December 24, 2008

Bit Parts

by Brian Volck
Luke 2:22-40

Mary and Joseph, following the Law of Moses, bring their son to the temple in Jerusalem offering a sacrifice of two pigeons. The birds themselves were of little consequence, yet necessary, the material fulfillment of the Torah. As Luke’s Jesus later puts it, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:6)

As the new parents go about their business, Simeon (usually pictured as quite old, an extrapolation from his exclamation “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace,” the words of the nunc dimittis prayer traditionally chanted at Compline) wanders in, takes the baby in his hands, and says some alarming things, not the standard small talk made over a newborn.

Next, Anna – whom we’re told is eighty-four years old and never leaves the temple – makes over the baby, too, speaking “of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her exact words don’t concern Luke; it’s just one more bit of strangeness in an already odd scene.

The family then heads back home to obscurity in Nazareth, where the boy grows in strength and wisdom. We will hear much more about him, but not another word regarding Simeon and Anna who, we can assume, have little left to do but die offstage, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of that Imperial Podunk province, Judea. Outside of Luke, there’s no mention of them at all. In Jesus’ story, they are of little consequence, but Luke finds them compelling enough for half a chapter in a short narrative.

Like these two elderly busybodies, we too have bit parts to play, though it’s unlikely anyone will think of – much less read about – us two millennia on. We are anything but important actors is the cosmic theodrama, yet not one of us, we’re told, is forgotten in the sight of God. In entering Creation so humbly, the God revealed in Jesus fills the smallest things with utmost consequence. Not only the outline of our lives, but every detail is brightly illuminated by the light that is Christ, like blades of grass in the raking dawn sun.

There’s great freedom in being at once inconsequential and fully known, trivial and eternally beloved. We can go about the business we’re called to without worrying about making our mark in history, without having to guarantee the outcome. Someone else is taking care of that.


December 16, 2008

Revolution Now!

by Joel James Shuman
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89 (Luke 1:46-55); Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38 (The Fourth Sunday of Advent)

The excitement, celebration, and anticipatory hope for change attending the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has in recent weeks been replaced in the public eye by another image – that of bankers, brokers, and corporate executives sitting before members of Congress and the mass media warning us in language reminiscent of Revelation 6 that the world is on the verge of collapse and that unless the American people, via our faithful servants in Congress, give them hundreds of billions of dollars, we face the imminent specter of horsemen bearing war, famine, pestilence, and death.

These are perilous, even apocalyptic times, warn the persistent, cacophonic blare from the talking heads on our televisions and radios. Lives are at stake. Jobs are at stake. Homes are at stake. Pensions are at stake. Stock options and executive bonuses and corporate jets are at stake. And unless the wisdom of the Armani-suited sages is heeded, everything could come crashing down, right on top of our overextended heads. Time is short. For God’s sake, give us the money so we can fix this thing!

Maybe. My knowledge of finance and macroeconomics is rudimentary at best, and not even the experts can agree on what nefarious forces have colluded to bring about the crisis. I have no wish to make light of the real suffering that has already occurred and the more that is bound to come, especially to those at the bottom of the pile, but one thing that seems perfectly clear is that we are reaping the harvest of our collective greed. Acquisitive desire, the engine of a consumer economy, may well be limitless, but at some point, at least in a finite world of finite resources (like the one we inhabit, for instance), that desire will exhaust the supply of things to consume. We seem rapidly to be approaching that point of reckoning. Things will need to change. Things must change.

From this perspective, these are bleak times indeed. But there is comfort to be taken in this week’s lectionary from the words of a young Galilean woman, who proclaimed in the midst of times much bleaker than our own the imminent arrival of radical change – what the late John Howard Yoder called “The Original Revolution,” the coming of God to live among his people, making possible for us a new way of living together. This is revolution indeed, for it challenges at every point the logic of the existing order. This is a revolution that begins with the birth of a child, in a cave, to a poor, unwed teenager – defenselessness upon vulnerability upon ostensible irrelevance. And yet it is a revolution that points, we are told, to the restoration of all creation.

It is a revolution that begins with the scattering of the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones.

It is a revolution that promises the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry with good things, and the sending away of the rich, empty.

It is a revolution that fulfills an ancient promise, a promise of an endless, peaceable kingdom free from every kind of pain, suffering, want, and injustice.

It is a revolution whose time had come in the days of Mary and Jesus, and has come again, in this season of Advent. God invites us to take part in this revolution, to help make it happen by living as if it were here, now. That partaking begins with our re-membering our baptism and all it represents. It is time. Revolution now. Even so, come Lord Jesus.


December 08, 2008

Camel Hair and the Christ Child

by Debra Dean Murphy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8; 19-28 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

Sometimes the contrasts are jarring: sweet-faced children singing about cradles and crèches on the same Sunday that we hear about leather belts, locusts and wild honey. It’s early December and we’re already at the manger (the tidy Christmas card version)—in our heads and in our worship. We come to church decked out in our holiday finest and John the Baptizer greets us, sporting animal-skin outerwear and going on and on about baptism and repentance and sandal thongs.

Many churches give lip service to Advent—lighting the candles on the wreath, reading the appointed texts—but don’t seem prepared to go all the way with it. Why is that? Is there any concern about the mixed messages being sent when the camel hair and the Christ child fight for top billing on the same Sunday?

Part of it, I realize, is that many Protestant churches are only a few decades (if that) into the observance of Advent as a liturgical season. Old habits die hard, and trying to convince contemporary church-goers that Advent is a season of delayed gratification is a hard sell. I get that. I’ve fought that fight myself.

But here we are, anticipating the third Sunday of Advent, and John the Baptizer is still front and center. In the fourth gospel, John does not baptize Jesus but he is clear about his role: “He came as a witness to testify to the light . . . he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 7-8).

Light. It sounds like we’re back to Christmas again—candles, glowing embers, all the sentimental trappings of the hearth and home “holiday season.” But because this is John’s gospel, we know that this “light” is also the logos—the very logic of the universe: word become flesh; the one through whom all things came into being.

And we also know that this light, logos, word become flesh will inaugurate a kingdom that turns everything upside down, for he has come “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

John will soon enough lose his head for proclaiming such a kingdom and Jesus’ own mother will defy all stereotypes of the sweet blessed virgin when she gives a subversive political speech, recorded in Luke’s gospel and one of the appointed readings for Advent (this Sunday for Catholics; next week for most Protestants).

This Sunday’s Psalm and Epistle lesson school us in the proper response to the coming upside-down kingdom: “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy,” proclaims Psalm 126:2. Paul puts it more succinctly to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always.”

* * * * *
Episcopal priest and writer, Fleming Rutledge, once described a Christmas card she received in 1969. On the front in red were these words of John the Baptist: “There is One among you . . .” On the inside of the card was a black-and-white photograph of a young Vietnamese girl with the blank, stunned expression of a child in wartime. Under the photograph was the rest of the verse: “ . . . whom you do not recognize.”

Was this propaganda? wonders Rutledge. Dubious Christology? Political heavy-handedness? Maybe, she says. “But the Baptizer lends himself to messages of startling currency.”

May we go all the way with Advent this year, recognizing the “startling currency” of the Baptizer’s unsettling words and the Prophet’s foretelling. And may the summons to joy by the Psalmist and the apostle Paul, glimpsed this week on Gaudete Sunday, be enough to sustain us through the remaining days of Advent, till we arrive at last at the Feast of the Nativity where the logos-light-Christ child, and the joy his advent brings, will be all in all.


December 02, 2008

The End is our Beginning

by Erin A. Martin
(Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8) Everyone knows that Advent is about beginnings. The season marks the start of a new Christian year. It heralds the beginning of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and it points to the origin of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. Every year in Advent we begin the preparations for Jesus’ coming only to do it all again the next year. Advent is the time to begin again. Not everyone understands, however, that Advent is also about endings. The season of Advent begins with the end, with an account of Jesus’ final coming at the end of time.

