December 30, 2010

God Made Visible

by Ragan Sutterfield
John 1:1-18; Matthew 2:1-12

What makes God visible?  That was the question that struck me reading the lectionary passages for this week. 

This is one of those rare weeks in which the Episcopal Church (my tradition) varies its readings from the standard Revised Common Lectionary, so I read both the gospel readings from John 1 and Matthew 2:1-12 (Episcopal).  Reading both was instructive because both are about God being made visible. 

In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”  This comes after we are told of the light coming into the world, a light that makes God visible by dwelling with us and making us children of the light with “grace upon grace.”


December 23, 2010

Herod Rules

by Brian Volck
Matthew 2:13-23

If, as the late Raymond Brown was fond of saying, the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are “the gospel in miniature,” then this Sunday’s gospel may be read as Matthew’s preview of the passion and resurrection. As with the passion accounts, we go astray if we read ourselves into this story in ways that are too easy, too comforting. If we don’t find something of ourselves in the person of Herod the Great, we’re cutting ourselves far too much slack.

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler wily enough to switch allegiances just in time and pragmatic enough to execute his own children when politics demanded. An Idumaean rather than ethnically Jewish, he was nonetheless named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate while in exile.


December 16, 2010

A Small Part in a Great Story

by Jake Wilson
Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25

By Matthew 1:18, Matthew has already named Jesus as the Messiah several times. Indeed, Matthew’s genealogy is constructed to show that the son of Joseph and Mary is also the Messiah. Reading the birth narrative in light of the genealogy helps us remember that what we encounter in this particular birth is the continuing of the story of God’s covenantal love for his chosen people, and indeed all the world. The birth of the Messiah comes as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David as well as in the wake of the sad history of the murder of Uriah and the deportation to Babylon. The genealogy reminds us that the birth of the Messiah is part of the history of God’s action with and for God’s broken people.


December 08, 2010

Advent Outdoors

by Debra Dean Murphy
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146: 5-10 or Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes
. Isaiah 35:7b

Wendell Berry observes that it’s not enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. For many, such an insight serves mainly to underwrite the idea that we can worship God best in nature’s environs: mountaintops, seashores, golf courses. But I think that Berry is on to something else, as are the appointed texts for the season of Advent generally and for the third Sunday especially.

The Advent scriptures are relentlessly eschatological: preoccupied with consummation and completion, concerned with all things, at long last, being set to right. This in itself is a jolt to our culturally-conditioned piety – our understanding and embrace of Advent as the countdown to Christmas and all that.

Even more of a challenge, perhaps, is the particular vision of Advent’s eschaton: transformed landscapes (blooming deserts, water in the wilderness); the glory and majesty of forests and mountains (Lebanon, Carmel, Sharon). Eschatology here is topographical, earthy, local. It is, at heart, about the renewal of creation. Christ’s second Advent portends not the sweeping of souls up into the clouds but heaven come to earth. It’s land reform, people.

But it’s people reform, too: blind eyes opened, deafness cured, lepers healed, the dead raised. It is justice executed: food for the hungry, prisoners set free, the rich sent away empty. It is good news, at long last, for the poor.

And you need the grown-up Jesus for this. The Advent scriptures are not about a baby. It isn’t until Christmas Eve that we read the familiar, beloved birth narrative. And even on Christmas Day – the Feast of the Nativity – the primary liturgical text is not the one about shepherds and angels but rather John’s brainy prologue: “In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos who became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood,” as The Message translation has it.

And the neighborhood is undergoing a makeover, a complete overhaul, in fact. This week Isaiah and Mary foretell this, the Psalmist celebrates it, and James and Jesus preach it – each of them in their way summoning us to our part: to be bearers of the good news, agents of healing and transformation, participants in the holy, adventurous work of bringing heaven to earth.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.” Advent takes us out of ourselves and outside to a world groaning in travail – a world in ecological crisis, billions of its inhabitants suffering grievously and needlessly, longing for shalom. If we respond to the summons, we’re promised in Isaiah that this “Holy Way” is so blessed that “not even fools shall go astray.” That’s a pretty compelling promise for fools like us: in the shared work of healing and transformation our own salvation is found.


December 01, 2010

The Politics of Hope: American and Apocalyptic

by Doug Lee
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

It wasn’t surprising on that November night two years ago when people poured out onto the streets of our San Francisco neighborhood cheering and beating pots and pans after the media called the election for Barack Obama. What was surprising was the way that Obama’s election resounded in many corners of the country far less blue than this Left Coast City. Not since the 1960s had both Virginia and North Carolina gone Democratic.

No matter one’s view of Obama then or now, the fact of his election revealed a welling up of desire for the healing of centuries-old divides in race and politics. It highlighted the longing of many Americans for someone who could transcend the politics of entrenched despair and usher in a different way of relating, a politics of hope.

Two years later, it’s clear that a politics fueled only by hope in American optimism and virtue cannot come close to surmounting fundamental human divisions animated by greed and suspicion. Human rulers, even ones committed to civility and reflection, do not possess the authority or skill to mend these deep rifts. Two years later, the longings remain, but now submerged, muted and dormant.

While these longings may have been misplaced, Advent tells us that they were far from wrong. Advent tells us that such longings are ancient and decidedly fitting for the people of God.

Into a similarly barren political and moral landscape, Isaiah prophesies a new day for a royal line sputtering along on the fumes of a promise made long ago. David’s lineage has long been bankrupt of legitimacy. Yet Isaiah dreams God’s dream of a righteous ruler born of Jesse, one who will defend the vulnerable against the predatory ways of the wicked and enact the Lord’s justice and truth. The coming king will not yield to the manipulations of the powerful or cater to those who contribute the most to the party’s campaign coffers. Empowered with the Spirit’s discernment, he will speak forth justice for those without social or economic leverage.

But Isaiah’s dream of a new day doesn’t end here. So just and true is the coming king’s rule that it rectifies not only the realm of human relations but the entire created order as well! There is peace among species that have been at each other’s throats since Genesis 3:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kid,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

When God’s appointed ruler is enthroned, all creation is brought into such loving communion that even the most carnivorous predator will learn to be a vegan and enjoy it!

This may sound like a pipe dream. But Paul the Apostle declares that this ancient dream has come to fruition. The day of hope has come, for Jesse’s root has risen to rule the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). While Isaiah sees only the eventual emergence of the coming king (“he shall stand”), the Greek translation cited by Paul signals something far more startling. It employs the word regularly utilized for “resurrection” and thus ignites Paul’s proclamation that Christ’s rising from the dead actualizes apocalyptic day of hope. “The Lord of our longing has conquered the night,” declares the lyrics of the Catholic hymn City of God. God has fulfilled the longing of Israel and the nations, and so Paul proclaims Christ as Lord of the nations to those who live under the nose of that Roman pretender, Caesar.

But this is far from revolutionary ideology or political theory. For Paul, all politics is local.

Therefore, the politics of hope begin at home, in the church, and around the table. The weak and the strong shall sit together at table and not devour each other with their condescension and condemnation. They can now eat together without qualms about each other’s dietary restrictions or voting affiliations.

Under Caesar and American liberalism, the best humanity can hope for is to maintain a sham unity enforced by power. When we bump up against intractable differences, the most we can practice is a tolerance that allows us to coexist but at a safe distance from one another. “Peace” is won through enforced division.

But under the reign of the coming king, the people of God are liberated from merely tolerating each other, from practicing that forced cordiality that plagues too many of our relationships in the church, and from mouthing that nonsense that we are all the same on the inside.

