By What Authority ?


(painting by Michael D. O’brien)

(from September 25, 2011)

Matthew 21  

When the temple officials and priests corner Jesus in the reading from Matthew, they are still upset about the recent incident in the court of Gentiles. Jesus had proceeded to turn over the tables of money changers and chase vendors out of the area which had been supposedly set aside for Gentiles who came to pray.

It certainly would hurt them in the pocketbook to lose this opportunity for a religious business, which I am sure they considered a service to pilgrims who didn’t have a certified animal for sacrifice or the required special coin for the offering plate.

Where did Jesus get the authority to do such a thing? And all these other stories of his healing on the Sabbath, and strange teachings on the Torah.

Jesus responses with another question, “Where did John the Baptist get his authority? Was it from God or was John just another human making up the stuff he preached for human motives?

The priests felt trapped. They couldn’t rightly say John was heaven-sent, because the next question would be why they had not taking him seriously and supported him. On the other hand they couldn’t say he was just making his stuff up because so many people were convinced he was a prophet and now a martyr. They would come down in the crowd’s estimation if they indicated they didn’t think very much of him. So they pleaded the fifth. “We can’t say.”

Well,” Jesus responded,”I can’t tell you where I got my authority .

Here is the thing. By dodging the questions they actually revealed that they were more concerned with preserving their status and interests than in taking Divine authority seriously. They looked religious enough, but they lacked a real seriousness about the quest for where God is at work in the world. It was a profitable business, not a passionate pursuit.

Jesus tells a parable. A man had two sons. He asked the first to go work in his fields and the boy said “Sure, Dad.” But despite that the boy never actually got around to going. The second son was asked, but he turned his Dad down. That wasn’t for him. Only later when he was alone, he reconsidered and without saying a word to the father, quietly went to work. Which one do you think pleased the father? Which one took the father’s authority seriously?

Jesus suggests that these religious leaders who were so against him talk a good line, but don’t actually get around to doing the real work of God– in fact they get in the way of it. Meanwhile, some of the people folks had written off as no good, people who originally said they weren’t into God stuff, for some reason have come around to doing just the things that God had wanted done.

Jesus says, “Those formerly bad folk who actually end up submitting to God’s call are going to get into heaven ahead of some of those who act so holy but are only serving themselves.”

Jesus has an uncomfortable way of ripping off our self-delusions and asking us to consider whether our right talk is backed up by our right walk.

But the parable raises in another way a strange thing about authority. One son superficially acknowledges the authority of his Father to ask him to work for him. His acknowledgment causes him to say “yes.” The second son says a blunt “no” to his father’s face. But then when he is by himself, he repents of refusing and turns around and does what he had been asked.

Why do you think he does that?

What would cause him to revise his response?

It was not because he heard any threat. He doesn’t seem to be in fear. Nothing apparently happened when he said no. There is something about real authority that works on us so that we freely decide to fulfill the request because we know it is right, or because we know we owe it to the person who asked, or because we know that not to obey would be to betray ourselves.

The Father did not use force. He did not make either son go. He merely asked them to.

Paul says work out your own salvation for it is God who is at work in you to will and do his good pleasure. We have to take our salvation and do something with it, figure out how to live to the glory of God. It isn’t enough to say “Yes” We have to live out a yes. If we go to work in the fields God sends us to, we will discover that God is there working in and through us. As Paul said of his mission experience, in a lot of trouble sometimes but never abandoned.

So maybe salvation is like getting a scholarship to go to college when you could not afford to pay for it. You still have to work hard to get that degree. Salvation is more than just “getting in” it is what you do after you are in, how you grow and change and become someone who is equipped and experienced to make a difference.

But it is not something that God presses you into with force. It is something God calls you to by grace. The authority of God does not rest in his power but in his love.

Tony Campolo is not only a powerful preacher he is a professor of sociology, or has been, he has retired from teaching now. More than once I have heard him quote a distinction Max Webber makes in his classic work Social and Economic Organization. Webber there says that power and authority are not the same at all. In fact, in many ways they are opposites.

Tony illustrated it this way. When those blue lights start whirling in your rear view mirror, you pull over, not because you want to but because the patrolman has power. Among other things he has a gun. and he can call for backup. He can force you off the road and it won’t be pretty. The patrolman doesn’t have to use the force. It is enough to know he has it to make you pull over.

On the other hand, Tony said, his mother did not have much power, a slight Italian woman who Tony could have picked up and pushed aside. When he did something she asked him to, it wasn’t because of her power it was because of her authority. It was because of the thousand things she had done for him across the years that left him beholden to her. Her love as she had demonstrated it was the thing that made him want to please her.

It is true in relationships. If a man uses force to get his wife to see things his way, her agreement is more from fear of his power than respect for his authority. more a matter of trying to keep peace and protect herself, than a genuine desire to return tenderness.

The difference is between forcing or threatening someone to do something or loving them is that when your relationship is based on love you lose power. It is possible for the other person to disappoint you or hurt you or spurn you and make you look foolish.

But that is exactly the kind of authority that God wields. The authority of supreme sacrifice and love. Paul told the church at Corinth “When I came to you, I was determined to preach the cross and only the cross. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom… the weakness of God is stronger than the might of humans. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.

The church at Philippi was a good congregation. It is just that there was this tension between people who had strong wills and it was stressing the relationships in the church. Paul named the problems: wanting your own way; thinking others were your inferiors, using pressure or power politics to get your way.

Paul says in Philippians “Have this mind in you which you have in Christ Jesus.”

A strange way of putting it. “Have something you already have.” Maybe it is like this, “You have answered the Divine call to let Jesus enter you life, well Christ is in you, let him shape you into his likeness. It is possible to grow ever more like the Jesus whose Spirit has come to be in you.”

And then he proceeds to recite that Jesus hymn. About how Jesus did not cling to the sort of things we think make God god. He emptied himself of divine prerogatives and protections to come for us and our salvation. He shared our humanity. He went lower. He became a servant. and then he went lower again, he became a condemned, executed man.

He gave it all up in redeeming you and me.

Therefore God has highly exalted him. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and earth and proclaiming him the Lord to glory of the Father.

Tony Campolo

Now, a good example of what I mean by authority is in the story of Mother Teresa. There is a city [Norristown] not too far from Eastern University where they have a state hospital. In the state hospital they have people who are emotionally and psychologically disturbed. It’s a huge place. Well, the directors of the hospital wanted to start these halfway houses so that people who were on their way to full recovery could be nurtured from the hospital back into society, by first going to these halfway houses and from there they could get jobs and, little by little, own their own residences. It was a transition stage and that’s why they wanted these five halfway houses. Needless to say, the people in the city weren’t particularly thrilled with the possibility of this prospect. There was a city council meeting. The place was packed. Five hundred people plus squeezed into this hall, yelling and screaming their opposition to the halfway houses. They didn’t want the, quote unquote,“crazies” living in their neighborhood.

Needless to say, the city council voted unanimously against the proposal. Not much discussion. A lot of yelling and a lot of screaming and the city council said no to the proposition. No sooner had they voted that the back doors of the auditorium were opened and in came Mother Teresa. She was in town for a ceremony dedicating a Sisters of Charity program and she heard about this meeting. She came down the center aisle and everybody gasped as Mother Teresa came to the front, got down on her knees in front of the city council, raised her arms and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.” And then with her arms upraised, five times in a row she said, “Please, please, please, please, please, in the name of God, make room for these people! Make room for them in your neighborhoods.”