John the Baptist announces the fulfillment of prophecy, the end of waiting, a last chance to repent. Even Isaiah speaks of the end in Advent, the end of exile, the end of Israel’s punishment, her penalty paid. To focus exclusively on what begins in Advent is to neglect a significant part of the “good news” of the season, that is, in Advent the end is our beginning.

One way to understand such a paradox is to constantly remind ourselves that our preparations during Advent are never primarily about Christmas. While the story of baby Jesus born in a manger on that silent and holy night has captivated our sentimentalities, the birth story is only half the story. In Advent, we get ready for Jesus’ birth by pointing beyond it to a final day of glory. Joyce Ann Zimmerman puts it this way, “From Isaiah to John the Baptist through Jesus to us, the beginning continues until the valleys are filled and mountains made low, until paths are finally made straight to a new heaven and a new earth.” In other words, always keeping the end in mind we begin again.

I am fascinated by the fact that the Isaiah 40 text for Advent is liturgically chiefly a funeral text. In the face of death, it is strangely comforting to be reminded that our life is fleeting, that our constancy is like the flower of the field. Knowing that we will wither and fade while God’s word will stand forever helps locate our lives within the larger eternal life of God. To quote a popular funeral hymn, “in our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity.” Our end is inextricably bound up with Jesus’ end, which in light of the resurrection we learn is only the beginning.

As we begin again this year the season of Advent, may we also not lose sight of the end. May we always remember that the manger stands in the shadow of the cross. The unfinished nature of Mark’s gospel has come to exemplify this tension. When we arrive at the end of Mark’s gospel, the only way to discover how it ends is to begin again. John Stendahl writes, “We return to reread the story, to start again with fresh ears and a new heart. The title at the beginning of Mark welcomes back those who come again from the empty tomb, seeking Jesus alive and anew.” In the Advent of Jesus, our beginning is the end.


November 26, 2008

Come, Lord Jesus

by Jessie Larkins
(Advent 1 - Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37) This week we begin the all-too-short journey toward Advent, that season when the Church’s prayer is the urgent and expectant: “Come, Lord Jesus.” For most folks, the Advent hymns and prayers invoking Emmanuel, God-with-us, conjure up domesticated images of babies, a glowing virgin mother, and churches gathered to sing carols and raise candles high into the air. These are comfortable images for us. We like to be in control of our lives and our futures—and this Christmas story is one that we’ve long had our hands on. Jesus the baby does not threaten us. And so, because we’ve already got this part of the story down pat, we use these 4 weeks of Advent to do more important things – like shop, cook, clean, and party. We’ve got Advent under control; we could do the season on auto-pilot. Yes, Come Lord Jesus, so we can finally open our presents.

Yet, auto-pilot Advents are exactly what the lectionary texts for this week warn us against. “Keep awake,” Mark’s Jesus warns, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and you don’t want to be found asleep at the wheel. Domesticated images of mothers and babies are hardly part of Isaiah’s heaven-shattered, earth quaking invocation of God.

This is a good week for us to remember that the Savior for which we yearn does not and will not come in a form or fashion that we can control or fit into our holiday social calendar. It’s a good week to remember that basic tenet of our faith that the Christ who comes, comes to “judge the living and the dead.” He comes, and will want to know what we’ve been up to in his absence.

Annie Dillard, in her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole,” captures the false sentimentality and hubris with which we are tempted to invoke God. Dillard writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
This Advent, we wait and watch with hope. We wait and watch, believing that the God who comes—whether as a baby in a manger or a king in glory—has the power to turn the world as we know it on its head. May the Church be awakened from its slumber to watch with active expectation for the God who comes yet again to be among us. In the meantime, put your chairs and tray tables into the full upright and locked position—it’s going to be a wild ride.


November 19, 2008

Pledging Allegiance

by Brian Volck

[Ezekiel 34, Psalm 100 (Catholic: Psalm 23), Ephesians 1:15-23 (Catholic: 1 Cor 15: 20-28), Matthew 25:31-46]

1925. In the wake of an unimaginably destructive World War, surrounded by rising totalitarian powers, and as the “civilized” military nation-states partied their way toward financial ruin, Pope Pius declared a new feast in honor of Christ the King, a celebration intended to habitually remind Christians of their primary and ultimate allegiance.

2008. In the (we hope) waning months of a disastrous war, surrounded by accelerating world divisions, and as the “developed” military nation-states prop up a teetering world financial system, Christians liturgically re-member their primary and ultimate allegiance. Now observed by many Western Churches (though often renamed “Christ’s Reign,”) the Sunday has become, in the words of one blogger:

…the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet--ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.
I needn’t rehearse Sunday’s gospel; we’ve all heard it often enough to imagine knowing it by heart. In this post-election secular season, when I’m increasingly uncertain about nearly everything and more unqualified to play exegete than usual, I’ll just make a few observations.

The king isn’t elected. He’s king, literally by divine right, surrounded by angels and sitting on his throne. I’m fairly confident my priest will once again remind us this Sunday that “we need to use other metaphors for God” in an age when monarchies and patriarchies have no purchase on the imagination. I’m not so sure. In fact, the primary theological problem now and at any time in my life is that God is God and I missed the vote. In the same way, I find myself wincing when, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, with feigned disregard for our own desires and plans, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Creation is no democracy. I have to remind myself that’s a good thing.

Gathered before Him are all the nations. All pretenders to earthly sovereignty will be judged, from the most powerful government to the least person. I suppose that’s a good thing; at least we’re all in this together.

Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. Perhaps that’s why, four chapters earlier, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before you.” Now substitute “tax collectors and prostitutes” with the object of your own righteous anger – and please, be brutally honest with yourself. Doesn’t feel that good, does it?

In Matthew’s gospel, the “Great Judgment” story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, “…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Christ’s Kingdom has no Department of Homeland Security or Defense, no FBI and no CIA. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “When Christ call a man, he bids him come and die.” We’re all going to die, some more faithfully than others. Good news or not, a lifetime may be insufficient to learn so hard a lesson.

The Sunday following this one is the First Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year. Jesus is coming. One day, perhaps, I’ll be graced to truly desire the coming of God’s kingdom, to recite the Shema Yisroel without crossing my fingers, to pledge my full allegiance to the One on the throne. Until then, I’ll need a lot of help, some good examples, an occasional word of encouragement. We’re all in this together – and that’s a good thing.


November 12, 2008

Give it All

by Joel James Shuman
(Matthew 25:14-30) - The parable of the talents is for me about fear, or rather, about the ways we respond to fear. I have been attentive recently to how much of modern life is controlled, or at least infected, by fear. One reason for my attentiveness is because I am something of an expert where fear is concerned. It’s no secret to my friends and family that I am by nature given to sometimes obsessive worry, and over the years I have learned mostly to accept that it’s just something I have to live with.

Mostly, I do pretty well in that regard. I have learned to distinguish rational from irrational worries, worries I can control from those I cannot. I remind myself that this is usually familiar territory, and that whatever I happen to be worrying about at a given time will eventually fade away.

I pray, reminding myself that regardless of what happens, God is with us, and I move on – pretty standard cognitive-behavioral therapy stuff. But sometimes my fears are more persistent, not so easy to shake. They stay with me, and in spite of my best efforts, they control my life. Sort of like the third servant in this parable, the fear that something awful will keep me from doing what I want to do, or what I should do, and so I do nothing at all, except wait, anxiously anticipating the worse.

I don’t think it is merely projection to suggest that my personal emotional difficulties writ large are a pretty fair description of the social order within which most modern North Americans live, where we invest huge quantities of energy and resources to protect ourselves from… what? Much could be said about the consequences of this “politics of fear”; about its effect on the foreign and domestic policies of the nations we inhabit, the health of our local economies, the way we sequester ourselves from each other in big houses in what once were called neighborhoods, they way we numb ourselves with mindless amusements.

