In–or Out?


I think of the Bible as a conversation among the people of God about the things of God—and sometimes those voices do not agree; thus, we need to think carefully about where we stand today. It is through such a lens that I interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is a timely story in that it deals with issues of race and ethnicity. The sermon below, which I preached August 19/20, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA, is an adaptation of one I preached a few years ago at St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg, and includes a few quotes from a hymn I wrote about the story.

        Today’s gospel is timely. It shows Jesus wrestling with issues of race and ethnicity. Let’s listen in, and hear what’s going on.

        Jesus is met by a woman who shouts over and over, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

         Jesus makes no response. He is silent, giving no answer. In trying to imagine the scene, I found myself writing, “He gave her quite a silent stare, with doubt upon his face.”

         Doubt? About what? About whether or not to help her. For she is a Canaanite, not Jew. She is not of Jesus’ people. And as Jesus says a bit later in the story, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

         And so, she is outside the grace that Jesus has come to give. Or is she?  Is she in—or is she out? Perhaps Jesus is silent because he is pondering that question.
        The disciples, though, leave no doubt as to where they stand. They said to Jesus, “Send her far away. She’s loud, annoying, bothersome throughout the whole long day.”

       In other words, get rid of this foreign woman. She’s not one of us, and all she is doing is causing trouble. 

      Is the Canaanite woman in—or is she out?

      Were the prophet Jonah to have a say, there’s no doubt where he would stand:  She’s outside God’s mercy.

         In brief, the story of Jonah goes something like this. God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and speak God’s message. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t that he was afraid to do God’s work. It’s that he didn’t feel the Ninevites deserved mercy. They weren’t his people, so why should he help them? So he tried to flee from God. That didn’t work out very well, and Jonah eventually does what God wanted. But when Jonah’s words led the Ninevites to turn to God, Jonah started sulking. He told God, “This is why I didn’t want to come here. I was afraid you would show mercy. These people are not like us. They don’t deserve mercy.”

         Is the Canaanite woman inside or outside the grace of God? The disciples and Jonah want her out. Other voices would agree. Like Ezra and Nehemiah.

         The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are told in the Old Testament books that bear their names. They led the re-building of Jerusalem after its destruction, and the long period of Exile. They were not only putting up buildings, but were renewing the Jewish nation. And they wanted it purely Jewish. They commanded Jewish men married to non-Jewish women to divorce their wives, and send them away.

        So Ezra and Nehemiah have no doubt. They stand with the disciples and Jonah, and say, “Get rid of that Canaanite woman!

        But there are other Biblical voices to be heard. The book of Ruth, for example. Here’s a quick summary of Ruth.

       Ruth was a Moabite, who married into a Jewish family living in the land of Moab. After the deaths of their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi went to live in Bethlehem. Ruth met and married a man named Boaz. They had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David: the David who became Israel’s greatest king. So David’s great-grandmother was a non-Jew. The story of Ruth is remembered to argue that non-Jews are in the circle of God’s grace.

        A similar voice is heard in the latter chapters of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks the word of the Lord saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

         And in the words of Psalm 67, “Let your way be known upon earth, you’re saving health among all nations.” (Psalm 67:2

        Ruth, Isaiah, Psalm 67 take the stand: “God’s grace is for the Canaanite woman. She’s in!”

         In the Scriptures, we see a tension about who is in, and who is out. I wonder if that is why Jesus was silent when the Canaanite woman made her request. Is he running through the Scriptures, trying to figure it all out what God wants him to do?

        In his silence, the woman kept pleading. She knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

         But he replied, “It’s just not fair that dogs eat children’s bread.” In other words, “God’s grace is meant for Israel. That’s what I was sent to do. How can I take it away from my own people and give it to you?

        This feisty woman did not give up when Jesus was silent. She was not put off by the scorn of the disciples. And she won’t quit now. She said right back to Jesus, “You’re right; no doubt about that. But even dogs get crumbs that fall from where their masters sat.