Christ did not die for generic people; he died as a servant of the circumcised and to fulfill God’s promises to the Hebrew people. Christ did not live at a safe distance from others so that everyone could go on pleasing themselves; he denied himself so that the Gentiles might be grafted and join a redeemed Israel in praising God with one voice. Therefore, we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see that we could never be whole without each other, even in—and because of—our differences. We disturb the powers, liberal and imperial, when people who have no business eating together share one table. Our little welcomes are deeply interpersonal and vastly public, political, and apocalyptic at the same time. Paul’s politics of hope is practiced in the near and now.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


November 27, 2010

The Son of Man Is Coming

by Janice Love
First Sunday of Advent:  Isaiah 2: 1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13: 11-14, Matthew 24: 36-44

And so we begin the waiting…again.  Paul writes, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”  We are two thousand years nearer now and still we wait, surrounded yet by too much night.  My husband likes to take the time to talk with our 7 year old son about the resurrection – that day of glory when Christ will come again and make all things new.  The other night, out of the blue, Jameson’s last words before falling asleep were, “I hope the resurrection happens soon (to which I replied, “Amen”) – while I’m alive…that would be neat.”  And I was struck with how much was caught up in that word “neat” – all the hopes and fears of all the years.  As the dark maw of cholera devours people in Haiti, as abnormal amounts of rain drowns people and crops in too many places, as corruption cripples and crumbles the foundations of nations, I am inclined to shout to Jesus, “would you hurry up and get here already!” 

We North Americans have a hard time waiting, for anything.  If pushing a button does not bring about near instantaneous results we begin to feel our stress and frustration levels rise.  I have noticed in the last few years how Halloween has become a month long celebration that slips almost seamlessly into the putting up of Christmas decorations (here in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving early in October).  What is the point of waiting if you can have it all now?!   The reality, of course, is that we can’t have it all now.  For God’s own reasons we must wait yet for the Parousia.  Herein lies the gift that is Advent.  A time set aside to practice waiting, to get clear about what we are waiting for.  And it begins with waking up to the trouble we are all in.

A colleague of mine wrote an insightful and very helpful piece a few years ago, entitled “Advent Begins with Trouble” (by Rev. Dr. Edwin Searcy in Sanctifying Time).  In it he redirects our attention from the complex concepts of hope, peace, joy and love made too easily into “four safe platitudes” to the Advent lectionary texts.  Paying close attention to these texts, hosting them as we would welcome strangers, revels the deep “ache and grief that cries out for a saviour.”  This is the tough part about waking up, especially if we are just pretending to be asleep.  The beginning texts of the Advent season embody the spirit of the Psalms where we cry out our need for God.  And just like so many of those Psalms, in Advent we look to when God has answered in the past so that we might live in hope for the present, anticipating the arrival of God’s promised future.  As Ed reminds us in his piece, “the root word for ‘wait’ in both Hebrew and Latin also means ‘hope’”. 

We live between the times of Jesus’ arrivals.  In Advent we prepare to look back to a babe born in occupied territory, both hunted and overlooked, the promise that God is with us and we look ahead to Jesus full return.  In wonder we realize that we too are a part of the story of what God is up to for the sake of the world.  We have a part to play, if only a supporting role.  We can choose to live honorably as in the day – the day that Jesus has inaugurated with his life, death and resurrection.  We can put on the Lord Jesus Christ, for the Son of Man is coming – and at an unexpected hour too.  It will be neat, Jameson, really neat.

Kyrie eleison,
Come soon, Lord Jesus!


November 17, 2010

The Crucified King

by Brian Volck
Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:33-43

At George Washington’s first inaugural in New York City (following an election in which he received every electoral vote), some in the audience wondered if the former colonies had simply exchanged George III for George the First. President Washington, however, had no truck with domestic monarchists. Throughout his presidency, he maintained a careful balance of pomp and the common touch, willingly leaving office after his second term.

By the 1860s, however, Washington – both war hero and president – was the only historical figure capable of unifying a violently fractured nation-state. In 1865, accordingly, Constantino Brumidi painted an immense fresco above the US Capitol Rotunda, The Apotheosis of Washington, elevating the first president beyond monarchy to the status of a god.

At the center, Washington sits in heavenly glory, flanked by Liberty and Victory. Thirteen maidens dance about this trinity, surrounded in turn by personifications of American prowess. The nearest of these to Washington is War, dressed as Armed Liberty, and brandishing a sword against tyranny, kings, and the schismatic Jefferson Davis.

In the century and a half since Brumidi painted his fresco, some nations have learned subtler ways to celebrate the state’s mystical power as savior and protector. President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech followed the contemporary formula, condemning religious violence while accepting the tragic necessity of secular wars in which Americans spill blood out of “enlightened self-interest.”

America is a land of equals, we’re told, with no use for kings, Elvis excluded. Perhaps that’s why the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar, “Christ the King” (although the name is often neutered for various reasons to “The Reign of Christ”), carries, for me at least, the lingering scent of treason. There’s something un-American about the whole idea. Christians bow before a monarch who is killed rather than kills, promiscuously mingles justice and mercy, and suggests that the most serious matters aren’t about “life and death,” after all, but “death and resurrection.” Where’s the enlightened self interest in that?

The readings this Sunday present this king, “image of the invisible God, (and) firstborn of all creation,” nailed to a torture device between two common thieves. What’s more, he promises one of those thieves Paradise. That’s no way to run a kingdom, much less a universe.

And we, the king’s subjects, wear a cross, instrument of his violent death, on necklaces and chains. A cross leads our processions, adorns our walls, takes pride of place in our churches. It’s like commemorating Abraham Lincoln with miniature Deringers.

And what’s more, we’re supposed to emulate this king, to pick up our own crosses and follow him, presumably to the point of forgiving the guilty.

Only lunatics would do such a thing – lunatics like Dom Christian de Cherge’, one of the seven Trappist monks kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War. Though the so-called Armed Islamist Group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and murders, the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remains unclear. Only their heads were recovered.

Dom Christian knew such a grisly death was possible, perhaps even likely, in the increasingly dangerous environment where these Trappists lived as witnesses to Christ, servants to the people as their Lord served them. In anticipation, he wrote a “testament,” to be opened in just such an event. It began:

“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?”

In the last paragraph of his testament, Dom Christian directly addressed his then and still unknown murderer:

“And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this thank you and this adieu to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”

I never want to face anything like Dom Christian’s test of fidelity to the Crucified King. I almost certainly never will. I expect my trials will be vastly more manageable and infinitely less painful. Yet I tremble at the thought of witnessing even a hundredth portion of Dom Christian’s forgiveness and acceptance toward the several who annoy me and rouse my passions. That, however, is where we are called to go, bearing our considerably lighter and all but invisible crosses in witness to our king.

Perhaps if mortal danger were closer, more obvious, we would be better people. Maybe, but I doubt it. Between the Fall and the Eschaton, obedience to the nonviolent Messiah is unnatural at best. In this confused and confusing time, when the Kingdom is both present and not yet, little is clear save our bottomless need for grace. On this feast of the Crucified King, remember to pray for one another, servants of the Servant.


November 16, 2010

Oscar Romero on Christ’s Kingship

Written by Tobias Winright
November 2010 (Reign of Christ Sunday, Proper 29)

In view of this Sunday’s focus on the reign of Christ, I find some words from Archbishop Oscar Romero to be appropriate:

“The human race of the twentieth century
has climbed to the moon,
has uncovered the secret of the atom,
and what else may it not discover?

The Lord’s command is fulfilled:
Subdue the earth!
But the absolute human dominion over the earth
Will be what is proclaimed today:
bringing all things of heaven and earth together
in Christ.

Then humanity hallowed will put under God’s reign
this world, which is now the slave of sin,
and set it at the feet of Christ,
and Christ at the feet of God.

This is the bringing together that was God’s design
before the world existed.
And when History comes to its end,
this will be God’s fulfillment:

the sum of all things.
All that history has been,
all that we do ourselves,
good or bad,
will be measured by God’s design;
and there will remain only those who have labored
to put things under Christ’s rule.

All that has tried to rebel against God’s plan in Christ
is false.
It will not last;
It will be for history’s waste heap. (July 15, 1979)

Christ is presented to us as the shepherd king,
king and shepherd of all the world’s peoples,
of all of history.

He holds the key to history’s outcome
And to the crises of its peoples…
It is for us, hierarchy and people, to proclaim
the eternal, sole, and universal kingship of Christ
and to bring it about
that all peoples, families, and persons submit to him.

