Reflection for the Marin Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service 2016

“May our prayers of thanksgiving come before you, O God, like the smoke of incense” (Psalm 141:2)

I have always appreciated the circle of welcoming at the Tuesday night Wellness Gatherings when we relax into the present moment, take a breath and become mindful of our bodies. Paul usually offers an invitation to be present to the here and now by simply saying something like, “Here we are.” And then we pass around a bundle of burning sage, smudging ourselves with the smoke and then handing it to the person beside us with a kind word of welcome. In this simple ritual, we hold each other in the circle without judgment and commit to holding all that may arise that evening without judgment, thus providing a foundation of gratitude and hospitality for the evening’s gathering. The sage reminds me that I have a body (something that I somehow often forget) and that this body is connected intimately to the earth, the plants and other bodies in the circle, made up of the same organic stuff, breathing in the same air.

A few weeks ago, I went to Standing Rock North Dakota, along with about 500 other clergy, to stand in solidarity with the water protectors. I camped there for several nights and participated in their sacred rituals around fire, water and smoke. Among the many layers of concerns, I was a little worried that I might find myself in a position in which a tobacco pipe was offered to me. I have had an addictive relationship with tobacco for decades and have just recently celebrated my one year of abstinence from cigarettes and nicotine, with the help of nicotine addicts anonymous. I didn’t want to offend any of the elders or water protectors of the Lakota Sioux by turning down a pipe but I also knew that a puff of tobacco could easily awaken my dormant addiction. However, when I was there, I learned that, for the Lakota Sioux, tobacco is indeed a holy herb but it is not meant to be smoked. They actually say that smoking cigarettes is abusing holy tobacco. Instead, they use tobacco the way we use sage on Tuesday nights: to welcome the present moment, to appreciate the gifts of the earth, and primarily to pray and give thanks to Creator. They pray by throwing pinches of tobacco (and other herbs) in the sacred fire (which has been tended since April) and every morning they perform a beautiful water ritual, led by the women, which involves prayerfully pouring pinches of tobacco and water into the river. These rituals of gratitude and hospitality provide a strong spiritual foundation for them as they risk their own health and safety in protecting the land and water, empowering them to nonviolently resist the violent police enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

These simple rituals of being present to ourselves and appreciating the fruits of the earth help us to be in right relationship with each other and the planet. Not only do they help us practice gratitude and hospitality, they also extend and amplify the spirit of love and non-violence that is inspiring and empowering the water protectors of Standing Rock. Paul sometimes has us stand in another circle at the end of our shared meal in order to recognize the truth that by simply eating together as a community we are contributing to the spiritual health of the entire world. We are, in a spiritual way, standing with Standing Rock. So I invite us tonight and tomorrow to enjoy the fruits of God’s green earth, not to use them in an abusive way to hurt our bodies or other bodies (as we sometimes do with tobacco or as the DAPL police are doing to the water protectors), but to use the fruits of the earth to help us pray, to welcome the present moment, and to give thanks to Creator.

“May our prayers of thanksgiving come before you, O God, like the smoke of burnt sage and holy tobacco. And during this season of thanks, may we amplify your holy spirt of love, hospitality, non-violence and gratitude. Amen.”

Marin Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service Tonight at 7 PM at First Presbyterian Church San Rafael


For the last five years, I have been working with the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplain (the Rev. Paul Gaffney) and have been honored to participate as a speaker in this beautiful Thanksgiving Eve service. There is something deeply encouraging and inspiring to me about gathering with members and leaders of different faith traditions in the spiritual practice of simply being present and giving thanks. I will be participating again as a speaker this year and I invite you to join me at 7 PM on Wednesday Nov 23 at First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael (1510 Fifth Ave). We will enter together into the abundance that can be enjoyed simply by consciously receiving what has already been given.   

