Given Lives in a Given World

Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

In his essay, “Two Economies,” writer and farmer Wendell Berry recounts an exchange with his friend Wes Jackson.  The two were struggling to come up with an economy that would more appropriately value what is valuable since the money economy was clearly failing on that account.  Berry suggested that perhaps an economy based on energy rather than money would be more comprehensive, but Jackson rejected that measure as still too small.  Frustrated, Berry asked Jackson what economy would be large enough.  Jackson replied, “the Kingdom of God.”

As we work through the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus in the role of the new Moses, on the new Sinai, teaching God’s people the renewed Law.  The instructions offered are how these people gathered as Jesus’s disciples should enter into the reality of heaven—the place where God’s will is done.  Read more

Prayer in the Zone

Proper 24, Year C

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker there is a room in the middle of a mysterious place called the “Zone.” It is a place where life on earth was interupted by an alien force and it has become dangerous to anyone who moves through it without care–the landscape always shifting, the wreckage of civilization overgrown by the wild. Stalkers are the people who are able to travel through the Zone, they know the way to the room. In the film two men, named simply “Writer” and “Professor,” hire a character named, keeping to the theme, “Stalker,” to take them to the room. Their motives vary, but they are attracted there by its magic–the room is a place that will give you your heart’s deepest desire.

It would seem that this is a wonderful thing, but as Stalker relates early in the film, this can be a dangerous proposition. Stalker was taught the way to navigate the Zone by a man named Porcupine. Porcupine brought others to the Zone without entering the room. One time, however, he went in. When he left the Zone he found that he was suddenly fantastically wealthy. The room had fulfilled its function and granted the deepest desire of his heart. Porcupine then committed suicide, disgusted at what lay at the center of his soul. Sometimes our deepest desires are not clear to us and we take a risk in having them exposed and fulfilled.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker names a tension that I think is at the center of our readings this week. In Jeremiah and Luke we read of the heart and its desires, of prayer and its fulfillment, and in all of this we must recognize that we are not in the simple territory of a God who hears, but also in the difficult territory of claims for justice and calls for help that might just as well reflect the waywardness of our hearts as the truth of our cause. Read more

What Are You Preparing For?

 

Proper 14 (C)
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

If you’re planning on buying a winter place in Miami Beach, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s an island and the only thing on the rise there is the sea level. As Elizabeth Kolbert chronicled last fall in the New Yorker, when a super tide comes crashing in it floods the the lawns of million dollar homes and soaks sports cars in corrosive salt water. This is happening more and more. It will keep happening more and more.

The city of Miami Beach is, of course, working to correct the problem. They are looking to levees and pumps and all sorts of feats of modern engineering to keep business going and insurers from declaring the place uninsurable.

With enough pumps running, enough machines working, enough ingenuity and the sheer verve of the human spirit they will be able to beat this thing and keep going as they’ve been going. Unless, the water keeps rising. Unless, they’ve been basing their plans on a lie all along.

Those who want to save Miami Beach through more building and more pumps are like the people of Judah when Isaiah came to warn them of their ways. The fundamentals of their society had been corrupted and was unraveling as a result, but they kept on sacrificing in the temple, pretending that everything was just fine, God would keep them just as God always had. They had ceased to be in relationship with a living God, responsive and adaptive, and had become instead engineers of the sacred. As such, they had become idolaters, more interested in controlling the holy than in living in reverence of it. Read more

What We Owe

Luke 7:36-8:3 (Proper 6:Year C)

At one time I taught at a Christian high school where most kids were relatively well off and for the years I taught there I always worked in a discussion on privilege. The students would assure me that they were not privileged and that their parents weren’t either. “My dad built his business from scratch,” they’d say, or “my parents have worked hard for everything they’ve got.” The lines, rehearsed and repeated, were the same every time.

I’d lead them through a series of exercises and thought experiments that would help most, in the end, see their advantages—the head start, however hard the work, they had over many others from different backgrounds and races than their own. But I’d always leave a little sad, because since this was a Christian school it should have been one saturated in gratitude. These children had been firmly raised in the belief that salvation comes from Jesus, but they’d also been taught that everything else comes from hard work and the beneficence of the free market.

I thought of that time when I read the Gospel for this Sunday. It is a passage about gratitude and the hospitality that comes from it; about debt and the jubilee release of all debts. It is a profound study in vulnerability and knowing the truth about our selves.

Simon doesn’t know that he’s in debt. He enters the scene as someone confident that he is not a sinner, wondering in his mind how Jesus could not immediately know that this woman was someone who owes a debt to God and to society. Read more

Danger: Holy Ground

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 63:1-8

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

I have two daughters; one is four, the other one. I am not a particularly anxious father, but it doesn’t take much to recognize the fragility of life, the many dangers that threaten it. There are cars, there are electrical sockets, there are long flights of stairs; there are hard things and sharp corners, there are choking hazards everywhere. The world is full of dangers and part of the process of growing up is learning the habits to avoid them.

“Don’t put that in your mouth.” “Don’t put your finger in that socket.” “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Watch for cars in the parking lot.”

We know these things; to avoid them feels instinctive…until we have children, until we realize much of our ability to avoid danger has been learned through teaching that ingrains these lessons in our bodies.

There are other dangers that even adults forget, whole peoples even. These dangers are subtle or incremental, but dangers all the same. Dangers like climate change and soil erosion, dangers for which our culture has not yet written a protective response in our bodies. Then there are dangers unlike any other dangers, ultimate dangers like God. Read more