Category Archives: Stories

Sermon, June 11

In the letter known as Romans, the apostle Paul was writing to the Christian community in Rome, which he didn’t know yet; his other letters are largely to churches and people whom he knew well. 

He’s trying to present himself and his understanding of the Gospel, in a way that will make the church in Rome take him seriously. 

One of the early topics Paul takes up is the question of the place of Gentiles, non-Jewish Christians, in the church, in a time in which Christianity was still largely a movement with in Judaism. 

Paul himself has been a faithful and observant Jew. When he mentions “the Law” here, that is shorthand for the whole way of life to which the Jewish people are called through their covenant relationship with God – prayer and worship practices, kosher food rules, rules about money, wealth, and land, and much, much more. 

And, of course, circumcision – the core mark of the covenant.  

Paul is arguing with the idea that only people who already follow Jewish law can become part of this new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. And he does so by talking about Abraham, the person with whom God formed the first covenant that became the basis for the Jewish faith. 

Paul says that God called and blessed Abraham not because Abraham was a righteous Jew – there was no such thing yet! – but because Abraham was faithful. He responded readily to God’s call, and went where God sent him. 

And therefore – Paul says – God can likewise call faithful Gentiles today. Obedience to the Law is not the only way to enter into relationship with the God of Israel, made known in Jesus Christ. 

That’s what Paul is up to, here. 

But Paul is also simplifying Abraham’s story a good bit! 

Let’s take a look. 

Paul says, “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. …”

Well… Yes. But also: no.

Our Genesis text today is the beginning of Abraham’s story. At this point his name is Abram – and his wife is Sarai. We are still early in first book of the Bible; the LORD who speaks to Abraham is not yet really known to humanity.  The last human God spoke to was Noah, and that was many generations earlier. 

So Abram’s ready response to God, when God addresses him out of the blue, is striking. God tells a wealthy, 75-year-old man to up and leave home – and Abram says, Okay. 

I wonder if Abram’s responsiveness has to do with the fact that despite his wealth, Abram wants something very much indeed. He wants a child. He and Sarai have never been able to conceive. And even though God doesn’t specifically promise, yet, to give them a child, God does promise to make Abram a great nation. That his lineage won’t die out, as he fears. 

That catches Abram’s attention… and perhaps drives his willingness to follow this call. Maybe what we have here is a meeting of deep needs: God wants to call and form a nation, and Abram wants to be a dad. 

So, here, at the very beginning, yes, we see Abram’s trust in God. This is a heck of a leap of faith. 

But there are lots of other moments in Abram’s story that are less clear. 

Abram and his household travel into the land of Canaan, and he builds an altar and worships God. But then there’s a famine and Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. 

Abram tells Sarai, “You are a beautiful woman; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me. So, say you are my sister, so that my life may be spared on your account.”  …!! 

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, takes note of Sarai’s beauty and takes her into his house as a wife, and gives Abram a lot of gifts as thanks!  

But then God afflicts Pharaoh with various plagues, and Pharaoh figures out that Sarai is Abram’s wife and angrily gives her back. 

And Abram sets off again – with Sarai, and all the gifts from Pharaoh.

It’s an unsettling episode, and suggests a deep fearfulness in Abram – such that he won’t even protect his own wife. 

God speaks to Abram again in a vision, and Abram complains that God has still given him no children; his heir is a favored servant. God says, “Your very own child shall be your heir… look towards heaven and count the stars: so shall your descendants be!”  

Then we get the line Paul is quoting, here in Romans: “[Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words: Abram’s trust in God’s promise counted as righteousness, before the Law existed as the measure of human righteous behavior. 

Yet in the very next verses Abram questions God! God promises Abram that his descendants will have a homeland, and Abram asks, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 

It’s one of a number of places in Scripture where somebody asks God for a sign to confirm that a prophetic message actually has authority behind it! 

God gives Abram his sign, and and a more detailed promise of a future homeland. Now is Abram able to trust in God’s very specific and detailed promises? Well. Sort of.

Abram – now 86 years old – and Sarai decide to take matters into their own hands with respect to this promised child. It seems that Sarai cannot have children, so she tells Abram to spend some private time with her enslaved Egyptian servant, Hagar. If Hagar and Abram have a child, that child could also be “counted” as Sarai’s child, because Hagar is enslaved. 

This arrangement was not so strange, in that time and place – something to bear in mind when people talk about Biblical marriage! But Genesis lets us know that it was still not a great idea, here. Hagar does get pregnant, and tensions arise between Sarai and Hagar. 

When Sarai complains, Abram tells Sarai, She’s your slave; do whatever you want to her. 

So Sarai drives Hagar away into the desert. 

I want to talk about Hagar another time, so let me just say here that this sure seems like another significant failure of trust. 

Both in taking this ill-advised path towards providing Abram with a son; and then not having the courage to stick with that plan and protect the woman carrying his much-wanted child. 

FOURTEEN YEARS PASS. Then God shows up again. God gives Abram a new name, Abraham; God once again promises Abraham many offspring and a homeland; and introduces the covenant sign of circumcision. 

Then God gives Sarai a new name too – Sarah – and says that Abraham and Sarah will have their own child. 

Remember when Paul said, “[Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”? 

Well: Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, says: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” ROTFL! 

Finding this promised child improbable, Abraham asks God to instead bless Ishmael, the son he had with Hagar. 

God says, I will bless Ishmael; but you and Sarah will have a son. 

And Abraham believes all this enough to circumcise himself and all the men and boys of his household – so that’s saying something!… 

In Genesis 19, three angels visit Abraham and Sarah and repeat the promise that they will have a son. We’ll hear that story next Sunday. 

But then – while we’re waiting on Isaac’s promised conception – Abraham and Sarah travel again, and once again Abraham tells the locals that Sarah is his sister, and once again the local king – King Abimelech of Gerar – takes Sarah as a wife! God tells the king in a dream, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” Abimelech, like Pharaoh before him, is pretty mad at Abraham about the situation. 

Abraham explains that Sarah is actually his half-sister, so it’s not a lie really; and he says, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” 

Abimelech gives Sarah back to Abraham, and 1000 pieces of silver besides. 

