Useless

Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

A good friend who teaches Theology at a seminary in another part of the country likes occasionally to begin his new classes with the pronouncement that “God is useless.” As you might expect, this assertion is usually not well received by the pious young women and men on the other side of the lectern, who find it shocking, offensive, and even blasphemous. My friend anticipates these reactions, of course, and I suspect he enjoys his students’ outrage (All of us professors have a bit of the ham-provocateur in us.). But he does not assert God’s uselessness simply for the shock value. The claim that God is “useless” is among the most important truths of Christian faith, and one of the central messages of this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Read more

Immigration and the Hebrew Midwives

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20

“For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.” – Thomas Paine, 1776

“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”- Exodus 1:17

In a class I used to teach called “Women and the Bible” my students and I would examine the Exodus story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as one in a long line of narratives about female tricksters. Through their wily and inventive ways, these women and others like them (Rebekah, Tamar, Rahab, Michal) carry out the purposes of Yahweh and extend the fortunes of Israel. They may not possess any real authority in the patriarchal world they inhabit but these clever women do wield remarkable power. Read more

Ethics After Pentecost

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are now gathering to worship on Sundays during the Season after Pentecost, which is also often referred to as Ordinary Time even though the Scriptures for Sunday, August 17th (Roman Catholic lectionary) are full of extraordinary, even quite surprising, tidings. Another name for this season is Kingdomtide, and I would like to suggest that these Scripture passages are about the kin-dom that God desires to happen on earth as it is in heaven. That is, the common thread running throughout these readings is that God’s salvation essentially involves hospitality, compassion, and justice for all peoples–including, unexpectedly, those who are “other.” Read more

Rocking the Boat

I’ve been following a blog debate over at www.theolog.org between a scientist of some sort, hostile to religion generally and Christianity particularly, and a pious defender of the faith. In my view, neither has been very impressive in articulating his case against the other, and the back-and-forth accusations and “gotcha’s” and outright vitriol have only escalated as the debate has gone on (and on and on). I tried briefly to weigh in on it earlier this week, calling for a little charity and humility from both sides, but, like a sister trying to pull her two brothers off each other in a backyard brawl, I was roundly ignored. Lesson learned.

The gospel text from Matthew 14 this week strikes me as the kind of passage over which science guy and defender guy would go at it, arguing past each other all the while—as they have been doing all week. The ghostly Jesus walking on the water is too much for the rationalist to take in; it’s laughable, even—easy pickins. The mocking denial of such an archetype biblical image of Jesus (and the sacrosanct truth it represents) is scandalous to the defender’s deeply-felt piety. You can almost hear defender guy quoting Jesus back at his opponent: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” (14:31). Disagreement. Accusation. Counter-accusation. Read more

Shrubs and Kingdoms

a divided line drawing. On the left, a person plants a seed. On the right, birds in a large shrub. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” — Matthew 13:31-33

It has often been pointed out that when Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a shrub, he is having a bit of fun with us. But finding the humor in the Bible isn’t something we overly-serious modern readers are very good at. We’re more likely to treat parables like this one as if they were folk-wisdom formulas for personal or group success. Think about sermons you’ve heard on finances (“your small gift, sown in faith, will produce a big return!”) or church growth (“if we’re faithful, God will make us grow!”). Read more