The Secret Chord: Leonard Cohen and the Ketuvim

Several years ago, I wrote a paper comparing the lyrics of Leonard Cohen with the Ketuvim (the portion of the Jewish Bible including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles). Cohen’s recent passing has inspired me to revisit my own “old ideas” about one of my all time favorite poets and musicians. I am thankful to Dr. John Goldingay at Fuller Theological Seminary for encouraging me and guiding me through this reflection back in 2006…

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As King David prepared Israel for the reign of his successor Solomon, he assembled four thousand cohenim “to offer praises to the LORD with musical instruments” (I Chronicles 23:5). About 3,000 years later, a descendant of the cohenim has, until recently, continued to offer his praises to the LORD with a transcendent poetry and a startling humanity reminiscent of the Hebrew Scripture’s ketuvim.[1]

The Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen has been called “a prophetic voice in music…[with an] almost biblical significance and authority.”[2] Influenced at an early age by the Hebrew Scriptures, which “would send shivers down [his] spine,”[3] Cohen’s lyrics hold a spiritual depth and sensuality not unlike that of the Hebrew ketuvim. His sultry voice and pleasantly simple tunes give his profound lyrics prominence in his music, thus making his spiritual message unmistakably present: that is, to be human is to attempt to revere G-d and love the other sincerely and sometimes sensually in the midst of our limitations, finitude and sexuality. With a message deeply indebted to and remarkably similar to the Hebrew Writings, Leonard Cohen invites his listeners to contemplate the wisdom found in his first muse: the ketuvim. In doing so, we will find, in the Writings, a wisdom that, in turn, will challenge Cohen’s message and perhaps even our own spirituality and modus vivendi.

Perhaps his most famous song (thanks to Jeff Buckley’s heartbreaking rendition and other artists’ interpretations), “Hallelujah” serves as a tour de force of Cohen’s poesy, commingling sex and the sacred, referencing Scripture and offering a ketuvim-like message.


The Secret Chord

            The song “Hallelujah” begins in the Psalter, where we are invited to sit and listen to the Psalmist play. Cohen writes,

I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Cohen incites his listeners to peer into the Psalter to discover the secret chord that will please the LORD. Although we might not believe that sound can carry any sort of G–d – pleasing vibrations, Cohen and the Psalter both suggest that it is good and fitting to make music to the LORD. Yet the “secret chord” is so much more than a simple strum on a stringed instrument.           Though Cohen describes a basic chord progression of pop music in his lyrics (“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…”), he is also suggesting the elements that make up a LORD – pleasing prayer: reaching out to the divine for guidance, protection and salvation (the fourth, the fifth, the major lift) and yet also remaining profoundly and painfully aware of humanity, sin and finitude (the minor fall). The ketuvim are a medley of minor falls and major lifts, earthy pragmatics and transcendent pleas.

Psalm 51 serves as an example of this mixture, beginning on a clear note of petition: “Have mercy on me, O G–d, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Then, the psalmist takes the petition a step further by asking G–d to give her a bath, believing that a divine wash would eradicate all her iniquity and sin.[4]

After looking up to G–d for mercy and a bath, the psalmist looks upon herself and describes her sin in what Leonard Cohen calls the “minor fall”: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Then, the psalmist returns to the petition (the “major lift”): “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me…”

Cohen completes the verse, “The baffled king composing, ‘Hallelujah’” and that is exactly what the psalmist promises to do after the final petition for mercy: “My tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance…my mouth will declare your praise” (14-15). The Psalm then climaxes with a conclusion that might be the key note in what Leonard Cohen dubs the “secret chord”: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (16-17). This conclusion resonates with a chorus from another Cohen song called “The Window”:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Our broken spirit and our contrite, cracked selves perhaps prove more pleasing to G–d and useful than burnt offerings. Perhaps being wholly vulnerable and raw before the divine requires more trust and courage than offering a sacrifice at the temple. Here, Cohen and the ketuvim seem to suggest a similar approach to revering and pleasing G–d: bring your finite and fragmented self to the LORD as an offering; come before his presence with your weakness, limitations and failures.

Femme Vitale

Cohen’s second verse of “Hallelujah” explores the femme fatale with his trademark technique of using biblical imagery to suggest sexual intimacy:

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Intimately aware of the strange and overwhelming power that a woman can have over a man, Cohen borrows imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures (particularly from the account of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah), which certainly also affirm the power of femininity. Women, in the ketuvim, are seen as forces to be reckoned with; a man, no matter how strong or powerful or spiritual, turns into a helpless babe in the presence of a woman. The Writings overflow with stories of women gaining power and influence over men. In the story of Esther, a woman uses her beauty to influence a king and thus prevent genocide against her people. In the story of Ruth, a woman takes initiative with a man and thus saves herself and mother–in–law from shame and starvation. In the Song of Songs, a woman proves just as forceful and feisty in sexual intimacy as any man. Yet unlike Cohen, who seems to focus on the destruction women often bring, the ketuvim recount stories of women using their feminine wiles to prevent death and bring about life.