So, even after all these concrete, specific promises that he and Sarah will have a child, Abraham is still doing this weird, fearful thing, putting his wife at risk! 

After that, finally, Sarah conceives and baby Isaac is born. Sarah gets jealous of Hagar again, and Hagar is driven out, again. Then we come to the story of the binding of Isaac – which it’s possible to read as the ultimate proof of Abraham’s trust in God, or as the most fundamental failure of trust possible. Father John will speak about that story in a couple of weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now. 

I want to be clear: These are ancient, ancient stories, which probably tell us more about how the Israelites were trying to make sense of their own history and what it meant to be God’s people, than they do about specific things that happened in the literal historical sense. 

But: the minds and hearts and voices that passed down these stories, and eventually crafted them into texts that endure, were thoughtful and wise. 

They expected readers or hearers to come to know Abram’s story as a whole.

They expected readers or hearers to see Abram struggling with faith, with trust, in all these little separate episodes and in the overall story arc. 

Abraham’s story is a lot more complicated than Paul makes it. It is not just one simple, whole-hearted Yes that settles things for good. 

Abram lived a long life, with many twists and turns. There were times when he felt very clear in his path and his relationship with God, and times when he really second-guessed whether God was with him or had a purpose or plan for him. When he questioned whether God would lead him through  whatever he was facing. 

And I think that’s important.  Not just as a matter of arguing with Paul’s exegesis, his interpretation of Abraham’s life, but for us as people of faith. 

While I can’t relate to most of the specifics of Abraham’s story, the pattern – the ebb and flow, the push and pull – of his life of faith seem very familiar to me. 

I do have a base level of trust in God’s goodness; I believe that God loves and holds me.

But that by no means makes it easy to navigate or bear everything that life brings. I struggle, and second-guess, and question, too. 

Having and holding a basic, core Yes to God doesn’t mean we don’t wobble or waver.  And I think there’s hope in that, actually. 

Not so much in Paul’s reading of Abraham’s story – Paul’s description of Abraham as someone who was SO faithful, who believed SO strongly, never questioning, that God blessed him and worked through him to accomplish God’s purposes. 

But there’s hope when we read Abraham, the great-grandfather of three world religions, the way that Genesis actually presents him: as someone who wants to believe; who struggles and yearns and messes up, yet fumbles his way through a faithful life.  Confused, impatient, often afraid. But still: a life of faith. A life in conversation with God.  A holy dance with God’s purposes for self and others. 

May we indeed have a faith like Abram. 


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Bulletins & Script, Feb. 28

Here are the bulletins for this Sunday!

9AM Zoom online gathering:  We use slides during worship  that contain most of this information, but some prefer to follow along on paper.

Bulletin for February 28

This Sunday we will also receive a Zoom drama of the story of the prophet Micaiah. If you’d like to follow along with the script, you can do that here.

Micaiah Prophet Script

Livestream Bulletin for February 28

The link for the Zoom gatherings is available in our weekly E-news, in our Facebook group St. Dunstan’s MadCity, or by emailing Rev. Miranda:  .


  1. Print it out!

2. Open the bulletin on one device (smartphone or tablet) while joining Zoom worship on another device (tablet or computer).

3. On a computer, open the bulletin in a separate browser window or download and open separately, and view it next to your Zoom window.

Sermon, Feb. 14

The lectionary gives us this bit from Kings to tell us who Elijah is, why he’s in this scene and why Jesus is talking about him. It invites a preacher to do what I’m about to do: talk about who these people were, and why they mattered. What does it mean that the scribes said Elijah must come first?… 

Elijah was one of the great Old Testament prophets, who lived in the time when David’s ancient kingdom had split into two kingdoms. Elijah’s words are encompassed in the historical books, Kings and Chronicles, rather than in a separate book bearing his name, like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah. 

Today’s lesson gives us the end of Elijah’s time on earth. His story begins in 1 Kings 17, when the word of God first comes to Elijah and he is sent to King Ahab of Israel. In the passage introducing King Ahab, the Bible says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Notably, he worshipped Baal, the god of a neighboring nation. So Elijah goes to Ahab and tells him that God is punishing Ahab with a drought. (Which seems a little hard on everyone else!)… 

The story unfolds from there. Elijah has several run-ins with Ahab and his queen Jezebel. In between, he hides out in the wilderness or neighboring countries. Ahab has a nickname for Elijah: “Troubler of Israel” – because he always seems to have something critical to say. Ahab does not truly understand or perhaps care that Elijah is speaking for God.

Elijah’s prophetic vocation takes a lot out of him. Finally he tries to run away from it all. He literally lies down under a tree and wishes out loud that he were dead… does that remind us of anyone?… Then he journeys on to Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. And there God appears to Elijah – not in powerful forces like wind or earthquake or fire, but in the sound of utter silence.  And the voice that speaks in that silence tells him that he is to anoint Israel’s next king, Jehu, and Israel’s next prophet – Elisha. Elijah’s successor. In other words: You’re going to get your wish soon, Elijah. Your work is almost finished. But not yet. 

Going forth from Mount Horeb, Elijah encounters Elisha almost immediately, plowing a field. Elijah throws his mantle – his cloak or outer garment – upon Elisha. And Elisha become his student and servant. 

Today’s lesson offers the moment when Elijah is taken up to God, and Elisha succeeds Elijah as prophet. At a basic level, the Jews of Jesus’ time – and today – anticipated Elijah’s return because Elijah didn’t die. Instead, he was taken up to God in some mysterious way. At some point the idea that Elijah might return became the teaching that Elijah WOULD return, just before the coming of the Messiah. The book of Malachi, written relatively late in the Old Testament, contains this prophesy:  “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)

There’s a great deal of Jewish folklore about Elijah. Themes in the stories echo those in the Biblical texts about him: a helper of those in need and zealous prophet of God’s truth.  Though I was delighted to learn that there’s also an idea that when dogs are happy for no reason, it’s because Elijah is in the neighborhood.

