Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 OR Job 19:23-27a
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Mrs. Obrien: I just want to die, to be with him.
Preacher: He’s in God’s hands now.
Mrs. Obrien: He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?

From Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

As the liturgical year draws to its close, the lectionary readings make an eschatological turn, looking ahead to our own end and of things as we know them. It’s a shift in tone that flows seamlessly into Advent, where the church learns once again how to live as Jews, suspended between a ruin and a hope. Signs of ruin are everywhere: a planet we’re quickly making uninhabitable, collapsing world order, a country too divided by corrosive political rhetoric to reckon with pressing fundamentals, churches reeling from self-inflicted humiliations. Amid the rubble of a world plundered and a church betrayed from within, hope can grow hollow and brittle, like dry stems in autumn. What’s to become of our planet, our country, our church, ourselves?

In the fall, the season sharing its name with humanity’s turning away from God, such thoughts may arise simply from observing the natural world’s dying back in anticipation of winter. Sometimes we require some rather more direct reminder. During the now abandoned coronation ceremony for newly elected popes, the master of ceremonies would stop the procession three times to set alight a strip of flax. As the fabric burned into smoke and nothingness, he would address the new pope in a loud voice, saying, “Sic transit Gloria mundi,” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”), reminding him of his mortality and the evanescence of earthly power. Read more

To Heal the Sin-Sick Soul


Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

“…most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.”
-David Bentley Hart

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:22)

In a 2016 essay in Commonweal, Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, described how translating the New Testament drove him to the distressing conclusion that Jesus and his early followers meant – and lived – what they said about the dangers of wealth. As one would expect, defenders of wealth as an intrinsic good, unhappy with Hart’s essay, wrote strongly-worded rebuttals Hart, well known for his erudition and verbal cantankerousness, leaves few readers neutral about his message or person. His work typically includes something to make everyone unhappy, but while other theologians may reject his arguments and interpretations, they rarely dismiss him as uninteresting. He’s not the sort whose work is readily neutered into comforting pablum.

His point in the essay is that’s precisely what Christianity has done to texts like this Sunday gospel reading, turning the demanding communal practice of material poverty into a spiritualized individual attitude, a change of thought rather than a way of life. Hart, like me, knows this sin from the inside. Indeed, most Christians in the global North who write against making this gospel demand safe for the modern consumer stand convicted by their own words. What I call voluntary simplicity looks unimaginably opulent to the roughly one billion fellow humans currently living on less than $2.00 per person per day. Read more

God’s Hometown

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 OR Ezekiel 2:1-5
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

This past weekend, in anticipation of Independence Day, Hobby Lobby, the privately-owned arts and crafts store, took out full page advertisements in city newspapers across the United States to proclaim, “Blessed is the Nation Whose God is Lord”(Psalm 31:22). Under a red, white, and blue header ran three columns of quotations from US Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and Founding Fathers as well as various court rulings, congressional statements, and Ivy League religious codes suggesting that the country was founded as, and presumably should remain, an explicitly Christian nation. A blue footer listed websites to visit if the reader wished to “…know Jesus as Lord and Savior,” or download a free Bible to a smartphone.

David Green, who took out a six hundred dollar loan in 1970 to launch the business that would become Hobby Lobby and is now worth more than $6 billion, began purchasing newspaper ads for Christmas in 1996, and has since added Easter and Independence Day in an annual holiday cycle. The Green family has used its considerable wealth to fund evangelical ministries and the recently-opened American Museum of the Bible, and to sue the US for a religious exclusion from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to cover medications they consider to be abortifacient. Whatever one’s politics, there’s no doubting the Green family’s influence.

The Greens participate in a long American tradition that sees the United States as a unique, Godly nation, rightful heir to John Winthrop’s claim regarding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “…that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses…”(recorded while aboard the Arbella, 1630). Read more

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