Of course, the Writings also recognize the reality of the femme fatale. In Proverbs, the student is advised to steer clear of the wayward woman, who will lure you into herself until you are trapped, broken, broke and powerless (Prov. 5:8-10). The woman serves as the personification of waywardness in order to convey how attractive unruliness can be and how easily one can fall into it. Women are not the personification of looseness because women are naturally wayward (certainly not!), but rather because women are so damn attractive and men desire them so passionately. At the same time, Proverbs uses a woman as the personification of wisdom, again suggesting how a woman’s feminine charm may also bring good.

With this comparison, we see Cohen and the ketuvim both agreeing on the power a woman holds over a man and the potential harm she can bring. However, the ketuvim also offers more positive perspectives on the woman as a femme vitale, as a woman using her power over men to bring life.

 Lovers and Beautiful Losers

Another verse of Hallelujah again suggests sexual intimacy while remaining vague and ambiguous,

I did my best. It wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

 These lines express an attempt to love sensually and sincerely. Cohen tries to be the best lover he can be, but he knows he has limitations. And he knows the importance of naked honesty in love and sexuality.

Cohen leads us to explore the Song of Songs wherein we discover a love that involves taking turns, giving and receiving, initiating and accepting, and sharing one another (2:16, 6:3). “Hallelujah” taps into this love that is not satisfied with merely receiving and taking love (“I couldn’t feel”), but desires to give and make love as well (“so I tried to touch”). The second half of this sexually–charged verse reads:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Here Cohen taps into a theme that plays out profoundly in the Writings: worshipping God in the midst of terrible loss and misery. Job, after losing all his possessions and children, exclaimed, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).[5]

In the book of Lamentations, a similar offering of praise is made amidst misery. After describing famished babies dying on the streets (2:11-12, 19, 4:4), groaning priests (1:4), raped women (5:11) and ravenous mothers eating their own children (2:20, 4:10), the lamenter reaches out to God in hope: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:19-23).

Offering praise in the midst of desolation not only reveals a deep faith in G–d, but also holds G–d accountable. Rolf Jacobson explains how praise can be used against G–d.[6] Holocaust survivor and best-selling author Elie Wiesel writes, in times of extreme injustice, “the only way to accuse G–d is by praising him.”[7] By praising G–d, we remind him of his goodness and steadfast love. When we see the world around us as everything but good and loving, we are in fact accusing G–d by praising him for something that we clearly cannot see. We are throwing theodicy in G–d’s face by saying, “G–d, you are loving and you are sovereign. I am suffering in a world that is out of control and not loving, but G–d, you are loving and you are sovereign.” Instead of asking G–d the question, “How can you be loving and sovereign when everything around me points to the contrary?,” praise, instead, begs the question. Praise makes G–d ask the question. The author of Lamentations, Job and even Leonard Cohen might all be accusing G–d of injustice by praising his name, by singing, “Hallelujah.”

Cohen’s verse also reminds me of a verse in Proverbs, which reads, “A man’s own folly wrecks his life, and then he bear a grudge against the Lord” (Prov. 19:3). This proverb suggests the absurdity in blaming G–d for our own mistakes. However, other books in the ketuvim, like Job, suggest that sometimes it is not our fault when it all goes wrong. This verse and this proverb invite us to ask ourselves, “When all things do go wrong and when all my plans crumble before me, whom do I blame?”

With this verse, we again see similarity between “Hallelujah” and the Writings. Cohen describes a give–and–take sensuality as seen in the Song of Songs and hope (or accusatory praise?) in the midst of horrible circumstances as seen in Job and Lamentations. Another verse from “Hallelujah” begins:

Maybe there’s a God above

But as for me, all I’ve ever learned from love

Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

In the first line of this verse, we see Cohen and the ketuvim no longer holding hands. Although the ketuvim is full of doubts and questions, the question of God’s existence is never taken seriously. In fact, we do not see the question even asked. Also, Cohen’s lessons from love are far more negative, depressing and vindictive than those suggested in the ketuvim. Although Cohen seems to tap into the love described in the Song of Songs in an earlier verse, we see here that Cohen has oversimplified love into a vengeful response to pain. Returning to the Song of Songs, we can see the ketuvim offering a much more complex, mysterious and paradoxical perspective of love.