In addition to the folklore, Elijah is an  important figure in Rabbinic literature and Jewish religious practice. At Passover Seders many Jews leave an empty chair and cup for Elijah – a sign of expectation and future redemption of God’s people. Some follow a custom of opening the door of the house and inviting Elijah in.

At the end of the Sabbath celebration, one of the prayers calls on God to send Elijah: “”Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah from Gilead. Let him come quickly, in our day with the messiah, the son of David.” You might hear a resonance with some of our liturgical texts that call for Christ to come again – soon! 

So: Expecting Elijah’s return, as a sign that God was about to act decisively in human history, was a pretty normal idea in Jesus’ time. That’s our context for today’s Gospel, the Transfiguration story. 

Notice that Elijah appears in this story in two ways. There’s the literal Elijah, visiting and talking with Jesus. (How did they know it was Moses and Elijah, anyway? Did they assume it, because those were two figures who were widely expected to return in some way? Or did they just KNOW in the way you sometimes just know things?…) 

Regardless: The text seems clear that the two figures talking with Jesus were actually Elijah and Moses. Incidentally, although the book of Deuteronomy tells of Moses’ death, there were later traditions that Moses also had been taken up to God while still living.

But in addition to an appearance by Elijah himself, Jesus also talks about a different Elijah: “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things… I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” What is Jesus talking about here? Well – he’s talking about John the Baptist. 

Jesus’ cousin, according to Luke; the wilderness prophet who proclaimed that God was about to do a new thing, and that people should prepare by changing their hearts and their lives. John the Baptist, who – like Elijah – got in trouble with the king for saying things the king didn’t want to hear. John the Baptist, who by this point in the Gospel had been executed by Herod. 

Jesus – and the Gospels – don’t think that John was literally Elijah, but that he fulfilled Elijah’s role in some sense: in his prophetic work, in preparing the way for Messiah, and even in his imprisonment and death. 

The dual appearance of Elijah in today’s Gospel works as a kind of icon of the Christian relationship with the Old Testament. There are things we receive directly, just as they are offered, such as the importance of Elijah as a holy figure; things we do not carry with us, such as continued expectation of Elijah’s coming; things we adapt and re-interpret, like seeing John the Baptist as a second Elijah. 

You may have noticed that I usually use the expression “Old Testament” rather than “Hebrew Bible.” I’m not entirely consistent about it, because to be frank, a lot of clergy use “Hebrew Bible” and there’s some amount of peer pressure at work!  

The intention in that terminology is to get away from describing the compendium of canonical holy texts from before the time of Jesus as if it were incomplete on its own, or has been replaced by the New Testament. I understand all that and basically agree with it. But. 

There are a couple of issues with the term “Hebrew Bible.” One is that some of the later texts of the Old Testament were originally written in Greek, like the New Testament. But that’s a detail, really. Fundamentally, I use the term Old Testament because Ellen Davis uses the term Old Testament.

Ellen Davis was my Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School. She’s one of the great living professors of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Her class introduced me to Jewish Biblical scholarship. Dr. Davis works closely with Jewish Biblical scholars. She often helped us see the texts we were studying through Jewish eyes. She never let us forget for one moment that we shared these holy texts with another living tradition – and that we needed to read and study with curiosity and humility.  And: She uses the term Old Testament. (At least, she did in 2005.) 

Because, she explained, we are reading it as Christians. We can’t set that aside. It’s always part of our interpretive framework. Her assessment was that there’s something false and even appropriative about Christians using the term “Hebrew Bible.” So, even though there are real issues with the term “Old Testament,” I follow Dr. Davis’ practice. I trust her judgment on this matter. 

We DO read the Old Testament as Christians. We can’t help looking for the ways it seems to anticipate Jesus, for the undergirding principles and texts of our own faith. The New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament, in so many more ways than most Christians realize. 

But I, we, also try to read and study the Old Testament for its own sake. Not just to collect the bits that seem like they might really be about Jesus and press them between the pages of our New Testaments like dried flowers. But to hear its voice and receive it as part of the great story of God and God’s people. 

If we were only reading the Old Testament for what it brings to the Jesus story, this is all we’d need: Elijah was a great prophet who was expend to return, thereby foretelling the coming of God’s Messiah. But if that’s all we took from this story, we would miss SO MUCH. 

This chapter about Elijah’s departure is so beautifully crafted. The repetition of the prophetic guilds addressing Elisha – “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” – and Elisha’s response: “Yes, I know; keep silent.” The crossing of the Jordan – doubly evocative: Crossing the Jordan stands for entering a new chapter, new territory; and the parting of the waters reminds us of Moses at the Red Sea. Elisha’s passionate cries as he watches his master taken from him are heartbreaking – there’s no questioning the depth of his devotion and grief. Elisha’s taking up Elijah’s mantle recalls Elijah’s initial calling of Elisha by casting his mantle over him. 

And the story continues, beyond what we heard. The prophets want to send out some men to search the surrounding territory, in case Elijah fell to earth somewhere. Elisha says there’s no point. But the text says, They urged him until he was ashamed, and finally he said, Fine. Send them. Of course they don’t find Elijah, and he says, I told you so.

Then Elisha begins his work as a prophet. First he purifies the water for a nearby town. 

Then, as he’s on his way to Bethel, some children come out and mock him, saying, “Go away, Baldy! Go away, Baldy!” Elisha becomes so angry that he curses them, and bears come out of the forest and maul forty-two children. So, right out of the gate, the authors of this text want us to know that Elisha is not Elijah. Elijah was kind of cranky in the classic prophetic style, but not cruel or vengeful. 

Did you notice that Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit?Maybe it’s not because he’s greedy or ambitious. Maybe it’s because he’s desperately afraid that he’ll never be the prophet Elijah was. 

This is a story about devotion. It’s a story about loss, and grief. It’s a story about trying to step up to a responsibility that’s been handed to you. About aspiring to live up to someone you admire… and failing. Sometimes failing badly. But sometimes managing to do some good anyway. It’s a story at once deeply human and deeply holy. And that’s just this tiny slice – there’s so much more, even just in the surrounding chapters.  So many other stories I’d like to share… (We’ll get another one in a couple of weeks – you won’t want to miss it!) 