His is not a despotic regime,
but a regime of love…. (July 22, 1979)

From Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, SJ (The Plough Publishing House, 1998), pp. 148-150.


November 11, 2010

Got Conflict?

by Jenny Williams
Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Tired of congregational conflict?

Recently I had to work with a utility company on behalf of a woman whom our church was assisting financially.  The woman was getting nowhere with the company, so I tried to help her with the process.  It took eight calls to them before I could speak with a supervisor who would hear my concerns and rectify the billing problems the customer had.  In the first five calls, five different customer service representatives each told me different information about how the woman’s situation. 

One told me everything was paid up.  Another told me that the customer had a $500 balance.  Another told me they’d ask the back office to research the issue, and I could call back in 2-3 days for an answer.  I did, and I was told that that timeline was wrong; it would take 5-7 days for the research to be completed.  After that time had passed, I called back.  That representative told me the timeline was wrong; it would take 4-6 weeks.  By the time I got to the supervisor, who was very kind and understanding, I suggested to her that some training was needed to improve consistency among the representatives.  She sighed and explained that in the last year, not only had they fired the original company to whom they outsourced the customer service calls and then hired a new company, the utility company had also begun to use a new computer system.  Balances paid during certain months were not credited to customers’ accounts, past due and termination notices were sent out incorrectly, and the new employees didn’t have much training to handle any of it.  I felt so sorry for her and said so.  She said brightly, “I’ve just learned that there are never problems; there are only opportunities.  And every morning I come to work, I am faced with all sorts of opportunities.”

Jesus tells us in Luke 21 that if we are faithful to the way of life he’s set before us, there will be some serious ramifications.  The part where we are hauled off to the civil authorities isn’t anything new to EP endorsers and like-minded Christians.  We are aware that some of the ways Christ calls us to live will come into direct conflict with the state.  If you have any questions about that, read Acts. 

But the part where he talks about faithful Christ-followers being “handed over to the synagogues” gives us pause.  If we follow Jesus, the people of God—the church—might get upset?  Yeah. 

This may shock you (note sarcasm), but even congregations might get upset when a ministry of the church aims to reach out to the same kind of people whom Jesus reached out to.  This upset can cause arguing, division, and all sort of congregational chaos.  These battles can be exhausting.  And depressing.  But when Christians are called on the carpet for extending grace or assistance to sinful people, Luke’s Jesus tells us to see this kind of confrontation as an “opportunity”—an opportunity to testify. Ugh.  When I am in the middle of those kinds of conflicts, what I want to say out loud is, “I’m hurt.  I’m tired.  I’m frustrated. Can’t we all just get along?”  But what Jesus says is “Keep your eyes open.  That’s the time to talk about God’s goodness.”    Perhaps he uses legal language to call our attention to our own sinfulness in the midst of conflict:  don’t prepare your defense in advance.  You mean, don’t prepare a speech in advance about how right I am to follow Jesus?  That might make me self-defensive and point to my arrogant self-righteousness?  Ouch.  We are instead instructed to keep our eyes open for the opportunity to speak, and when the time comes, let God give us the words.  Perhaps if God gives us the words and the wisdom, when we are challenged because of the ministries in which we engage, we’ll talk about God and not ourselves. 

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.  (2 Thessalonians 3:13)  When the time comes for the confrontation, may we be able to take a deep breath and say to ourselves, “Surely it is God who saves me.  I will trust in him and not be afraid.  For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and He will be my Savior.”   And then, may we be able to speak to our challengers words of God’s goodness and grace.



November 03, 2010

All the Saints

by Jake Wilson
Luke 21:27-40

Last week, Tobias Winright reminded us that October 30th was the feast of St. Marcellus who was martyred because of his refusal to participate in the idolatry of the Roman Empire. From very early on the Church understood the importance of remembering and celebrating those who had departed to be with the Lord. However, over her two thousand year history, the Church has gathered far too many saints to give each their own feast day. Thus, while we still celebrate the most exemplary of the departed, we also set aside All Saints Day to remember the faithfulness of those every day saints who have gone before us. All Saints Day falls on the first of November, but at the level of the local church it is typically celebrated on the first Sunday of November. For this year’s celebration of All Saints the lectionary offers us a discussion of the resurrection from the Gospel of Luke.

The reading for the day follows Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. These two actions were symbolically powerful and almost immediately the questions started as others attempted to understand what they have just witnessed. Questions arose about Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptist, his connections to David and his loyalty to Caesar.

It is within this complex of questions that the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about resurrection. The catalyst for the question comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10. According to the Law, for the sake of perpetuating the family line, a brother would be legally required to provide off spring to his deceased brother’s widow. It is worth our noting that the command, and thus the drive behind the Sadducees question, is concerned with progeny not marriage. The issue here is not Genesis 2.24 “and the two shall become one flesh” but rather Genesis 1.28 “Be fruitful and multiply.” Jesus’ reply points out that in wondering about family lineage, the Sadducees are asking the wrong kinds of questions. This particular law’s emphasis on child bearing helps us to see that the Sadducees are focusing on creation rather than new creation. Jesus’ answer reveals this flaw by pressing the distinction between those who live in this age and those who live in the next. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage but those who are worthy of a place in that age…”

One of the primary differences is that those who live in the age to come “cannot die anymore.” That these “children of the resurrection” cannot die minimizes the concern of continuing the family name through producing heirs. Jesus then turns to his own biblical text to drive home his point that those who live in the age to come, live in the age to come. In Exodus 3:6, God names himself as “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had all three clearly passed from this current age. Yet since God who is the God of the living, indentifies himself by a reference to them, they must be living. Or as Jesus puts it, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” They are then living in the new age as “children of the resurrection.”

The text ends with the Sadducees feigning understanding “for they no longer dared to ask him another question.” We are left in a similar position. Jesus gives us much to ponder. As the Church approaches All Saints Day a great many will turn their thoughts to the meaning of words like heaven, eternal life, and resurrection. What we are shown through this passage is that this new age, the age of resurrection will be radically different from our current age. It will be a time and place in which sin and death neither reign nor exist, a possibility so foreign to our lives that much like the Sadducees, we can hardly find the right questions to ask. Far from explaining the resurrection, Jesus helps us to see just how far God’s ways are above our own.

This new age, is the inheritance of all who have faith in Jesus Christ, not just Abraham or Marcellus but also our friends, parents, neighbors and enemies. The celebration of All Saints is not just a celebration of their earthly lives, as remarkable as they may have been. As the text shows, to focus on the everyday material of life in this age is to miss the point. Instead, we celebrate their life with God today and forever more, recognizing that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is not only the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, but also the God of Marcellus, Frank, Joel, Susan and the countless others who live with God eternally.


October 30, 2010

In Memory of Saint Marcellus

by Tobias Winright(Feast of Saint Marcellus)

This week the Jesuit Catholic magazine, America, posted video clips of US soldiers talking about conscience in the military. Pacifist and just war Christians respectively should support both conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection. While the former is legally recognized in the US at this time, the latter ought to be also, especially if such a stance is rooted in deeply held theological and philosophical beliefs and practices, too.

Thinking about this today reminded me that October 30th is the Feast of Saint Marcellus, who was martyred on this date in 298 C.E. for refusing to continue to serve in Caesar's army. Marcellus was a centurion, or captain, in the Roman legion of Trajan, which was stationed at Tangier in North Africa at the time. During the celebration of the emperor's birthday by the soldiers, Marcellus stood up and declared in front of the company, “I serve Jesus Christ the everlasting King.” In addition to his confession of faith, Marcellus cast aside his soldier's belt, with its sword, and his staff, which was a sign of his authority as a centurion. “With this,” he added, “I cease to serve your emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols.”

Indeed, one of the primary reasons that Christians during the first few centuries refused military service had to do with the idolatry associated with being in the Roman army. The festivities and sacrifices attached to the birthday party for the emperor thus occasioned Marcellus’ coming out of the closet as a Christian who cannot sin against his Lord Jesus by participating in idolatrous activities toward Caesar. “If such be the conditions of service that men are compelled to sacrifice to the gods and emperors,” Marcellus boldly stated, “then behold, I throw away the staff and belt; I renounce the standards and refuse to serve.”