        These words took Jesus’ breath away. He now knows where he stands in the great Biblical debate about who is in and who is out. He stands with Ruth and Isaiah and Psalm 67. For he has seen this woman’s trust in God; a trust that says, “Just give a little; it will be enough; it’s all I need.”  Jesus recognizes this is the greatest of trust in God, and so he said to her, “God’s love is yours today. Your faith, my sister, shows to me God’s grace has come your way.

        For Jesus, the question of who is in and who is out was resolved that day. The grace of God, the healing of God, and the dignity of God are for all people. No one is to be excluded. All are to be respected, honored, and treated as children of God. That is what Jesus came to believe, and he was faithful to that belief, even to death on a cross.

        Unfortunately, not all people have followed his lead, and so from time to time the sin of racism raises its ugly head.

       I was once pastor of St. John’s Church, located in Butler Township, just north of Hazleton. During the 20 years I lived there, I came to know a bit of the history of that place.      

       I learned, for example, that in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan was active there.  The purpose of that Klan chapter was to intimidate Roman Catholics and eastern Europeans. The Klan wanted to keep the township “pure,” which meant white Protestant of western European descent.

       Sometime in the 1960s, a Job Corps Center opened in the township; those who came to the Center were of a variety of races. This didn’t sit well with all residents, as is illustrated by a story told me by the local police chief. Shortly after the Center opened, a group of black youth from the center went for a walk down a country road. A resident called the chief, telling him he had to do something about them. “Why?” asked the chief, “what are they doing?” The caller replied, “They’re walking down the road! Do something about it!” “Are they doing anything wrong?” asked the chief. The caller replied, “No, but you have to do something about them!” Of course, the chief did nothing. They were simply walking: and if they had been white, no one would have noticed nor cared.

       I would like to believe that the attitudes represented by the Klan and the phone caller are in our distant past. But as we have seen from the events in Charlottesville, they are not. Some continue to believe that only their kind counts, and that their kind is entitled to special privilege, and that their kind is superior, and other kinds are inferior.

       Because such beliefs continue to be held, we who follow Christ must clearly and often say: “The beliefs and actions of racial supremacy are contrary to the will of God. Such words and deeds are sin against God and against humanity.

       Among the chants of white supremacists last weekend was, “Jew will not replace us.” As believers in Christ, we respond by saying, “A Jew has already taken our place, and we are thankful he did. His name is Jesus, and he died for our sins. Through him, we are set right with God, and are called to love our neighbor, building relationships that transcend creed, nationality, and ethnicity.

       We have been saved by the Jew Jesus. Saved not only for life with God. Saved not only for life after death. But also saved in the here and now so that we love our neighbor, whatever our race.

     May God give us the strength, the conviction, and the courage to make it so. Amen.

Aves and Ave


IMG_0877 August 15


Time may be measured in many ways, including the migration of birds and the calendar of the church. August 15 is significant in both. The date begins the annual fall raptor count at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and is also the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord.

This poem celebrates the delightful coincidence of the two events falling on the same date.


Over water dark and churning,
God’s mind brooded with deep yearning
For companions with whom to share
A good world made with loving care.
And so God spoke; life was begun
With light, the moon, the stars, the sun.
Creation started in God’s name,
And on the fifth day God proclaimed:
“Flying creatures now fill the sky;
Increase, fly free, and multiply.”
And so Aves procreation
Partners with God in creation.

Time sped by, and over the land
Dark shadow lay its heavy hand.
God’s mind again  brooded and thought
Of a new way that might be wrought
To give the earth fresh beginning,
Saving it from death and sinning.
So angel Gabriel went out
To greet young girl with joyful shout:
“Ave! Mary the Nazarene!
In you God’s mercy shall be seen!”
Thus was foretold a coming birth
Of joyous news for all the earth.

Aves and ave meet with cheer
August Fifteen of ev’ry year,
Coming together on this day,
Each observed in a special way.
Up wooded hill the birders mount
To start the yearly raptor count.
And those who follow Mary’s Son
Hold feast to praise what God has done.

Aves! Ave! Signs of Power:
Renewing the earth hour by hour.
Aves! Ave! Tokens of love:
Pouring forth from heaven above.
Aves! Ave! Gifts of delight:
Lifting spirits high into flight.
Birds of the air! Blessed Mary!
In you we rejoice on this day.

