Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
December 5, 2018
Philippians 3:7–14; 4:10–13; Qur’an 3:159; 42:38; 2:185


When I was a kid, I lived in a neighborhood that had woods on one end. As our house was at the end of the block, these woods were effectively my back yard. And I spent hours exploring the woods and walking along the creek that went its way through them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was one part of the woods that I called “the crooked forest” because it had some of the strangest trees in it. One was shaped like a lowercase ‘h’, bent in a horseshoe shape nearly entirely over before reaching back up to the sky. Another jutted out sideways for a bit and then sharply angled back up. Still others had strange twists and turns in their paths toward the sunlight in the forest canopy above.

I long wondered: what happened to those trees? Was it a snowstorm that bent them? Did another tree fall onto a sapling bending it before it sprang up again? And how did this happen to more than one tree? I never knew what it was and never figured it out. But it was clear: something had happened to those trees. Something had bent them into very un-tree-like shapes. But whatever that something was, it had not prevailed; the trees now reached for the light. Continue reading


Shared Stories

I can remember my parents explaining a number of things to me about college before I left: what early morning anthropology classes were like, what a “credit hour” was, and how it worked with roommates. “They’ll assign you someone your freshman year as a roommate but more than likely you won’t live with that person after that. You’ll make a friend somewhere and you’ll probably live with that person after your freshman year.”

So, I will admit that I was surprised to discover that not only would I room with my freshman year suite-mates sophomore year, but with one or another of them junior year, senior year, and my year of grad school. In fact, of the four suite-mates I had my first year, three of them remain among my closest friends in the world to this day.

I have kept in touch with each of them individually since we graduated, and on occasion three of us might be in the same space at the same time for a wedding, but the four of us had not been in the same physical space since we graduated in 1990, twenty-eight years ago.

Last weekend, we fixed that and got together in New York for something of a reunion. I had proposed the idea a couple of months before because I missed seeing everyone and thought that the opportunity to get together would be a lot of fun. I was right about that. What I did not anticipate was just how meaningful it would be. Continue reading

The Desolating Sacrilege

In the apocalyptic vision found in the biblical Book of Daniel, mention is made of a “contemptible person” who arises through deceit and intrigue to take power. In the exercise of his power he persecutes and afflicts the faithful, armed forces occupy and profane the holy temple, and they perform a “desolating sacrilege” that renders the sacred space unfit for worship.

This passage and the rest of such passages in Daniel likely refer to the persecution and oppression of the Jewish people by the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who forbade the studying of the Torah, forcibly tried to Hellenize the Jews, and committed the abominable act of sacrificing a pig upon the holy altar of the Temple, desolating it through an act of idolatrous sacrilege.


The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

While this passage is about a struggle nearly 2200 years ago, it is hard not to think of these words in light of the horrific killing of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more descriptive term than sacrilege to characterize the murder of innocent worshipers in a house of prayer. This violent act profanes a space meant for community, safety, and comfort. Indeed, the taking of a life is itself a sacrilege—defiling with the idols of violence and hate the temple of flesh that houses the spirit of God.

Those who hate have made an idol of their hate. They worship at its altar and at that of violence for the purported deliverance from trouble they claim to offer. They worship idols of hate and violence that are no less desolating of the sanctity of our common life than the sacrifice of a pig on the altar of the temple was.

Later in the passage from the Book of Daniel mentioned above, the text reveals that the idolatrous oppressor king shall seduce with intrigue “those who violate the covenant.”  “But,” it continues, “the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action.” (Dan. 11:32)

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by acts of violence and to witness so many people seemingly surrendering to the idols of hate and violence. But we who would be “the people who are loyal”—to justice, to peace, and to love—cannot allow the idols of hate and violence to go unchallenged. We cannot allow the desolating sacrilege to have the last word. Indeed, in the words of Daniel, it falls to us to “stand firm and take action.”

A Little Shameless Self-Promotion

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue by Wipf & Stock.

The book is the culmination of a lot of writing and reflection on the topic of uncertainty and doubt, including a number of sermons preached on the topic.

The book is written in response to the fact that the world is full of people who are very certain—in politics, in religion, in all manner of things. In addition, political, religious, and social organizations are marketing certainty as a cure all to all life’s problems. But is such certainty possible? Or even good?

Cover art for The Certainty of Uncertainty

The Certainty of Uncertainty explores the question of certainty by looking at the reasons human beings crave certainty and the responses we fashion to help meet that need. The book takes an in-depth view of religion, language, our senses, our science, and our world to find the inescapable certainties therein. We come to see that the certainty we crave does not exist.

