Fear and Trembling

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 3:12-19
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

– Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole”

I once heard former stand-up comedian turned Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, speak at a Christian literary festival, where I found her precisely as billed: entertaining, insightful, and provocative. In the Q&A portion of the hour, a particularly earnest-sounding audience member asked what practices she engaged to “bring her closer to God.”

At this, the tattooed Reverend scrunched her face and said, “Why would I want to do that? Every time I find myself close to Jesus, I’m asked to love someone I hate or forgive someone I don’t want to.” Her response was met with scattered laughter, the nervous sort that suggests both recognition and chagrin. Over the top as Bolz-Weber’s answer was, she clearly hit home with some of us, me included. Read more

Desert Silence

Second Sunday After Epiphany
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51 OR John 1: 35-42

I woke up this morning and looked out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight on the high desert of the Navajo Nation. It was much quieter than usual in town. It was, in fact, nearly silent, perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because it was Sunday morning, and many were still sleeping.

As the sun rose and the snow began to melt, sounds emerged: water dripping from the rooftop, the low grumble of a raven perched on a lamppost, the chattering of finches and sparrows. Were I back home in Baltimore, all that would have been lost in the background noise from the busy intersection nearby. The desert is blessed with the quiet necessary to notice these subtle changes. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Prominent among my desert memories are sounds made audible by ambient silence: the wingbeats of a raven flying just overhead, the cheery cascade of notes from a canyon wren, the roar of a Colorado River rapid around the bend, still hidden from view.

Prayer comes naturally in such moments, or rather, I find myself already in an ongoing prayer I had only to notice. I’m not the first person to associate encounters with silence and encounters with God. A long line of witnesses sought God in desert silence: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist. Jesus went to “remote places” to pray and was “cast out into the desert” to be tested. When Constantine made Christianity safe within the Empire, those seeking a less domesticated encounter with God left the cities and became desert fathers and mothers.

Yet, even to me, much of that seems a bit off, counterintuitive. 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

The Weeds in Our Hearts

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 20:10-19
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-43

“You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
There is no drum.
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

– from “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen

I have laid waste my life in pursuit of a better past, grieving twenty-year old mistakes while ignoring my all too present sins. I am also – and by no means coincidentally – overly attentive to the sins of others, at least those sins I know from the inside, through personal experience. As the Twelve-steppers say about calling out failings in others, “If you name it, you claim it.”

The plain sense of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests a world in which the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one are distinct and readily identified, if not easily separated in this life. I trust that is sometimes – perhaps more frequently than I care to admit – the case. I hope those who can reliably tell wheat from chaff or sheep from goats benefit from this parable, reassured that God will identify and deal with each justly and in due time. We may all be grateful in knowing that’s not our job.

For now, however, we must accept that the weeds aren’t going anywhere soon. We can all pray to receive the necessary grace to love our enemies, despite the current climate of partisan rancor and public denunciation. We can all pray to resist the weight and pull of worldly ways.

Yet my own experience of good and evil reminds me of an insight from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Read more

Shown, Not Told

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin

The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.

Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?

Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them. Read more