In gratitude for the gift of Scripture, let us pray… Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may recognize ourselves and our times in ancient stories; know ourselves not alone; and learn to see God at work even in times of struggle and grief; through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sermon, July 5

This sermon is based on Genesis chapter 24. Read it here! 

What a lively little story and cast of characters! Abraham appears here as the slightly bigoted old dad. Isaac barely appears – showing up just in time to fall in love with the ingenue. Laban is Big Brother from Central Casting. (We’ll hear more about Laban in a few weeks!)  Rebekah is a lively young woman who is more than ready to get the heck off the family farm. And then there’s the unnamed servant. 

The scene at the well was really popular with artists for a while. A significant meeting, a lovely young woman, a romantic setting, jewels, camels – how could they resist? If you look at some of those paintings, they really look like courtship images. That’s an interesting, kind of strange aspect of this story. The servant is sent as a proxy to find a wife for Isaac – who is a grown man; the verse that follows today’s passage says that he is forty when all this happens! 

Why didn’t Abraham send Isaac himself? Maybe it’s because Isaac is overwhelmed with grief for his mother; maybe it’s because Abraham perceives that Isaac would not get the job done. Throughout his chapters in Genesis, Isaac is a fairly passive character. Things mostly happen to him and around him. So Abraham sends a servant instead. 

Now, the text doesn’t name the servant, though he’s a tremendously important character for this one chapter. But Jewish tradition names him Eliezar – God is my help. I’ll use that name to make it easier to talk about him, and to give him the dignity he deserves. 

So, these images look like courtship. But Eliezar’s interest in Rebekah is not based in romance. It’s based in faith. 

When we’re dwelling with stories from the Hebrew Bible, one gift is that there’s also a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that we can look to. And I found a wonderful reflection, part of the Aleph Beta project to create videos offering meaningful study of Jewish holy texts. I want to show you part of what it helped me notice. 

First, I need to introduce a really important word and idea: Chesed. It’s a Hebrew word that may be translated as kindness, mercy, steadfast love, goodness, grace, compassion. An early English Bible translated it as “lovingkindness,” a wonderful word. Chesed is not just being a nice person. It is active, zealous, determined kindness. Chesed is an attribute of God – it is how God feels towards Israel, refusing to abandon them no matter what they do. And Chesed towards other humans is what God demands from God’s people. Love of neighbor manifest as generosity and justice – a foundation for both Jewish and Christian ethics. 

The word chesed shows up three times in this passage. Twice in Eliezar’s prayer – he asks God to fulfill his mission in order to show Chesed to his master Abraham. He doesn’t say it in so many words but it’s almost as if he’s reminding God of the covenant – Look, you promised my master descendants as numerous as the stars; that means his son needs a wife. And Eliezar uses the words again when Rebekah fulfills all his hopes – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness towards my master!” 

In addition to the word chesed, the attribute of chesed appears in this story as well. Rebekah shows some signs of being a person of chesed. She is generous in sharing her water, even drawing more water for the camels – a significant effort.  We don’t know whether her readiness to leave her father and brothers’ household is because she honors God’s intentions or is just really ready for a change of scenery. Why not both? Regardless, she opts in to God’s plan here, to the covenanted people God is building – and she does so partly by showing concern for some thirsty camels. 

And Eliezar is unmistakably a person of chesed. He goes above and beyond in his loyalty to both Abraham his master and to God. He puts his task in God’s hands, and blesses God for God’s chesed when God comes through. 

But – here’s the thing I didn’t notice until I watched the Aleph Beta video: Eliezar DOESN’T use the word chesed when he’s telling Laban and the rest of Rebekah’s family what happened. We cut that out of the reading to shorten it, but let’s look at it now. 

Here’s Eliezar’s prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink”, and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels”- let her be the one  whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Here’s how Eliezar tells about his prayer: “I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

Eliezar shifts his language. And the Aleph Beta video suggests Eliezar did that because he noticed some things about Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be the head of household here. First, he noticed Laban noticing Rebekah’s new jewelry. The text says, “As soon [Laban] he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah…, he went to the man.” 

Second, he might nave noticed something about Laban’s hospitality. Here’s what the NRSV, our Bible translation, does with verses 31 and 32, Eliezar’s arrival: 

“Laban said, ‘Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels? So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”

In the NRSV, Laban offers hospitality & then actually extends hospitality. But the rabbis behind the Aleph Beta video aren’t so sure. 

Here’s how Robert Alter renders this text, a more faithful rendition of the Hebrew: 

“And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were wit him. And food was set before him.” 

“The man” here is Eliezar – that’s how the Biblical text refers to him. 

So Laban offers hospitality – but does he actually follow through and treat Eliezar as an honored guest, or does he leave Eliezar to tend to his own camels and traveling party? Making an assessment that Eliezar is, after all, just the help? 

Now, this is ambiguous in the Scriptural text – you can read it either way, but there’s certainly room to wonder. If Laban made a point of his household’s capacity for hospitality, but then didn’t actually act out that hospitality because he assessed that Eliezar wasn’t a person he needed to bother to impress – well, that would be consistent with the bit about the jewelry; and with how Laban acts when Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to him for refuge, many years later. Across those texts, Laban appears as someone who’s primarily motivated by wealth and status. 

And – today’s text suggests that Eliezar himself makes exactly that assessment. 

Remember how he begins his speech to Laban: “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.”

Eliezar has sized up Laban and decided that what’s going to persuade him to let Rebekah go is the idea that this might be a really beneficial alliance. So he drops the chesed language, and replaces it with talk about wealth and success. Laban isn’t interested in whether Rebekah is the wife God’s lovingkindness has intended for Isaac. Laban is interested in whether his prospective son-in-law is rich. 

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches in this story? Well, she might be saying something else to you, and I’d be interested to hear about that. What I notice is that I feel both tickled and inspired by Eliezar. 