One could argue that it is the politics of fear, as much as it is greed, that is the engine of our current economic troubles. Clearly there is much about our way of life that demands radical change, but no such change appears to be forthcoming. James Howard Kunstler refers to our collective failure to do what needs to be done as the “psychology of previous investment,” meaning we have become so habituated to our present way of life that we cannot bring ourselves even to contemplate anything different. We are afraid. I think Wendell Berry captures this mentality as well as anyone in the first stanza of his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” where he writes:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise / vacation with pay. Want more / of everything ready made. Be afraid / to know your neighbors and to die. / And you will have a window in your head. / Not even your future will be a mystery anymore…. / When they want you to but something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know.
Students of Christian tradition know that another name for the parable of the talents is the parable of the hard master. I like this name, not because I think of God as a hard master, but because it suggests to me the possibility that all three of the servants feared their master and had from time to time experienced his anger. The difference among the three is in the way they acted in the face of fear. The first two servants received their masters’ praise, not because they did not fear him, but because they were willing to risk failure in spite of their fear. The third servant failed because he played it safe, refusing change and avoiding risk.

All of this suggests to me that the point of this parable is that the life of faith, though is can be scary, entails risk. Not reckless abandon, necessarily, but a willingness to follow a savior who, though he shows us the way, also reminds us of the possibility that things will, at least in the short term, not turn out the way we had wanted or expected. Yet this is of little consequence, for the savior we follow has, by preceding us in the way, transformed history so that we can risk following him.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard offers a fragment of wisdom that captures the spirit of this parable and serves as a pretty good metaphor for the well-lived life. “One of the few things I do know about writing,” she says, “is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…. Give it, give it all, give it now.” May we have the courage to give all of our lives, to God, now.


Giving Jesus a Makeover

by Randy Cooper
Many years ago a dear Christian sister told me she was convinced that if Jesus appeared in our day, he would surely be a fire and brimstone Baptist preacher. As you might imagine, she admired Baptist preachers who preached hell and judgment. She made Jesus over into an image that suited her own faith and worldview.

She isn’t the first. Human beings were made in the image of God. Yet ever since our creation, we have been returning the favor in a twisted way—making God over into our own image. We all do this. In fact, it is one of our greatest sins.

Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary of the early 20th century, wrote about our tendency to make Jesus into someone who conforms to our own convictions and prejudices. If we are rational, then Jesus is quite the teacher. If we are moralistic, then we view Jesus as an exemplar of good morals. We who have a passionate regard for the oppressed insist that Jesus is the agitator who upsets the political status quo.

Or in these days of political madness, we assume Jesus favors our perspective.

Most common of all, we cast Jesus into the image of a mild, meek, gentle Galilean who would be quite at home in the “flower child” movements that happen along every few generations. Our various sentimental vanities keep us from realizing that we dare not attempt to portray Jesus as upholding our particular values.

The New Testament avoids simplistic portrayals by rooting its understanding of Jesus in the Old Testament witness. Jesus is the slain Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Judge, the Messiah, God’s anointed one who burns with a holy wrath. Zeal for his Father’s house consumes him. Demons and angels dread him. Satan, the strong one, is overcome and bound by him. War arises in heaven over him. Yet he is also Friend, Slave, Consoler, High Priest who becomes Sin, and Good Shepherd. We come into his presence with singing, but also with fear and trembling.


November 05, 2008


by Debra Dean Murphy
It’s hard to be cynical today.

It may be easier tomorrow, next week, or next month—it almost certainly will be. But today is a day for head-shaking wonder at what transpired on Nov. 4.

Even though it wasn’t a surprise, the election of Barack Obama is epic for all the reasons the pundits have waxed eloquent about during the last twenty-four hours, and the margin of his victory is ample evidence that Senator McCain didn’t lose the election: Senator Obama won it, and decisively.

It is moving to see the faces of African-Americans (and indeed of Africans a world away) whose renewed hope is real and whose joy seems uncontainable. Overnight, literally, millions have dared to believe that progress in racial equality and reconciliation has taken one giant step forward.

It was inevitable that Obama’s election would usher in sentimental slogans about how “all things are possible now.” (I know I’m bordering on cynicism here; bear with me). In the euphoria of the moment I don't begrudge the impulse. A black man winning in Virginia and North Carolina? (at least unofficially right now in the case of the latter). The impossible has become possible!

But I do worry that the euphoria could lead to some sloppy thinking. Obama's ascendency to the presidency should not be seen primarily as a sign that everyone can achieve their dreams. Tuesday's remarkable outcome should not, finally, be reduced to a children's lesson about always getting what you want.

If we believe that the election of Barack Obama means something significant for race relations in America, then the dream is not one of individual achievement. Instead, it is about our collective imagination--the ability to envision what constitutes a life of flourishing for all and to be about the business of making it a reality.

And yet we have to concede, as Stanley Hauerwas did recently that "racism ain't gonna go away." The difficulty will be to negotiate the challenges of racism in the aftermath of an event that has profoundly shifted many of the "givens" in the debate about race in America. There are reasons to believe that we won't be up to the challenge.

But no cynicism today. Now is not the time to worry about how far we have to go, but to marvel at how far we've come.


November 04, 2008

Wisdom and Folly

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by Debra Dean Murphy
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13 (32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

At first glance the gospel lesson this week seems to encourage the kind of smug dualism that has characterized this long electoral season. (Can it really be coming to an end this week?): Some people are wise and some are foolish and thank God I’m among the wise ones.

Such readings (of political campaigns, of scriptural texts) do more to entrench our worst tendencies toward self-righteousness (and disdain for others) than to illuminate the larger complexities of life in a polis or the Gospel’s good news for all people.

And part and parcel of seeing ourselves favorably in the parables of Jesus (and other people not so much) is the temptation to parse these stories to death—to say that this stands for that; to fixate on minute details (what does the oil represent—faith? works? love?) and thus to miss, as the saying goes, the forest for the trees.

In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids we are asked to consider, as we have been several times before in this gospel, what the kingdom of heaven will be like. And in looking toward that future vision we sense that the gospel writer is equally mindful of the past: The community’s break with the synagogue, its internal divisions, increasing social and political unrest—all of these factors seem to inform his vivid descriptions of the judgment to come. What seems jarring to us—harsh and urgently chaotic—must have been something of the lived experience of the Matthean community.

Yet for Matthew’s hearers then and now, the watchword is always: be ready, be prepared, be wise. But for what?

Again, it’s easy for our worst instincts to kick in and to read this parable as warning of a bitter wrath to come. We imagine the End as vengeance, rather than what we know it to be: the undoing of vengeance and of all violence. James Alison describes this as a transition from the apocalyptic imagination (which 1 Thessalonians may still have been captivated by) to the eschatological imagination. From vengeance to hope; from the conclusion of time to its redemption.

To live in time redeemed is to be unconcerned about insiders and outsiders. For sure it is to embrace wisdom and eschew folly, as the parable instructs, but we do so not for the purpose of fencing people out. Rather, to borrow from an earlier parable, we are to be ready for the thief who comes in the night, not to steal from us but to give us the Kingdom—to celebrate the joys of the heavenly banquet like giddy bridesmaids at a wedding party.


October 29, 2008

Blessed Are They

by Erin Martin
(Matthew 5:1-12) This year for All Saints’ Sunday, I am hearing differently Jesus’ famous Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. In previous years, I would quickly leap to associating the saints who have gone before us with those whom Jesus calls blessed. My line of thinking would go something like this; it is the witness of the faithful in the history of Christianity and in our lives that demonstrates to us what poverty of spirit and meekness look like. It is the peacemaking “giants” of the past and present who show us what it means to be children of God. As disciples we are simply called to follow their example, to cultivate within us the attitudes these saints so courageously exhibit, and we too shall be called blessed. This year, however, I am hearing Jesus differently.

When Jesus teaches the disciples on the mountain who receives the favor of God and by implication who does not, Jesus isn’t so much urging the disciples to “go and do likewise.” Instead, Jesus is announcing God’s jubilee much in the same way he does in Luke 4. Jesus proclaims the good news of the Beatitudes. God’s favor is upon the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the mourners, those who hunger for righteousness, the purehearted, the persecuted and those who make for peace. When Jesus points to the crowd drawing the disciples’ attention to the man in rags or the woman bent low, Jesus is teaching the disciples to see the world as God sees the world. To embrace as blessed those whom the world curses. To favor as God does those whom the world rejects.