The soldiers who witnessed his conscientious objection to continued service in the military quickly placed him under arrest and reported him to Anastasius Fortunatus, prefect of the legion. In their eyes his action was blasphemous and treasonous. After appearing before Anastasius Fortunatus and reiterating his allegiance to Jesus Christ, Marcellus was taken before Aurelius Agricolanus, the vicar to the prefect of the praetorium guard.

When asked by Agricolanus whether he had said these things, Marcellus answered, “I said it.” And when Agricolanus inquired about what madness provoked him to declare his allegiance to Christ, Marcellus replied, “There is no madness in those who fear the Lord.” When then questioned about why he cast aside his arms, Marcellus simply explained, “For it is not fitting for a Christian man who serves Christ the Lord to serve human powers.” Afterwards, Marcellus was sentenced to death and executed by beheading.

This account of Marcellus' martyrdom first came to my attention a decade-and-a-half ago while I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. I served as a graduate assistant for Professor John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, helping him with his course on Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution. The story of Marcellus was required reading for his students, and Yoder felt that it was important to let them also know that Notre Dame has a Marcellus connection. Indeed, he asked me to find more information and documentation in the archives about this.

Unbeknownst to many of the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame, Marcellus is one of three saints whose bones are under the altar in the Sacred Heart Basilica on the Notre Dame campus. The founder of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., had Marcellus’ relics, including either his skull or a fragment of it, transported across the Atlantic and placed at the base of the altar.

In 1996 Yoder encouraged some of his colleagues and students to brainstorm about how Notre Dame could honor the saint in 1998, the 17th centennial of his martyrdom. However, after Yoder's untimely death in December of 1997, nothing materialized with regard to Marcellus at Notre Dame until Michael Baxter revived the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which issues an annual Marcellus Award to someone who takes a public stand for conscience when it comes to war and peace.

In view of the unjustified wars of our day, St. Marcellus, pray for us.


October 20, 2010

Humble Pie*

by Janice Love
Joel 2: 23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18, Luke 18: 9-14

About 15 years ago my husband and I began to notice a disturbing trend in the denomination in which we were both raised – the practice of eliminating the prayer of confession from the worship service, essentially making confession a non-practice. The reasons seemed to be caught up in the rejection of the idea of judgment and of not wanting to make people, especially seekers, feel bad.  Thankfully there were other Christians that continued to steward the practice because we were in great need of it when we realized what our participation in Native Residential Schools in Canada had unleashed upon innocent children.

Worse perhaps is the reason the prayer of confession was eliminated from our current congregation’s (of a different denomination) new worship service – to save on chronological time.  Especially concerning here is that the new service was designed to be more appealing to younger folk, with the introduction of drums and electric guitars.  I don’t know about you but when I was a youth, admittedly a goody-two shoes youth, I had trouble conceiving of my need for confession – did I really do anything wrong enough to warrant confessing?  That was before I had any idea of the sticky web of corporate sin in which we are all enmeshed.  It is one of the great gifts of the church to pass on this practice of confession that it might weekly confront us with the truth.  I shudder when it is absent.

Now if any of you are thinking that your tradition would never conceive of eliminating the prayer of confession, then the gospel text from Luke this coming Sunday is for you (and, of course, for me).  It is apparent from the texts that preface this reading and the one that immediately follows (18: 15-17) that Jesus is not addressing outsiders but rather insiders – folk who are already part of his wider group of disciples.  You could say he is addressing the “early, Early Church”.  There is irony in Jesus’ choice of a Pharisee to illustrate his point regarding those who trust in themselves if the reaction amongst any in the crowd then or reading this text now is to think to themselves, ‘Well, thankfully I’m (we’re) not like that Pharisee!’

Humility is a tricky thing.  The word derives from the Latin word humilis meaning “lowly”.  It literally means ‘on the ground’, from humus or ‘earth.’  This is the truth of who we are – humble, human, humus.  Perhaps the key to humility for the church is the relational aspect emphasized in Jesus’ parable.  The Pharisee has done everything correctly (there is no question about that) but remains, unbeknownst to himself, unjustified before God because he is trusting in his own actions.  The tax collector has come to the realization that his actions have been wrong and now stands in a corner, beating his breast and throwing himself on the merciful actions of God.  The Pharisee is not seeking a relationship with God and is unaware of his utter dependence on God’s grace, the tax collector is.  I would encourage you all (all you all) to add the next three verses onto this lectionary text as it beautifully illustrates Jesus’ point.  Infants are completely dependant on their parents for life – completely.  This is how Jesus calls us to be dependant on God.  If we can live here, on the ground, we are so much closer to God’s kingdom.  I have found it eminently refreshing, and relaxing, to be around humble folk – folk who know themselves to have made mistakes, who know their reliance on God’s grace, all of which seems to free me to be the same.

This is highly counter cultural stuff for us North Americans.  We are so accomplishment orientated (which also helps to feed our accumulation habits).  This text is unlikely to sell any seats in the pew to the enculturated and that may also apply to many of us already in one of those seats.  These accomplishment and accumulation orientations are so ingrained in us that their transformation seems almost hopeless.  I take a certain measure of delight in the observation that our belly buttons are ontological reminders that there is no such thing as a self-made person.  All of us have had to rely on others in order to live.  All of us rely on God as our Creator (so exquisitely expressed in the first two readings from Joel and Psalm 65) and on Jesus as our Saviour as we stand before God.  This is where the Church must live, for the sake of the world God so loves because it is here that we learn to confess our true joy in the steadfast love of God.

* the term ‘humble pie’ (1830s) came from ‘umble pie’ (1640s) which was a pie made from ‘umbles’ – edible inner parts of an animal, especially deer, which was considered a low class food [from the Online Etymology Dictionary found at]; somehow I think Luke would like this association with humility given how often Jesus ate with those who were dispossessed.


October 14, 2010

Learning, Knowing, Doing, Being

by Debra Dean Murphy
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Last week the Pew Research Center made big news when its latest poll revealed that religious people don't know much about religion. (Atheists, though, according to the survey, are pretty savvy). Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered his own pop quiz, which, according to my unscientific calculations (counting the number of Facebook confessions), a whole lot of people flunked.

This news is instructive as far as it goes. Having spent a good deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and teaching about Christian formation and catechesis, I'm not surprised that life-long church-goers know so little about the history and development, the context and content of the Christian tradition. Not that it's really their fault. When I teach, say, the history of Methodism or the liturgical year to lay people, they can't get enough of it. They wonder where this stuff has been all their lives. Clergy don't teach or preach it much; Sunday School is about other things, sadly.

But the point of this kind of learning is not merely to transfer useful data from the knowledgeable to the uninformed. Mastery of material is not the name of the game - discipleship is. It matters, of course, that Christians know what pre-Constantinian Christianity was like or that the gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus, but not as a measure of fact-collecting competency. Rather, as the writer of 2 Timothy insists, "proficiency" in such matters is for the purpose of being "equipped for every good work" (3:17). It's for doing stuff - living a certain way, being a particular (and peculiar) kind of people.

This Sunday's passage from 2 Timothy is often cited by those who want to close off debate about complex matters of scriptural authority and doctrinal content - who see religion fundamentally as a set of fixed propositions to be assented to. Because it's a letter, 2 Timothy has the kind of didactic vibe that lends itself to this kind of reductive reading. (Sort of like the pastoral epistles, with their hortatory restrictions on women, trumping the gospels' -- and Paul's -- clear message of women's leadership in the early Jesus movement).

But the emphasis here is clearly on "learning, believing, and knowing" (3:14) as a "training in righteousness" (3:16). Discipleship is  not about just knowing but about living the strange truth of the upside-down kingdom of God, even when others turn from listening and "wander away to myths" (4:4). It's about "good work," says the writer, but it's also about hard work - about practicing a distinctive way of life which sometimes only makes you odd and out of step but other times costs you dearly.

