Answering Tyrants and Their Tweets

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

“You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness
against the godly all day long?…
You love all words that hurt,
O you deceitful tongue.”   -Psalm 52:1,4

“Be like an astute businessman: make stillness be your criterion for testing the value of everything and choose always what contributes to it.” -Evagrius

No preacher can read Psalm 52 this week, with its condemnation of a tyrant that loves “lying more than speaking truth” and “words that hurt,” without thinking of Donald Trump and the latest of his racist outrages.  Add to that Amos, who receives an oracle that condemns a people of religious pretenders more interested in economic exploitation and power than goodness, and we have a scriptural witness that seems tailored for our time.

But in reading the whole of our scriptures for Sunday, I cannot help but think that there is “a better part” that we must choose—a stance that begins with Amos’s call to “be silent,” continues in the example of the green olive tree in Psalm 52, and rests with Mary’s listening at the feet of the Lord.

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The One Who Showed Mercy

“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Romans 5:10

One bit of family lore passed through the years from my childhood is the story of the afternoon when, at three or four years old, strapped into my car seat alongside my brother in the backseat of my parents’ VW Beetle, I acquired the toy with which I wanted to play by grabbing it forcefully from my brother’s hand and declaring: “Amos, Jesus says share! Psalm 13:10”. Hearing this story recounted at dozens of parties through the years, it is inevitable that someone will make the predictable, yet still cringe-worthy comment that anyone who could manipulate Scripture to fit her purposes at such a young age was destined to become a preacher. Read more

Bringing the Kingdom Near

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

This week’s reading outlines the process by which disciples move from observation to practicum. For some time, Jesus’ disciples must have felt almost a part of the crowd as they followed Jesus around, listened to him preach, teach, heal and cast out demons. They were as surprised about “what came next” as anybody would be. They belonged to Jesus’ inner circle, but they had absolutely no idea what he might say or do, or where the whole thing was going.

Then Jesus came up with a new plan. “Alright guys, today I want you to count off by twos. One…two…one…two…” …and so it went until all were numbered. “You’ve watched me preach, teach, and heal. Now it’s time for you to put it into practice what you have learned. I’m sending you two by two into the harvest fields. Speak out the good news. Cast out demons. Heal the sick. Spend time with those who welcome you. Shake off the dust of those villages that reject you. Don’t take anything with you—no food, clothing, or money. Any questions?” Read more

Freedom Sunday

Third Sunday After Pentecost
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62
The invitation came across my Twitter feed last week: a prominent evangelical pastor sharing the news about a “Freedom Sunday” gathering to be held at his church on June 30th. In the video that accompanied the tweet, a narrator described the event as “A patriotic service featuring worship, fireworks, and a message from our guest speaker, Lt. Col. Oliver North,” as an enthusiastic crowd waved flags, a large worship band played, and a choir sang, “Oh I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in!” The video ended with the proclamation that this powerful service will provide a wonderful opportunity to celebrate “The freedom we have as Americans, and the freedom we have in Christ.” Read more

What Are We Doing Here?

Second Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19:1-15 or Isaiah 65:1-9

Psalms 42 & 43 or Psalm 22:19-28

Galatians 3:23-29

Luke 8:26-39

Whose image haunts the mirror? And why
are you still here? What exactly do you hope

to become? When will you begin?

Scott Cairns, from

“Bad Theology: A Quiz”

Looking for signs of God’s reign can get pretty frustrating these days, especially if your looking is restricted to what you see and hear in mass and social media. That’s not to say that there’s no god-talk in the news; there are plenty of people who are not simply talking about God, but who also presume to speak on God’s behalf, loudly and at length to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not clear, though, that the god these folks are talking about is the God who was present to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who came preaching “good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” which is to say, liberation to those suffering the yoke of every kind of oppression (Luke 4:18).

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To Build a Fire

It is deep now into that season of the church year when we really start blowing the dust off of neglected old language – the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Ascension. By the time we get to the Trinity, it feels like pulling a grimy old fire extinguisher out from back behind the stove. An important enough thing to have around, but with a year’s layer of grease accumulated since the last time we checked it.

Even on good days, the doctrine of the Trinity seems like a pretty forgettable, if serviceable, tool. Then it gets taken out on Trinity Sunday like a real killjoy, to tell us what we can’t say about God and still say that we’re Christians. I have to think there’s no small part of us that wonders if it wouldn’t be far more exciting to leave the doctrinal business there, but unsaid. To experience God without surveillance or control.

That is where the Trinity seems to find itself in the texts for the week. Not in a canon or a creed, but in use. Each passage is subtly laced with creation, redemption, sustaining. When David hymns God in Psalm 8 he looks to the work of God’s fingers. He marvels that God was mindful of mortals, and that God is majestic in all that has breath. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is scripted as the One who works with the LORD at the beginning of all, who when beloved overcomes death, and who when found is the founding of life. And in Romans 5, when Paul marvels at his wretched flesh made whole, the persons of the Godhead are tangled together like seaweed in a net he cannot escape but be dragged to shore by. Here in act – in praising, in thinking, in weeping with joy – Christian life is flush with the fire of the unnamed triune God.

What then is the role for homoousious? For hypostatic union? Perichoresis? Is doctrine nothing more than a diligent safety patrol off in the wings to make sure we don’t catch the cathedral alight?