Amidst luscious fragrances and pastoral imagery, we discover, in Song of Songs, a love that is better than wine (1:2, 3:10), that excites the deepest part of the soul (1:7), that arouses great delight (2:3) and generosity (2:4), that can be so potent that it will wear one out and make one faint (2:5, 5:8), that is to be treasured and held close (1:13), that involves searching, longing (3:1, 5:6) asking (3:3), and holding (3:4). It involves seeing beauty and even flawlessness in the beloved (4:7). It is ravishing (4:9), intoxicating (5:1) and enflamed by sexual desire (7:10). It involves seeing the other as a sexual object (7:10); yes, but not just as a sexual object, also as a friend (5:16) on whom to lean (8:5). Strong as death, fiercely passionate and an unquenchable fire (8:6-7), this love is worth more than one’s entire wealth (8:7).

Song of Songs also recognizes the danger and possible pain that love can bring. Throughout the Song of Songs, a warning is given three times: “do not awaken or arouse love before it is ready” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). The song remains silent or at least ambiguous about the “right time” to love and about the consequences of loving at the “wrong time.” Nonetheless, the warnings seem to encourage lovers to be patient and wait for their love to fully bloom, aware that sexual love in the wrong context can be profoundly damaging. Ironically, however, the song ends with a call to make haste (8:14). Perhaps the song calls the reader to live the paradox of patiently making haste when it comes to love.

If love is this complex, then the lessons learned from it certainly go far beyond “shooting at someone who outdrew you.” The rest of the verse reads:

It’s not a complaint you hear tonight

It’s not someone who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and a very lonely hallelujah

These lines follow directly after the lines above so the “It” remains somewhat ambiguous based on the context. “It” could be love or even G–d. Most likely, “it” refers to the “it” used in the What’s-it-all-about question: What is life all about? What is being human all about? According to Leonard Cohen, life is not about complaining and it is not even about mystical, life–changing experiences. Life is about being cold and lonely and learning to accept it. Life is about failing and learning to be content with the failure. Real life happens when “you abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real masterpiece.” ‘It’ is “being unable to fulfill [your mandated mission] and then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it, that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.”[9]

Cohen gives special attention to those who have failed, the man whose folly has wrecked his life (Prov. 19:3), the “beautiful loser.”[10] He seems to see this beautiful loser as one with a broken spirit and contrite heart, as one able to play the secret chord that will please the LORD. According to Leonard Cohen, this beautiful loser is more holy than the psalmist in a lament or even Job who has seen G–d in a stormy theophany. “The cold and very lonely hallelujah” is so much more earthy and real and human to Cohen. He can relate to it. He can relate to saying, “I’m tired and lonely and G–d feels far away, but I will praise him anyway.”

The ketuvim affirms that sentiment, as we see in Job and Lamentations. However, the ketuvim sees more to love than shooting at someone who outdrew you. And according to the ketuvim, love and life do involve complaining and yes, sometimes even mystical, life–changing experiences, sometimes even the loud and audible voice of G–d. The ketuvim affirms the beautiful loser’s hope and praise, but also invite us into “genuine covenant interaction” with the divine,[11] to stand up for ourselves with an “ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith,”[12] to rail against G–d and even to accuse G–d.

In conclusion, the Hebrew Writings prove to offer a wider, more inclusive and often more positive understanding of revering G–d and loving the other in the midst of our finitude. However, Cohen’s special attention to the broken, lonely, beautiful losers in the world who have lost everything, who have been destroyed by women and who still offer G–d praise remains, I believe, a key to the secret chord that is wholly pleasing to the LORD. The ketuvim, however, seems to see more notes on that chord.



I acknowledge that a major problem with my argument is that I am comparing all 12 books of the Writings to only one song of Leonard Cohen. So of course the ketuvim will include more variety. There are several very different books in the Writings and I am only looking at one tiny (although magnificent) fragment of Leonard Cohen’s work. Due to limited time and space, I could not offer more texts from Cohen’s ouvre (songs, poetry, novels, interviews, etc.). However, I spent a great deal of time listening to Cohen’s music, reciting his poetry, reading his novels, and watching Lian Lunson’s wonderful 2005 documentary. As a result, I believe I got a good grasp on Leonard Cohen and his message. I also believe that the song “Hallelujah” represents his message well.