Alleluia! Grace Appearing!


IMG_0850 Alleluia Grace Appearing

I wrote this hymn text in 2012 as a celebration of resurrection hope for all creation. It was dedicated “in honor of Roy Gulliford, and in appreciation of his calling to proclaim Christ and to care for creation.” (An ordained pastor, Roy was the founding director of Bear Creek Camp, an outdoors ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) Sung to the tune “In Babilone,” it was first used in public worship on Easter Sunday, 2012, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Orwigsburg, PA

Alleluia! Grace appearing! All creation moved to say:
“Praise to God and all the wonder for the glory of this day!”
Alleluia! Light is streaming! Sun and sky join in the praise.
Hope arises, new life granted, day breaks out in beaming rays.

Alleluia! Death defeated! Phoenix and the butterfly
Witness to the resurrection, freely given from on high.
Alleluia! Laughter takes hold! Frog, hyena, blue jay, too,
Sounding joy of Easter story, sharing God’s good news with you.

Alleluia! Joyful tears flow! Ground and plants receive new life.
Oceans cleansed and rivers made pure, all released from fear and strife.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Fish, and bird, and ev’ry tree
Lift their voice in endless singing to the One who sets us free.


Cosmos Threatened



IMG_0802 Cosmos Threatened number 2

This hymn text was written in 2013, while I was re-reading Scott Weidensaul’s book “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds,”  and is dedicated in appreciation of Scott’s writings. It may be sung to the tune Ebenezer.

Cosmos threatened, life in danger
Is there time to save it yet?
Can we hear the cries of nature;
And upon right paths be set?
God has made a good creation,
To provide our ev’ry need.
Can we now avoid the danger
Of destroying it with greed?

Lord, on knees we fall before you,
Filled with thankful gratitude
For rich blessings you have given
Latitude to latitude.
Singing warbler, rich rainforest,
Glacial ice and polar bear.
South and north is your creation,
Gifts of your great loving care.

Lift us, Lord, to new beginnings
To protect your cherished earth.
Fill our hearts, our minds, our actions
With your Spirit of new birth.
Grant that we may steward wisely
River, mountain, land and sea.
Keep us living in your image:
Caring for the wild and free.

Daydream on the Porch


          On the hot, hazy days of summer, Jesse Christopher’s favorite activity was sitting on his front porch. Jesse would arrive home from work about 4:30 and eat supper. Then, newspaper in hand, he sat on his favorite porch chair. He paid special attention to the front page, the sports, and the comics. When he finished reading, he would set the paper aside, take off his glasses, and prop his feet on the front railing. Then his eyes would close. And in a state of semi-sleep, he would daydream of being a hero.

        In one daydream, he thought of the people who lived next door, Jim and Pat Elbertson. They were good and caring people.  Jim, an executive in local industry, had helped create jobs for the region. Outside of work, Jim volunteered his time to organize the local bloodmobile and to coach a Little League team. He was always willing to help in whatever way he could. His wife, Pat, was kept busy raising her three children: an infant, a six year old, and an eleven year old. Yet she also found time for community through involvement with the League of Women Voters, the United Way, and the PTA.

          Jim and Pat Elbertson were very good people.

        Jesse would sit on his front porch and daydream of rescuing them from death. He imagined their house on fire. He saw himself break in the front door, and begin to look for the family. He found the infant, and picked her up in his arms. Next he found the older children, and shouted, “Follow me!” Quickly he led them out of the house. But where were the parents?

         He went back into the house. He climbed the steps through the thick smoke. He kicked in a hot door. He found Jim wandering around, disoriented. Pat was lying on the floor, overcome by fumes.

         So Jesse saw himself lifting her over his shoulders, and taking Jim by the hand. Back down the smoke-filled stairs they went. They rushed through a wall of flame, so quickly that they barely felt the scorching heat. He burst through the front door, into the yard.
        In his daydream, Jesse had rescued one of the finest families in town. He would be praised as a hero, for risking his life, his very blood, to save such good people.         Jesse enjoyed his daydreams. But he didn’t always get to finish them. Some evenings, he would be interrupted by Ted.