Eliezar reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, a couple of chapters ago in Matthew’s Gospel: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Eliezar’s innocence, his goodness and integrity, lie in the fact that he’s person of chesed. A person who lives by lovingkindness, in response to God’s lovingkindness. But he’s savvy like a serpent in the way he susses out Laban and figures out the best way to close this deal. He frames the situation in a way that will help this stakeholder get on board – a core principal for any kind of coalition-building. And, listen, this matters: He doesn’t lie to Laban. There’s nothing fundamentally false about the way he adapts his message. He’s just strategic – and effective – in using Laban’s values to get Laban on board. 

Today’s Gospel contains a favorite verse of mine: Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” It’s a little cryptic, but for me it speaks – maybe especially this year – to the numbness and overwhelm of our times. There’s so much coming at us that we don’t know how to respond to good news or bad – to dance tunes or dirges. It rings especially poignantly for me on the weekend of our biggest national holiday, in a year that features a brutal pandemic, economic recession and widespread civic unrest. So far. 

I think we could do worse, living in these times, than take Eliezar for inspiration. May we share his savvy in strategic communication across differences of values and goals – while striving always to live as people of courageous lovingkindness, in response to God’s chesed and as co-conspirators in God’s great and ongoing work of redeeming the world. 

The video that got me thinking:

Homily, May 17

We begin by watching a short film about the life of St. Dunstan. 

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

It’s interesting to study Dunstan. He is a figure of holy folklore, a man who is said to have miraculously levitated a falling beam. But he is, too,  an actual figure of historical significance – the great libraries of Britain hold manuscripts that bear Dunstan’s actual handwriting. Here is a page from a manuscript known as the Glastonbury Classbook, currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The big central figure is Jesus Christ, depicted as a king. But what you should notice is this little monk in his habit, down here in the corner, kneeling at Christ’s feet. This might be an actual self-portrait of, by, Dunstan. He’s known to have written manuscripts of this period, he began his career at Glastonbury, and he was an artist and craftsman. This is the image of Dunstan we keep in our icon corner at church – not an icon that makes Dunstan central, but this image that perhaps shows him the way he pictured himself: kneeling at the feet of Christ. 

(What it says:  Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas  – ‘I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me’).

There’s a lot to say about Dunstan, who lived an interesting life in interesting times. But today I want to focus on Dunstan the reformer.  Dunstan’s faith led him to a life of civic engagement that left Britain better than he found it. 

The Britain into which Dunstan was born was fractured, chaotic, and dangerous. It was only thirty years before his birth that Alfred the Great had begun to unify many small kingdoms into something resembling a nation – and that work was ongoing during Dunstan’s lifetime. 

Besides political divisions and frequent wars and skirmishes, for most people life was brutish and short. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, and oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent.

Dunstan committed his long life to supporting the project of a unified, orderly Britain, with education more widely available; common systems for money and commerce; and a fair and equally-applied judicial system. 

He is rightly remembered as a founder of monasteries & proponent of Benedictine monasticism; but for Dunstan, monasteries were a tool for reform. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.

Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. His lifetime and work spanned the reigns of eight kings. He was exiled by some, elevated to higher and higher positions of honor and influence by others. He pursued his vision with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. Dunstan’s life reminds us that while human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was. 

And over the course of Dunstan’s long, determined, faithful life, England did become a little more ordered, a little more just, a little safer. Something worked – and Dunstan’s role in those changes was honored, as he became celebrated as a saint within decades of his death. 

I think Dunstan the reformer stands out for me right now because I think we may be tempted to think that reform, the work of making things better for more, the work – as we see it as Christians – of making the community and world around us better reflect God’s intentions of justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, needs to start from a place of stability. It’s something people – usually people in authority – sometimes say: Now isn’t the time. Things need to be more  settled before we can work for improvement. 

But Dunstan and those who worked alongside him, did what they did in chaotic, violent, unsettled times.  As the great rabbi Hillel once said: If not now, when? 

In a few months, or weeks, we will be under immense pressure to get Back To Normal. It’s already starting, to some extent.  I hope that we will demand a better Normal than the one we had before. I hope that we will have the insight and courage to be choosy about what we want back in our lives, individually and especially collectively. 

What would we like to see better, on the other side of all this?

What will we to work and fight and vote and pray and give to build into the new Normal? 

I’d like our new Normal to value our health care workers, from janitors to surgeons, more.

And to better respect and better compensate the work of teachers and child care workers more.

I’d like our new Normal to recognize that minimum-wage hourly work is essential work, and makes those jobs more sustainable and livable. 

A society that listens when scientists tell us about the risks of how we’re living now, and responds by changing our behavior. What if we did that with climate change?….

I’d like our new Normal to extend our realization that we are connected. And that we need one another. 

What would you like to see become part of the emergent Normal, friends?… 

Sermon, March 8

Our lectionary – our Sunday cycle of Scripture readings – sometimes pairs our lessons by theme or topic. Sometimes there will be a thread that connects our Old Testament lesson with the Gospel or Epistle. Not always – sometimes we’re just reading along in each of our Scripture slots. But this is one of those Sundays – and the connection is pretty obvious. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is talking about Abraham, from the book of Genesis. (By the way, our passage from Genesis is before Abram’s name is changed to Abraham by God. But I’m going to follow Paul in just using the more familiar name Abraham.)

In this section of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul is laying out the case for how there can be righteousness before God outside of the Law. He doesn’t believe, and doesn’t want to say, that the Law – the way of holiness of the Jewish people – was a mistake. But he does want to say that there’s something more fundamental, a deeper faithfulness and holiness of life, that underlies both Jewish law and the Christian way. So he turns to Abraham – the father of Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The one to whom God first says, I will be your God, and you and your family and descendants will be My people. 

When God addresses Abraham in today’s text and says, Go! Leave everything familiar! I have something new for you! – this is the first time God has spoken to a human since Noah, ten generations earlier, as far as the Biblical text is concerned. Abraham has never even heard of God – THIS God, the God Israel comes to know by the holy name I AM. And yet, Abraham listens – and obeys. Paul says, Right from the start, Abraham trusted in God – and that trust counted as righteousness, before and therefore outside of the covenant. 

So, what Abraham teaches us about faith is, Just trust God. 

Well. Paul is oversimplifying Abraham’s story a lot. Here are some things I think Abraham teaches us about faith. 