In this week's Psalm there's a slightly different twist on the knowledge-content of faith - on its "laws, commandments, decrees, precepts, ordinances, and words." The Psalmist delights in the law for its own sake, for its intrinsic beauty and goodness and power.  Instead of using doctrine as a litmus test for determining orthodoxy or as a weapon to beat down those who are not keeping it satisfactorily, the Psalmist gushes, "Oh, how I love your law!"  What he "knows" about God offers the possibility for connection and communion, for life itself. It’s not mere knowledge for the head; it's life-giving water that soothes and heals and satisfies.

If this law comes down from a great high judge, the gospel lesson in Luke reveals a bit of what this arbiter of justice is like. Jesus tells a parable of "a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people" (18:2). A persistent widow kept coming to him asking for justice against her opponent. For awhile the judge refused but later, "so that she may not wear me out by continually coming" (18:5), he relented and gave in to her demands. God is like this, says Jesus. Not in mirroring the judge's laziness and indifference but in granting justice to those who cry out. But God is also not like the unjust judge for God's justice is swift (18:7).

These eight verses in Luke are framed by a concern for the uncertainty of the coming days. Speaking to the anxious in deeply anxious times, they constitute an encouraging word: "to pray always and not to lose heart" (18:1). But prayer is not mere private speech. It is not the half-hearted mumblings of the not-quite committed. Prayer in anxious times is like the persistent widow seeking justice: challenging the abuse of power – cruelty, corruption, laziness, indifference – even when it seems hopeless, when it's inconvenient or humiliating or mind-numbingly boring. Prayer is work: it's learning by doing, knowing by being.

We know this because Jesus concludes the parable by posing this question: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" This question wasn’t in the Pew Center poll or on Kristof’s quiz. But its answer might be the most important one of all.


October 06, 2010

Unchained Word

by Brian Volck
2 Kings 5; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

Mark’s Jesus is in a hurry, John’s Jesus is in control, and Matthew’s Jesus does parables. Luke’s Jesus forever crosses borders. This time, the border lies between the boondocks of Galilee and the enemy’s homeland, Samaria.

Nathanael – or any right-thinking first century Palestinian Jew – needn’t ask if anything good comes from Samaria. One might as well spout nonsense about a “good Samaritan,” or a “good Al Qaeda.”

This week, the border also divides clean from unclean. Unlike the encounter in Luke 5, this text doesn’t mention Jesus touching lepers, but the precedent’s set, he’s in unclean territory already, and now there are ten of them.

When they beg for mercy, Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests." One of the ten, it turns out, is a Samaritan, whose reception by priests might be compared to CIA headquarters welcoming Osama bin Laden. 

It just so happens that, as the ten leave, all are cured. Nine continue on their way, presumably to see priests who will declare them clean and welcome them back into community – a community in which, at the time, Samaritans had no place. The Samaritan turns back and makes a spectacle of himself, like a Holy Roller in a church of smells and bells.

“Where are the other nine?” Jesus wonders, “Why just this foreigner?” Then comes an offhanded punch line about the Samaritan’s faith making him well. It makes one wonder if the other nine are well too, or are they merely clean?

Like Naaman in this weeks’ first reading, it’s the outsider, the one from across the border who’s not only cured, but shows gratitude for an act of pure grace. (Read further in 2 Kings 5 for Gehazi’s counterexample.) 

Jesus is always crossing borders, breaking the rules, messing with the order of things. He meets with tax collectors and sinners, touches lepers, greets Samaritans, enters women’s homes. The Word isn’t chained by borders, categories, or convention. In the end, even death itself can’t chain Him. 

In an uncertain world like first century Judea or twenty-first century America, Jesus is dangerous. What if everyone started welcoming foreigners, ate with sinners, preached grace and gratitude? Paul did just that and lost his head.  Francis of Assisi (whose feast was this past Monday) embraced a leper and preached peace to the Sultan, and died visibly wounded.

Isn’t that precisely what happens when the Word’s not chained, borders aren’t policed, categories aren’t enforced? Isn’t that why we killed Jesus in the first place? Isn’t that why we crucify him still?  


September 22, 2010

Proper 21: Not Enough For Everyone’s Greed

by Ragan Sutterfield
Am 6:1, 4-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31

When I read passages like those in this week’s lectionary I find myself saying, not unlike the Pharisee in Luke 18, “God, I am thankful I’m not wealthy.” Of course, not withstanding the fact that I am quite comfortable and generally don’t go wanting for what I need, these scripture passages invite us into something much deeper than the matter of money; something that will challenge our way of living no matter the contents of our bank account. The lectionary passages this week invite us to a reorientation toward a life of radical dependence. Money is of course a major obstacle toward the realization of this dependence, but other resources such as degrees or physical ability or social status could just as well be stumbling blocks against living in the reality that God feeds us when we are hungry, vindicates us when injustice is done to us (Ps. 146:6).

In Amos 6:1a,4-7 we find a description of those living in lavish comfort without concern for the plight of their people and community. Their carelessness is purely negative and consumptive, focused on personal pleasure without realizing the connectedness of their lives to those around them. They have not looked at the problems of their community and lamented them, seeking to right the wrongs. Instead they have ignored these evils in order to more fully enjoy themselves. Of course, they can only ignore the problems of their community at their own peril, “the ruin of Joseph” will soon be their own ruin and the prophet warns them appropriately that they will be the first to go into exile, cut off from their place and community because they have chosen to be cut off from their place and community in its time of need.

In the Epistle to Timothy we find a similar tone: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” The godly must be content with gifts of God and put their resources into the building up of the community. The problem isn’t so much with wealth per se, but with an interest in maintaining it. It is doubtful that someone truly pursuing Christ could maintain their wealth, given their constant generosity and concern for the needs of those around them.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus provides a stark view into the reality of maintaining wealth without concern for the well being of our neighbors. The nameless rich man is told that he received his reward while he was living while Lazarus did not. I am reminded here of Gandhi’s statement that there is enough in the world for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed. If the rich man had lived in simple dependence on God’s abundant gifts he would have had plenty for his own needs and to share with Lazarus. Instead, the rich man ensured his own comfort by taking more than was needed, relying on the security of his grain bins and economic power rather than God.

As folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have done so well to remind us, there is a different kind of economic order available to us that doesn’t require the minimal deposit for an IRA. To join we must simply live in the truth that what we have is not ours and live in the freedom of this dependence by sharing in God’s love and care for the divine neighborhood of which we are intimately a part.


Dives’ Sin of Omission

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection: Catholic Lectionary (Am 6:1, 4-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31)

In my “Poverty, Wealth, and Justice” course, students still read Jonathan Kozol’s 1995 bestseller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, which includes the author’s interviews with children in Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx. It is striking how many of these kids bring up theology in their reflections, including David: “’Evil exists,’ he says, not flinching at the word. ‘I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people—that is my idea of evil’” (23). Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, according to 2009 census data, one in five children in the U.S. continue to struggle below the poverty line. At the same time, New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman observes how America’s rich are raging about having to pay taxes, because “a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it." If any of these wealthy Americans also consider themselves to be Christians, this attitude stands in stark contrast to the theological meaning of the offering during Christian worship, which reminds us that all we are and all we have is from God—and that we are called to be good stewards, for the sake of others, of what we have.

In the Catholic Mass, we often recite a prayer, confessing our sin, for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Jesus’ story about the rich man (tradition has called him Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and the poor man, Lazarus, has to do with the rich man’s sin of omission. Dives did not maliciously do anything to harm Lazarus. Rather, Dives, who had more than he needed, neglected to make sure that Lazarus’ needs were satisfied. Jesus’ parable is a word of warning, much like that of the eighth century Judean prophet to Northern Israel, Amos, who denounced not only the wealthier people’s luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the poor but also their mere lack of concern for them. According to Psalm 146, God “executes justice for the oppressed…gives food to the hungry… sets the prisoners free…upholds the orphan and the widow.” That is how the rulers of Israel were expected to be and act as well, and Jesus’ echoing of this passage at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s Gospel (4:18-19, but also found in Isaiah 61) offers a model for how Christians ought to think about justice (not charity) in connection with wealth and poverty. Moreover, as the author of 1 Timothy emphasizes, Jesus Christ is the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” It’s not our money to which we are entitled, as if we can merit our (economic) salvation. If we are seeking, by the grace of God, to “pursue righteousness [and] godliness” (1 Tim 6:11), I see no room for this talk of “entitlement” and the “right to keep” our money.