The first calling of the disciples may simply be to rightly recognize the difference between the truly blessed of God and the falsely blessed of the world. Only then can we sincerely devote ourselves to the work of God.

It was a hymn suggestion for All Saints Sunday this year that brought this idea to mind for me. In the worship planner, the hymn, “Christ for the World We Sing,” was suggested. In reading the first verse, it occurred to me who the saints of God are. The verse reads, “Christ for the world we sing, the world to Christ we bring, with loving zeal, the poor and them that mourn, the faint and overborne, sin sick and sorrow worn, whom Christ doth heal.” The saints are those whose message is “Christ for the world,” and whose labor is to bear to Christ for healing the very blessed of God. What a potential waste of time it could be for rich North American Christians to spend their lives attempting to cultivate within ourselves a “meekness” or “poverty of spirit.” The saints among us, and those who have gone before us, seem to have known this fact. Instead, they devoted their lives to seeing rightly who the blessed of God are in the world, and their ministry was to carry those blessed into the presence of God, to be in communion with them, to sit at table with them. In so doing, the saints became blessed themselves.

The heavenly banquet, then, is the culmination of this life’s work, to commune with the blessed of God at Christ’s table for eternity. Vincent Harding describes the scene in this way. “Well,” he writes, “here we are, all present and accounted for. What a gang! What a table! What a host! What a chance for holding and being held, for feeding and being fed, for giving, receiving, and being the light.” This year, the saints teach me that blessed are they who see rightly the blessed of God and live on behalf of them.


October 21, 2008

Leadership by Imitation

by Jessie Larkins
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

It seems that wherever you turn these days the buzz word on the street is “leadership.” The failure of the financial market, when not being blamed on minorities or the poor, is blamed on a failure of leadership in government and industry. For too long the standard of worth for CEOs and economic strategists has been a cut-throat measure of greed and self-interest. In the religious world, too, the decline in attendance and influence of mainline congregations and denominations has been attributed to a lack of effective pastoral leadership. Books filled with strategies and tactics (Is there really a difference?) on the subject of effective leadership fill the shelves of bookstores, both sacred and secular, with the promise that the right organization and charisma can lead even a failed organization or congregation strongly into the future.

I wonder sometimes if the leadership modeled by the disciples and early apostles as they began church-planting across the Mediterranean would have much street credibility in today’s conversations on effectiveness in leadership. What would happen if we held the “latest and greatest” in leadership strategy against the measuring rod of the apostles’ teaching? Paul might struggle to win friends and influence people on Wall Street with a leadership based not on “words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (2:5). He would certainly offend a “key leader” or two in most congregations I know with a leadership that “made demands as apostles of Christ” (2:7). Yet, as one who stood firm in the gospel “in spite of great opposition” (2:2) and courageously gave himself in love for those whom he served, his example of leadership among the Thessalonians sets a standard worthy of consideration by denominational ordination boards or a lay leadership committee. The leadership Paul describes requires both courage and clarity. It is a leadership that is prepared to endure scorn for the sake of the truth as it names idols and lovingly points followers towards the true God.

There is no place for motivation stemming from self-interest, self-aggrandizement, flattery, or greed. Paul challenges the desire of leaders to avoid discomfort. Most importantly, Paul notes that true leadership requires a deep and selfless love for not only the gospel but for those whom one leads, following in the footsteps of Christ who so loved those he served that he gave his life for them.

Throughout Paul’s letters it is clear that neither church attendance or giving (standards too often used as judges of effective ministry) are the basis upon which he measures his effectiveness among the communities he serves. (Though for all their faults many of the churches formed under his leadership would hardly be marked as failing, stagnant, or stingy.) True effectiveness in ministry for Paul is measured by how closely the communities and individuals he served are transformed into Christ-like servant leaders themselves. It is hardly coincidence that Paul’s ministry suggests that if Christ-like disciples are the desired outcome, then Christ-like leadership is required. It might not make the best-seller list, but if we want to form leaders worthy of the gospel (or become ones ourselves), we might go back to Paul, who called us to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and devoted his ministry to bringing others into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.


What God Intends

by Randy Cooper
Milton Wright was a Bishop in the Church of the Brethren, traveling throughout his denomination until his death in 1917. He is reported to have said that if God intended human beings to fly, he would have given us wings. We know from history that his sons, Orville and Wilbur, thought otherwise.

At times, I find myself thinking this way. I think that if God intended us to have this or that new technology, surely God would have provided it. For example, I care little for cell phones, and only own one jointly with Gayle. If God intended us to talk anywhere, any time, surely we’d have “blue tooth” phones fitted to our ears when we were born. And I find myself thinking this way when it comes to oil and coal. I figure that if God intended us to put carbon into the air, then God surely would not have taken so long and worked so hard to fold these materials deep into the earth. I wonder if God really wants them to be taken from the bowels of the earth and used as we use them.

There I go, thinking like Bishop Wright again.

Actually, my concern is with what the church used to call “poiesis.” It is one of those Greek words, meaning “making.” We get our word “poet” from it. Poiesis is the human endeavor of making things for the world—including art, music, machines, and countless other things.

For the longest time, we have believed that what humans construct or invent is religiously neutral, that all that matters is how we use it. I am no longer so sure. I am wondering these days about ways to recover the religious significance of our “stuff” and of our daily labors. What we do and make must surely be considered in light of truth, goodness, and beauty.

My daughter Margaret attended Millsaps College down in Jackson, Mississippi. There is an unbelievably ugly building on the campus—a relatively new one, built in the 1970’s when people mystifyingly thought that concrete is pretty. It is the “Fine Arts” building.

Go figure.

Let us encourage one another.


October 14, 2008

No Small Change

by Debra Dean Murphy
I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

One of the grim realities of the financial markets meltdown is the loss in trillions of dollars in retirement accounts like 401(k)s. It's no small matter that many people close to retirement may be in quite a fix. And it seems reasonable to ask, if such a vast sum is indeed lost, can't someone figure out how and where we might find it? Where the heck did all that money go?

But of course it wasn't real money that went missing—it was an abstract numerical projection derived from estimates of potential future returns on investments (or some such econ-speak gobbledygook). It was imaginary money—not play money, exactly, but not paper and coin currency, not the stuff you can jingle around in your pocket or slip the bellhop at the airport.

Which makes the overly-familiar, often badly-interpreted text about "rendering unto Caesar" seem almost quaint. Here Jesus talks about real money—money in the hand, money with a politician’s face on it.

We're used to reading this text as justification for dividing reality neatly in two: God's sphere (which we usually take to be "private") and the public sphere (which we assume is, well, public). The private sphere is where we live out our “spiritual life”—personal devotion to God, believing the right things, trying to live by “religious values.” The public sphere is the realm of politics and economics, of schools and taxes and elections—no room for religion there. (Even those who believe that Christianity should muscle its way into the public sphere—prayer in schools, say, or posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms—still operate on the assumption that there are two divinely-ordained spheres).

But when Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s,” we know that he can’t possibly be endorsing such a distinction—for everything is God’s! The whole conversation with the Pharisees is another one of Jesus’ dead-serious jokes. We have to see the subversive smile on his face, hear the irony (and impatience) in his voice. Jesus is talking about coins and taxes but he’s really talking about power and ultimate loyalty, about pledging allegiance not to Caesar’s economy but to God’s alone. He’s offering a tutorial on the economics of the Kingdom.

The coin might have the emperor’s image on it, but God’s people bear the imago dei. And like an invisible tattoo, we wear the mark of baptism that identifies us as Christ’s own, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. All we have is God’s. All we are is God’s. Where Caesar and Wall Street would have us lament the loss of an imaginary abundance, God’s economy is premised on a plenty that can never be diminished, if only we would have the courage and imagination to live fully into its promised gifts.

