We Do Not Own What We Have

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

… Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
Wendell Berry

I’m not as young as I used to be. I understand fully that any one of us could at any time say precisely the same thing, but what would otherwise be mere inanity has taken on surprising concreteness for me as I have begun to realize that someday I may no longer be able to do the work I love, or much work at all, for that matter. Treating retirement as a concrete, rather than an abstract, reality, has led me to think about money, and about whether there will be enough. According to the retirement calculator I consulted, the answer, unsurprisingly, is “no,” and even though I know that this answer is determined by an ideal standard of living to which I have never really aspired, it turns my thought to worry. I hate this, if for no other reason than because I hate the person it makes me or tempts me to become. I became acutely aware of these matters, which have been floating around my subconscious for a while now, when I began to study the gospel lesson for this week. Read more

Economy of Grace

The “bookends” of this week’s lectionary readings, from Exodus and Matthew, reintroduce us to the economy of grace characteristic of God’s now-but-not-yet reign of shalom. These texts also poke at our raw spots by challenging us to recognize ourselves in them, confronting some of our deepest anxieties, and exposing our bent toward greed, envy, and pride. In reading them, and allowing them to “read us,” we are reminded of the vastness of the expanse separating God’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this world; yet we are also given hope, that God remains at work, healing Creation and transforming us, its broken members. Read more

The Good Work of the New Humanity

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-35
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
John 20:19-23

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty—the faint surprise of minds incapable of wonder.
– Wendell Berry

We seldom associate Pentecost Sunday with work of any sort, even good work. Perhaps this is because the wild imagery of wind and flame and the strangeness of glossolalia tempts us to see Pentecost as distinctly other-worldly. Or perhaps we have simply assumed that work itself is inherent in the curse passed down from our primordial ancestors, and that the redemptive power unleashed at Pentecost is part of God’s action to release us from that curse—and so from work.

This is a misreading, both of the first chapters of Genesis—the gifts of tilling and keeping the garden were part of God’s instruction to humankind from the beginning—and of the story of Pentecost in its broader theological context as the commencement of the mission of proclaiming the gospel. It tends to obscure the fact that human work of a certain kind is part and parcel of our faithfully embodying our role as icons of the triune God. Read more

Reality Therapy

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32:1-11
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is as much about seeing well as it is about doing good, which is to say it is about learning to see ourselves as we truly are. It is a kind of reality therapy for the self-deceived and morally apathetic, which is to say, most of us.

It begins on Ash Wednesday by disabusing us of our easy rejections of finitude, reminding us that our destiny, at least penultimately, is to return to the earth from which we have come. In the ensuing 40 days, Lent offers to reveal to us all of those idols that have captured our hearts and diverted our attention from the things that most matter. It confronts us not simply with our self-destructive habits, but with our abject inability to do anything about them. Most importantly, it reminds us that all of our brokenness has been taken up into the grace of the triune God, who through the cross of Jesus makes possible an infinitely better way. Read more

Captivities

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lamentations 1:1-6 OR 3:19-26 OR Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

This week’s texts share, at least implicitly, the common theme of captivity. From Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the hard life of servitude facing those exiled to Babylon, to the exiled Psalmist’s wondering about the very possibility of faithfulness for the remnant of God’s people living in a pagan land, to Paul’s words of encouragement to his young friend Timothy even as he (Paul) sits in prison awaiting execution, to Jesus (even Jesus!) reminding us that even when we do genuine good we are merely performing the duties of a bondservant who expects no adulation, we are reminded that whatever freedom we imagine ourselves having is always qualified by the fact of our allegiances or debts to persons or forces beyond ourselves. We are all, in some sense, captives. The question is, to whom or what are we captive? Read more