When Kozol tells Mrs. Washington, David’s mother, about a rich New York lawyer who said “They’re being killed by personal income taxes,” she replied, “There’s killing and there’s killing….I don’t think the man you talked to knows what ‘killing’ means” (110). A rich woman once told St. Vincent, “The poor frighten me.” To which he answered, “The poor are frightening, as frightening as God’s justice” (quoted on 186). I know this stuff won’t preach well in many churches, but there it is.


September 16, 2010

Redeeming Shrewdness

by Doug Lee
Luke 16:1-13b

Eugene Peterson observes that the story of the dishonest manager ranks as our least favorite of Jesus’ parables. What is there to cozy up to in a story where cheating goes unpunished and cunning is seemingly commended? Are we to use money to buy friends the way we buy objects for consumption?

Can Jesus truly be recommending such scandalous behavior?

But the scandal we hate in this story is precisely the scandal we love in the immediately preceding parable. Artificially separated by a chapter divide, the parable of the dishonest manager is actually meant to be heard alongside the parable of the lost son, most beloved of all the parables.

Both deal with underlings who squander wealth and violate a covenantal relationship. Both trust-breakers experience a moment of clarity that allows them to see their true condition. Both of these dubious characters hatch schemes to regain some measure of lost dignity. But both stories stupefy their hearers with the foolishly gracious response of the one in authority. Ignoring by-the-book justice and the insufficiently-gracious scheme proposed by the prodigal, the father will not have a slave but a beloved son. Similarly, the master responds to his manager not as a Bernie Madoff-class swindler but as a praiseworthy financial officer who has at last exhibited acumen instead of dullness. And both parables resound with implications and possibilities by leaving their hearers to supply their endings.

Juxtaposing the beloved scandal of Luke 15 with the stomach-turning scandal in Luke 16 strengthens and clarifies both. The outrage we feel in the second story can refurbish the surprise we have lost in hearing the father’s response to the prodigal. And the grace we so readily see in the father’s embrace of his son must be extended to the master’s commendation of the manager.

What is Jesus’ aim in telling these stories? What is the common thread that runs throughout, even to the story about another rich man and Lazarus at the end of Luke 16?

Jesus’ consistent vision of salvation in Luke’s gospel is one in which good news is proclaimed to the poor and the rich are judged for their dullness to the inbreaking of God’s good future.

It was a riveting moment for our congregation when our friend and Nigerian theologian Sunday Agang delivered a pointed assessment: “Your wealth persecutes you.” He said this in most sympathetic way possible, yet it was jarring nonetheless. His assertion paralleled Jesus’ declaration of woe to the rich (6:24-26), a lament over the deathliness that riches bring.

To be more truthful about all of this, Jesus laments the lifelessness that our riches bring. If you have the time and access to be able to read this blog, then you, like me, qualify as one of the very rich in terms of the whole world.

Still more to the point, Jesus’ message to us who are wealthy is that our riches divide us from the poor. The rich man knows nothing of Lazarus, who sleeps at his doorstep. Wealth hinders the have’s from showing hospitality to the have not’s.

But the persistent way that Jesus interacts with the rich is not merely to condemn but to save. Jesus’ appeal in the Luke 15 parables is for the older brother/Pharisees to rejoice in Jesus’ embrace of the younger brother/sinners. His desire in Luke 16 is for the rich/Pharisees to exhibit the same shrewdness as the manager, who finds scandalous grace by using temporal wealth to build eternal friendship. When Jesus employs “shrewdness” in this and other parables (“wisdom” in Matthew 7:24; 25:1ff), the word applies to those who have grasped their position at the inbreaking of the Kingdom and take clear action.

Luke’s Jesus has a lot to say about the destructive power of riches. But what if all his attention on wealth is not ultimately to condemn the rich but to evangelize us? What if hearing Jesus rightly means not handwringing but our conversion? What if Jesus’ message is not just good news for the poor but also good news for the rich?

The manager wins the commendation of his master by avoiding rationalization for his misconduct and using “what belongs to another” to build relationship. It is no coincidence that the shrewd manager does so by forgiving debts in a way that resonates with Jesus’ Jubilee campaign (4:18-19; 6:32-36; 11:4).

We receive God’s commendation instead of condemnation by employing His wealth to build relationship with the poor. We who are rich are to see our needy brothers and sisters as those who are ahead of us in hearing the gospel. Indeed, we are the needy ones who are to hunger for the blessing and joy of the Kingdom shared among our poorer brothers and sisters in our own communities and other parts of the world.

The Church is to be characterized not by greater effectiveness or more stringent disciplines, but by the scandalous generosity of God. The parable’s open conclusion beckons us to complete the story by entering into friendship with the poor. Then we will be able to hear Jesus’ hard words about Mammon as good news for the poor and good news for ourselves too.


September 07, 2010

Signs, Sheep, and Shepherds

by Kyle Childress
Luke 15:1-10

Our church’s logo is a shepherd’s staff, based upon the parable of the lost sheep, along with Psalm 23 and the Good Shepherd of John 10. We’ve had this shepherd’s staff with our congregation’s name written beside it out front on our sign since 1979 and it is on our letterhead, Sunday order of worship, and website. This shepherd’s staff is a constant reminder to us and to others of our vocation – who we hope to be and are called to be. More than that, it always reminds us who God is.

Our congregation began in 1968 as a gathering for lost sheep, black sheep, burned-out and beaten-up sheep, with a few old goats thrown in, as well. A lot of us were lost, but here, by the grace of the Loving Shepherd, we’ve been found. Furthermore, because of our own experiences, we have sought to make this congregation a body, or flock, where other lost sheep can find a home.

This is no small thing in today’s world. Surrounded by global capitalism, mass-marketing, big-box retailers, mega-churches with their large-scale-industrial-mass-production of Christians, and an all-too-common assumption that one needs to “get big or get out,” our church and others like us swim against a raging torrent. Shaped by Luke 15's story of the lost sheep, we believe in searching for each and every missing sheep and bringing it home; not the most efficient use of our time, not the most cost-effective, but it’s who and what we’re called to do. And when you’re the one sheep who has been lost, it is a life or death issue.

Last week at a wedding reception I had a conversation with a very talented and brilliant young woman, raised in our church, formed in part by that shepherd’s staff sign, who now teaches in the public schools of New Orleans. She teaches there because she says, “I’m called to be there.” She was telling me of the extraordinary challenges faced by the teachers and students in her part of the city and how each and every student counts. “There is an enormous difference between having 20 students or 19 students in class. When you have 19, you’re constantly worried over that missing 20th, and do all you can to find them.”

Wendell Berry’s writings are soaked in these parables found in Luke 15. His short story “Watch with Me” is a kind of extended meditation on a community watching out for a lost member with mental health problems (“Nightlife” is the nickname bestowed upon him), or as the other characters in the story put it, he had “a spell” come over him. They watch him and keep him safe until he is himself again. Toward the end of the story, still under the spell, Nightlife is in a barn, surrounded by friends who have been trying to keep him safe and he begins to preach on this very parable of the lost sheep. Berry writes, “Though Christ, in speaking this parable, asked his hearers to think of the shepherd, Nightlife understood it entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep, who could imagine fully the condition of being lost and even the hope of rescue, but could not imagine rescue itself.”

“’Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,’ Nightlife said. ‘It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard. The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrowed with bushes and briars, a hilly and hollery place. And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.’”

“The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about. They knew he was telling what it was to be him. And they were moved.”