        No one knew Ted’s last name. And nobody wanted to know Ted’s last name.     For that matter, no one really wanted to know Ted. He was one of those people everyone wished would just disappear.
        Ted’s beard was scraggly, and his hair came down to his shoulders. He was always wearing the same torn jeans, the same tattered sneakers, and the same ripped tee-shirt. He bathed rarely. And on the hot, hazy nights of summer, you could smell him approaching you.
        Ted was considered by most, if not all, a worthless bum. Parents told their children to stay away from him. Teenagers insulted one another by saying, “You’re a Ted!” Townspeople often called the police and demanded they do something about him. But the police could only shrug their shoulders. The most they could ever do was put him in jail overnight for public drunkenness.
        Ted might be offensive; he might be worthless; he might be a bum. But he had had never committed a major crime. (Although many people in the town swore up and down that he had to be drug dealer. How else could he get money to survive? He never held a job for more than two weeks. 

         Well, as I said, Ted would sometimes interrupt Jesse’s daydreams. Jesse would be relaxed, sitting on his porch, feet propped up on the railing. And along would come Ted, who sputtered out, “Whatcha’ doin’, Jesse, good buddy? Isn’t it terrible what’s going on in the world today?” And then he would begin one of his senseless, rambling tirades about current events.
           Jesse would listen until it became unbearable. Then he would reach into his pocket and hand Ted a dollar or two. Jesse knew it was the wrong thing to do; Ted would take the money and buy some cheap whiskey. But it was worth it to get rid of him. And as Ted staggered down the street, Jesse would think, “What a worthless excuse of a man. The world would never miss him if he were gone.

        Late one summer—on one of the last hot, hazy nights of that year—Jesse was sitting on the porch. He saw Ted coming down the other side of the street. From across the road, Ted yelled, “Hiyah, Jesse good buddy,” and he began to cross the street. Just then, a large truck came careening around the corner. It was going much too fast. Jesse yelled, “Ted, get out of the street!”
         But Ted froze. He just stood in the path of the onrushing truck. And then, more quickly than I can say this sentence, Jesse sprang from the porch. In a few steps he was in the street, pushing Ted out of the truck’s way.  But the truck caught Jesse, and hurled him through the air. He came crashing to the street. The blood poured from his side, and by the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. Jesse had bled to death.

        The people of the town were shocked and saddened. And they couldn’t understand it. Had Jesse given his life to save a good family like the Elbertson’s next door, his death would have made some sense. But to give his life for someone like Ted just didn’t make any sense at all.

        Except, of course, to Ted. The evening he was saved from the speeding truck, Ted sat on the curb all through the night. He just sat there, looking at the pool of blood which had flowed from Jesse’s side.

         And for days after, he came back each evening to look at the blood-stained street. He kept doing that, until the rain had washed away every trace of the blood.

         In the months which followed, Ted changed.

         He stopped drinking.

         He got a job—and kept it.

         He still wore jeans—but they were always clean.

         He still wore sneakers—but never a tattered pair.

         He still wore tee-shirts—but never the same one for more than a day at a time.

         Ted gradually became a caring and sensitive person.

         And people learned his last name: it’s Hawkins.

        It’s three decades or so since Ted was saved from that speeding truck.

         The townspeople now invite him to their cookouts on the hot, haze days of summer.

         Parents encourage their children to play with him in the park.

         Teenagers, when asked to list their local heroes, always include the name “Ted Hawkins.

        Ted is changed person. When you ask him why, he will say, “I used to be a no-good bum. But now I’m the one Jesse Christopher died for. I saw his blood lying there on the road. It was blood shed for me. And I knew I could never be the same again.”

The Trinity Bird


towhee photo from sue schmoyer

(Photograph of Eastern Towhee by Sue Schmoyer; used with permission.)

This poem brings together the joy I find in both birding and in theology.

On spring days, Towhee,
I hear you sing,
“Drink your tea!”