As we reflect on the unavoidable uncertainties in our world, we come to understand that embracing uncertainty and doubt is not only necessary, it’s beneficial. For, in embracing doubt and uncertainty, we find a more meaningful and courageous religious faith, a deeper encounter with mystery, and a way to build strong relationships across religious and philosophical lines. In The Certainty of Uncertainty, we see that embracing our belief systems with humility and uncertainty can be transformative for our selves and for our world.

For more information about the book, including excerpts and previews, visit the book website:

The Certainty of Uncertainty can be purchased immediately from Wipf & Stock or pre-ordered from Amazon.

5 Things to Bear in Mind about that Passage concerning “The Governing Authorities.”

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. —Romans 13:1–7 (NRSV)

These words have been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of days, primarily because Attorney General Jeff Sessions used this passage to justify the separation of children from their asylum seeking parents at the southern U.S. border.

It has been pointed out that this passage was used by slaveholders in the American South to justify the institution of slavery and to demand the obedience of slaves to the slaveholding system. It has been further pointed out that this passage was also used by the Deutsche Christen (the “German Christians”) in Nazi Germany to justify subservience to the Nazi state. Both of those things are true.

But the question for us is, given the apparent clear language of this passage, how do we make sense of what seems to be a straightforward Biblical admonition to submit to governmental authority? To understand this passage and what it means for us today, we have to bear a few things in mind. Continue reading

Read! In the Name of Your Lord

Some years ago, I joined in the Ramadan fast as a gesture of solidarity with a friend. I found the practice incredibly meaningful and have continued doing so since then. For me, the Ramadan fast has simultaneously been a declaration of solidarity with my friends, with my Muslim students, and a source of spiritual discipline and deep meaning for me.

The past two years, however, I decided to add to that spiritual discipline. I decided I was going to try to read the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. I only fully succeeded the first year, making it all the way through. This year, I did read a substantial portion, but fell behind due to travel and never quite caught up. Continue reading

A Prayer for the WCL Class of 2018

The following was delivered as the invocation at the Commencement Ceremony for the American University Washington College of Law.

Blessed are you O Lord, Our God, ruler of the universe,
     who has granted us life, who has sustained us,
          and who has helped us to reach this season
, [1]
     “who executes justice for the oppressed;
          who gives food to the hungry.” [2]

In your grace, you have given us the Law
     and instilled in our hearts a desire for justice
          tempered by mercy.
     In pursuit of the knowledge of law
          these graduates have long labored
               (and perhaps long suffered)
          and come now
          to the end of their studies.

We gather this day to celebrate and give thanks:
     Thanks for this day and the gift of life;
     Thanks for the friends and family who have come
          from near and far
     Thanks for this University,
          for the faculty and staff
               for their instruction
                    their mentoring and guidance
                    their example and testimony;
And most of all, we give thanks for these graduates:
     for the gifts with which you have blessed them;
     for the blessing they will be to a world in need.

Help them—
     Indeed help all of us who have taken on the calling of the Law
     To remember the purposes
          for which the Law has been put forth,
          the task to which we have been summoned

On this Festival of Shavuot,
Let us hear the words spoken to us in your Torah:
     “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” [3]
and hear the words proclaimed by your prophets:
     to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the
          orphan, plead for the widow.” [4]

On this Pentecost Sunday,
Let us hear the words of One who reminded us
     not to neglect “the weightier matters of the law:
     justice and mercy and faith.” [5]

On this Fifth Day of Ramadan
Let us hear the words brought by your Messenger:
     “Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves.” [6]

And so, Author of all Righteousness,
     that in a world of injustice
          our graduates might be agents of justice;
     that in a world of division,
          they might be agents of reconciliation;
     that in a world of conflict,
          they might be agents of peace;
     that in a world of unfairness,
          they might be agents of equity;
     that in a world where the voices of so many are drowned out
          they might with their advocacy amplify those voices;
     that in a world in which so many are pushed to the margins,
          they might through their work draw all to the center.
     that in a world of rising authoritarianism,
     and in a world of rising chaos and disruption
          they might be agents of that ‘ordered liberty’
          that binds your people into a free and just society.
     that they may work for a world in which
     “justice may roll down like waters
     and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” [7]

And now, O God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, [8]
Send them forth in love and wisdom,
     with the boldness of vision
          and the fearlessness of hope,
     so that in all things they may testify to that hope
          in a world in need of their witness,
          now more than ever.
And let us say: Amen.


[1]Traditional Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu.

[2]Ps. 146:7

[3]Deut 16:20

[4]Is 1:17

[5]Matt 23:23

[6]Qur’an 4:135

[7]Amos 5:24

[8]From, the traditional Islamic blessing, the Bismillah.