Luke 15 begins with the Religious Authorities murmuring that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them because, “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him,” and it is in response to their murmuring that Jesus tells these parables. But I wonder, in the first place, if the sinners were drawn to Jesus because he could imagine fully the condition of being lost? The very reason he was the Good Shepherd was because he understood entirely the viewpoint of the lost sheep and he understood them because he received them and ate with them.

Contrast Jesus and the Good Shepherd way of seeing with what John tells us about the high priest Caiaphas when he said, “Don’t you understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:50). In other words, Caiaphas and his kind say, sometimes it is okay, even necessary, to sacrifice someone or something for some greater cause: the company bottom-line, freedom and democracy, victory, efficiency, a brighter future, and on and on.

In this world of Caiaphases, the church is called to be a Good Shepherd people. And when we are faithful to our calling, then we become a sign pointing to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Shepherd of us all.


September 02, 2010

Buckle Your Seatbelt

by Jenny Williams
Luke 14:25-33

Over 60% of teenagers admit to having texted while driving.
Someone is injured in a car crash every 14 seconds.
Car accidents are the leading cause of acquired disability nationwide.

The risks of traveling by automobile are tremendous, and yet most people drive or ride daily.  Why would we do such a thing? 

We have decided to get in the car because we have more important things to do than live in fear of the road.  We have to shop for groceries.  We have to take the kids to school.  We have to get to work. 

In Luke 14, Jesus issues a disclaimer about the risks involved in following him.  It’s not even hidden in the fine print.  It’s right out in public before the crowds, like a warning sign on a roller coaster:  do not ride if you are pregnant, have back problems, or a heart condition.  But whereas the amusement park posts those signs in their own best interests, Jesus’ warning is in the best interest of those who are considering following him.  He warns us that submitting ourselves to His lordship could mean division in our families.  And in a move at the end of the lection which nearly gives us whiplash, Jesus tells us that following him means we have to part with our stuff. 

It’s risky business, indeed, striking at the heart of two institutions prized by Americans—family and ownership. 

The sacraments may give would-be disciples some insight as to why Jesus would choose to announce these two risks in particular.  We might have to hate our family of origin?  Yep, following Jesus could create that division.  But through God’s grace and the application of water, you’re welcomed into a whole new family, loaded with brothers and sisters who love Jesus, too. 

We have to give up all our stuff?  Yep, but people who eat around the same table know that God calls us to participate in the weird financial arrangements of economic sharing. Your stuff won’t be yours any longer, but you’ll know that the people with whom you eat will have what they need. 

So you have to be willing to part with things and people—dear and cherished things and people—to follow Jesus.  But the sacraments remind us that our loss does not go uncompensated.  Surrounded by our dinner companions at Christ’s table, we know we’ll never be wanting for what we need.  Because of our baptism and place in God’s church, we will always have family.  Even in loss, there is security.  Even in the crosses we carry, there is new life. 

Jesus, however, is not only looking out for us in his disclaimer.  He’s looking out for the integrity of the good news.  If you begin building a tower only to have to halt construction half-way because you ran out of money, you’re going to have an unfinished spectacle on your property for all the neighbors to behold…and laugh at.  If you don’t think about the cost of discipleship in advance but enter the journey anyway, people are going to ridicule you when you give up.  And your giving up will compromise your living testimony to our Holy and Powerful God.  The loss of the saltiness of the salt of the earth affects more than the salt itself. 

So given these risks, why on God’s green earth (as my mother used to say) would anyone decide to get in the car with Jesus?  Because we have decided that we have more important things to do than to live in fear of the risks.  We have people to feed and work to do.  Just buckle your seatbelt.  It’s going to be a wild ride. 


August 27, 2010

Jeremiah and Park 51

by Jake Wilson
Jeremiah 2.1-13; Psalm 81

Over the last few weeks, the media has been abuzz with the news of Park 51, a proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque just a few blocks from ‘Ground Zero’ the site of the national catastrophe of September 11, 2001. The planned mosque has been met with a firestorm of opposition. Demonstrators have gathered along the proposed site to guard the memory of a national tragedy. The demonstrators frequently invoke Ground Zero as sacred ground and chant their protests while holding signs asking ‘Have you forgotten?’

Others have argued that those who would use the mosque have a right to public prayer and worship and that allowing Park 51 to go forward would be a celebration of freedom and thus an appropriate memorial for those who died in the 9/11 attacks. For our purposes, choosing a side is not as important as recognizing what both groups seem to have understood, namely, that memory matters.

As the subscription of the book of Jeremiah (Jer. 1.1-3) tells us, Jeremiah was engaged in his prophetic work from the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah (627 B.C.E.) to shortly after the Babylonian exile and destruction of the Temple (587 B.C.E.). These were tumultuous times for the southern kingdom of Judah. This time period takes us through Judah’s first conflict with Babylon, into the first exile (597 B.C.E.) and through the destruction of the Temple.

Jeremiah’s prophetic work was carried out into and through a time of national crisis. Jeremiah 2.4-13 falls within a larger section which works to show that these events were not strictly the result of political forces but were rather acts of judgment carried out against God’s people by God (Jer. 2.1-6.30).

When we turn to the text of Jer. 2.4-13 we find that part of God’s judgment stems from a failure of memory. Verses 4 and 5 open with a generalized statement of Israel’s apostasy as “they went far from me and went after worthless things.” In verse 6 the nature of Israel’s unfaithfulness is stated more directly as “They did not say ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt…’.” With this Jeremiah invokes the memory of the Exodus events and God’s mighty deeds of the past.

This line of judgment continues in verses 7 and 8 where we find that God’s people failed to recall the God who lead them through the wilderness, through “a land of deserts and pits.” Further, the failed to remember the God who gave them a “plentiful land” and the priests failed to recall the gift of the Law.

In their essay, “Memory, Community, and the Reasons for Living: Reflections on Suicide and Euthanasia,” Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Bondi point to the findings of historians of religion that “in primitive cultures, the greatest transgressions a person can make are those that challenge or deny the sustaining story of their community.” This is especially true when to deny the story is to deny the God whose story it is.

This is precisely what has happened in the forgetfulness of God’s people. The Exodus event (along with other key events named by Jeremiah such as the wilderness wanderings and the gift of the Law) are determinative for both the character of God and God’s people. A failure to recall the mighty deeds of God serves as an outright denial of God, one that leaves his people liable to judgment. Further, such forgetfulness deprives them of the very resource they need in order to be sustained through the time of judgment-the memory of God’s salvific actions on their behalf.

Hauerwas and Bondi go on to say that a thick account of memory differs from simply remembering past events. “The kind of memory that truly shapes and guides a community is the kind that keeps past events in mind in a way that draws guidance from them for the future.” This is exactly what we find in this week’s readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 81. In both texts the memory of God’s actions in the Exodus events are called to mind to serve as judgment for the present and the promise of restoration for the future. Thus Jeremiah’s words of judgment also serve as a means of grace to God’s people in as much as they help God’s people remember “the LORD your God who…” has worked so hard to bless them.

In times of crisis, our memories matter. There is a reason that nearly every funeral visitation will find friends and family sharing memories of the deceased and finding comfort therein. In the same way, birthdays and anniversaries are about much more than cake and ice cream. Our memories help us to remember who we are and how we got to where we are. More importantly, they can help us remember the God who has claimed us.

This is certainly the sense in which both Jeremiah and Psalm 81 call to mind God’s mighty deeds of the past. This week the preacher will help the church remember “The LORD your God who…” has intervened in the lives of each of the parishioners personally as well as acting in the life of the congregation as a whole. Most importantly, the preacher will help the congregation discern the way that God’s mighty deeds culminate in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and continue in the on-going work of the Holy Spirit.