And the theologian
In me also hears,

Your April sound
Echoes through the woods,
Alerting us that spring is here.

It is fitting
That the time you appear
Is near Easter Day,

For you sing of hope:
The forest comes alive
After winter dormancy.

Towhee, not only in sound,
But in color,
You are the Trinity Bird:

Black for Good Friday,
White for Easter Sunday,
Rufous for Pentecost Day.

In appearance and song,
You bear witness to
Three-in-One, One-in-Three.

Your invitation to tea
Reminds me of the invitation
Of Jesus at Table:

This is my body–
This is my blood–

“Given for you,
For all of you,
For all creation.”

Towhee, your words
And your colors
Are signs of God’s inclusive grace,

A grace which embraces
White, and black, and red,
And every shade of God’s creation.


A Child, a Dandelion, and God


IMG_0775 dandelions

My granddaughter Zoe is now eight years old. She has touched my life with memorable moments, including the one described in this sermon from Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010.

If you would know something about the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, spend time with a child. Proverbs 8 speaks of wisdom. Or rather, Wisdom speaks. This is one of the places in the Bible where “wisdom” does not refer to sayings or stories that instruct in good living. Rather, “Wisdom” here is a living being. Because the Hebrew word for wisdom is in the feminine form, it is sometimes translated “Lady Wisdom.”

Drawing upon Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” here’s a portion of what Lady Wisdom says: “God made me before anything else. And so I was there when God created the earth, the oceans, the mountains, the sky. I saw all things come into being. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying God’s company, delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family.”

“Lady Wisdom” tells us she was present at the beginning of all things, and saw God’s creation unfold. Of course, I did not see the beginning of God’s world. But I have been watching the creation of Zoe’s world. And in doing so, have seen something of “Lady Wisdom” and God’s creativity.

Zoe is my granddaughter, age one year, four months, eleven days. I spend a few hours with her each week. And recently, she showed me something of Proverbs, chapter 8. She and I were going for a walk. I said, “Zoe, there are no sidewalks here, so you absolutely must hold my hand.” She’s not always happy about that; she sometimes bolts and goes her own way. But this time she was very good about it. She never let go, not even when she suddenly stopped, leaned over, and picked a dandelion that had caught her attention. She carried the small flower as we continued our walk. A bit later, we turned around, and headed back the way we had come. When we reached the spot where she had picked the flower, she stopped, knelt, placed the flower on the grass, and gently patted it into the ground.

Given my overactive theological imagination, I could see her looking at me and saying, “There, that’s where it belongs! God planted it, we borrowed it for awhile to enjoy, and now it’s back in its place.”

Of course, I have no idea what Zoe was thinking. But it seems fair to say that something about the flower caught her attention and brought her delight. And it was fascinating that she put it back in the spot where she found it.

Spending time with a child opened my eyes anew to the eighth chapter of Proverbs. I was shown something of  “Lady Wisdom” and her delight in God’s world.

Proverbs 8 is a reading for Trinity Sunday because this day we stand in marvel before the mystery and marvel of God. The Feast of the Holy Trinity reminds us that we know only a tiny bit of the grandeur of the God we name One-in-Three, Three-in-One. This is a day we are reminded that no matter how old we may be, there is always more to know, new things to experience, and surprising joys to behold.

Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I feel tired and old. Sometimes I lose sight of the mystery of the Trinity, and the marvel of creation. But a walk with a child opens me again to the delight and wonder that is all around us.

Seminary professor William P. Brown writes, ” . . . [A]ll knowledge and insight never arrive within a giving lifetime. The aged still have much to learn. As Wisdom’s growth begins in joy, may the wide-eyed delight of children never be lost on the wise. For in Wisdom’s eyes there are really no grown-ups. The quest for wisdom is ever ongoing, and progress on the path will always be marked with baby steps.”

Sometimes we fail to see the wonder of the world, and the One who made it. When that happens, walk with a child. Or at least, walk with child’s eyes. And you will be opened anew to the wonder of God.

To the joyous and astonishing mystery of the God we name Holy Trinity, be all honor and glory and power, forever and ever. Amen.