Now, you’re on the city council, the television stations have followed Mother Teresa into the place and they’re grinding away. The newspaper reporters are there. There is Mother Teresa on her knees in front you. What are you going to do if you’re on the city council? You guessed it! “I move we change the decision.” And then a second to the motion and they voted unanimously to reverse the decision they had made a few minutes earlier. The newspapers reporting on this the next day said the most remarkable thing is that of the five hundred plus people packed into that hall, not a one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion. Why? Because of Mother Teresa. She spoke as one having authority. Where did she get that authority? On the streets of Calcutta, loving sacrificing for the poor and the oppressed of the world, giving of herself to meet the needs of others sacrificially. Sacrificial love earned her authority.1


1Published in: Pennsylvania Super Lawyers 2008 — June 2008

Ed Mullin Is No Mother Teresa By Brian Voerding

But he did advocate for her mission in one memorable case

Ed Mullin had seen pro bono cases like this play out before—a group proposes a homeless shelter, local officials get skittish, lawyers are called, the group is strong-armed into going away. This time, he pledged, things would be different. For one, St. Patrick’s, his hometown church in Norristown, was involved. Second, Mother Teresa—Mother Teresa—was leading the charge.

This was back in November 1984. Mullin, who chairs the real estate and land use department at Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin, heard that St. Patrick’s wanted to hand over an unused convent to three nuns who wanted to use it as a soup kitchen and shelter. But local government balked at the plan. He called the parish priest and offered his help.

“I was offended that someone was trying to do something good for the area, and people, for political reasons, tried to turn that down,” he says.

Only later did Mullin discover the nuns were part of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Mullin spent more than 100 hours over a six-month period arguing that the convent, located in a residential-zoned district, was the nuns’ home, and they, as owners, were allowed to have any number and sort of guests they wanted. A zoning board meeting was scheduled to settle matters.

When Mullin and the nuns arrived that evening, he was ready for the worst. Then he opened the door.

“We were like Jesus coming into Palm Sunday,” he says of walking into the hearing room. “Everyone was cheering and hooting.” It hadn’t hurt that Mother Teresa had come to town prior to the hearing to advocate for the nuns (Mullin was out of town that day and missed her). As one could imagine, she persuaded many opponents; one councilman even credited her with healing his aching back. The zoning board approved the shelter.

Lately, Mullin has been dealing with his own bad back. It makes him wonder what might have happened had he met Mother Teresa. But no matter. He’s sustained by the memory of three nuns trudging stoically through the snow on their way to the zoning board meeting, wearing only sandals on their bare feet.



That Sinking Feeling


by Rembrandt

(July 31, 2011)

Matthew 14:22-33

Some scholar pointed out that this story comes in the exact middle of Matthew’s gospel. The 14th chapter of 28. What’s more, in the middle verse in this story (with 90 Greek words before and after it) is “Take heart- It’s me -Do not be afraid.”

Of course Matthew is not responsible for chapter breaks so it would take me a while to verify the observation, nevertheless it is appropriate, if it is true that the very central sentence should be “take heart- I am here- Do not be afraid.

Even more – if you look at it the heart of the sentence is “Ego Emi” “I Am” which echos the very name God revealed to Moses. Indicated in most Bibles with LORD, but in Hebrew original it was the Tetragrammaton– YAHWEH. The name which means “I AM” or could be read “I AM HERE” or, we might say, “It’s Me”. The name of God announces is his presence.

Maybe this is no accidental placement. At the beginning of the gospel Joseph is told to name the child of Mary “Emmanuel” God with us. And at the end of the gospel Jesus before his ascension say “Lo I am with you always.”

This story speaks of the presence of God, JESUS CHRIST as LORD. The presence with his followers in the midst of dark storms.

There is nothing like a rough storm to make you appreciate how not-in-charge you really are. The Perfect Storm was a book and a movie about a “Perfect Storm”. It is about a 72 foot swordfish boat, The Andrea Gail, that set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts on the morning of October 23, 1991 in search of big fish. Five days later three massive storm systems collide in the North Atlantic, Hurricane Grace coming from Bermuda, a Great Lakes storm system moving East, and a Canadian cold front moving South, creating waves of up to 100 feet, and turning a powerful storm into a disastrous storm, into what meteorologists call “a perfect storm.” The Andrea Gail is caught in the middle of it. The last words from the ship are those of Captain Billy Tyne, “She’s coming on boys, and she’s coming on strong.”

No one could rescue them. Despite their experience and equipment, they were no match for the mess they were in.

What are these disciples doing in the wee hours of the night at sea? All the gospels tell is somewhat the same. After feeding the thousands, Jesus sent the disciples on ahead of him while he dismissed the crowds. Then alone at last Jesus went up the hill to pray. So he was not with them when trouble came.

Now it is not hard to hear Matthew telling this story to his church in Antioch, where he was a resident resource. I imagine more than once someone had said, “Oh I wish we could have been there.” or “I wish Jesus was still here walking with us like he was back then.” And when times got hard I imagine they could see themselves in that boat with the twelve. Alone in the dark and fearful world.

There was a painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. by Rembrandt in the Isabel Stuart Gardner museum in Boston until it was stolen in March 18, 1990. You can still see photos of the painting. It depicts the other storm story you can read about in Matthew 8. And the strangest thing: Rembrandt painted himself into the boat with those frightened disciples. Rembrandt had enough ups and downs in life that he could put himself in the shoes of those disciples.1

And so can we. We have all been in the same boat – or we will be.

Someone quoted an African American saying, “You are either coming out of a storm, or you are in a storm, or you are headed for a storm.”

My sister Nancy was telling me about her son’s experiences entering a residency program. The name of the coat declares he is an oral, maxillofacial surgeon. His first night in the ER a nurse led him to a woman whose head was completely swaddled by bloody bandages. She said, “There’s your patient.” He said “My first feeling was I need an adult!!” He did what needed to be done, and was excited that it all went well. But haven’t you had that feeling? “What have I got0 myself into and who is going to help me get out of it.”

Being on our own and not ready for prime time. Being overwhelmed.

Then one of them noticed a figure on the water. Maybe in the flash of lightning. They are terrified. “A ghost!”

But the figure calls out “Take heart. It’s me Don’t be afraid.”

There is a wonderful Texas story about two little boys whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the henhouse. They looked everywhere for that snake, but couldn’ t find it. The more they looked, the more afraid they got. Finally, they stood up on their tiptoes to look on the top nesting shelf and came nose to nose with the snake. They fell all over themselves and one another running out of the chicken house. “Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mamma asked. “Yes, ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.” 2

You know we are like that. Sometimes our fear causes us to do stupid things. “A black preacher exclaimed, “One day there is a knock at your heart’s door. You open the door to discover an ugly individual standing there and you ask, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘My name is Worry, and I am here to babysit your thoughts.’ You invite Worry to come in. A few days later there is another knock at your heart’s door, and you open the door to find an uglier individual standing there. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘I am Depression. You are overworking Worry, and I am here to relieve him.’ You invite him inside. A few days later, there is another knock on your heart’s door. You open the door to find an even uglier, more grotesque person standing there and you ask, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘My name is Oppression, and I’m here to relieve Depression.’ You stand aside and allow Oppression to enter the door of your heart, and you know the rest of the story.”3 Storm comes up and blows your dreams away as it did for Joseph who all of a sudden discovered he had been sold into slavery, when he had dreamed that even his brothers would be serving him.

My goodness. We could worry about so much. The stock market plunge. The Standard and Poor’s downgrade of USA credit, the national debt, the inability of congress to work together, or problems with a child or the prognosis of a disease. There is more than one storm we might be in at once.

[“Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you


Is this story not a word of God for us? Out of the night, one walking on the waves of that storm calls out “Take heart! I am here. Do not be afraid.”

