Here's a recommendation for summer reading: Southernmost, a new novel by Silas House. I won't give away the plot; because you'll want to follow it, to discover it for yourself. But I want to say House's story reads like a study in the lifelong practice of mercy: not as a singular choice, or a heroic moment in time, but as a journey of self-discovery and sacrifice. In a world so hardened by judgment and division, this is an invitation to transformation and grace.
What I appreciate most is the narrator's commitment to the difficult, demanding dimensions of mercy. This practice is sweet, beautiful and hard! To be merciful, to live mercifully is to be changed, to be challenged, to risk losing things that once seemed dear and life-giving.
This is a particularly powerful read for my friends who've given much of their energies to confronting bigotry in the church and opening wide our doors in a spirit not of tolerance, but celebration and affirmation. Silas House draws on mystics like Saint Francis and Thomas Merton to sketch a faith that grounds justice and righteousness in the deep, deep soil of God's fertile and abundant love.
I do not believe that you call me to perfection, to some Blissful state of irresponsibility or happy disentanglement. I do not believe that you call us to righteousness, to Satisfied anger at the wrongs and wrong-headed among us.
There is no finish line, at least none that I can see from here. And there are no pearly gates; these were designed By architects of complacency, priests of sanctimonious smugness.
Then what? I'm no longer sure that's the question. I'm inclined to ask another. Who are you that calls?
I believe you are the spirit brooding over the face Of the waters, and over the face of the shifting continents, And over the faces of all people, everywhere-- Brooding One, Restless Dreamer, Maker of All and All.
I believe you are the fire burning in the desert bush, And the pit in the prophet's stomach that requires A visit to pharaoh's chambers, the empire's many white houses-- Let my people go! Let my people go! Thus says the Lord.
I believe you are the great fish swallowing Jonah, Who has slipped from his calling, but is still needed, And he's buried in you, in loss and grief and failure-- To Nineveh, you go! To Nineveh, you go! A change is coming.
I believe you are the tears in Mary's eye, salty, sweet, Like the first waters, brooding, rolling like rivers to her tongue, And she tastes urgency, resurrection, shocking opportunity-- Beloved, he lives! Beloved, he lives! Jesus, our Friend!
If you call me, O Friend, it is not to perfection, to clarity of purpose; It is not to satisfied anger, to happy disentanglement, or victorious salvation. If you call me, O Friend, you call me only to you: To your brooding eyes at the beginning of every beginning; To the holy ground of sacred story, to people everywhere rushing to freedom; To the messy belly of life in cities and neighborhoods, at borders, in camps; To Jesus' bloody side, to his loving arms, to his beloved circle. May I follow this one breath, just this, into your presence, And hear even here, even now, the voice of love Speak my name, our name, many names. May its speaking find the deep, dark, holy hope in me. And may this calling shape every other calling: O Friend.
What I love so much
about you, about all of you, is that you’ve encouraged me (for all these years)
to read the bible and do my best to tell the truth. Think about that. It’s been my calling, it’s been my privilege
(for all these years) to read our ancient texts and to search them for the
promises of God and the vocation of the church.
I’ve got an extraordinary gig. It’s
been my job to dive deep in the seas of grace, and to praise God for the
magnificence of life, and yes, sometimes to grieve for the senselessness of
violence and bigotry among us. In this
beloved space. And you’ve encouraged me
in this. You’ve listened to me and
you’ve questioned me and you’ve puzzled with me and you’ve honored my
words. You’ve honored the importance of
discernment and study, scripture and preaching.
And I love you for that. I really
and truly do. I am a wiser person, a
better writer and a braver preacher: because of you.
But be honest with
me. How many of you expected me to go
out with a sermon about exorcism? I
mean, really. How many of you
expected—on this particular Sunday—to chase Jesus with me into a graveyard with
a crazed fellow who’s possessed by demons, who’s howling at shadows and
bruising himself with stones? Nothing
like a good exorcism to round out sixteen satisfying years of ministry! Seriously?
But here’s the
thing. You’ve encouraged me to read
these stories bravely and to make connections.
