Sheep

Learning to Live Like Sheep

The Reign of Christ
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Ezekiel 34:11-17, 20-24
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 OR Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Not everyone loves the desert. I do.

Circumstances led me to another home, but the desert remains the landscape of my heart. Like a former lover turned dear friend and counselor, it refreshes my spirit whenever I return. It was in the high desert of the Navajo Nation that I awakened to the practical significance of images so resonant for the desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible.

To see a line of cottonwoods, their green leaves trembling in the faintest desert breeze, proclaim how deep roots find life-giving water, is to know the faithful confidence of “a tree planted by a river.” (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8)

To watch a Navajo boy guide a scattering flock of Churro sheep across a busy desert road, is to feel in one’s belly the patient loving-kindness of a shepherd. (Psalm 23, John 10:1-18, and today’s readings)

But to watch sheep in action is also to grasp that being called “the sheep of His flock” is no endorsement of human intelligence. For all their wooly cuteness (more apparent at a distance than up close) sheep are distressingly stupid. With the attention span of a Mayfly that’s misplaced its ADHD meds, sheep show inexhaustible creativity in wandering from safety to needless peril.

Which suggests, based on my embarrassing familiarity with human folly, that we’re not only called to be sheep. Indeed, in ways few care to admit, most of us already are sheep. Read more

Head of Christ

The Unfairness of God’s Justice

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The twentieth century political philosopher, John Rawls, summarily restated his most famous work, A Theory of Justice, as “Justice as Fairness.” Many who know little of his learned, complex argument may have heard of his “Original Position,” the thought experiment that serves as creation myth for Rawls’ social contract.

Rawls asks his reader to imagine a meeting where all parties choose a common social structure from behind a “veil of ignorance.” No one knows his/her/its origin, history, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, talents, abilities, or conception of the Good. This artifice, Rawls believes, forces participants to choose the basic rights and duties of citizens impartially, rationally, and fairly — and Rawls confidently tells us what they will decide.

Many of Rawls’ subsequent conclusions are appealing, but his starting point strikes me as a progressive “just so” story. For Rawls, it seems, people emptied of nearly every personal quality will nevertheless share his late twentieth century bourgeois liberal values.

This week’s lectionary readings envision a radically different universe. Read more

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Questions for a Picnic

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 55:1-5
Romans 8:35-39 OR 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

What does is mean to be fed, to not know when or how our bodily needs will be met, yet to wait in confidence that food will come? How do we grow so confident of being fed – and fed well – that we follow Christ into the desert? What do we learn from having our dependence on the grace and love of another made so obvious, so public?

Why was the story of the feeding of the five thousand (“not counting women and children”) so important to the early church that it appears in all four gospels, with a reprise – for four thousand – in Mark and Matthew? What are we to learn from such unexpected abundance? Why are being taught and being fed central acts of Christian worship? Read more

flower in rocks

Wasteful Miracles

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65
Romans 8:1-11 OR Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

With two millennia of practice, Christians have nearly perfected the art of explaining away Gospel demands. Excuse-making is, after all, a human strong suit, and it’s not easy to stop doing what you’re really good at.

A modern variant of the “that’s nice, but it doesn’t apply to me” excuse stresses how different our lives are from those of first century peasants. Farmers, shepherds, and fishermen are, for many of us, abstractions invisibly at work somewhere beyond our personal experience, black boxes in the grocery store supply chain, while the few among us who farm or fish for a living know better than to throw precious seeds along a rocky path, leave ninety-nine percent of the stock loose and unwatched while searching for a stray, or toss nets over the oarlocks and hope for the best without benefit of engines, fishfinder, or radio.

In contrasting my busy, technologically sophisticated modern life to sentimentalized myths of agrarian simplicity, I construct all the distance I need to miss the point – and missing the point is, after all, the unacknowledged point of much contemporary scripture study. I like to imagine that I would never be so wasteful and inefficient as the benighted peasantry of Jesus’ time. Read more

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(Mis)Remembered Words

This week’s post is a reflection originally published in 2011. -

Zechariah 9:9-10; Matthew 11:25-30

In an October 13, 1813 letter to his former political rival, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson described his work on a short book, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. This was Jefferson’s own distillation of gospel texts, in which he meant to include, “the very words only of Jesus,” while eliminating all elements Jefferson deemed irrational.  Jefferson assumed the parts he found superstitious were simply the result of ignorant men who misremembered or misunderstood Jesus’ “pure principles.”

When he was done with his editing, Jefferson wrote, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”

He later completed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a unified narrative of Jesus’ life cut from the New Testament with all mention of miracles, angels, prophecy and resurrection edited out. Jefferson privately shared his compilation with friends, but declined to have it published in his lifetime. Read more