Now some people lose their tires in this problem of Jesus walking on water. How could somebody walk on water? And they spin their tires in the mud flats that they imagine must have been there to hold Jesus up.

Joanna Adams puts it this way,

To me, the challenge of faith has little if anything to do with my taking these things literally, and everything to do with my taking them seriously. None of the stories the Bible tells is told for its own sake, so as to make us marvel, as one would marvel at the execution of a magic trick. The stories are told to reveal a larger reality. They are told to show us the truth about God and the reality of the presence and power of God at work in human life, in human society, and in the universe, in ways that shatter all our present categories and assumptions.

An insightful friend once said that it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether you believe there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, or even that there was a Garden of Eden, but it makes all the difference in the world whether you believe what the snake said.

I guess the reason I don’t have trouble thinking of Jesus walking on the water is that this story is telling us that Jesus is God present “in skin and sandals.”

Who walks the churning waves? Why,1in the Hebrew scriptures the waves represent the chaos, the threats to creation.

Psalm 89: 9-10 (New Revised Standard Version)

You rule the raging of the sea;

when its waves rise, you still them.

You crushed Rahab like a carcass;

you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

Or hear Job (Job9) saying, who is a mortal to contend with God:

He is wise in heart and mighty in strength — who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded? — he who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea;

God is in control of creation and of everything that threatens to undo the Divine work.

What Jesus hints that when Jesus is present, the Creator is there. One with authority over all the threatening powers of the universe. God is able to bring things through to where he wants them to be.

If you are who you say you are, command me to walk on the water to you,” Peter shouts.

But time and again Jesus does just that – he gives the power and the authority to his disciples to do what they see him doing.

“When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Luke 9:1-2 NIV

“By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.” Psalm 65:5-8 ESV

Command me to come out there in the waves. And Jesus does.

If it is Jesus, Jesus not only assures us of his presence with us in the storm , he may command us to get out of what security we have into the middle of threatening, dangerous things.

The way you will know it is Jesus is that Jesus will lead you to do things you would not attempt on your own without the order.

Ananias, Saul is in town and I want you to make a pastoral call.”

The man who is trying to kill Christians?”

“That’s the one.”

Take a step into the mess.

Peter did okay for a minute and then he got to thinking about two things at once. Jesus had said “Come on” but the storm didn’t stop when he stepped out of the boat. Peter (the Rock) looks at the waves and loses his balance. Just enough time to shout “help” but Jesus had already reached out to grab him. Jesus is not just the Lord to be obeyed, but the savior when we get that sinking feeling.

We cannot do what Jesus calls us to do simply on our faith, we ever need the mercy and strength of God to be a disciple.

Bonhoeffer decision to be part of assassination plot against Hitler. Arrested and eventually executed.

O ye of little faith.” Well yes. But didn’t you say Lord that if it is no bigger than a mustard seed it can grow into a blessing. Didn’t you make a point about how a little yeast can transform a whole pile of dough? So, help us .

And God’s response is swift the moment we truly cry out for help.

And Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.


1There are 14 figures in the boat: Jesus and the twelve + someone that looks like Rembrandt’s self-portraits).

2Thanks to Joanna Adams

3“The God of the Storms”by Dr. John Adams, Vice President for Campus Ministries

and Church Services,Union University.


The First and Second Commandments: No Other God; No Image of God

from October 9, 2011


detail from Burning Bush by Ed Knippers

Exodus 32

The majority of Old Testament scholars will agree that the five scrolls of the Torah and the four scrolls, known as the Former Prophets were brought together by someone or some group during the years Israel was in Exile. In Hebrew scriptures I and II Samuel are on one scroll, “Samuel.” Likewise I and II Kings are on one scroll. Which means all of Israel’s history up to the exile can be found in a total of nine scrolls.

David Noel Freeman1 once made the provocative proposal that the editor or editors were sensitive to the question “If we ever were God’s people, how could he have let us go into Exile?”

These scribes knew the answer. It ran all the way through the story. It was even at the introductory chapters. Adam and Eve were given Paradise, but they disobeyed God’s one prohibition, and God exiled them from Eden. Turn to the next chapter. Cain’s murders his brother and the punishment was exile. When you will not live within God’s will you will not live long in the land.

Freedman thinks those scribes managed to arrange it so that there are nine stories, one in each of the scrolls from Exodus through Kings, that go right down the list of commandments in sequence. Each one threatens the community’s survival. And when the tenth one is broken the deal is off. The people go into Exile.

The story we are reading from Exodus this morning is the first example Freedman thinks. And it covers two commandments. If his theory is true, our text today is a great follow up to looking at the ten commandments last Sunday. The story invites us to think about those first two commands: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other God along side me/ over against me/ instead of me.

And the second command,

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

In the episode of the ‘holy cow’, Israel broke both. With the ink scarcely dry on their contract with God, the vows still hanging in the air, they betrayed their promise to God. It was as if the bride went to bed with the groomsman. They had promised fidelity, and they had committed adultery.

How did it happen?

After giving the ten commandments, Moses goes back up into the smoke of Sinai to receive more instructions. He is gone 40 days. Sometime in that period, the people get nervous and impatient. That is a theme we already know.They have whined and complained almost from the first time Moses introduced the idea of exodus.

  • They are thirsty– why did Moses lead them here to die of thirst?

  • They are hungry– it would be better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in Sinai.

  • How much longer? Are we there yet?

  • Not manna again– we had that yesterday.

It sounds for all the world like a road trips of my childhood in that old unairconditioned Chevy, all packed in there for the duration. Getting on each other’s space, getting on each other’s nerves. Kids fidgety. Parents edgy. Not uncommon for everyone to arrive out of sorts. Lord have mercy. Those were not the good old days.

In the story today everybody is edgy. God says “I’m out of here.” Moses said, “Not so fast. You started this you finish it.” People threatening to explode all over Aaron. Aaron trying to come up with something that will distract them, “Let’s play a game. Let’s have a make believe God.” The game turns into a riot. Everyone gets out of control. Levites run around with swords. It is a disaster.

What ever inspired the people and Aaron to invent a special worship service? It’s a good thing to want to be religious I guess. But sometimes we don’t want to wait for God; we just create a little excitement of our own. “What would make this a fun event? What would make it relevant to the needs of these people?” “Are there any ideas out there on the Egyptian worship blog that we could copy?” “I read an ad for Canaanite worship. It looks risque but I understand that they really draw a crowd.” “That worship service at Sinai was just too stern. We need a service that will make everybody feel good?” “I have an idea for making it really impressive.” “Don’t you think we ought to check with Moses?” “Where is old ‘what’s-his-name’ anyway. Do we know if he is coming back?”

As someone put it “Moses was good at revelation; Aaron was good at religion.” He knew how to deliver what people wanted. He said “A really great worship service is not cheap. You have to have video projection and a great speaker system. And an interest center. A holy cow like they did in Egypt. ” So he does a very religious thing – he takes up an offering.

I can see the Hebrews very solemnly adding gold band and broaches to the offering plate. It’s going to take a lot of gold. But they had all the trinkets the Egyptians gave them to get them gone.

Now what is wrong with this so far? I mean it is good to want a worship service. It is all right to make it “exciting” and “inspiring” “Awesome” with everybody leaving saying “It was good to be in the house of the Lord.”

Why, it is that kind of experience that Israel had again in again when they gathered in the Temple or Tabernacle three times a year to celebrate the great feasts. “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘It’s time for church.’ ”

There is nothing especially wrong with great production values unless they become the focus and everything become a matter of style. There is a thin line between entertainment and worship sometimes. And it has to do with whether we are offering up our worship to God or to the congregation.

