Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Bad_Rich_Man_in_Hell_(Le_mauvais_riche_dans_l'Enfer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Lost Sheep and Broken People

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 7:11-14 OR Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15: 1-10

I once imagined the easiest commandment to keep was the one against idolatry. It seemed rather simple: don’t go sacrificing animals to statues of false gods and I’d be fine. I was much younger then. I hadn’t yet lived into life’s ambiguities, hadn’t yet recognized the power of my own desires, hadn’t yet read enough theology – Augustine in particular.

When I understood idolatry as getting the order of my loves wrong, specifically by desiring (and thus secretly worshipping) something more than God, I saw false gods everywhere. Nearly all recorded history – from the founding of ancient Sumer to the unedifying rhetoric of the current US presidential race – can be read through a biblical lens as a very long series of idolatries, all of them sad.

In the same way that a microscope reveals nasty-looking creatures swimming in a glass of tainted water, a biblical lens makes visible the idolatries that reign in what we like to call “the world,” as if we were merely in the world and not of it. The Bible doesn’t cut us much slack when it comes to our dealings with the world. What other nation besides the Jews would include the prophets – those town criers of communal betrayal and merited retribution – in their sacred texts, second only to Torah itself?

As for Christians today, it’s not as if the line between faithful church and idolatrous world is bright, broad, and evident to all. Nor am I one to lecture another on keeping one’s loves in the proper order. If I’m able to rightly name another’s sin, it’s because I know that sin from the inside. Read more

Paintings. Netherlandish. 15th Century, ca. 1425-30
campin, Robert (ca. 1375-1444), and Assistant
The Annunciation Triptych. (Merode Triptych)
Oil on Wood.
Central Panel: H. 25-1/4 in W. 24-7/8 in. (64.1x63.2 cm.)
Each Wing H. 24-3/6 in. W. 10-3/4 in. (64.5x27.3 cm.)
Photography by MMA1996, transparency 2AD
scanned by film and media (jn) 1-07-05

Snaring Satan

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Kings 5:1-14 OR Isaiah 66:10-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap. The bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death”
– St. Augustine, Sermon 263

The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with the idea of “Satan,” and, try as I might to make it otherwise, I have a modern mind. Like many others, I don’t know if the Hebrew, S-t-n, “the adversary or accuser,” or the Greek, diabolos, “the slanderer,” can still be understood a personal, superhuman enemy of God Rather than catalogue modern answers to that question, I’ll pose a riddle: “Is Satan’s first deception persuading us that he exists or that he doesn’t?” Read more

Waldschafe

Learning to be Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43 OR Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Sheep again, that well-worn metaphor. The Bible tells of countless flocks and many working shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, and the shepherds of Bethlehem. The image of a shepherd tending a flock (the latter a frequent stand-in for the people of Israel) recurs often. In the Old Testament, shepherd imagery may point to God, the promised Messiah, or human leaders appointed by God: prophets, priests, and kings. Some of those human shepherds are said to have scattered their sheep, as in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34. In such passages, a worthy shepherd is typically promised to gather from the scattered remnants a new, well cared for flock.

Sheep, as I’ve noted in previous lectionary reflections, are not intelligent. Left alone, they wander off, get into tight spots, tumble over cliffs, and fall to predators. After centuries of human-directed selection and husbandry, whatever survival skills wild sheep began with have long since been bred out of their descendants. To be called “the sheep of his flock” is no compliment.

Even so, this week’s readings might tempt us to smug self-recognition, as if, after a perfunctory admission of past stupidities, we are now undoubtedly the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice and will soon enough stand in the presence of the enthroned Lamb (who is, paradoxically, the eternal shepherd). It’s tempting to see those flock-scattering shepherds as someone the other: first century Jewish leaders, members of other churches and denominations, clergy or theologians whose actions or convictions we find appalling. It’s tempting to imagine we know who is and who isn’t on the right side of salvation history. We may well be among the sheep who listen, and we may fervently hope to one day stand before the Lamb, but the smugness and certainty must go. Read more

Jesus_washing_feet_statue_WLC

Not Yet at the Wedding Banquet

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is one of those blessed Sundays in which the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries are almost exactly concordant, the only differences being the inclusion or absence of a few verses in the first two readings. How interesting, then, that today’s gospel reading is often mined to text-proof theological positions in direct contradiction to one another.

That details of the wedding at Cana passage – an episode that appears only in John’s gospel and designated by the author as the first of Jesus’s signs – should be interpreted variously by different ecclesial traditions comes as no surprise. Traditions shape not only what we do and believe, but how we see, read, speak, and hear. What troubles me is how easily differing interpretations can be turned into hammers to smash the heretical Other. Read more

mercy justice

Where Mercy and Justice Meet

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24 OR Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

The readings this Sunday are thickly planted with pastoral land mines. Even the revised common lectionary, which typically supplies a kinder, gentler Old Testament alternative to the Catholic selection, offers a passage from Job with a theologically problematic encounter between God and Satan and an unkind reference to women. You decide if that’s safer to preach on than God’s fashioning the woman from the man’s rib. Happy is the preacher observing World Communion Sunday this week.

God knows – and we take as a matter of faith – that Scripture is meant to help and unite, not hinder and divide, but these selections have often been sources of discord. They are hard readings some have used as weapons, particularly against women. They are interpreted differently between and within churches and denominations, dividing the Body of Christ into a host of fractious camps and labels: liberal from conservative, progressive from traditionalist, “accommodators” from “fundamentalists.” Dangerous texts, indeed.

What makes them dangerous is that they touch bedrock aspects of our personhood: bodies, gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships. Many current (and former) Christians conclude that the Church has selectively misinterpreted such passages across the centuries, mercilessly enforcing literalist readings of scattered passages while ignoring behaviors the scriptures more forcefully and consistently condemn: ignoring the poor, harming a neighbor, withholding hospitality from strangers. Agree or disagree, the challenging task remains: how do we, as a Christian community, read these texts together? Read more