[1] The Ketuvim is Hebrew for “Writings” and refers to the following books of the Jewish Bible the TaNaKh): Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the Scrolls (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther), Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

[2] U2 guitarist the Edge says, “Leonard is this almost prophetic voice in music for me. He’s got this almost biblical significance and authority” in Lian Lunson’s video documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).

[3] From Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).

[4] Goldingay suggests that some psalmists were female, declaring, “Outside the Psalms many of the main prayer – composers of the Old Testament are women (e.g. Exodus 15:21, Judges 5:1, 1 Samuel 2:1), so maybe inside the psalms, too.” Goldingay, 504 Reader Fall 06, p. 57. For this reason, I refer to the speaker of Psalm 51 as a female, while fully aware that whenever a psalmist uses a first person participle, it is always masculine.

[5] According to the NIV, Job 13:15 reads, “Though he slay, yet will I trust him.”

[6] See Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise” in Theology Today 57 (3), October 2000.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Legends of our Time (New York: Avon, 1978), 38.

[8] Leonard Cohen quote from Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Beautiful Losers” is the title of Leonard Cohen’s most popular novel. Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (New York: Vintage, 1993), originally published in 1966.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 60.

[12] Brueggemann, Psalms and Life of Faith, 61.

Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest

Readings for the Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:


Isaiah 65:17-25

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on November 13, 2016.

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 embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

An egomaniacal, xenophobic and misogynistic tyrant rose to the highest office in the world’s most powerful country. Many uneducated and educated people believed that this tyrant was chosen to rule as the nation’s leader by God, including an educated man from Nottinghamshire. In fact, this educated man from Nottinghamshire, who earned a doctorate and married a woman named Joan, actually experienced this tyrant as quite charming and charismatic. However, even though this man respected and admired the tyrant, he struggled to come to terms with the tyrant’s fraught relationships with women. The country of which I speak is England, the tyrant is King Henry VIII and the educated man from Nottinghamshire is the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the primary author of the original Book of Common Prayer of 1549; and also the author of this morning’s Collect prayer, which encourages us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the holy Scriptures.

As Thomas Cranmer struggled to navigate King Henry VIII’s fraught relationships with women, he sought wisdom and guidance in the holy Scriptures, which he himself tried to prayerfully read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. In fact, he wanted all the people of England to read and inwardly digest the holy Scriptures, which is why he hired Myles Coverdale to publish the first English Bible authorized for public use, which was called the “Great Bible.” This “Great Bible” was distributed to every church in England so that everyone could finally hear the Bible in their mother tongue (thus fulfilling the dream of John Wycliff that the Bible be within reach of “every boy that driveth the plough”).

It is appropriate that this Sunday’s Collect invites us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures, because Redeemer is now among the few Episcopal parishes in the world that includes in the pews a Holy Bible. So feel free to read and mark those Bibles throughout the service, even while I’m preaching. Unlike the Bibles in your pew, the “Great Bible” of Thomas Cranmer and Myles Coverdale was actually chained to the pulpit. I imagine this was done primarily to ensure that the Great Bible not be stolen, but also to provide some limitations upon who exactly could access and interpret these Holy Scriptures, which could be quite tricky and even perilous for readers who are not properly prepared or trained.

For example, the holy Scriptures were used to both condemn and defend Henry VIII’s behavior. Similarly, they have been used to justify atrocious acts of hate and violence as well as to inspire non-violent movements of love and liberation. In its simplicity, the Bible can indeed be accessible to a young child; but simultaneously, in its complexity, it can remain profoundly difficult and opaque, even for scholars who spend their lives studying it.

Pope Gregory the Great (who actually appointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury a thousand years before Thomas Cranmer) compared the holy Scriptures to a river in which a lamb may wade and an elephant can swim. In our recent election, both Republicans and Democrats used the Bible to defend their views and endorse their candidates, so today we might use political symbols to say that the Scriptures are like a river in which a donkey may wade and an elephant can swim.