That is always the danger. From time to time there have been Christians who felt uneasy when things got flashy. In the fourth century some were nervous that paintings of Jesus were idolatrous. The Puritans took the command to heart and went around England destroying statues, ripping out screens till they left “bare ruined choirs,” stark empty spaces without ornament or picture. So in New England you find some churches even without cross ,and clear glass, instead of stained. And some not only dismiss guitars but organs and pianos as well.

Ironically what Moses is doing is getting detailed instructions for building a tabernacle complete with rich material, decoration, splendor. The difference is the tabernacle was not something that was an end in itself, but a space wherein to meet God. It drew attention to itself and then pointed beyond itself to the God who cannot be represented.

Beauty is a part of worship. But it goes beyond the eye to the mind and heart. Worship the lord in the beauty of holiness.

The style of worship is not as important as the simple question, “in this way of worship is you soul centered upon the God of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

The way the story goes there are at least two problems here.

1. They have forgotten the first two commandments and their restrictions on how to worship. They have forgotten the Word of God. When you no longer remember what God has said, you lose your spiritual G.P.S. Worship loses its mooring where the word of God is not read and pondered.

2. The result in this case is these Israelites substitute a lesser God for the Elusive, Free, Invisible God –They take for themselves –– a god thing they can shape to their liking, tinker with, see, visit when it is convenient, keep, manage, carry around with them.

There is something cautionary here. Aaron is a religious leader. He is the founder of a whole line of priests. Their religious leader misleads them in trying to give them what he thinks they want. What a subtle danger to try to “help God out.” Sometimes in trying to make everyone happy you can be tempted to preach what is popular. Sometimes in focusing on making people happy you can empty a worship service of reverence and sidetrack the mission of the church into self-indulgence.

Aaron who as a priest would be expected in coming years to have the special responsibility for teaching and explaining the law of God, has come up with a way to break 2 of the commandments at once. The temptation of religious leaders and people of faith is to make faith easier than it is.

It is not easy having a God that you cannot see. It is not easy serving a God who sometimes makes you wait and wonder if you will ever hear from him again. It is not easy holding on to God when the only guarantee you have his promise. The only security you have is his word.

The psalmist says, “I’ve been having a really rotten time. Things are falling apart all around me and people ask, ‘Where is your God?’”

Faith is not the easiest ground for life. But it is the only Jews had.

Martin Luther’s catechism asked, “What does it mean to have a god? Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly your god.”

Or as they put it looking at the golden calf– behold the gods who saved you from Egypt. What do you depend upon the most?

It would be correct to say that we depend on a lot of things– our hard work, our friends, luck, our investments, the military, our family.

So many things in fact do give our lives meaning and we serve them and love them and even sacrifice for them.

The question is does God call trumps. The Hebrew root for god, elohim, is “mighty.”2 The issue is not we cannot love anyone or anything but God. Rather the question is, does God have final authority in your life. Do you love God not holding back anything in yourself– all your mind, heart, strength, soul.

Thou shalt have no other god in my presence, in my face.”

The way Luther put it, the problem is not with the object but with how attached I am to it. How much of me does it have?

One example is co-dependence, when a person relies on someone else so completely that they will often remain in unhealthy or abusive relationships rather than face the prospect of being alone. While all of us need emotional support from time to time, co-dependence is crippled. They think they are nothing without that person. The other person controls you totally. That is a sick relationship. That is letting someone substitute for god.3

Professionals build calves of their work, afraid of the insecurity

of trusting God for their identity. Single people build calves of marriage,

believing that they are incomplete, even in Christ, without a mate. Many

make performance and achievement a golden calf, believing that they have no

worth outside of what they do. Others make appearance into an idol of

adoration, hearing the voices …of a thousand TV ads that

equate beauty and attractiveness with narrowly defined qualities that can be

enhanced by the product of the moment. We all build golden calves.”4

In a strange way church or the Bible can go from being pointers to God to actually acting as our substitute for a relationship to God.

Someone once wrote a letter to the editor in a small-town newspaper “and the writer said, ‘I love God and country and cannot distinguish between the two.’” 5 That is making your nation a god.

It is possible for us to make our faith an idol. Listen. This is tricky. But when we place our confidence in our faith in God instead of the God, we are depending on something in us and not something in God. We are trusting ourselves and not God.

Listen, to be saved by grace means that it does not depend on how good I am at being good, or how successful I am at batting down all doubts. I trust God despite my sin, my doubt, my vulnerability. “On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand”– including my inner religiosity.

All this is closely connected to image-making.

The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” -John Calvin.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, “Well look over here. This is my God.”

The newfangled atheists who rehearse arguments as old as Lucretius as if they discovered white bread, all ask for a God you can put in a test tube and run experiments on. They want a Divine White Rat they can put in a cage and see how it behaves. “Where is your God?”

It is not easy worshiping a God who you can’t control or see. Who is sometimes silent. Not mention a God with such high expectations.

The ancient world was littered with gods. The Canaanites with their bulls. The Egyptians with a whole menagerie of animals and chimeras. The Romans and Greeks with gods that looked like big versions of humans. The Hindu with scary looking creatures.

It is said that when the Greeks and Romans met Jews they started a rumor that they were atheists, because they had no images for a god. How can you have a god that cannot be pictured?

You heard the Sunday School teacher who asked Jimmy what he was drawing,

I am drawing a picture of God.”

Well, Jimmy, no one knows what God looks like.”

They will when I finish!”

According to Anthony Tomasino one of the big toy flops was the Jesus doll. It was about the size of GI Joe or Barbie, only dressed in the clothes we associate with Bible stories and with the hair Jesus is pictured with. Manufacturers were sure it would be a big hit with the religious market, “for Easter baskets, confirmation.” . But “the few parent who bought them returned them to the store. The reasons? They didn’t like their children taking Jesus’ clothes off and leaving him lying around naked. Nor did they care for Jesus dating Barbie, riding in a dump truck or dropping toy bombs on toy soldiers, The problems with images is that they tend to do whatever we want them to, whether they should be doing it or not.”6

God remains beyond our control, free to be who he chooses.

Sometimes the image issue is not a physical idol. Sometimes the thing that we substitute for God is an image we have in our head.

It is not a unique thing to find out that a person who says they have a problem with God are operating with a messed up picture of God in their head. Sometimes the problem is they are taught to pray our Father in Heaven and just can’t feel warm because their father was a child beater or crazy when he was drunk.

But there are other ways our stereotype of God can be a false idol. Many years ago J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small which catalogs some of the images people have of God which keep them from a grown up image of the infinite God of love and power and justice.

The closest thing to God is a human being. Remember? “God created the human in his image, in his image created he them”. Of course the problem is we often fail to look much like God. We fall short of the glory of God, again and again. Arguing, warring, betraying. But we have seen what humanity can be in Jesus. As Colossians puts it “He is the very image of God.”

That is what a real human is like, and in that Jesus we see the love and compassion of God, the self-giving, “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians:1:13-15). Or as Hebrews:1:3 puts it: “[Christ] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp/imprint of God’s nature.”

But in as much as it was not a different humanity than our which Jesus had, he shows us that the proper image of God which however marred and scratched is still upon every human life, even the most distressed. The image of God which we are allowed is the image God makes.

God forbids our making images of him which are full of our ideas and projections of our projects. God provides us images– in burning bush, and Jesus Christ, in the neighbor in need. But God forever transcends all we know of God. God is a God of surprise and creation and mercy and holiness, power and glory. Let those who speak of God do so reverently and with knowledge that God is who God will be.

Aware. Alive. and Able. Present. AMEN.

1David Noel Freedman (May 22, 1922 – 8 April 2008), was a biblical scholar, author, editor, archaeologist, and ordained Presbyterian minister (Th.B., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1944).

