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)


August 11, 2010

And the Wind Began to Howl

by Brian Volck
Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

“So let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late.”
-- From “All Along the Watchtower,” by Bob Dylan

Christendom’s demise is a gift to the church. No longer responsible for underwriting the ruling entities of the world, nor longer required to “make nice” with the principalities, no longer dutifully excusing the violence of power politics, the church can at long last resume the serious business of being the church.

Playing church is, of course, far easier than being it. But, barring a powerfully rejuvenated alliance of accommodated Christianity and American nationalism, reasons to pretend should grow increasingly rare. The benefits of claiming default Christian identity have disappeared in many parts of the United States. Even the assumed American requirement that Presidents endorse “strong beliefs vaguely held or vague beliefs strongly held,” has nearly run its course.

The wall of the vineyard is broken; the hedge is devoured. 

This may mean far fewer church weddings for couples lacking religious commitment, fewer baptisms motivated by cultural rather than confessional reasons, and fewer public appeals to a housebroken god who apparently wants us to have the things we already want.

It may not mean, at least for some time, an end to Christian nationalism. It may not mean the end of having to distinguish the confessing church from the accommodated. It may not mean the end of apologizing to non-Christian inquirers for the words and actions of other, so-called Christians.

But a church less entangled with other allegiances will not necessarily be a peaceful, happy place. It will almost certainly bring an increased cost of discipleship, an end to cheap grace.

When baptism no longer comes with lifelong membership discounts, church will require sustained commitment and tangible sacrifice. When Christianity is no longer defined by a tame and bourgeois God, country, and family values, families will increasingly be theaters of conflict rather than havens in a heartless world. When the peace of Christ no longer merits condescending lip service, the gospel, proclaimed and lived, will just as often sow division as unity. 

A cloud rises in the West; a south wind blows.


Embodying the Word

by Tobias Winright 
Catholic Lectionary Readings: Rv 11:19; 12:1-10; Ps 45:10-16; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56

Moral theology, which is also known today as Christian or theological ethics, seeks to help Christians answer two fundamental questions: 1) Who ought we as a community and as individual Christians be? 2) What ought we as a community and individuals do? The first question has to do with the kind of character and virtues we ought to have; the second has to do with how we ought to make decisions and ought to act.

Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Corinth says, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Catholic ethicists Russell B. Connors, Jr. and Patrick T. McCormick note that this theological claim is the heart of our faith, which “affirms that we have experienced redemption as embodied spirits, and that the power of God’s redemptive grace permeates every dimension of our lives….”

Christianity is not only about spirituality, but discipleship – a way of life, of being and behaving in this world. This pertains to all spheres of life, from family to work, politics to recreation, and education to economics. Mary’s Magnificat from Luke’s gospel does not merely refer to some spiritual truth. When Mary sings that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and the Savior “has brought down the powerful from their thrones… lifted up the lowly… filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1 51-53), she announces a new way of being community inaugurated with the impending birth of her son, Jesus.

As the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” put it, “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (no. 43). When we are blessed to “Go forth in peace, to love and serve the Lord” at the end of the Mass, let’s really mean it when we say “Thanks be to God” and allow God’s grace to enable us to embody Christ’s love.


August 03, 2010

What Are You Afraid Of?

by Debra Dean Murphy
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-40

The gospel writer, Luke, has a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, not an angel, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so happy?

Perhaps it’s because Luke (and Jesus) know that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, and—fallen creatures that we are—we often prefer our old, familiar, dead-end ways. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future (“Sell your 401K, and give alms”). It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out,” Jesus says.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this, those caught up in empty ritual—“solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news—“Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But the people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. We so readily see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. But can we recognize our own?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to his kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” Yet he himself is the light for our path and the source of all our striving.

The words this week that startle and unsettle need to be taken seriously—Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Thanks be to God.