One of the reasons that Christians, generally, have responded to the current financial crisis with as much panic and gloom as everyone else is that we are afraid to need one another. We’re embarrassed by our lack, so we suffer in silence, certain that to need money is a sign of moral weakness. Where the Thessalonian Christians had learned “to turn to God from idols” (1:9), we more readily turn from God to the idol of financial security and name its pursuit a virtue, extolling the quest as an act of prudence and foresight. Better to have a fat portfolio than to depend on our sisters and brothers in Christ. How unfair and irresponsible that would be.

The Thessalonian Christians were “an example to all the believers in Macedonia,” and in every place their faith in God was made known (1:8). The Church in recent days has offered no unified witness because it has assumed the sheer givenness of Caesar’s economy—it is deep into it and can’t see its way out of it.

At the end of the Thessalonians reading, Paul encourages the people to wait for Jesus, “who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” We usually assume that Paul means God’s wrath, and maybe he does. But maybe Paul is referring to the kind of violence—economic, military, political—that exists in Caesar’s sphere, that sustains Caesar’s power. Jesus rescues us from this, says Paul, for the cross is the undoing of all violence and wrath. The challenge for the Thessalonians and for us is to stop assuming the inevitability of Empire.

This is no small change. This is an overhaul of our collective imagination. The Pharisees seemed to get this for we’re told in the text that “they were amazed; and they left him and went away” (Mt. 22:22).

Oh that we might be so amazed.


October 08, 2008

Raging and Rejoicing

by Debra Dean Murphy
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 (The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The lessons this week have us thinking about anger: God's and, more obliquely, our own. In the Exodus passage, Moses has to talk down an irrational Yehweh, lest divine rage obliterate the wayward Israelites. In Matthew's parable of the wedding banquet, an equally unreasonable host-king (God) responds in wildly disproportionate ways to what amounts to a social snubbing and an ill-dressed party guest.

Sandwiched between these troubling texts is Psalm 106, which functions as something of a midrash on both of them. (More on that in a minute). And then there's the Epistle lesson from Philippians which, when we read it, makes us realize how angry we are—at Wall Street, at the lunacy of electoral politics, at a spouse, a co-worker, ourselves—pick your favorite target(s). Paul's cheery command to "Rejoice in the Lord always!" seems a little trite and naïve—greeting-card wisdom in this age of high anxiety.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons, especially, remind us of a simple truth: When we read the Bible carefully, when we honor its complex history and its social world so very different from our own, we ought to practice deep humility, recognizing that all our reading, all our attempts at making meaning are partial, incomplete. "Now we see through a glass darkly," is not only Paul’s beautiful metaphor about the incompleteness of truth this side of the eschaton—it’s the beginning and end point of the hermeneutical enterprise. We know well enough what the words on the page say, but what in the world do they mean?

What to make of a God who seems so impetuous in his anger? So explosive. And should God be angry in the first place? One attempt at answers—necessarily partial and incomplete—must recognize the continuity in the divine life between love and anger, judgment and forgiveness, condemnation and compassion. “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love,” as Miroslav Volf puts it. “God is wrathful because God is love.”

Yahweh’s censure of Israel is of a piece with the love that called Israel into being and that desires Israel’s peace. The king who throws a wedding banquet to which no one comes is like the God who offers abundance to a people hellbent on fighting for scraps—who complain about the scraps, who think that the scraps are all there is.

The Psalm this week reminds us that in the midst of the inexplicable—a God who rages, a people who betray—the proper response is always worship: thanksgiving, lament, confession, rejoicing. The mystery of God’s anger, like the mystery of God’s love, can never be fully comprehended, it can only be entered into. “Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD,” the Psalmist asks, “or declare all his praise?” We don’t first get our heads straight on all the ways of God and then offer our praise and thanksgiving. God is; we worship; the mystery remains.

And finally in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul is clear that rejoicing is not an emotional reaction to events or circumstances but is a way of being for those who are “of the same mind in the Lord.” Which doesn’t mean uniformity of thought but rather something like a “common pattern of thinking and acting” (Stephen Fowl, Philippians).

A life of joy is the Church’s common witness, born of a way of seeing the world in which free markets don’t determine our security or our future and in which anger—God’s or our own—never has the last word.


September 30, 2008

Law, Economy, Freedom and Community

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Exodus 20:1-20) - There's a running gag on Comedy Central's Colbert Report in which the fake-bluster, windbag host, Stephen Colbert, interviews members of Congress in a segment called "Better Know a District." In a recent installment, Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland was on the hot seat, and Colbert asked the congressman about his very vocal support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings—courthouses and such. "Can you think of any other places where the commandments should have prominence?" asked Colbert, trying, mischievously, to press the point that there might be other sites (churches, anyone? a synagogue, perhaps?) where the Decalogue is more at home.

Westmoreland didn't get it—he kept talking about courthouses—and so Colbert (a devout Catholic, interestingly) went for the kill: "What are the Ten Commandments, congressman?"

Not surprisingly, Westmoreland was stumped. He named a couple of them—sort of. It was embarrassing to watch. But it was also illuminating for what it revealed about how the Ten Commandments are routinely regarded in public discourse and even in the Church: as a list of disembodied rules intended to govern personal conduct and particularly applicable in the American civil sphere (and rules, it turns out, that many of us can’t even name). As rules, they are thought to function primarily by restricting, constraining, hampering, inhibiting. They are meant to protect us from one another in a dangerous, unpredictable world, and invoking them regularly is thought to please and appease a God who guards America’s greatness.

And so, the argument often goes, we need to display the Ten Commandments prominently—yanked from their biblical moorings, their narrative history—in American halls of jurisprudence.

Situated in their original context, however, the commandments (the "ten words," literally) are nothing like the description above. For Israel, the law given at Mount Sinai comes as gift, as a liberating word that makes it possible for the covenant people to flourish in their life together. Where we see the keeping of the Decalogue as a way to earn God’s favor and escape God’s wrath, the biblical writers are clear that the law comes after Israel’s salvation and in response to it. As Perry Yoder has observed, “We have forgotten that Israel’s liberation was an act of God’s grace, not a necessary response to Israel’s merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God say thank you!”

Another distinction is helpful here—that between “public” and “community.” In his book, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, Wendell Berry writes that “a community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘We belong to our community,’ but never, ‘we belong to our public.’”

Thus the call for a “public” display of the Ten Commandments is exposed for the misguided proposal that it is. The Commandments don’t speak to a public; they give life within a community. What might seem to be restrictive and unrelentingly legalistic (thou shalt not this; thou shalt not that), turns out to be the parameters by which we exercise our freedom. That is, the Ten Words given in Exodus chapter 20 (and the hundreds of laws and mandates that follow in succeeding chapters) help give human freedom its proper aims, for they show us “the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long” (Berry).

This Sunday many Protestants will observe World Communion Sunday. (For our Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers, every Sunday, rightly, is World Communion Sunday). As we gather to receive the Eucharist, may we be reminded that we exist as a community of gift in which both Law and Gospel are the good news of God.


September 26, 2008

Why Share?

by Kyle Childress
You may remember the Garrison Keillor story of why shopping at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon is preferable to shopping in St. Cloud at the new Higgledy-Piggledy. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery has just gotten in a case of fresh cod. “Frozen, but it’s fresher than what’s been in his freezer for months. In the grocery business, you have to throw out stuff sometimes, but Ralph is Norwegian and it goes against his principles.” On the other hand, more and more people have been “sneaking off to the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud, where you find two acres of food, a meat counter a block long with huge walloping roasts and steaks big enough to choke a cow, and exotic fish lying on crushed ice.”

Keillor goes on to explain that Lake Wobegon does not run on free enterprise, which is based upon self-interest. It is run on loyalty. He goes on to say you can shop at the St. Cloud Mall instead of Lake Wobegon but the St. Cloud Mall isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and they aren’t going to teach your children redemption by grace.