First, God knows our deepest hopes and longings… and may use them to draw us into God’s purposes and projects. When our story begins, Abraham and Sarah are middle-aged and well-off. They are not sitting around thinking, “If only we could leave everything we know, set off on a risky journey to an unknown destination, enter into a perplexing relationship with a mysterious divine being that makes both joyful promises and terrifying demands, and become the parents of a new people and a new faith.”

But there is something they really really want. They want a child. A child they can name as their own. Their longing for parenthood is a theme for their entire story. And, to put it bluntly, it’s what God uses to get them on board with God’s agenda. 

When God says, “I will make of you a great nation,” God is promising Abraham that he will have descendants. That promise gets clearer and clearer as it is repeated in chapters 13, 15, 17, 18, and 22. 

God is making Abraham and Sarah an offer they can’t refuse. God has a little plan to found a new nation, who will be God’s people and learn God’s ways. And God tells them, Leave everything; change everything; become the people I call you to be; and I will give you a child. 

Don’t be surprised if God uses your deepest desires to draw you into a larger purpose. I’ve seen it happen. God can be sneaky like that. Maybe those deep longings get fulfilled in the end – maybe they don’t. Maybe they get healed or transformed; maybe they remain a lifelong ache. But in the meantime you’ve been woven into the fabric of God’s work within and among us, God’s work of reconciling and restoring, connecting and renewing and making whole.  

The second thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that trusting God is hard. In our passage from the letter to the Romans today, Paul is quoting from Genesis chapter 15. Here’s the passage: “God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6) A few verses later, Paul says,“Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”

Paul makes it sound like Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was immediate and complete. And that’s just not true. In Genesis chapters 17 and 18, first Abraham, and then Sarah, literally laugh at the idea that God is going to bring forth a child from their aged bodies. 

Abraham has something most of us don’t: God flat-out tells him God’s plans for his life. Most of us don’t get a memo that clear. We look for the places where our deep joy meets the world’s deep need, or where there’s a problem that we’re able to solve, or where we are able to use our gifts and skills to add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight… And we try to walk in that direction, as best we can. 

But God tells Abraham exactly what God wants Abraham to do, and what Abraham will get out of it; and Abraham STILL struggles to trust God. We see Abraham’s struggle with trust not only in the fact that God has to keep repeating Godself – God repeats God’s promise literally six times in ten chapters – but also in Abraham’s actions.

Right after today’s Genesis passage, there’s a famine in the area where Abraham and his family are staying. So they go into Egypt, where there’s more food. And Abraham has an idea. He tells Sarah, his wife, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” (12:11-13)

The artist James Tissot painted wonderful pictures of some moments in this cycle of stories. Here is Abraham explaining this plan to Sarah. 

SOOOO they go into Egypt and everyone admires Sarah and Abraham tells everyone that she’s his sister. And word gets to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, about this beautiful foreign woman, and he takes her into his household. No problem, right? Abraham should be delighted to have his sister become a companion to the King of Egypt! 

Except not so much. Fortunately, God is looking out for Sarah, if Abraham isn’t! Mysterious plagues affect the whole palace. One commentator suggests we imagine an awkward bedroom scene – perhaps Pharaoh is examining his sores and lamenting aloud, “Why is this happening?” And Sarah says, “Welllllll….” Pharaoh calls Abraham and says, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.” (12:18-19)

Okay, well, Abraham has just met God; maybe it’s understandable that he doesn’t really trust God yet. Except that MUCH later, in chapter 20, the EXACT SAME THING happens again with King Abimelech of Gerar. This time, after it’s revealed that Sarah is his wife, Abraham explains: Well, she IS actually my half-sister so it’s not a lie. And Abraham continues – I quote:  “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’” Not only does Abraham not trust God enough to look out for him and Sarah, and undertakes this weird lie that keeps putting his wife into risky situations, he’s now BLAMING GOD for putting him in the situation by sending him out to wander the world – and giving him such a beautiful wife…!

Paul concludes his passage on Abraham with these words: “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

I mean. 

Paul knows his Genesis, I’m sure. He’s brushing aside all the complexity of the story because he’s just using it to make a point. He doesn’t want to rehash the whole Abraham cycle like I do. But I don’t think he’s doing anybody any favors by insisting that it’s a simple, one-time choice to trust God’s goodness and God’s purposes in your life. He knew better. We know better. Trusting God is hard. Which brings me to point number three. 

The third thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that there’s a really fine line between following God’s call, and taking over from God. God has promised Abraham a child, a child of his own body. But years go by and it doesn’t happen. So Abraham and Sarah decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah has an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar. She says to Abraham, “Look, God has prevented me from having children. Why don’t you spend some time with my slave-girl? Maybe I can have children through her.” It’s a strange idea to us but this kind of quasi-surrogacy shows up again in the Jacob stories; it made some kind of sense in context. 

So Abraham follows Sarah’s suggestion, and Hagar gets pregnant. But far from being the ideal solution, it tips the household into crisis. Hagar is proud of her pregnancy and feels contempt towards Sarah; Sarah is bitterly jealous. She goes to Abraham in a rage, demanding that he do something. Abraham says, I dunno, she’s your slave, do what you want! And Sarah treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away into the wilderness. (Genesis 16:1-6)  

Nobody is admirable in this chapter of the story. 

The angel of the LORD finds Hagar in the wilderness, and tells her that she will bear a son, that she will become the mother of a great nation; and… that she must return to her mistress and submit to her. Tissot painted this scene too.

Hagar’s encounter with God in the wilderness is actually pretty remarkable. God is establishing a lineage, a tribe, with Abraham and Sarah – patriarchal and defined by ancestry. But here God acknowledges and includes a woman, an ethnic and racial outsider, as part of God’s story. Hagar is the first person in Scripture to name God: She calls God El-Roi, the One who Sees. 

God honors Abraham and Sarah’s mistake in making Hagar a tool, an object, in their quest for a son. But the story is pretty clear that it was a mistake. 

The thing is, I have 100% done things like this. Nothing quite this dramatic, mind you, but – I have definitely gotten impatient with God and taken matters into my own hands, making choices that I could see later had not been for the best. I know the feeling of getting a glimpse of God’s intentions and then doubling down on MAKING IT HAPPEN. 