August 23, 2010

Being Grounded

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection: Sir 3:17-29; Ps 68:4-11; Heb 12:18-24; Lk 14:1-14

When I was a child, getting “grounded” was a form of discipline imposed on me by my parents. From my perspective then, it was something to try to avoid. However, both the book of Sirach (which Jesus, son of Eleazar, says was written by his grandfather Jesus Ben Sira) and the Gospel of Luke emphasize the importance of being “grounded,” though admittedly in another sense of the word. That is, as New Testament scholar Barbara E. Reid, O.P. has noted, these two readings convey proverbial wisdom about the virtue of humility, which is “earthy” or “grounded” wisdom (humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is derived from humus). During dinner at the house of “a leader of the Pharisees,” Jesus noted the seating arrangements whereby persons occupied “the places of honor, which is the opposite of what they ought to do. “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place…. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:10-11). Here Jesus echoes Sirach, “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself…” (3:18). Rather than endeavoring to climb the social ladder by sitting with people of higher status, it is better to be grounded by spending time with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13), seeing from their perspective and identifying with them.

Curiously, in most of the books occupying my office shelf about Christian ethics and character, the virtue of humility is rarely mentioned or treated. Usually, if it is addressed, humility has to do with what medieval theologians referred to as docta ignorantia, a “learned ignorance,” involving knowing the limits of our knowledge. Marquette University’s Daniel C. Maguire thus notes, “Noonday clarity is not available at dusk, and there are many dusks in matters moral”(Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice, 75). Here humility is about making careful, well-grounded (to the extent possible) moral judgments rather than certain pronouncements from on high that “close the door on subsequent discussion” (91). On the other hand, Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas warns, “Pretension and presumptuousness…cannot be defeated by false humility. Rather, our task is to be what we were made to be at Pentecost: a people so formed by the Spirit that our humility is but a reflection of our confidence in God’s sure work,” which is “most fully manifest on a cross” and as such serves as a check against temptations to pride, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement (The Hauerwas Reader, 149).

For his part, Boston College’s James F. Keenan, S.J., criticizes the “equally self-serving presumptuous belief that we all merit salvation because we are so good” (Moral Wisdom: Lessons & Texts from the Catholic Tradition, 167). The virtue of humility helps counter such presumption. It is not self-deprecation, “but rather the virtue for knowing the place of one’s power in God’s world” (168). It trains us to exercise the power that God has given us in this world. “The more we practice humility, the more we understand the power that we, as leaders, are called to exercise” (169). In this connection, Keenan raises the specter of “the recent crisis” in the Catholic church, and he rightly, I think, calls for improved instruction and formation from the church’s leaders on “the ethical exercise of power” informed by the virtue of humility. In the words of Sirach, “The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise” (3:29). The one who has ears, let them hear—and may they be grounded.


August 19, 2010

Gather Us In

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection (Catholic Lectionary): Is 66: 18-21; Ps 117; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13 ; Lk 13:22-30

The processional hymn for my wedding eight years ago was “Gather Us In,” written by Saint Louis Jesuit Marty Haugen. It’s always been a favorite for my wife and me. “Gather us in, the lost and forsaken; gather us in, the blind and the lame.”

E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) originally was a central theme of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. According to scholar Gerhard Lohfink, the “gathering” of the scattered is a key biblical term for the event of salvation. As Depaul University theologian William T. Cavanaugh puts it, “Salvation in the Old Testament is not about individuals trying to gain admittance to a place called heaven after death; it is about gathering people in communion, thereby restoring the good creation that sin and violence have torn apart…, [and the] theme of gathering does not change in the New Testament; the only change is that the promises of the Old Testament are said to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”

Hence, Isaiah’s vision of a new age wherein God comes “to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.” Just as God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17), so too shall there be a new people. Likewise, Psalm 117 calls on “all you nations” to praise the LORD for God’s hesed, or steadfast love, which is supposed to be manifested by the people as neighbor love. The epistle to the Hebrews refers to how God is “the Father of spirits,” which means God is the source of all humankind’s spiritual being.

Being part of a community, whether of the people of Israel or the people known as Christ’s body, the church, is a journey, or a process, though. It involves practice and discipline, as the author of Hebrews emphasizes, employing the verb gymnazo (“gymnastic”) in verse 11 for our “working out” so as to grow in the likeness of Christ. Such a relationship is not cheap or easy; it involves discipleship, so as to share, or participate, in God’s holiness. This is why Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

In Luke’s gospel, the invitation to participate in this new community is universal; however, not everyone who thinks they’re “in” really is. The owner of the house will say, “I do not know where you come from.” Instead, “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” Those who are admitted through the door to the ultimate banquet will include many who are not, as well as some who are, expected. The common thread running throughout these readings is that God's salvation essentially involves hospitality, compassion, and justice for all peoples--including, unexpectedly, those who are “other.”

As the hymn I mention above puts it, “Give us to drink the wine of compassion; give us to eat the bread that is you; nourish us well and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.”


August 18, 2010


by Janice Love
Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Psalm 71: 1-6, Hebrews 12: 18-29, Luke 13: 10-17

God is on the move in the texts for this coming Sunday. In Jeremiah we find God calling, commanding, reassuring. In Hebrews there is a whole lot of shaking going on, “so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Luke finds Jesus healing and shaming. We are about half way through the longest season of our Christian year, the Season After Pentecost. It is the season when the church, having marked the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and its calling by the gift of the Holy Spirit - we have now, in other words, all that we need to be Christ’s Body in and for the world – is to be about its ever deepening discipleship. This part of this long season, however, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, coincides with the dog days of summer. Perhaps the wake up call in these texts is perfect timing. God will do what God will do. God is up to what God is up to.

As Walter Brueggemann observes in his close reading of the Jeremiah text (see his Journey to the Common Good) it has been four hundred years since the priest Abiathar was banished by Solomon to his estate in Anathoth. For four hundred years Abiathar’s priestly descendants have watched from 5 km northeast of Jerusalem as Solomon and then many of his successors rebuilt Egypt in Israel – the Egypt of slavery, of scarcity, of entitlement by those in power. Now Jeremiah, descendant of Abiathar, is consecrated, set apart by and for God, to return to Jerusalem with words of warning and ending.

And a terrible ending it was. God’s kairos moment is grounded in the reality of our chronological time. Called as a boy, Jeremiah speaks the word of the LORD for forty years to the ending of the kings of Judah, the ending of an elitist social order that no longer served God and to the captivity of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This is a hard calling. If we continue to read to the end of chapter one we get a better sense of the tremendous task set before Jeremiah. Verse 14 is blunt about what is to happen. This is similar to the callings of Samuel and Isaiah, both of whom are charged with difficult duties which we never quite get to within the parameters of the lectionary readings (do we really know what we are saying as we blithely sing Here I Am, Lord?). There is girding of loins that will be needed (v 17) as Jeremiah will face unavoidable opposition, death threats and attempted murder included.

Jeremiah is given little choice in the matter. He is known and consecrated by God even before he is born. He is told point blank what will happen to him if he does not carry out God’s calling: Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. (v 17b). But what Jeremiah is given is what he will need to complete his calling: an intimate knowledge of God, God’s presence with him, the words he will need to declare, the strength of “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall” (v 18) and a small group of loyal friends.

As the church, the Body of Christ in the world, we are the company of the consecrated. Called to follow by Jesus and baptized with the Holy Spirit, we too are given challenging work – to love our enemies, to take up our cross, to enter into the suffering of the world, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen. And we too are told what will happen if we do not carry out our calling: Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10: 32-33). But, like Jeremiah, God has given us everything we need to do what is asked of us – the Word made flesh, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the gift of our fellowship, one with another, the receiving of a kingdom that cannot be shaken (not a kingdom we have to build but a kingdom we get to give thanks for and participate in).

We will need these gifts as the church moves through the present kairos time of endings and new beginnings which Brian Volck wrote of in regard to last Sunday’s readings. The end of Christendom, even as we celebrate the freedom this brings to the church, will and is resulting in a backlash against Christianity. What more will happen as our particular Christian identity claims and transforms us and calls us to proclaim what God is up to more boldly in the public square? We will need all of the gifts God has given us so that our children might continue to sing:

For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O LORD, from my youth.

(Psalm 71: 1-6)