You’ve encouraged me to go to the edge of the gospel and find radical
hope and strange peace there. You’ve
encouraged me to appreciate metaphor and symbolism, and to take Jesus seriously
as a teacher and a lover. So this week,
I read the fifth chapter of Mark and I see Jesus face to face with a man who’s
breaking everything he can get his hands on.
And I’m reminded of my country, our country: I don’t know about
you, but it all seems oddly relevant, this tale of possession, even
contemporary. How violence gets into a
man (and maybe even a culture). How it
warps and wastes a nation's soul. Whatever
it is this man’s been through, whatever haunts him, terror has occupied his spirit so
thoroughly that he can’t help flailing from tomb to tomb, turning down every
offer to help.
It’s a strange tale,
to be sure, but not unbelievably so. Because
we know. Because we know that too often
soldiers return from prison duty in Iraq or killing fields in Afghanistan, devastated
by despair, and turn deadly weapons on themselves. And we know that too often young men—raised
on a steady diet of war games and bitter news—unleash their many demons in
American high schools and American nightclubs and American newsrooms. And we know that even this week demagogues
hyped up on bigotry are ripping children from their parents in the name of national
security. It’s a strange tale, sure, but
not unbelievably so.
The gifted New
Testament scholar Walter Wink once insisted that “the myth of redemptive
violence undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and
foreign policy.” I don’t know about you,
but this makes so much sense to me this week.
Particularly this week. The myth
is embedded in every Trump tweet, in every piece of NRA propaganda, in every
mean-spirited congressional hearing. The
myth of redemptive violence. “It lies
coiled like an ancient serpent,” Walter Wink once said, “at the root of the
system of domination that has characterized human existence since well before
Babylon ruled supreme.”
This myth is
enshrined, it seems, in American hubris and immigration policy. It’s embodied in our American economy and the
political dysfunction that tolerates, no facilitates, poverty and despair as
public policy. The myth of redemptive
violence is rehearsed in the angry, illogical and racist ranting of elected
officials—and the bitter news cycle that seems sometimes to revel in it all. We seem somehow captive to it, shackled to
violence and habits of recrimination and contempt.
And I really think
this is the myth Jesus exposes and even exorcises in this morning’s story. This myth of redemptive violence. He urges his disciples to confront it, to
unmask it. And he urges you and me to do
the same: to free ourselves from its hideous, bloody grip on our American
soul. Right here, at the edge of the
gospel. Right here, in graveyard of
human despair. If we’re to be faithful,
true to our calling—in Santa Cruz, Washington DC, or anywhere else in
America—we have to speak truth to these demons, within and beyond us. We have to ask the right questions and unmask
So this angry, terrified
man: he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and he begs Jesus just to leave him
alone. He may as well be a suicidal
veteran, or a rabid racist at the border, or another young white boy with an AK
47 and a shattered heart. We’ve seen him
on CNN. We’ve seen him wandering the
streets right here in town or locked up in jail. He’s one of us. And he begs Jesus just to just leave him
If I were picking a Supreme Court justice, I'd pick a Second Grade teacher, because every Second Grade Teacher I've ever known was fair and kind and smart, smart, smart.
If I were picking a Supreme Court justice, I'd pick a firefighter, twenty years on the job, because every one I've ever known has been brave and wise and entirely committed.
And (by the way) every one of them has known How to cook for himself, too. That counts for something.
If I were picking a Supreme Court justice, I'd pick a Sufi sheikh from LA or San Jose, Because the Sufis I know are humble and sweet and they can sing. If I were picking a Supreme Court justice, I'd ask myself: has she ever held a dying man's hand, In a sadly underfunded, desperately understaffed hospital? I'd ask myself: can he comfort a seven-year-old Whose mother's been ripped from his arms at the border? If I were picking a Supreme Court justice, I'd pick the ninety-six-year old I know who still gardens on his knees And writes hand-written thank you notes for simple things And looks a suffering neighbor in the eye, and says, What can I do for you? DGJ 6/27/18 On the day Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Court.
As I step gently into the final seven days of this Santa Cruz ministry, my thoughts turn toward First Church in DC, and to all my UCC brothers and sisters there, as they join the Poor People's Campaign on its DC March today! March on, dear friends! The people united will never be defeated!