After earning a doctorate in Semitic Languages and Literature at the Johns Hopkins University in 1948, Freedman held a series of professorial and administrative positions at various theological institutions and universities.

As the general editor of several distinguished series, including the Anchor Bible Series (1956–2008), Eerdmans Critical Commentaries (2000–2008), and The Bible in Its World (2000–2008), and as the editor and author of numerous other award-winning volumes, including the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000), Freedman has produced over three hundred and thirty scholarly books. Recent seminal works as an author include “The Unity of the Hebrew Bible” (1991), “Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah” (1999), “The Nine Commandments” (2000)

2Most authorities agree that “Elohim” is derived from “El” meaning “mighty (one), strong (strength).”

3Anthony J. Tomasino, Written upon the Heart, 52

4Fred Kane, sermon. October, 2011.

6Written on the Heart, 62-63.




Icon of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublev, between 1408 and 1425

Trinity, May 26, 2013


David W. Adkins, Starling Avenue Baptist Church, Martinsville, VA

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5,  John 16:12-15

The first Sunday after Pentecost for many Christians worldwide is a day to focus on the triune nature of God. The one in three and the three in one. It took the church three or four hundred years to settle on a way to express that. At the bottom of the worship order is a part of the summary statement on the doctrine by Athanasius. A lot of folks are “do it yourself” when it comes to faith, so we should not be shocked if in one lifetime they could come up with something that it took centuries of discuss to arrive at. We can cut some slack for the Unitarians who haven’t got to Trinity in their figuring.

As a matter of fact we can afford to be generous to anyone trying to understand God. Whatever we say about God is a preliminary report. It will never cover all there is to the Divine, and what it does cover will probably misrepresent God in some way. There will always be room for more God talk; we will not finish the discovery, even, I deem, in heaven.

I am going to invite attention today to God as the Three in One, but I realize that for some there is a prior question, posed by modernity: Whether there is a God to begin with. And it is appropriate to take questions like that seriously. But for a lot of people who flirt with atheism, there is a problem with their starting assumption. They picture God as one part of the world, the way that a king exists as part of his kingdom, just the most important part. So they imagine that if there is a God they would be able to find him out by beating the bushes. “There  he is, over there” or “Look, there are the footprint.”

God is not in the world or part of the world like that. As a matter of fact the reverse is closer to the truth: the world is in God. God transcends the world, is beyond and more than the sum of things. And this is part of what it means to say that everything that exists is dependent upon God, God’s creation.

So when atheists begin to describe the God they say does not exist, many times Christians can agree. The God they describe is not the God that we know and testify to, so we too can agree the “god” they describe does not exist. God does not exist in the way they assume god would exist.

Trinity describes a God that is irreducibly relational. Not only relating to us but relating within God’s self. It may be puzzling to say “three in one” and “one in three.” But this is really just a formula to describe that this unity within relationship is the most basic truth about God.

Formulas are a kind of shorthand — you have to unpack them a little.

It is sort of like that famous equation, E=mc2. A youngster can memorize the equation, but all it implies may take a lifetime to unpack. How on earth did Einstein have that leap of insight of the theory of Relativity, that insight that you could explain so much about the world if you saw that matter and energy are two aspects of one thing, and that somehow their relation was defined by the speed of light, which bring space and time into the formula. It makes your brain itch to imagine how matter and energy and space and time all are part of each other like this equation says. And yet as time has passed scientist have confirmed that more and more of the universe gets explained by this theory. It took 50 years to develop the instrumentation to check some of the results predicted by the theory, but it has held out at every turn so far. Einstein saw it in his head before folks could see it with a telescope.

Of course understanding God is different order of knowing from knowing things scientifically, as I said before. God is not simply a part of the world that you can separate from the rest of it, as you do when you isolate DNA. When you study the world you are coming at it objectively, as if it were laid out like an anesthetized patient to be examined. While it is knocked out, you prod and poke. You treat it as an “it” to talk about. You are in charge of deciding how to describe it.

This is an inadequate way to attempt knowing God.

And this is the first thing we mean by Trinity. God in..persons.

Above all else God is personal. You cannot know God without realizing that God knows us. As the anthem Psalm 139 says, God knows us more intimately than we can know ourselves, knows even what we are about the say, anticipates our thoughts. Knowing something that knows you back is different from something that can’t know you.

It is not possible to know a person without somehow knowing how they feel, how they think, what they want. Oh, we may know their approximate weight, and their original hair color, and their DNA even, but all the things we know about a person do not add up to “knowing them personally.”

They say that human babies develop this ability to know persons fairly early.

“Psychologists had known for a while that even the youngest of babies treat people different from inanimate objects. Babies like to look at faces; they mimic them, they smile at them. They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed.

“But the new studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants.” 1

A very young child develops the ability to understand another person’s preference even when is not the child’s own preference.

That is to say early on we realize that knowing a person as a person is a whole lot different than knowing an object and a lot more interesting.

And how much you know about a person depends on how much they communicate their preferences, feelings, thoughts to you. They have to reveal it in some way. If they clam up or never tell their story, you may just be left with guesses.

This past week I was at the Baptist History and Heritage Society annual meeting which was held this year in Richmond to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. We heard talks on how Lincoln came to write that Proclamation the way he did, how it was influenced by his ruminations on Providence, and how having made the proclamation affected what he did at Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural. We heard about what we learn from diaries about what was on the mind of women in the South before, during, and after the war. And we talked about how the scars of slavery still affect racial relations to this day. One woman whose family had been prominent Jews in Richmond for over 150 years described how Jews came down on one side and the other. And then to hear about Grants Order 11 demanding that all Jews leave the territory of Mississippi- within 24 hours, and how it was only by a lot of desperate connections that Lincoln voided the order. But how it left Jews feeling that maybe their place in America was not so sure. So many stories. I learned about the slave who ran away from his master after helplessly watching his wife and all his children be marched away to be sold to new owner. And we heard about an owner who penned a note to the dress of a slave girl as he sent her to her new home, saying “this is the best housekeeper we have ever owned and we hate to lose her. I would not sell her except I need the money to buy a new horse.” And you see it was all these stories that made you understand people today in a different , deeper way. and to recognize some of the scars of over 200 years.

We all have our stories, don’t we?

The stories explain who we are. Where we hurt. The memory that shapes us still. The hope that pulls us into the future. We know each other only when we are given some access to each other’s heart. We may know about the other person’s skin color, regional accent, the date of birth and family relations. But to know them personally really involves some access to their heart.

God is personal which means there is only so much you know about God abstractly. You may know that there is a god.

Psalm 19, for example, says, “the heavens are telling the wonder of God” The psalmist knows that the mystery and marvel of creation points “silently” to its creator. “without speech

But then the psalmist starts praising God for speaking to us. The word, the law, the covenants, the precepts, all these are sweet, joy-giving, comforting, guiding. It is not enough that the world may speak of God, testify to God; God speaks to us. God addresses us as persons who can understand his interest in our best interest. The universe reveals God indirectly; God can reveal God’s self.

(And so the psalm, which begins with the “speech without words” of the universe, and glories in God’s speech to us, ends with our speech to God. The response, to the recognition that God is personal and speaking to us, is to speak to God. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable unto Thee.”)

Karl Barth described the Trinity this way.

God is the “revealer”– God decides to communicate God’s self

God is the “revelation” – that what God reveals is nothing other than or less than God’s self: God the Son is God

And God is the revealedness– God is the one who works inside us so that we are able to recognize and receive the revelation as the revelation of God. Romans 8: when we call God Abba, Father, it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are indeed God’s beloved children.

