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

The Binding of Isaac: Gen. 22: 1-14

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, / And took the fire with him, and a knife. / And as they sojourned both of them together, / Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father, / Behold the preparations, fire and iron, / But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering? / Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, / And builded parapets and trenches there, / And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son. / When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven, / Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, / Neither do anything to him, thy son. / Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns, / A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” Wilfred Owen, 1920 Read more

Third Sunday After Pentecost

What does it mean, I wonder, to hear this week’s appointed scripture texts if you are a Christian in Myanmar or in the Sichuan province of China? What would you make of all this talk of mountains shaking; the sea roaring and foaming; swollen waters on the earth; rain, flood, wind, destruction, death?

Those of us who have never experienced the kind of catastrophic devastation associated with cyclones and earthquakes can too easily romanticize the natural world, admiring only its beauty: a breathtaking sunset, a beautiful beach, a majestic mountain. As modern suburbanites and urbanites we’re happy with our isolation from nature’s wild, unpredictable side—as our neatly landscaped lawns and pretty container gardens make plain. We like nature well enough; so long as we can manage it—so long as it doesn’t try to hurt us. Read more

Habeas Corpus

In the Common Lectionary for Protestant churches, tomorrow is the second Sunday after Pentecost. In Roman Catholic churches, however, it’s Corpus Christi: not a city in Texas, but the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. From Thursday until Sunday, more traditional Catholic churches will hold processions, and countless homilies will be devoted to what it means live, move and have our being in Christ’s Body. A recent post on Theolog, the Christian Century blog, has me thinking about how various Christian traditions embody “Real Presence.”

I wonder how much anger and division could have been avoided if excessively-precise definition and binary theorizing hadn’t left so little room for the Holy Spirit. I, for one, recall the Franciscan nuns teaching me to find Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, in the Body gathered for liturgy, in the Word proclaimed to the assembly and in the Stranger.

Where do you find Christ when you are least disposed to recognize him?

(Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2008)

Trinity Sunday

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar, the only feast day in the liturgical year devoted to a doctrine of the Church. Many on this day will be tempted to dust off the clumsy analogies: The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover. The Trinity is like the three phases of water—liquid, solid, steam.

No wonder people in the pews often rebel against doctrinal sermons. Read more