A Harsh and Dreadful Love

In today’s second reading, Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another….Love is the fulfilling of the law.” To say that Christianity is about love is, of course, right. But if we mistake love for niceness, the same statement becomes terribly wrong. Dostoyevsky had his wise spiritual leader Fr. Zossima comment, when a woman came to him disappointed and embittered by her attempts to be charitable, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today calls us to a harsh and dreadful love, one that speaks words we would rather not speak and hears words we would rather not hear. Read more

With Us to the End of the Age

Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Talk about God’s authority over all things can make people uneasy. “Authority” sounds like it might be a threat to our freedom, as when, in the movie “The Truman Show,” the director of the reality show that is Truman’s life controls every circumstance in his world. He finally speaks to Truman from the fake clouds in the set’s fake sky: “In my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself….I’ve been watching you your whole life.” We cheer to see Truman refuse to live as a slave.

That kind of domination is what happens when humans try to be God, to control each other. Read more

Securing Our Place

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

The chief temptation of Lent is not that we will give in to our appetites but that we will enjoy seeing how right we can be. We set out a program of spiritual self-improvement, to fast and give alms, to skip the chocolate or alcohol or meat or TV, to make a few visits to someone who is lonely. Or we do none of those things, knowing that in this way we prove we are not the kind of people who go in for works-righteousness. Either way, we enjoy a chance to try to prove to ourselves that we are good, or at least better than some. We secure our place.

The life of faith is not like that. Read more

Don’t Panic (The End is Good News)

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 65:17-25 OR Malachi 4:1-2a
2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Updated Post

At the end of the liturgical year, as darkness falls each night a couple of minutes sooner than the last, the church turns our attention to the end of all things. We are mortal and our world will come to an end, for each of us and for all of us, and this both terrifies and fascinates us.

People love stories about the end of the world. The long winter is coming, meteors hurtle toward earth, zombies overwhelm civilization. Such stories indulge our wish to be heroes. The thrill of adrenaline blows the cobwebs off our humdrum little everyday routine, and we can abandon the confusing struggle of managing all the different concerns of the day to embrace one simple mandate: survival. End of the world stories make great escapist fiction.

But scripture tells a different kind of story – good news even in bad times– for quite a different purpose—to draw us into the patient ordinary work of the present moment. Read more

Slavery and the Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Philemon 1:1-21

Tradition supplies a backstory for the short book Philemon: the slave Onesimus had run away from his owner, seeking refuge in the anonymity of Rome. But there he encountered Paul and was converted. In fact, from the text, we know very little about what how Onesimus ended up with Paul and less about what followed. Still the letter continues to speak to us about power and the cost of discipleship, a cost spelled out in no uncertain terms in today’s gospel.

Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker” Philemon, a believer whose faith Paul praises, had a slave. It shocks us now to realize that the early Christian communities included not only slaves but also slave-owners. Being baptized did not automatically mean that a slave-owner would free his or her slaves. And this is not because ancient slavery was a humane institution. Slavery meant then as now that a person is property. If an owner decided to beat a slave or to use a slave for sex, that slave had no right to resist. While a slave might have a family, the owner was under no obligation to honor those ties.

Perhaps Philemon was not cruel to Onesimus. But in the ancient world, even though a slave might be well-fed, educated, and even able to wield some of the owner’s power, slavery meant shame, because it meant being unable to demand respect. Philemon has power. Onesimus has none. Read more