Certified Prophet

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year B
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

Of all the the signs of crisis in our culture one of the most subtle is the proliferation of certificates.  It seems that there is a certificate for everything now, along with some official group to issue it and, most likely, take our money for the service.  For instance, one can become a Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP) or hold a Certificate in Career Readiness.  There are certificates for the mastery of various software programs, planning methodologies, and fitness routines.  There are Certified Dog Psychologists and Certified Beer Judges.  From one top tier university I found 31 certifications in leadership alone, from a Certification in Critical Thinking Leadership to a Certification in Servant Leadership.

Not all certifications are bad, of course, but their proliferation signals a crisis of legitimacy and competency.  What were once basic human skills, shared freely and developed in community, have become certificates that are given only after the consumption of some educational product.  And our judgement of those who are competent no longer requires our discernment of clear outcomes, but rather a glance at the frames on a person’s office wall.

Though there was no proliferation of certifications in 1st Century Palestine, the Gospel of Mark presents us with a Jesus who is stepping into a similar crisis of legitimacy.  Read more

Shorting the Unreal

Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

The 2011 film, The Big Short follows the stories of a handful of people who made a good investment.  It was a call on the market that had everything to do with their read of reality and  really good timing.  That they ended up reaping the rewards of their investment had nothing to do with luck, or the vagaries of Mammon.  It was a result of watching the signs and realizing where they were pointing, even though at times they seemed wildly out of step with the rest of the financial world.  The Big Short is, of course, the a story of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, a crisis that came when fantasy and illusion came crashing into reality.

The Big Short could be a good way into our New Testament lessons for this Sunday.  The Gospel is that often abused tale of the talents, what Ched Myers calls a parable about a “manager of injustice.”  Though I don’t necessarily share Myers’ read, it is certain that this parable is not about making more money for the sake of the Kingdom, however much such a reading serves the purposes of the church pledge season.
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Science, Church Signs, and the Hope We See

Proper 14, Year A

Matthew 14:22-33

I have long been a fan of the church marquee.  I don’t generally pay attention to the service times or the pastor’s name written large; what I look for is a good word, a funny saying, some pithy call to the Christian life.  I am, of course, often disappointed.  Some jokes fall flat, some scriptures are ripped from their contexts, and often the theology is an abuse of all that is good and beautiful about our faith.  But often enough the signs are just right.

I recently saw a few online that gave me laugh or at least a humored groan: “Honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him.”  Or “Adam and Eve, the first people to not read the Apple terms and conditions.” Or “This too shall pass, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”

As I drove past a church in my city, I recently saw a LED marquee with the message: “We are praying for scientists that they may find a vaccine.”  There was something in that message that didn’t sit well with me, a problem that I couldn’t quite articulate.  It wasn’t that I am against scientific inquiry or that I think praying for scientists or even a vaccine is a bad idea.  Much of my own life has been formed by scientific modes of understanding, I once even imagined that science would be my career.  I often read books written by scientists and I own a microscope, telescope, and dissecting kit with which I engage in my own explorations of the world, often with my children, whom I encourage to pursue knowledge through scientific means. But still, I had some sense that there was another message the church should have been offering. Read more

The Witness of Scars

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

John 20:19-31

I’ve been going outside a lot lately, finding my kin and connection with the creation that I can embrace with no worry of shared infection. I’ve been watching birds, many now migrating to their Summer homes from far south to far north. I’ve been learning to identify butterflies and exploring their fascinating interconnections with plants. And I have been paying attention to trees, watching a wide variety of oaks sprout in my yard from the places they were planted by squirrels and jays.

One of the beautiful things I’ve come to recognize about trees are their scars. Look closely at any of them and you will see some evidence of the life they’ve lived–a branch shorn off by a browsing deer, a crown pierced by lightning, the enclosure of bark around an insect attack. So much of the experience of a tree is there, evident on its body, available as a witness that life keeps going.

The witness of trees has been helpful to me in this time when COVID19 has kept me away from so many I love. What a strange Holy Week, to worship in an empty church and preach into a webcam! I usually come to Easter Monday worn out, but this year I felt more depressed than tired. I missed the many bells and alleluias ringing out on Easter vigil and it just wasn’t the same lighting the Paschal fire, when its flame could not be passed, candle to candle, throughout the church. This time is like a cut on a tree trunk, a damaging pain with sap oozing to the surface. Read more

Allegiance or Admiration?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

I am generally protected by my choice of media from the glamour and gossip side of the news. I don’t consume all that much of it and what news I read and hear is limited, mostly, to the websites of the established newspapers or the carefully worded renderings of NPR. But on occasion a story that is clearly the domain of the grocery store magazine rack makes its way even to the most serious news outlets. Such has been the case with “Megxit,” the leaving behind of the British royal family by Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle.

There is just something about royalty that worm its way through even the most disciplined journalistic standard. Perhaps it comes from our childhoods where all the best stories are replete with kingdoms and palaces. There just aren’t that many fairy tails, ancient or modern, about the deliberations of democracy.

Perhaps our curiosity about formally recognized royals is also born from the truth that we are all in fact kings and queens of a kind, with power over a realm all our own. As the philosopher and spiritual teacher Dallas Willard has put it, “Every last one of us has a ‘kingdom’–or a ‘queendom,’ or a ‘government’–a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens.”

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