In his own politically divisive time, Thomas Cranmer devoted himself to prayerfully studying these holy Scriptures. He saw the Scriptures being used and abused for political reasons and being wielded as a weapon of mass discrimination. Cranmer’s prayer for us was not that we wield the Bible as a weapon to justify slavery, racism, misogyny or violence. His prayer was that we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the holy Scriptures, that we allow the Scriptures to become a part of us, to form us as water forms rocks in a stream; that we allow the Scriptures to read us and to reveal to us our shadows and secret motivations.

Cranmer said, “In the Scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be very [refined] and pure [food]. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he shall learn.” But how do we properly digest these fat pastures of the soul?

This morning I want to offer one interpretive tool to help us read and inwardly digest the Scriptures. As Christians, we read the holy Scriptures in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ; and in Christ, God reveals Godself to us as someone vulnerable and ultimately a victim to religious and political violence. In this way, God reveals Godself as loving, non-violent and always on the side of victims. So whenever we oppress and victimize others, we are working against God, we are oppressing and victimizing God. As Jesus said, “Whatever you do or do not do to the least of these, you do unto me.” God did not reveal Godself to us as Caesar, as a violent tyrant or victorious emperor but rather as a victim of imperial violence, betrayed by his friends and ultimately lynched. In fact, Jesus’s harshest criticism was against those who used religions and Scripture as a weapon to oppress and marginalize others. My favorite singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died this week, followed in the same Jewish prophetic tradition of Jesus when he rejected those who used Scripture as a weapon of mass discrimination. He wrote, “I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd [. . .] the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud [. . .] They’ve summoned, they’ve summoned a thundercloud and they’re going to hear from me. Ring the bells that still can ring.”

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus warns us to steer clear from that lawless crowd and to not place our trust in impressive structures, in towers, and walls, again reminding us that God ultimately does not reveal Godself to us as a business tycoon or tyrant, but as a vulnerable human defending other vulnerable humans. Throughout all of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus reiterates his message and mission which he announces clearly at the beginning of his ministry: “I have come to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus Christ, who is our guiding light for reading and inwardly digesting all of the holy Scriptures, explains that his mission is all about proclaiming good news and liberation to society’s victims. That is our lens for reading Scripture. The Gospel must be understood as good news for everybody, especially for those who are poor, marginalized and oppressed, otherwise it is not the Gospel. So whenever Jesus says or does something in the Scriptures that might appear, on the surface, to be unloving or oppressive towards victims, we are invited to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and interpret the text more carefully and prayerfully. And whenever God says or does something in the Scriptures (especially the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament) that might appear to be violent and abusive towards victims, we are again invited to inwardly digest and interpret more carefully and prayerfully, in light of Christ’s explicit mission to protect and liberate the oppressed.

Likewise, our mission, as followers of Christ, is to defend the poor and the vulnerable, which is the primary message of our holy Scriptures. James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” to care for the vulnerable (James 1:27). This biblical message transcends any political party. God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Rather, God is deeply concerned with society’s victims (including the planet) and God calls us to protect and stand up for the vulnerable. And this is the work that our readings this morning call us to continue pursuing, especially when it is challenging and tiresome. Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” (2 Thess 3:13)

And Church of the Redeemer will not be weary in doing what is right. We will offer this place as a sacred space for meditation, reflection, spiritual transformation and inward digestion of the holy Scriptures, those “fat pastures of the soul.” We will continue to offer our meditation gatherings once a week and our Full Moon Labyrinth Walks once a month. (In fact, tomorrow, we will be offering both on the same night and I encourage you to come to one or both.) We will continue to serve the residents of the Tamalpais retirement community, the hungry guests at St. Vincent de Paul’s and the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy. We will continue our work in stopping hunger worldwide. And we will continue to educate and plant seeds of hope and compassion in the lives of young children at Redeemer preschool as well as in our own hearts as we gather here to pray, fellowship and receive spiritual nourishment in the bread and wine made holy.

We will continue to defend the vulnerable, including the people, the land and the water of Standing Rock ND and all those who are now especially vulnerable to hate, violence and bigotry, in the aftermath of a bitter and deeply divisive election season. By protecting the vulnerable, we will risk becoming vulnerable ourselves. And we will continue to fulfill Thomas Cranmer’s prayer as we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the empowering and comforting words of Jesus, who promises us that “not one hair of our head will perish and by our endurance we will gain our souls.” May we endure, embrace and ever hold fast to that most blessed hope of everlasting life, in which our souls and God become one in love. Amen.