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The Last Word

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hosea 1:2-10
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

This week’s lectionary readings invite a nuanced continuation of the theme developed last week by Jessie Larkins, who juxtaposed God’s blistering and apparently final judgment upon Judah from Amos 8 (vv. 1-12) with the very different message of Colossians 1:15-28, where judgment is leveled not so much against a people as an idolatrous way of life that the Cross of Jesus makes it possible to abandon. Again this week we are offered a word of prophetic judgment (from Hosea) and a reiteration of the author of Colossians’ account of what transpires in the cross. However, in both texts we discover a delightful comedic turn that opens to us the possibility of seeing ourselves and our world in surprising new ways.

The passage from Hosea is the familiar story of the prophet’s commissioning. Hosea is told by the LORD to marry a prostitute and have children with her; their marriage is to be a metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God, inasmuch as “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

The names given to the three children made by the marriage are all indicative of God’s impending judgment on Israel: The name of the first son, Jezreel (“God sows”), is evocative of God’s judgment on the house of Ahab and Jezebel, which came in the form of an extremely bloody coup d’etat which began in the valley of Jezreel. The second child, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) suggests God’s mercy toward Israel is being withdrawn. This is affirmed when another son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) is born; this name portends not simply the LORD’s withdrawal of mercy, but his outright abandonment of the covenant—“for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

Judgment, however, is not the last word in the passage. Read more

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Resurrection and the Way

Easter Sunday

Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
John 20:1-18

Easter has long since become, at least in certain Protestant circles, a day aimed largely at “catching” a few from the crowds in the pews that otherwise make themselves scarce at ecclesial gatherings. This means, to the extent such efforts are made in given congregations, pastors and other church leaders must attempt a precarious balancing act, looking to incentivize attendance among non-churchgoers with perquisites and simplify the liturgy and sermon to make them more “relevant,” or at least friendlier to the uninitiated, while simultaneously offering the faithful just enough of the tradition via readings and hymns to make them feel like they’d been to church.

Such attempts, in my admittedly curmudgeonly experience, are at best marginally successful. The visiting masses are sufficiently well-inoculated against even friendly Christianity that they witness the spectacle politely, without being too much tempted to reorient their lives in the direction it points, while many church members leave a bit perplexed—again—about exactly what it is that makes Easter the highpoint of the Christian year. Having witnessed this approach several times in more than one strand of Christian tradition, I am increasingly convinced it is misbegotten. Read more

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The Kingdom Unleashed on the World

Baptism of the Lord
First Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Before there was an ekklesia, before there was a Messiah, before there were mangers or magi or shepherds or heavenly hosts, there was talk among the common folk in and around Jerusalem—furtive whispers and improbably hopeful snippets of conversation among a people long since accustomed to injustice and subjugation at the hands of series of imperial oppressors and collaborators from among their own leaders. The topic of conversation was not new in any absolute sense. Its roots were a thousand years old, and exchanges like it had emerged and reemerged over the years whenever things became grim and the people wondered whether the God of their ancestors had abandoned them altogether.

The conversation invariably revolved around hope, and the hope voiced was for deliverance, a liberation such as their ancestors had experienced under the leadership of Moses in the Exodus from Egypt. This time the liberation was expected to come through the leadership of a “new” Moses, a descendant of King David, under whose rule the people would be freed, their oppressors vanquished, and shalom — peace and prosperity — established, not simply among the people Israel, but throughout Creation; not simply for now, but for all time.

In the second century before the Common Era, when the Seleucids sought to destroy Judaism by completely assimilating it into Hellenistic culture, the authors of the book of Daniel and some of the apocryphal texts gave this hope a name. They called it the reign (or kingdom) of God, and they looked for its advent through God’s anointed one, the Messiah. Read more

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All Will Be Thrown Down

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

By any measure, the Temple Jesus and his disciples visited on their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an impressive structure. Commissioned around 20 BCE by Herod the Great, the Roman client King of Judea, “Herod’s Temple” was on one hand a conciliatory gesture toward the priestly class and leaders of the Temple who were deeply suspicious of the king (Herod had slaughtered a number of priests when he took power not that many years earlier), and on the other hand a narcissistic monument to Herod’s ambition to be regarded among the day’s great rulers, all of whom taxed their citizens mercilessly to fund extensive, self-aggrandizing building programs.

Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple employed more than one thousand priests, who worked as masons and carpenters, and although the Temple proper was rebuilt in less than two years, the surrounding buildings, courtyards, and walls were not completed until nearly eighty years later. It was a massive project, occupying the entire plateau atop the Temple Mount and reflecting in its design Herod’s affinity for Hellenism.

It must have come as something of a shock, then, when Jesus told the disciples who pointed out the monstrous stones from which the buildings were constructed, “See these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Read more

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Keep Reading

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 OR Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22 OR Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Maybe the most important counsel a commentator on this week’s lectionary texts can offer to whoever hopes to preach them is to keep reading (I’m sure there’s a proverb about this somewhere, but darned if I can come up with one). The lectionary I consulted began with the text from Job, followed by excerpts from the 34th Psalm, and the combination left me, quite honestly, flabbergasted.

I know it’s just a story, and one with parallels in ancient Near Eastern pagan myths at that. I also know that the ending (chapter 42) is not altogether in keeping with the richly nuanced theology of the rest of the text. But taken at face value, I find those last verses of Job just a bit troubling.

I want to say to God, “OK, lemme see if I got this right. After you give Job – who to say the least had seen more than his share of abject suffering – a thorough dressing down about your respective places in the cosmic scheme, he says, ‘O, wow! I had no idea. I shoulda just kept my mouth shut. Sorry, God.’

“And then, after he prays for the friends who had added so much insult to his injury, you give him ‘twice as much as he had before.’ That’s twice the livestock, twice the servants, twice the children, plus a bunch of money and jewelry. And he lives another one hundred and forty years to enjoy it, which ostensibly makes everything pretty much all right!

“Are you serious? What the heck am I supposed to do with that? Do you really expect me to preach it?” Read more