It takes ongoing, thoughtful discernment to know the difference between the places where we should take steps towards what we need or want or hope for, and when we should wait and watch and listen for God to take the next step, or show us the path. Maybe that sounds abstract to some of you – but I have versions of this conversation with people ALL THE TIME. About seeking wellness, or clarity in a relationship, or a new career or place to live, or discerning a vocation – so much more. Having the courage to change the things we can, the serenity and trust to wait for God’s action or God’s guidance on the things we can’t, and above all, the wisdom to know the difference, is daily and lifelong spiritual work. Abraham and Sarah got it right sometimes and wrong sometimes. So do most of us. 

In the end Abraham and Sarah’s journeys of striving to trust and follow God look a lot like most of ours. Not a simple, total, one-and-done commitment, as Paul suggests. Instead, this is a story of wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, mistakes and missteps, seeking and only sometimes finding. 

But it’s also a story of God’s faithfulness and God’s patience. God doesn’t give up on Abraham and Sarah – even when they stray far from God’s hopes for them, even when they do stupid and hurtful stuff. God bears with them; God keeps working in their hearts and lives – for their sake and for the sake of all those whom God seeks to bless through them. 

So it is with us, beloveds. Faith in God – trust in God, a better translation – isn’t like a college degree that you achieve and then just have from then on. It is wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, seeking and only sometimes finding. What we can trust is that God is patient with us; God persists; and that the good things that God wants to do for us, and through us, are robust and flexible enough to survive our worst choices. With apologies to Paul, that is how I find encouragement in Abraham’s faith.

Sermon, Feb. 9

Are you grieving today, weighed down with loss? Are you timid, fearful; do you struggle to speak up for yourself and find what you need? Is your yearning for justice eating you up inside? You are LUCKY! You are HAPPY! You are BLESSED! 

Jesus is standing on a mountaintop – or at least a hilltop – and preaching about what it means to live a holy life. There’s surely an intentional echo here of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and teaching Israel how God calls them to live. And just as holy laws of the Torah called Israel to live differently than neighboring peoples, so too do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

There’s a lot here that did not align with conventional wisdom and cultural norms. Our Bible translation – most Bible translations – begin each of these lines with “Blessed.” But the Greek word there can just as easily be translated as Happy or Lucky.  I like that translation, because I think Jesus is being provocative at least as much as he’s being pious, here. In Luke’s version of this sermon, Jesus seems to call out the people in the crowd who are laughing – because these teachings make no sense!

The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – those softies and suckers? Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who get themselves arrested or beaten for what they believe is right? Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them.  What nonsense. 

Holy nonsense, divine foolishness, is a big theme in the early chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In chapter 1 he writes: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25) In chapter 2 he urges, Your faith must not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:5) And in chapter 3, he concludes, The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. (1 Cor 3:19)

On one level, Paul is concerned that other Christian teachers who have visited Corinth may be taking liberties with the Gospel – and getting away with it because they are such eloquent speakers. The people don’t realize that they’re changing the message because they sound so smart. Paul says, Just because somebody SOUNDS wise and insightful doesn’t meany they are. Bad and wrong things can be preached in beautiful, persuasive words. History certainly justifies his concern. 

At a deeper level, though, Paul is pointing to the paradox at the heart of Christianity: Christ crucified and risen. The one we call Savior and Lord was executed by the government. Not much of a Messiah! And then – we claim – he came back from the dead. Everyone knows that’s impossible. 

Paul doesn’t try to make Christian faith palatable to intellectuals. He says, Yes, it’s nonsense – holy, necessary nonsense. Look, says Paul: God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to human understanding – to the people of this age – but it carries deep truth, and profound hope. If you think you are wise, maybe you need more holy foolishness – to understand what Jesus said and did, and begin the lifelong work of following him and growing into his likeness. 

Who here reads romance novels and is willing to admit it? 

The popular image of romance novels is of mediocre writing, formulaic plots, and probably overblown, cringey descriptions of hugging and kissing. They’re seen as frivolous and escapist. How could romance novels accomplish any good in the world?

Let me tell you a story – a story about one of the most successful romance novel writers of all time. Her name was Ida Cook, though she wrote under the name Mary Burchell. 

Ida was born in England in 1904, to a happy, affectionate family. She and her older sister, Louise, were fast friends and lifelong companions. Biographers note that both sisters were notably plain. As young women, they shared an apartment in London and worked at clerical jobs. In 1923, they discovered opera, and fell in love with it. They bought a gramophone, and started attending operas whenever they could. They became superfans of some of the great opera stars of the day – writing fan letters and waiting outside stage doors for autographs. How feminine. How frivolous. How foolish. 

One of their faves was an opera singer named Amelita Galli-Curci. They wrote to her telling her they planned to save up for two years to come to New York and hear her sing. She wrote back, promising them free tickets to ALL her operas if they could get there! So, of course, they saved up and made it to the Big Apple. 

They became friends with Galli-Curci, and started meeting other opera stars too. 

Meanwhile, Ida writes an article for a sewing magazine about the dress she made for their New York trip. Then she starts writing and publishing short romantic stories… and then she’s invited to start writing for Mills and Boon, the major romance publisher in the UK. (Think Harlequin!) She’s good at it, and suddenly she’s making pretty good money.

Naturally, the sisters use that money to travel and see more opera all over Europe, especially in Germany. In 1934 they’re in Germany when a singer they know introduces them to another woman, asking the Cooks to look after her, since she’s traveling to England soon. Of course they agree. When they ask their new friend why she’s moving to England, she explains, “I’m Jewish – didn’t you know?”

Ida and Louise learn about what’s happening in Germany. The growing pressure on the Jews, the rising tide of danger and fear. Jews who can afford to leave, and have connections or opportunities abroad, are getting out. And Ida has a realization. She thinks about all the money she is making with her novels – and she realizes she could be using it to save lives. 

