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

(For more on the image go to
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.