The Father reveals God’s self, God’s nature, in the Son, and we are inspired to grasp that the Son is God by the work of the Holy Spirit in our spirit.

God’s communication to us– his Word– finds its culminating expression in Jesus Christ, the Word translated into the language of humanity and we receive it by the gift of the Spirit’s work in and among us.

Augustine used our own experience of speaking to describe trinity.

The father is like the thought you have the feeling inside you , which goes out from you when you speak express it – that is the Word. What was inside you and invisible is now in a sense out there for others to know. But the language event is not complete until we understand what we have heard or witnessed . And that, Augustine said, is what the Holy Spirit does. It is God in us that makes it possible to for what God has done to become part of us inside.

Now both of these–word and understanding–, you will notice, describe God reaching out to us, communicating to us, permitting us to know his heart, revealing himself to us.

Trinity is a diagram of relationship. The relationship which God enjoys withing God’s self, the self-giving, other-glorifying love that defines the life of God spills over to make a world for the sake of loving more. I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race

The Trinity describes how God not only circles within but reaches out to the world to bring it into the joy which God has from all eternity had within God’s self. Gregory of Nazianzus (d.389/90) used the term perichoresis to describe this relation. Its meaning relates to circle dance. And it is a mightily suggestive image. The Father Son and Holy Spirit weaving in and out in a circular dance, each with its part, but all together one in the dance– one rhythm, one music, one complicated unifying movement, one shared joy. And here is the good news.

The God comes to us, ultimately in Jesus, to invite us to the dance. To become one with the movement of the Divine Life.

Jesus is not only our point of insight into the inner life of the relational trinity that is God, but he is also our point of insight into what the life of God looks like when projected into creation. Or to put that more simply, Jesus is the full revelation of what the world is intended to be like and how God’s creatures are intended to relate to one another: a world and a web of relationships that is completely free of all rivalry, hostility, jealousy, defensiveness, and possessiveness, and is instead characterised by a gracious and loving inter-dependence, full of generosity, hospitality, compassion, beauty, joyous playful creativity, and a reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving. We, then, are called to mirror that life in all our relationships with one another, in our relationships with the earth itself, and in our representations of all this in works of art and craft and word and music and service and stewardship of creation. (Nathan Nettleton)

I read one theologian recently who said that sin could be understood a a refusal to accept the life God offered, to turn our back on the generosity of God.

Maybe in that sense, sin is turning down the invitation to the dance.

God would give us joy and a life that is good. As Moses put in (Deuteronomy) “why would you die?”

Trinity is shorthand for the story of God who reaches again and again to include humanity, offering another chance, always another chance, to receive that goodness and just bracket the past history of ingratitude and start fresh.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit– God in every dimension, calling us to graceful living and joy. AMEN

1“Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head…

“….With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

“The Moral Life of Babies”, PAUL BLOOM, NYTimes Magazine, May 5, 2010. (

After the Water Has Dried

f-theophany-04 (January 13, 2013)

Isaiah 43:1-7;    Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


My family went together and got me a genographic kit for Christmas. I had been talking about the National Geographic project for a couple of years. Taking a swab from each cheek is enough to get your DNA, and then you can find out what ethnic people you come from and even estimate geographical origins of your ancestors.

I  learned that in 2010 they were able to extract the DNA from a Neanderthal bone and discovered that there were some markers from that indicated that 20 % of Europeans have traces of that now extinct branch of the human family. And that no African indigenous peoples carry that marker.

The results are not in, so I can’t confirm or deny that I have Neanderthal cousins. [The results were that I do.] I am reminded of the wife of an English Bishop1 who exclaimed upon hearing of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known,”

We realize now how related all life is, and DNA only presents a set of possible starting places for a life, as even identical twins are distinct and indeed can be very different in attitudes and lifestyle. DNA no more predetermines your life story than ink determines what the pen shall write, but there are these commonalities, these potentialities that we get by way of inheriting them.

Probably the thing that is a catalyst to our becoming all that it is in us to be is after all the people who are our family and friends.

I was with a rather large family gathering the other day and an old woman introduced me to her great grandson. “I have 21,” she proudly said, “and he is the oldest. I’m so proud. ” When he walked away she leaned in and said “My daughter could not have children of her own, and he was the first of three she adopted. He had been abandoned at an ATM when they found him. I don’t know,” she said, “Maybe the poor mother was in terrible desperation, but however it is he has a home now and God has brought him into our lives, and he could never have a family on earth that loves him more than we.”

There is a lot of meanings to baptism, but I want to suggest that part of what it is, is a ceremony marking a person as part of God’s family. And as part of that family we are being led to be certain kind of people.

The story goes about “an incident following an infant baptism. On the way home after worship, the brother of the baby who had been baptized cried from the back seat all the way home. Three times his dad asked him what he was crying about. Finally, he answered, “The preacher said he wanted us to be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”2

Let’s face it, no family or congregation makes a flawless Christian environment, but how to handle our flaws is something we need to learn as growing Christians too.

Part of what we say and do when we baptize is to declare our acceptance of the people baptized as part of our faith family. And being brothers and sisters in Christ means that we encourage one another’s growth in grace and service.

In Christ there is no East or West,

In Him no South or North;

But one great fellowship of love

Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,

Whatever your race may be!

Who serves my Father as His child

Is surely kin to me.

Some people have been troubled by the seeming contradiction that Jesus was without sin and that he apparently was baptized by John who declared the baptism was for repentance. But others reply, “Jesus in this act stands beside us in our sinful, flawed existence. Baptism was a voluntary identification with the rest of humanity which was ultimately sealed on the cross when he shared our death and that as a person being publicly convicted and humiliated.”

So in a way baptism was Jesus’ affirmation that he was part of our family, and our baptism is an affirmation that we are part of his. Or as Irenaeus wrote in the second century, “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” This transposition. In becoming part of the human family Jesus opened up the possibility that we could become part of his family.

How do we come to realize that change? Luke is shy about showing us Jesus’ baptism. Whereas Mark puts it baldly that John baptized Jesus, Luke has inserted verses about John being thrown in prison before mentioning Jesus was baptized. And we could go into the reasons for that but more importantly notice that Luke shifts attention to what follows the baptism. Jesus is out of the water and he is praying. And it is while he is praying, being intentionally open to God, that he receives the Holy Spirit on him and in him.

It is not the water alone, but the subsequent reverent waiting on the Father that is occasion of being overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit and given a power from beyond. And at the same time he receives this presence and power, he hears, Luke nowhere indicates that anyone but Jesus felt or heard this message, “You are my child, in you I am well pleased.” Or as Clarence Jordan puts it in the Cotton Patch Gospel, “You are my boy, Jesus. I am so proud of you!”

And here you have the deepest ancestry of all that trumps all other genealogies.

Isaiah 43 is such a ringing affirmation to the tribes in captivity. “You are my child. I made you, I fashioned you, you belong to me, I honor you, I delight in you, I know you particularly– I call you by name, I pay the cost for you.

And for all those reasons, “Do not be afraid.”

For— I will be with you….I will get you through troubles be it flood or fire.

You are mine….for keeps.

Paul in I Corinthians 6 puts it bluntly “Don’t you remember that wicked do not inherit–(they are not part of the family who stand to be part of )– the kingdom of God?” And then he proceeds to list a series of dings and dents in our fallen humanity only to end by saying – “And such people, remember, were some of you! But you have been washed from all that, you have been made whole in spirit, you have been justified before God in the name of the Lord Jesus and in his very Spirit.”

A new genealogy pertains. Your deep identity is Jesus.

Now some people say we become children of God when we repent and are baptized. Some say that baptism is when and how we recognize, realize, or accept that we are God’s.