It’s hard to look back on now, knowing what we know, but both Britain and the United States were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees. They didn’t make it easy. To leave Germany for Britain at this point, in the mid-1930s, you needed to have proven income or cash reserves. The question wasn’t whether you were in mortal danger in your home country, but whether you would be a drain on public resources when you arrived. Practically, you needed someone in England to be your guarantor – to attest that you had resources and would be provided for.  

Ida starts using her book money to guarantee as many people as she can. And as requests for help start to stream in, the sisters organize friends to donate funds or be guarantors themselves. Ida buys an apartment where newly-arrived refugees can stay while getting settled in. The sisters keep traveling to Germany on weekends, to hear opera performances… and to connect with those seeking to leave the country, and help them along. They make heartbreaking decisions about who they can help, then work to get their visas through the British immigration system. 

Often, on their return journeys, they carried with them jewelry and other small, high-value goods belonging to the Jews they hoped to help leave Germany for England.The smuggling was necessary because Germany wouldn’t let Jews take their assets with them when they left; but they would certainly need assets to begin their new life in Britain. The smuggling was effective because people tended to ignore and underestimate Ida and Louise. One biographer describes them as “plain and anonymous in their tatty cardigans and Woolworth glass beads.” (Carpenter) Margaret Talbot writes, “The underestimation of women, especially women who might be dismissed on the basis of their looks, was a resource that Ida and Louise deployed for enormous good.” 

Talbot describes one case in which Ida and Louise were smuggling home a lot of valuable jewelry on behalf of a woman named Alice, who hoped to rejoin her jewels in England shortly. The sisters had a very anxious half-hour when German SS officers boarded the train at the German border to look for Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. They had a plan: IF the SS men asked them to open their handbags, they were going to do their “nervous British spinster act and insist, quite simply, that we always took our valuables with us, because we didn’t trust anyone with whom we could leave them at home.” (Cook quoted in Talbot) 

Talbot writes, “The Cooks had found that telling a lie that made them look meek and foolish was sometimes their best bet.” Meek and foolish… In this case, looking like ordinary, plain, middle-aged, middle-class white women did the trick, and the SS left them alone. 

The situation in Germany continues to deteriorate. Visas are harder and harder to get. People are disappearing before the Cooks can help them. Ida writes, “We cried, of course. And then we would start again. What else could we do?” She spends more and more time writing; the more books she publishes, the more money, the more lives she can save. As paths to escape become more and more scarce, the sisters speak at church groups; they hassle their friends; they approach strangers in restaurants. Always the message is: People are dying. If we pool our funds and guarantee them someplace to live, we might be able to get them out. 

Ida’s persistence and passion sometimes shake loose possibilities against all odds. In the Twitter thread that first brought Ida to my attention, John Bull writes that in August 1939, Ida received a letter from a Polish Jewish boy being held in a detention camp in Poland. He was on a waiting list to enter the United States, meaning he had a chance to get a visa to enter Britain on the way. But he was number 16500 or so on that waiting list – meaning it might be three years. People were already dying of starvation and disease all around him; he knew he did not have three years. 

Europe is on the brink of war. There is not a moment to lose. Ida finds a church group that will agree to take him in; she scrapes together the money to serve as his guarantee. She goes to the Immigration Office to organize his visa, and talks to the clerk who normally handles her cases.  “The woman looks aghast: They can’t give this kid a visa. New rules as of yesterday. Only people number 16,000 on the US list or under [can get visas.] Ida tells her that this kid will die if they don’t get him out. They need to do something. Then the clerk comes up with a plan and tells Ida to trust her. ‘Go home, and take this with you,’ she says, handing Ida the completed and signed application form. The next day, Ida gets an official letter from the clerk: ‘Please submit the missing paperwork we finalized three days ago.’ The clerk had found a way around the rule change: fudging the date on the application so it looked like it was filed before the new rules. The visa goes through. The child escapes – on the last boat of child refugees that is allowed to leave Poland. The last life the Cooks manage to save. 

Ida and Louse were directly involved in 29 emigration cases, many of which were families. They were indirectly involved in many others, as well. 

Bull writes, “Ida and Louise weren’t special. They were normal people and, by Ida’s own admission, terrified almost every step of the way. But once they had their eyes opened to what was happening, they knew they had to help. And Ida worked hard to try and make others see that too.” Ida herself wrote, “Terrified, agonized need can be ignored if it is attached only to a name on paper. Change [that] to a human who stammers out a frantic story, weeps difficult tears and asks for nothing but hopes for everything, and show me the ordinary person who can refuse.”

I want to be clear that one heart-warming story does not redeem the Holocaust. Mary and Ida saved perhaps fifty people. Hitler and those who went along with his regime murdered perhaps 11 million. This isn’t a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage can turn the tide of history – though I have to believe that sometimes it can. This is a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage might make a tiny difference, here and there; and helps us keep our souls, no matter the circumstances. 

Where is wisdom and where is foolishness, in Ida’s life and times? The wisdom of this age is found in quotas and fees and forms, bureaucratic barriers and waiting lists. The whole apparatus that made it harder and harder and finally impossible for Jews to flee Hitler’s final solution. All rational, modern, and deadly. 

Holy foolishness shows up in the subversive, strategic meekness of two ordinary, extraordinary middle-aged opera fans using romance novel royalties to save one life, and another, and another. 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. 

The Reverend Marcus Halley, dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, wrote recently: “To be Baptized is to … be brought into a way of life that is meant to pull a little more of the Kingdom of God into this world. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer and are called to let it *happen* in us. Our vocation… might look like a ministry within the church, but most likely it will be a ministry somewhere deep behind enemy lines in God’s world…  Wherever sin shreds human dignity, there is room for God’s people to exercise their vocation of healing, mending, and making whole… I want the Church to offer everyday, ordinary people an opportunity to do the extraordinary.” 

Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who approach strangers in restaurants about their cause, who smuggle jewels in their pocketbooks? The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – the softies and the suckers? Those who mourn – the ones who can’t look away, who refuse to get numb, the sad ones, the angry ones? 

Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them. What nonsense. May we all be so foolish. 


More on Ida Cook:

John Bull’s Twitter thread:

Louise Carpenter in Granta:

Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker:

The Rev. Marcus Halley on what church could be: