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

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

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