For Keillor there is more going on here than simply Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is small and the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is large or that Ralph’s is simple and small-town and Higgledy-Piggledy is glitzy and cutting edge. For Keillor, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is about living a shared life, commitment to one another, being there for one another when we’re needed, raising one another’s children, and growing a community together. The Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is about each person being on his or her own and making choices based upon self-interest instead of what’s good for the community.

Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is a wonderful analogy with Austin Heights. Our whole perception of what we’re up to around here is a contrast to what usually passes for church life in this country. More and more we find ourselves eating together and working together. Here we are building a shared life in ways surpassing standard and conventional American understandings of church.

Living a shared life has to do with how we share money in our congregation too. In some churches giving financially to the church is sort of like paying your dues for your club membership. In other churches financial stewardship is related to giving your offering to the church down there on Main Street. It is giving money, and giving generously, but giving it to the religious institution. And for many churches, it is like shopping at the Higgledy-Piggledy. You give out of self-interest; what the church does for you in meeting your needs.

Austin Heights is different, and if we’re not different then we want to be different. Instead of giving a tithe down there to that institution, we are sharing our tithes with one another. We are much more like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery where people shop because they care for Ralph and they know Ralph is a member of the Rescue Squad and teaches their children. We share our money – not with an institution removed from us – but with one another in Christ.

Our budget and our tithing certainly goes to paying the bills around here, supporting mission, and underwriting our expenses. But this is not its primary purpose. The primary purpose of our budget and our tithing is to form us into one body. It is to make us the community of Christ. The budget translates our common faith and common vision into a common life and common purse.

Did you ever think that our biggest witness of being Christian is how we spend our money? When we share our tithes with God and with one another we are saying that we put our money where our mouths and hearts are in trusting and loving one another and growing a community based upon Jesus as Lord.

We do believe in paying taxes partly because taxes help to provide basic necessities and security for needy people beyond us in the whole country. We do believe in giving to charities partly because charities pay for things for which a majority in our democracy would not vote. And we do believe in giving in ways that help others have dignity and a chance at a decent life. But we give to one another in this particular common-life called Austin Heights Baptist Church because we believe that this, the church, is the principal way in which God chooses to make God’s self known in the world. Our shared life, shared work, shared meals, shared money is how God is known.

Acts 4 is a wonderful summary of the life of the early church: They were of one heart and soul and they had a common purse. Luke makes the explicit connection between the life those Christians shared with their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People had a sense that Jesus was resurrected and living among them by sharing with one another.

These are worrisome times. And when we worry, like most people, we tend to hold more tightly to what we have or we spend what we have out of some sort of self-interest. But Austin Heights is called to practice something completely different. We share because Jesus Christ is among us.

Let’s be careful out there.


September 23, 2008

God’s Economy

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Philippians 2:1-13) - There’s nothing like money troubles—ours or someone else’s—to get our attention and hold it. To keep us up at night. To preoccupy our days and overtake all our social interactions. In fact, if you want to break the ice with a new acquaintance or fill that awkward silence with a stranger in a waiting room, on the bus, wherever—just bring up the near-collapse of the world’s financial markets. You’ll get a knowing gaze, a sympathetic nod.

It is telling that the current crisis on Wall Street has captivated our attention like nothing else in recent weeks (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Millions have suffered and died in Darfur, and continue to do so; Haiti has been all but decimated as a country; the physical, psychological, and spiritual toll of war in Iraq is now near incalculable.

But when the banks start going under, well, that is serious business, indeed. When the god of mammon comes calling, demanding deference, snapping us to attention, it seems we can’t bow down quickly enough. No wonder Jesus warned that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Our hearts aren’t really in Darfur or Haiti or Iraq (or with the strung-out addict across town) because we so readily give our hearts, minds, and attention to something called “financial security”—America’s and our own.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul lays out a different economic plan. It is the lordship of Christ and the divine economy of salvation that preoccupies Paul—that keeps him up at night, happily, in his Roman prison cell.

In his marvelous commentary on Philippians, Steve Fowl (EP endorser and great guy) contends that in encouraging the Christians at Philippi and in describing his own immediate circumstances, Paul is presenting a pattern of perception that should characterize all those who are in Christ. He is urging Christians to “see” the world and themselves differently; to manifest in their life together a common pattern of thinking and acting that will set them apart and allow them the grace to live and flourish by a different rule, a different economic logic.

What reads like the playbook for getting ahead in the world of corporate finance—selfish ambition, looking to your own interests—must be abandoned, says Paul, in favor of a common life grounded in humility and in looking out for the interests of others (2:3-4). And this common life draws on, mimics, and participates in the divine economy by which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a mutual relation of ceaseless caritas. This economy turns the logic of free-market capitalism on its head, for in the divine economy there is no lack, there is only, as Steve puts it, “an uncoerced circulation of gifts flowing from a super-abundance of love.”

The Church, too, is to live by the logic of abundance, not scarcity; of shared love, not mutual suspicion. It is wrong to posit the Church as a spiritual reality and politics or economics or the free market as material realities. The Church is fully social, political, and economic—a materially-embodied (re)ordering of relationships, desire, and the making and spending of our money.

And, finally, lest we be swept up this week in the beauty and eloquence of Paul’s prose (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”), we should remember that Philippi was a Roman military colony, an outpost of Empire, where the clash between economies—the love of power and the power of love—was as palpable as it is in our own time. For the Philippian Christians to cast their lot with the fledgling Jesus movement was to surrender any social standing or political clout they might have had; it was to give up economic security to follow a crucified and risen Lord who demanded they do strange things with their finances and their possessions—things like, sell all you have and give it to the poor.

For us, similarly, to confess with our lips that Jesus Christ—not Caesar and not Wall Street—is Lord, is to begin to learn what it means to put our money where our mouth is.


September 18, 2008

Workers’ Rights and the Kingdom of Heaven

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16)
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:15-16

Some say that human beings are hardwired with a strong sense of what’s fair and what’s not. Maybe. But even if it’s not part of our DNA, it seems pretty clear that the resentment we feel when treated unjustly is learned early and runs deep. Ever been in a room full of toddlers when there aren’t enough toys to go around?

We don’t seem to lose that sense of personal violation and moral indignation as we get older. The toys we fight over as adults may be bigger and more sophisticated—they may even be things like careers and promotions and reputations—but we are often as petty and possessive as any preschooler in our scramble to claim what we believe is rightfully ours.

In fact, part of the narrative we internalize as we make our way through the institutions meant to educate and socialize us (schools and sports teams, for instance), is this: If you work hard you will be rewarded and you will deserve your success. (Don’t we communicate this to our kids all the time?) Current campaign speeches targeting that coveted demographic—“the middle class”—regularly exploit this maxim, the corollary of which assumes that showing up late, standing around idle, and not putting in a hard day’s work, means you must go to the back of the line. You are a burden to the rest of us and you do not deserve the same rewards that the conscientious, hard-working, early risers do.

And then there’s Jesus.

This week’s parable of the workers in the vineyard (found only in Matthew’s gospel) violates not only our sense of equity when it comes to work and fair compensation for work, but our understanding of divine justice. God, like Santa Claus, is supposed to reward our hard work and our good behavior. We’ve been nice this year, Santa-God! The naughty ones will surely get their lumps of coal.

But in the parable, the ones who worked only one hour—one hour!—got the same pay as those who labored and sweated all day long. When the settling up was done at day’s end, the dutiful ones were not amused: “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (20:12).

I think about this parable in light of immigrants I’ve gotten to know and the “problem” of undocumented workers. So much of the ever-increasing hostility toward immigrants in this country is rooted in the conviction that we were here first, we’ve been here longer, this is our vineyard. (Sounds a little like quarrelsome toddlers, doesn’t it).

The resentment toward immigrants also comes from a sense that our rights as native-born Americans are being violated—our jobs are being taken away, our resources are being diminished. Conversely, those who advocate for immigrants often speak of the rights of these refugee workers—their inherent claim on work and resources and human dignity.

