A Different Kind of Shepherding

At the conclusion of the film version of the rock opera/musical Jesus Christ Superstar, a solitary cross is depicted on a hilltop against the backdrop of the setting sun. Barely perceptible in the foreground is a shepherd leading a flock of sheep. This caravan adds a serene quality to a powerfully intense finale for the film, almost as though the viewer hears a whisper in the background: “The Lord is my shepherd….” Read more

We Do Not Own What We Have

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

… Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
Wendell Berry

I’m not as young as I used to be. I understand fully that any one of us could at any time say precisely the same thing, but what would otherwise be mere inanity has taken on surprising concreteness for me as I have begun to realize that someday I may no longer be able to do the work I love, or much work at all, for that matter. Treating retirement as a concrete, rather than an abstract, reality, has led me to think about money, and about whether there will be enough. According to the retirement calculator I consulted, the answer, unsurprisingly, is “no,” and even though I know that this answer is determined by an ideal standard of living to which I have never really aspired, it turns my thought to worry. I hate this, if for no other reason than because I hate the person it makes me or tempts me to become. I became acutely aware of these matters, which have been floating around my subconscious for a while now, when I began to study the gospel lesson for this week. Read more

Saints in the Plural

All Saints (November 1)

Revelation 7: 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

When our two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.”

This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As all of us are.

We may find this to be a daunting proposition. Sainthood, after all, seems to suggest sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster. And maybe it conjures humorless, holier-than-thou-ness.

“Sainthood” might also remind us how small and disappointing our own lives can seem. We know ourselves: our worst impulses, choices we regret, hurts we have inflicted. We know how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of Jesus.

We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints? Read more

Wrestling with Assumptions

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Matthew 22:34-46
When I first read the texts for this week, I began salivating at the opportunity to hit on all cylinders of my social justice values, liberation theologies, and “preferential option for the poor” interpretations. So I was gleefully typing away at my manifesto when suddenly this week’s text from Leviticus stopped me cold. Particularly verse 15 where it says, “you shall not be partial to the poor.” In that moment I had to stop and wrestle, once again, with who I claim God to be. Read more

The Conundrum of a Coin

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Some years ago I was working with a medical team in rural Honduras. We were in a village new to us, seeing many patients while assessing if the area had sufficient need and community interest to establish a permanent clinic there. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week), and there was a lot going on. The small Catholic parroquia was the center of fervent liturgical prayer and sometimes gruesome pageantry, including a Stations of the Cross procession through town on Good Friday and a bonfire on the church square to begin Saturday night’s Easter Vigil.

The medical team, however, was staying on the roomier grounds of the nearby Iglesia Evangelica, which observed the week before Easter rather more quietly. The pastor was an engaging man who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his congregation and extended great hospitality to his North America guests. Without his assistance, easygoing manner, and negotiating skills, the medical mission would have failed.

Judging from his church’s communal worship, though, Semana Santa seemed just another week, with evening Bible study and Wednesday church services that hinted at – rather than calling attention to – the significance of the Sunday to come. Even so, it still surprised me when, on Easter morning, he chose as his Sermon text the opening verses of Romans 13.

As best I could grasp with my inadequate Spanish, we were to understand the Resurrection to mean salvation was now available to anyone who put faith in Jesus and obeyed the secular government. Later that afternoon, I – along with a few others from the medical team – asked him to elaborate. Though I was again hindered by my inadequate command of the language, I managed to ask if Paul’s instruction that “every person be subject to the authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), was in any way qualified by what preceded it in Romans 12, or by the knowledge that those very authorities later put Paul to death.

Judging from his response, I’d hit some raw and tender nerve. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand. The reason this country is poor and the reason there are drunks in this town is because there are Catholic churches – like the one just up the hill – with statues in them.” And that, for him, was the end of our discussion.

I share this story not to shame a good man, but to illustrate in a particularly colorful way how certain scripture texts – such as Romans 13:1-7 or this Sunday’s gospel reading – can launch some Christians off the exegetical rails. Read more

Dressed in Something New

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14

Sunday evenings, I help set the tables for the urban dinner church where I am the community coordinator. In our small congregation, anyone is welcome, and often anyone comes. At our tables, those who might not usually set foot in a church for a multitude of reasons find their way in for a warm meal and a cool respite from the Houston heat and humidity. At the table, we find friendship, and get to hear the good story. As our pastor says week after week, “All are welcome here – believers, skeptics, sinners, saints. All are welcome at Christ’s table.” Read more

Weird Justice

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I write the rest of this meditation. I think it is imperative that we see ourselves as the tenants in the vineyard Jesus describes. It is clear at the end of the gospel that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes of his day – the ones who saw themselves as righteous and holy. I think that we Christians in the 21st century are now often the ones who see ourselves as righteous and holy. We mostly presume we are good people trying to do the right thing – and that can get in the way of hearing Jesus’ message to us in today’s parable.

With that in mind, let us consider this vineyard that the landowner has created. It is a carefully-planted vineyard with a tower, wine presses, and a fence around it. The owner has done as much preparation as he could to dedicate this space. Read more

Who’s in Charge?

For anyone who spends any amount of time listening to our national conversation (if we can call it that), whether tuning into more traditional forms of media or wading into the facebook/twittersphere –where there is nothing hidden that won’t be revealed–it should be painfully obvious that we, as a people, have a hard time with authority. Not just with obeying authority, an issue that we have always wrestled with. We also have a very difficult time discerning authority, knowing how to recognize authority, and ascribing authority to all the wrong things and people. Thus, we allow our actions and words, the practices we embrace and the stories we tell, to be shaped by this confusion. Recent debates over flags and anthems, standing and kneeling, free speech and censorship, demonstrate that we don’t even have a common language for discussing these matters, let alone common convictions about what God’s people should do when confronted by competing, and sometimes mutually exclusive, claims to authority. We argue endlessly over who is in charge, when deep down inside we all want to be in charge. Read more

Economy of Grace

The “bookends” of this week’s lectionary readings, from Exodus and Matthew, reintroduce us to the economy of grace characteristic of God’s now-but-not-yet reign of shalom. These texts also poke at our raw spots by challenging us to recognize ourselves in them, confronting some of our deepest anxieties, and exposing our bent toward greed, envy, and pride. In reading them, and allowing them to “read us,” we are reminded of the vastness of the expanse separating God’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this world; yet we are also given hope, that God remains at work, healing Creation and transforming us, its broken members. Read more