This all has to do with the puzzle about how much being Christian depends on God’s grace and how much depends on our work– our decision, our walking the aisle, our going under the water, our staying clean.

I would say that most all versions of Christianity would say grace is trumps. But it is a human thing for us to focus on what we did when we got the new identity.

Chanticleer the rooster thought the sun came up because he crowed. We think our good life must be a contributing cause to salvation.

But the reality is that what changes when we are converted– and what has changed in our life is significant– but what has changed first is that we believe the good news that God loves us and has chosen us. But this isn’t a change in God, but in our perception of God, in our understanding of who we are. It gives us a new direction and a new incentive to be different.

The prodigal son wanted to be an individual. He felt smothered by his family and felt the only way he could find himself was to leave home altogether.

His father agreed to settle the will and give the boy what he would eventually get at the Father’s death. And off the boy went with his inheritance.

You remember how he was a miserable failure and soon he was without friends by his side or money in his pocket or food in his belly.

He realized that he had thrown away the rights of a child, he had spent everything coming to him. But it struck him there might be hope that his Father would take him on as a hired hand.

But the Father was not interested in that offer. No, he embraced his son for just coming home and treated him as if he had never gone at all.

The boy did not have to do something to become a child. His father always had felt he was. He was just glad that now he was back. “Once you were dead, but now you are alive.”

Baptism is homecoming.

Jesus said heaven is happier over a sinner who come home than the good folks who never left.

After the water dried the Samaritans received the Spirit, which bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.

Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. The significance of baptism is what it leads to. What happens when the water dries.

The ongoing presence of the Spirit of God in us that not only confirms God’s delight in us, but empowers us to do the work God has for us to do.

To live up to the name we have as God’s child.

Kenneth Carder :

Our primary calling, then, is to accept and live our baptismal identity! That is a ministry we share as laity and clergy. …. There is no higher calling than our baptismal calling. Baptism has to do with our being as beloved daughters and sons of God: it is who we are.

Epistle of First John: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3:1-2).

“In his book Craddock Stories, celebrated preacher Fred Craddock tells of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”

“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked.

He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.”3


1Exactly who it was has morphed over the years. writes “In 1924 Hugh Crichton-Miller, a prominent psychotherapist and founder of the Tavistock Clinic in the UK, published “The New Psychology and the Preacher”. This is the earliest citation located by QI presenting the quotation using phraseology similar to the most common modern versions. The phrase “let us hush it up” was replaced with “let us pray that it may not become widely known”

2Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams, Day 1, January 10, 2010

3Quoted by Joanna Adams and many others.



‘From Within the Center of our Being” (June 12, 2011)


detail of the Pentecost window, Westbrook chapel, Duke

Am I a God near by and not a God far off?”…. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23).

God posed a question through Jeremiah. Do you suppose that I am a God that is either in your pocket or so far away that I cannot see. A pet God on a leash or a Clock-winder God, omnipotent but unconcerned with the details? God seems to be saying through Jeremiah that he is both above and beyond all the unnumbered details, but also up close and involved. He can see the whole vistas of eternity and nations and yet focus on the microscopic.

It seems that we can find a way to marginalize God by making him such a part of our life that he is suppose to function as a genie to smooth out our problems or by making God so abstract that we can’t imagine how he could be interested in how we live.

Pentecost reminds us of God’s capacity to be radically present, because it describes that group of disciples “experiencing God.” God is still involved in our lives today in a similar way.

John 7:37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s inmost being shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Whoever is thirsty come to me.”

Remember the woman at the well. Jesus asked her for a drink of water. She put him off saying, “Do you know who I am? You a Jew asking me a Samaritan for a drink?”

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

John 4: 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Whoever thirsts. For what do we thirst? “As a deer panteth for the flowing streams, even so my soul thirsts for God.”

The other day I was wondering how my life would have been different if I had not believed there was a God. And a great sadness came over me. I imagined being in a different line of work. Perhaps I would have been a teacher. That would have been good. Maybe I would have still had a family, but it would have been different. It just seemed that the ceiling of meaning would not have been quite so high. My hopes would have been scaled back. When I looked at the stars, or considered life’s brevity, I might wonder about insignificance of life– but I would be missing that other part of the Psalm 8– Thou hast made humans a little lower than angels and crowned them with great responsibility.

Paul said that God made us in such a way that it is inevitable that we grope around like blind people trying to feel for him, even though he is close by all of us.

Thirst for meaning. Thirst for belonging. Thirst for truth. for significance.

Whoever thirsts- (who knows that her life has need that cannot be supplied except by a resource outside) let them come to me.

And coming to me let it be in trust. Let them entrust themselves to me. Let them enroll in my class and have confidence in my leadership. Go where I say go, do what I say do. And they shall find water of life bubbling up inside.

And they will find a life-source deep inside their soul, bubbling up from the very roots of who they are.”

I want to spend some time with that thought.

The thirst implies the need I have for something which is not part of me.

Humans can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, and only minutes without breath.

Jesus says I am the bread of life, whoever eats me will never die

Jesus says that trusting him we will receive the water of life.

Jesus came in upon the frightened disciples and breathed his very on breath into them that they might have the breath of God.

What we need from beyond, Jesus gives into the very center of our being.

God is a great mystery, but becomes real in our experience.

Maybe it is not too far fetched to say that one way of diagramming the Triune God is to say that God in all the beyondness is the object of obedience and wonder. We have record of his acts in the great movements of history, we read the word that he gave to prophets to speak in times of turmoil and danger, we apprehend something of his righteousness in the imperatives we feel about justice. God comes near in many ways, speaks in many ways. But to the extend that we know there is a distance between us and God, we speak of God as Father, creator.

It is easy for God in this sense to become the topic of debate and analysis and discussion. How did God create the world? What evidence or argument makes God plausible? How does God interact with historical forces or natural processes?

But God is always coming into things. Touching history to move it toward a different possibility. Exodus, promised land, exile and restoration. Ultimately coming in Jesus. God who comes into things is like a word spoken to us. What God says to us became flesh and dwelt in history in Jesus. Christians acknowledge that Jesus is the clue to God.

It is easy for God who is Jesus to become the topic of debate and historical research. Did he say this or that? What year did it happen? Can we know the place? What did he look like?

But today we celebrate that God comes not just among us but into our life. God comes so close as to be within us. We celebrate God the Spirit. And the Spirit is elusive, not surrendering to debate or research. The Spirit is known by experience.

God is simultaneously:

  • infinitely beyond,

  • in the center of history and matter,

  • and mysteriously experienced as Divine life in our life.

John V. Taylor, an English theologian and missionary, wrote one of the most amazing books I have read about the Holy Spirit. He titled it, The Go between God. And among the things he says is that when Scripture talks about the Spirit it always involves a sort of a plus mark.

It is through God the Spirit, he says, that God the Father is bound to God the Son. The Spirit makes the Father present to the Son at baptism. The Spirit pushes Jesus into the wilderness where he is tested and confirmed in his dependence on the Father.

Jesus reads for his first hometown sermon the Isaiah 61 passage “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”

Just as the Spirit connects the Father and the Son, so the Spirit is God working in us to connect us to Jesus who then connects us to the Father. The Spirit, Jesus says, will give us strength and the Divine presence when we are facing difficulty:

Matthew 10: 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

The Spirit comes along side us much as Jesus in becoming flesh dwelt with us.

John 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

The Spirit takes up residence in us and has sealed us as God’s children “unto the day of redemption.”

Ephesians 1:13When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

The Spirit will teach us from within our memory and understanding.

John 16:12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

The Spirit searches our heart (Romans 8). The Spirit takes up our unfinished prayers when we do not know how to pray as we ought and completes them.

