii] Niebuhr was born in 1892 and was a pastor and a professor of ethics and theology between 1915 and 1960. Cone says Niebuhr wrote and spoke about the sufferings of African Americans and the evils of racism but “he failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time”[iv]—that is, lynching.

The lynching era is considered to be 1880 to 1940 during which time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus…Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists…In both cases, the purpose was to stroke terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”[v]

Niebuhr had a big platform to speak to ordinary Christians and politicians alike and instead of using his voice for justice for African Americans, he joined Southern moderates who called for “gradualism, patience, and prudence”[vi] during a time when blacks were being lynched. What kept Niebuhr from advocating for justice for African Americans? What kept him from seeing? “How could anyone be a great theologian and not engage America’s greatest moral issue?”[vii] Cone asks. “It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort” says Cone, “to step into [the shoes] of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”[viii]

As we talked about this chapter in our book study this week I got to wondering what helps any of us step into the shoes of a person whose life experience is different from our own? Niebuhr himself talks about the powerful self-interest that we all serve (many times unconsciously) and how hard it is to “feel the pain of others as vividly”[ix] as we do our own. What enables us to feel the pain, learn the story, find a truth that is not our own, to see with different eyes?

I grew up going to public schools with a fairly significant racially diverse student body. In elementary school, my group of friends (the group that got invited to my birthday parties) included African American girls and a Native American girl. The high school I attended was 60% African American students and other students of color and 40% white students.

When I went across town and enrolled in an evangelical Christian college where the overwhelming number of students were white from white suburbs or small towns. I realized that growing up in a different environment from many of my college classmates made me see the world in ways that were different from many of them.

I wonder about your life. Has there been a person or an event who opened your eyes to see something you’d never seen before about a person of a different race than your own?

Martha and I stayed in the home recently of one of my friends from seminary and his wife. They are both African American. Their home is filled with art that depicts African Americans. As I walked around their home I was conscious that the art work I was seeing was not a representation of me. And it made me more aware of how often a white face and body is normative and what that does to the well-being of children and adults whose faces and bodies are all shades of brown and what that does to the well-being of people when they don’t see themselves represented in images of beauty or power or leadership or creativity or achievement. And what it does to the well-being of children and adults who are white who unconsciously (and not so unconsciously) absorb the lie that white people are smarter, more beautiful, more skilled, more accomplished than brown people.

What has God put in your way that opened your eyes to your own bias? Who has God brought into your life who has helped you see a deeper truth about people who are different from you?

Let us take a minute to remember and then, in your own heart and mind, to give thanks to God for the gift you have received.

* * * * *

[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 318.

[ii] Ibid., 312-313.

[iii] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 32.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 31.

[vi] Ibid., 39.

[vii] Ibid., 52.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Ibid., 40.