To see maybe why not, consider two examples from this one lay person’s life. Both deal with the trinitarian baptismal rite, and both flicker at the edges of heresy. To start off I will tell you that of the countless times I have said “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” it has, somewhat suspectly, never been spoken over a live, living person.

First, in Godly Play with children we say that “sometimes people are baptized when they are babies, or children, when they are teenagers, or grown ups, or sometimes when they are very old” and that “we have this baby doll with us to show us how it’s done.” Our white-gowned 10-inch doll has been baptized an ungodly, heretical number of times. But each time we say its name again, because “names are very important in baptism,” and “we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

We set the stage like this. We decant “the water of creation, the dangerous water of the flood, the water the people walked through into freedom, the water Jesus was baptized in, and the water that you were, or one day will be, baptized into” and remember the works of our Father. We pass and inhale the oil of anointing as we remind ourselves that “the Holy Spirit moves on the invisible wind like the wings of a dove, going where it will, and coming to us when we need its comfort, or its power.” We say yet again how “there once was someone Who did such amazing things, and Who said such wonderful things that people had to follow Him, but they didn’t know who He was, until finally one day when they asked Him, he said, ‘I am the light”’ as we strike a match and light the Christ candle, now placed on the floor, illuminating one of the three white interlocking circles that are the backdrop to this ritual.

When the children and I play with this story, there is sometimes the faintest hint that God fills the whole space of our room. That God goes so fully before us as to include all the sacred stories of the people of God, goes down beneath us to the depths of the grave whence He comes back unflinching, and goes ahead into that mysterious victory known only to God.

And then we light candles for each child. “Name this child.” “Lena, receive the light of your baptism.” “Julie, receive the light of your baptism.” A circle of light grows in the sand, placed in the center of those three large white circles.

Playing with this language, we wonder if, somehow, included in this mystery of water, fire, and air there is not also earth. Flesh, our clay, made new by Christ’s flesh. Our bodies, brought into the mysterious life of God.

But it is not at this juncture that the theologians step in with their spray foam, to fend us off as we drift too near the pagan fourfold cosmology. Instead it is theologians and doctrine that taught us to arrange these objects in just this way in the first place. It is the studied wisdom of our mothers and foremothers that makes us know without knowing how it is that this fire is built. “From somewhere that we never see, comes everything that we do see,” says Charles Wright. Only by arranging sticks in this way and not that, does God send our cold, tired bodies the fire and water and the breath of God’s life.

There was also one time when I thought to say the words of baptism not in play, but for real. Over a 10-inch long baby with no gown. Newly dead, who died before living. It was not without dumb trepidation that I asked the parents would they want this. For a clinician it’s out of place; for a lay person and a non-living baby, quite possibly wrong.

No one who’s been there needs telling how bleak a low-slung over-lit hospital room can be. How there is no sun or promise of sun. Nothing but cold and grey. How fast the heat goes out from the body, as swiftly as from from the unmittened hands of the man in a Jack London story. How alone in the wilderness each one in a crowded room can be.

With a styrofoam cup of tap water at a cool, unneeded warmer, I said, putting one word in front of the other, “I baptize you, 21 week old daughter, born of water and now the Spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And there hissed and blazed for an instant the light of 70 matches at once. The hint of a fire that could save from the cold. The structured hope of our creed the one thing that could turn a desolate room into a stage for the theater of God’s life. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” These words are no fire extinguisher, but the paper thin bark that just might catch despite our foolish, frozen cold hands.

Amazed

Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21

I am a sucker for wonder. I love to see a waxing or waning moon at twilight, when you can just make out its three-dimensionality. I jump at the chance to look through a telescope at Saturn, and admit to the occasional, brief squint at the sun—that massive ball that is, for us, a constant, consistent, continuous explosion of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. Recently, I experienced a glimpse of the sacred, for me a holy moment, while watching a CGI animation of the Earth’s magnetic field dispersing the lethal solar wind that would otherwise strip off our protective ozone layer. A giant shield surrounding the planet, our magnetic field means we can bike to the bakery for bread, through a gentle breeze, without fear of burning to a crisp; it means that you and I can exist. Read more

Worshiping the Ascended King

Note: This blog post concerns the lectionary passages for the Feast of the Ascension (May 30, 2019), which can be observed on the Sunday afterward (June 2, 2019).

The ascension is an oft-neglected feature of Jesus’ story. There are several possible reasons for this. First, conceptually the ascension seems to some to be an understood part of Christ’s resurrection. Along these lines, several Pauline texts are not always clear in distinguishing Christ’s resurrection from his ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10). Second, not even all the gospels discuss the ascension. In fact, only one gospel explicitly mentions this occurrence. Finally, because the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection, its commemoration always lands on a Thursday, leaving it prone to be forgotten between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter. For all of these reasons (and perhaps many more), it is good to examine the lectionary texts appointed for this occasion. Read more

Revolutionary Relationships

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

“Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23, CEB

“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Acts 16:15, NRSV

“And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” Revelation 21:10, NRSV

Now hear the good news of the Gospel: God has come to make God’s home among us. This is indeed Good News! Read more

Defiant Requiem

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Revelation 21:1-6

I have read Revelation 21:1-6 at numerous funerals, and have done so as tenderly as I could for the sake of those who were grieving. In that setting, I believe that was the right tone of comfort and hope. But this passage is far from a lullaby. Other tones ring out from these words, which is why it is important we read them on occasions other than funerals. Read more