While I have much more sympathy with the latter view, the emphasis on rights in both positions is misplaced. In the kingdom of God, says Jesus, we are not blessed because we have a right to such blessings, but because in God’s infinite mercy and generosity we are the undeserving recipients of an abundance we can never deplete.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” urges the apostle Paul in this Sunday’s Epistle lesson. Surely part of such a directive is that we are to welcome everyone into the abundance that God has provided—not because they have a right to be there but because the Church, as Christ’s body, needs them to be there. That is, we can’t fully be who God intends us to be without the gift of the stranger in our midst--the stranger/immigrant/vineyard worker who reveals the unsettling truth that turns out to be good news for all of us: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


September 17, 2008

Forgiveness and Evangelism

by Jessie Larkins
A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car that was in a minor accident in a local shopping center parking lot. Both cars, the one I was in as well as the one that sideswiped us, were traveling at an appropriate parking lot speed of about 2 mph. The collision, which put a fairly large dent in the front fender of my friend’s car and a crack in the front headlight on the other car, resulted in no injuries, no irreparable damage, and certainly no more pain and suffering than that of having to sit in the Wal-Mart parking lot for an hour in the middle of December while the police report was filed. As an adult passenger in one of the vehicles, I was, of course, asked for my license and a brief statement to corroborate the story of the two drivers. Being that it was my first real traffic accident to speak of, I had no idea what to expect after that point. 

Imagine my surprise when, on each of the following three days, I arrived home from school to find my mailbox absolutely overwhelmed with offers from local law offices pandering for my business. 

Of course they assumed that I would sue the other driver for all he was worth—after all, he had cost me at least an hour of lost productivity on a Sunday afternoon, the potential of many future health problems that could, of course, be attributed to this event, as well as untold emotional damage. Was I having trouble concentrating at work?  (Well, yes, but it is two weeks before Christmas—who can focus?) Did I feel a stiffness in my neck or back?  (I have been meaning to get a new bed pillow for that very reason....)  Was I having nightmares as a result of this event? (Should I tell them that just this week I started waking up in a cold sweat worried that I was surrounded by lawyers?) David and I had quite a good time flipping through this legal propaganda—joking about how we should quit our jobs and just hang out in our cars in the blind spots of local parking lots. 

At the end of it all, though, as the daily junk mail was cleared away and dropped into the recycling bin, we would shake our heads and wonder aloud: “Do people really do this?  Do people really buy into this mess?”

Unfortunately, the answer to our question is too often, yes. America in the 21st century is the most litigious country in the world.  We have one lawyer for every 300 people, including children.  We file more than 250,000 lawsuits against one another each year (American Bar Association). Many doctors are forced out of practice because they simply cannot afford the insurance costs to remain in practice. 

We have all heard, and probably laughed, at the headlines: “Woman sues McDonalds because coffee too hot;” “Man files suit against Burger King for obesity.” 

You may have heard the statistic that the divorce rate for Christians is no less than for mainstream culture. There is no evidence that nations comprised of predominantly Christian citizens are less likely to be engaged in war than any other—Muslim or otherwise. The fact that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church now exists in any of 39,000 (!) denominations worldwide proves that we are not always very good at the work of forgiveness and reconciliation (Wikipedia). I found no credible evidence that Christians were any less likely to engage in the vicious cycle of tit-for-tat-get-back-and-get-even.  

If these statistics don’t surprise you, I hope that they at least alarm you a bit. We live in a world where the cycle of retribution and violence will eventually result in what our preacher last week called “Mutually Assured Destruction”—of our marriages and families, of our communities and neighborhoods, of our churches, our environment, and of our nation. The world is in desperate need of a new way of living—you only have to turn on the TV news for about 30 seconds to realize this. This is probably why Jesus took so much time to preach about ethics and how we live as Christians. Perhaps it’s time we paid attention.

In addition to those pesky and demanding Sermons on the Mount and Plain that command us to love our enemies and to rejoice when persecuted, Matthew devotes an entire chapter of his gospel to Jesus’ teachings on how we live together as believers. 

Jesus begins chapter 18 with his discussion of children, commanding that we be a community of hospitality and sanctuary for them. He condemns those who would put a stumbling block to any of these little ones coming to know and love God. 

We certainly don’t need to dig deeply into the news to find evidence of the damage caused to the Church’s witness by scandals and allegations of misconduct towards children.  Next, Jesus tackles this notion of how we deal with conflict within the body.  Our preacher spoke last week about our need to resolve conflict in such a way that relationships remain intact and unity is maintained.  

Finally, today, we come to the climax of Jesus’ teaching in which Jesus addresses the issue of forgiveness.  What is the magnitude of injury at which point it is OK to strike back?  If my neck had been whiplashed in that accident and I still suffered recurring nightmares of that afternoon such that I was afraid to get in my car and had lost my job as a result—then, Jesus, would it be OK to seek recompense? Certainly there must be a limit to forgiveness, Peter claims!  

Peter knows the Jewish law when he asks this. He knows that the Law requires that one forgive injury up to three times. He must feel as though he is being especially generous in suggesting seven as the point at which forgiveness, even of a brother or sister in Christ, must find its limit. I’m sure that Jesus’ response caught him off-guard.

Some translations offer that Jesus’ response was seventy-seven times to forgive a wrong suffered at the hand of another brother or sister. Other translations say seventy times seven, or 490 occasions of forgiveness. Either way, the number hardly matters. “Jesus is telling him not to assume that you can count how many times you offer forgiveness and then be done with it” (Jones).  

The parable offered by Jesus goes, perhaps, to the heart of the matter. He tells the story of two servants—the first who owed a ridiculously large quantity of money to the king, and the second, who owed a large, but manageable sum of money to the first servant. Servant number one we are told owes the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of currency in the Roman Empire. ONE talent represented 15 years of work for one laborer. 10,000 talents would then be the equivalent of 10,000 workers slaving for 15 years, devoting the entirety of their earnings to this debt. To put it lightly, this guy’s debt makes even a totaled BMW and back surgery look like peanuts. 

When the debt collector came around, this guy found himself in dire straights, realizing that there was no way he could bargain his way out of his mess. Figuring that this was a pretty good time to beg for mercy, the servant falls on his knees and pleads. Despite such a large debt, the king has compassion for the man, forgives him, and sends him back to his wife and children. On the way, servant one meets servant two, a man who owes him 100 denarii. A denarius was a smaller unit of currency roughly equivalent to a days’ wage for one laborer. Though I would hardly like to give up four months’ salary, this was certainly a more manageable debt. Trying to save face, the first servant calls the second servant to account for this debt. When this debtor is unable to repay, the first servant immediately goes into a rage and imprisons the second servant. When the king gets word of this situation, he goes to the first servant demanding to know why he would not show others the same mercy that he had been shown. 

What this servant failed to account for—what we ourselves fail to account for each time we find ourselves in a position of conflict, debt, or disparity and seek retribution for our wrong rather than forgive—is that he (and we) are debtors long BEFORE we are creditors. The unmerited forgiveness of the king towards the first servant reminds us of God’s overwhelming grace and forgiveness to each one of us. We too have been forgiven a debt that, like that first servant, we could never repay.  The king demands of the servant, and we too must ask ourselves. 

Could we be unforgiving and ungracious to our neighbors and their faults if we calculated our own indebtedness to one far greater than ourselves? 

Even more, having been forgiven this immeasurable debt, how can we not desire that others experience the same freedom that we ourselves have experienced by not having our debts counted against us? 

By telling this parable, Jesus does something that one of my seminary professors used to do to us students when he would write on the top of our papers: “It’s about God, stupid.” He turns the question around to make forgiveness and reconciliation FIRST about God and only secondarily about us. Peter’s question assumes that the limitations of human strength and patience are the measure of forgiveness. Jesus directs Peter not to assume that he is the one in the position of power when it comes to the question of forgiveness. First he says, we must know ourselves as ones who have been greatly forgiven by God. When we replace God at the center of it all, we see that forgiveness is really about who God is; and about who God makes us as forgiven and reconciled people. When our own debt is cleared, is it possible for us to continue to demand repayment from those who owe us? We have no need to justify ourselves any longer.