Romans 8: 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Though the Spirit becomes a seal on our hearts, we can try to muffle the Spirit; we by our un-Christlike ways can grieve the Spirit.

Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

When Jesus liberates us from the power of sin and death, we have a choice of walking in the Spirit or falling back into old ways. It is still possible to try to live as if we are not God’s own child. But if we act as children it is by the power we receive from the Spirit, God in us.

Romans 8:9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

When we pray for the Spirit we are praying to experience the reality and presence of God. To know God not as an idea, but as a loving personal presence in the very depths of our saved soul. We are asking for the power of God to transform us and liberate us in service.

The Spirit spills out and makes us a source of God’s presence to others because Christ is in us by the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus comes into the locked room Easter evening, he gives a threefold gift. He gives peace. The peace of knowing nothing can keep Jesus from us– our doors cannot shut him out, our sin are overcome by his mercy, and death has no more hold on the risen One.

Jesus gives life– He breathes his breath, the breath of God- into them. He breathes himself into them saying “Receive the Spirit”

And he gives them a mission “As I am sent, so send I you. To the same goal using the same methods, the same way of life, the same joy.

Luke tells it differently but the message is the same– something happened and God came to those who had trusted Jesus and they were filled with Christ’s love, peace, mission, and power to take up their life’s talents to the glory of God.

Our lived by the Spirit get taken up into the life of God

That doesn’t turn us into God or God into just part of us.

But there is an ecstatic blending possible. We ar in ourselves and in God simultaneously.

Speaking in tongues is not something I have ever done, nor a gift that I pray for. But It what I know about it suggests that it is about coming to a limit of what you can rationally say about God and then just stepping over that line so that what you say is really just a pouring out of soul’s deep feeling about God. It is where rational speech falls aside because it cannot hold the experience.

There is a music beyond music. A meaning beyond words. A love that is embraces without needing explanation, a power of connection just connects.

The moment when you see someone you love and your heart beats aster, and something deeper than joy, deeper than grief, swells up and you wordlessly embrace. Together you are more than just you and yet you never have been more you.

I remember seeing a woman in a fair long years ago astound a crowd by standing on a platform connected to a Van de Graaf generator, she picked up a flourescent bulb and it lit up between her hands.

Electricity the emcee said, had passed through her without harming her.

The Holy Spirit connects us to power of God which flows through us with a power that is not our own.

The go between God not only is the unity of the Father and the Son, and not only our way of experiencing unity with God the Father and God the Son.

The spirit also overcomes barriers between people of great differences.

There is nothing in the scriptures to suggest that God wants to wipe out differences. What God desires is that the differences become a symphony of mutually united creatures.

And so on Pentecost people of wildly different cultural backgrounds, traditions and languages are all able to hear the good news and miracle of miracles in their own language.

God wants to do something new in your life.

Broken Dreams

As children bring their broken toys

With tears for us to mend,

I brought my broken dreams to God,

Because He was my friend

But then instead of leaving Him

In peace to work alone,

I hung around and tried to help

With ways that were my own.

At last I snatched them back again and cried

“How can you be so slow?”

“My child”, He said, “What could I do,

You never did let go.”

(Joan, The Entrance, NSW)

Trust your life to God and ask for his power, his life, his joy to spring out of the center of your deepest self blessing you and making you a gift.

COME, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,

and in our souls take up Thy rest;

come with Thy grace and heavenly aid

to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”


MLK wrote toward the end of his life “Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community (1967). At this point of history he suggests the only alternatives to the human family are learning to live with each other or tearing each other apart.

We have watched these last few days as chaos takes the field. In Iraq Shiite and Sunni Muslims vie for power and insurgents of whatever stripe simply try to create a sense of hopeless chaos.

North Korea flexes missile muscles and attempts to show it can throw its nuclear warheads as far as US soil.

Iran the bad boy in the middle East rattles sabers and stirs up Hezbullah.

And now Israel draws Lebanon into the skrmish.

Distrust, confusion, fear, and chaos leave us feeling bewildered and vulnerable. How do we fix this mess? Where do we go from here?

Chaos or Community. Perhaps we would like some other way, since chaos is not our choice and we are not really sure we want to live together with these people. Perhaps there is a third way. Perhaps we could just put up some wall to keep trouble out and isolate ourselves from these people. Good fences make good neighbors, the farmer in Frost’s poem “Mending walls” suggests. Well if it doesn’t make our neighbors good, it keeps them from being bad on our property.

And so we humans have tried to solve the problem of faking peace with others by building walls that keep us from having contact with them. There are so many walls.

They can be defensive. The Great wall of China begun over 23000 years ago stretches 43,000 miles from Tibet to the Gobi Desert. Built to keep first one and then another enemy from invading. It is said that it cost a million lives of peasants drafted into the construction. And that –a wall – is the only man-made structure seen from outerspace. Although now the second human impact can be seen in environmental devastation.

There is even today sections of Hadrian’s wall in England built to keep Celts out of the Roman occupied England two thousand years ago.

The Berlin Wall split that city into communitst East Germany and the democratic West Germany from 1961, till its sudden demise in November 9, 1989.

There is the famous walls of Jericho that came a tumbling down when Jsohua fit the battle with trumpets.

Israel began a “wall of separation”, a barrier to separate Gaza and the West Bank. It isn’t the first wall they have built, but it has not been the solution and has created a humanitarian crisis by keeping workers and food supplies from flowing.

Nazis built ghetto walls to isolate Jews in places like Warsaw. It made it easier to exterminate them.

Extending a wall between Mexico and the United States for over 1000 miles is being advocated by several politicians.

There is something in us that loves a wall. That believes it will make good neighbors.

From time to time we talk about breaking walls down, removing ‘no tresspassing’ signs so outsiders can feel free to come inside. But at the same time we speak about walls coming down we are often engaged in putting them up somewhere else.

We desegregate in one plan and resegregate by another. We open up businesses and live in gated communities. And there is more than one wall dividing. As someone aptly put it there is a velvet wall dividing the rich and poor, there is a sheepskin wall dividing folks according to their educational degrees. Who has not felt on the outside of some wall in their life?

Our differences have become our divisions. And our divisions have all to often become our walls of hostility.

Michael Lindval tells about a friend of his, Fuad Bahnan, an Arab Christian pastor in Beirut after the last Arab-Israeli war. In 1983, Israeli armies drove into Lebanon — and members of the church began to buy all the canned food they could to survive a rumored Israeli siege. That’s what happened. West Beirut was totally cut-off. And so the Session of the church met to decide how to distribute the food they had purchased. Two proposals were put on the table. The first was to distribute food to the church members, then other Christians, last – if any was left – to Muslim neighbors. The other proposal was different. First food would be given to Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, finally — if there was any left over — to church members.

The meeting lasted six hours. “It ended when an older, quiet, much respected Elder, a woman, stood up and said, “If we do not demonstrate the love of Christ in this place, who will?” And so the second motion passed. [The Christian Life, A Geography of God, p. 126)

That’s what we’re here for, Desmond Tutu said, right in the midst of the struggle to tear down the wall of apartheid in his country — to be the “word visible” — “an audiovisual for the world” he calls the church … this place where the walls come down and people are accepted and included and loved — in Christ, for who they are.

We all live behind some wall or another I suspect: pride, prejudice, walls of gender, or race, or nation, walls built on sexual identity, or class, or religion. Walls we have built carefully and lovingly over the years for protection and security. And for some of us, I suspect, the dividing wall has been imposed on us and for whatever reason we feel like strangers to God, aliens, outsiders because of something we have done or something we can’t believe, or who we are and who we aren’t and can’t be.

And the invitation is to tear it down and to stand up and live in the freedom of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us, Ephesians 2:14