It seems to me as though the entire gospel is summed up in this short parable. It is the story of God’s unrelenting love, making us the servants who have been set free from our debts in order that we might offer the same to others, witnessing to the benevolence of our king. Jesus knows that forgiveness is contrary to our human instinct to bite back and devour. What Jesus is asking Peter to do is add God’s love and grace into his limited calculation of human forgiveness. In our own forgiveness we find an abundance of grace large enough to not only cover our own debts but the debts of those who have wronged us. Wrong and right are no longer a zero-sum game when God’s grace is factored into the equation. When we do this, we find enough grace and forgiveness to transform every level of human relationship from families to nations.

Forgiveness of the brother or sister who has wronged us is, therefore, a mark of Christian discipleship — a mark of the Christian community seeking to be Christ’s presence in the world. We speak often of the UM mission statement that asserts that we, The UMC, exist as a community of disciples “for the transformation of the world.” Can you imagine the transformation and renewal that might occur if Christians began forgiving others as in Christ they have been forgiven?  If we allowed forgiveness and grace to define our relationship to one another and the world, there would be a radical shift in the way the world sees the church and comprehends the gospel! What kind of community could and would be sustained on the presumption that forgiveness is always available?  Might churches begin to unify rather than divide?  Might the divorce rate for Christians drop below 50%?  Might Christians drop their swords (or automatic weapons) in favor of plowshares (or carpentry tools or educational programs)?  Perhaps it sounds imprudent or naïve, but the imperative of today’s gospel message is that we MUST learn to forgive one another—it is proof that God’s love reigns in our hearts; it is proof for the world that the gospel is more than just words to us.

We are quick to condemn the first servant for his hypocrisy, but fail to realize that we are guilty of the same each time we refuse forgiveness—no matter the cost—to our brothers and sisters.  Too often I hear from folks in all different walks of life that the one reason that they can never imagine coming to church is because it is full of hypocrites. For too long Christians and the church have settled to be defined in the public eye by scandal, split, and disagreement, throwing tantrums and slamming doors, fighting fire with fire (and other weapons of destruction). We are condemned by the ways in which our walk fails to match our talk.  Can we truthfully proclaim a God of boundless love, mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness—can we truthfully claim God’s grace for ourselves—and fail to offer that same mercy, love, and forgiveness to one another or our neighbors? What Jesus offers Peter (and the entire Christian community) in this lesson is a chance to be defined, empowered, and FREED by the love, acceptance, and forgiveness of a God who does not count our debt against us. When we recognize the grace offered to us in such abundance, we are able to surrender our need to nickel and dime, manipulate, harangue, and bite back when wronged—we are gifted to see our brothers and sisters as children of God desperate for an experience of God’s grace.  Because of God’s willingness to forgive and even suffer greatly for our debt rather than have anyone be lost to God, we have a model for our own forgiveness and evangelism. 

Folks are drawn to the gospel by seeing it lived out in real life a thousand times before they understand the words. Folks are desperate for a new way of living that breaks the cycle of tit-for-tat, payback or pay-up. We proclaim a God who has, in Christ, broken the vicious cycle of retribution and violence in which humans have been stuck since our exile from the Garden of Eden. By breaking this cycle of retribution, God transforms and gives new life to our relationship with God and one another by allowing us to participate in the spreading of divine grace and forgiveness to our neighbors.  If we desire that others be drawn into the gospel story—that none be lost to God—then we must first be willing to witness in our own lives to the reality of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. More than any smart words we could write to persuade others to accept the gospel, offering forgiveness and love—whether to our spouses, our children, our co-workers, people of the opposing political party, our leaders, and even, dare I say, to those who commit heinous crimes against us—is our witness.  It is the hope we share for a world transformed, where the cycle of violence and retribution has been broken by a God who was willing to empty himself into human form—to mount a cross for our sakes even when we were enemies of God—to forgive us seventy times seventy times seventy times (and more) though so often we know not what we do.

This, my friends, is our proclamation of the good news. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. 

Now, go and share this grace.  Amen. 


September 12, 2008

70 x 7 and 9/11

by Debra Dean Murphy
Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

At a time like this—the week we recall the attacks of September 11, 2001—it is instructive to set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This week we’ve been admonished by politicians and others to “remember and never forget” that terrible day seven years ago. This Sunday Jesus will tell us (again) that forgiveness is the required response to those who sin against us.

It is true that Matthew’s concern in chapter 18 is the restoration of relationships within the ekklesia, but we know that Jesus’ command to love, forgive and to reconcile with our neighbor presumes that our neighbor may sometimes turn out to be an enemy.

But the secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans— the disproportionate value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Nor do we often acknowledge that hundreds of citizens of other countries also died that morning seven years ago).

Every life lost is precious in the sight of God. Yet the woundedness that was felt by many in the early days after 9/11 was soon transformed into a defensiveness that continues to suggest, often without much subtlety, that because we are Americans our suffering is somehow greater than the suffering of others in other times and places.

Which makes it hard to forgive. Hard even to contemplate the possibility of forgiveness. But the church, says Matthew, ought to be the place where we show the world what forgiveness looks like, even if we have to extend it to each other over and over again, which we surely will.

“We do not live to ourselves,” says the apostle Paul in the appointed text from Romans, “and we do not die to ourselves.” Our lives and our deaths are linked to the lives and deaths of others—to the Lord, says Paul, and to one another: to people we love and to those we don’t. Judgment is God’s business, not ours. The work of forgiveness and reconciliation is task enough for the day—this day and every day.


September 05, 2008

Love and Power

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20) I’m a political junkie. And like many addicts, I’ve been bingeing lately, and I’m not proud of it. I know better (as most junkies do), but I can’t seem to help myself. Two weeks of convention hoopla—spin and jive, sentiment and spectacle, smugness and sarcasm—have left me more hopeless than ever about the state of political discourse in the United States of America.

Where’s the maturity and civility and humility? Where’s the courage to cast our political, economic, and moral challenges in the nuanced ways they require? Why are we afraid of complexity, subtlety, complicated truth? And perhaps most distressing: Why are we so hostile to one another?

These are naïve questions, of course, but when you’ve been “using” for two weeks, imbibing things that aren’t good for you, not sleeping enough, not eating properly—you begin to get the shakes (metaphorically, at least) and, like a weepy drunk, you start asking whiny, useless questions. Detox is definitely in order.

We might be tempted to think that church is the place that gives us respite from the cruelty and absurdity of politics but, of course, if you’ve ever been part of a congregation for five minutes or so, you know how laughable that idea is.

The Epistle and Gospel texts this week speak to the exercise of power in the ekklesia—reminding us how easily power can be abused: how readily it corrupts and wounds, how it can destroy life and health and community. The verses from Matthew have been used through the centuries in ways that have brought great harm to Christians and to Christian communities. Jesus’ words in this chapter have often been read through the lens of exclusion rather than through that of restoration and cure.

The “discipline” described here is not for the sake of punishment and permanent exile but is meant to reconcile one who is estranged temporarily from the body. The two verses that follow this pericope make that clear: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Not seven times, says Jesus, but seventy-seven times.

Yet when we try, by our own power, to embody this way of living and of receiving the other, we fail. Like politicians in the fight of their lives, we can get ugly, petty, ungracious, inhospitable; we can reduce the other to an unrecognizable caricature. It is only when, as the apostle Paul reminds us, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14) that the gift of reconciliation to one estranged becomes possible. To “put on Christ” is to imitate the self-giving love that the cross makes possible.

Love, Paul also says, is “the fulfilling of the law” (13:10). But such fulfillment has less to do with trying to earn God’s favor than with living as we were created to live: as persons who in our life together bear witness to the very nature of God in God’s self—a love that shows no partiality, that restores and heals, that welcomes and forgives—over and over and over again.

These are the words and themes and practices that should shape our lives as the body of Christ in a broken and hostile world—this is the detox we need.