Imagining God’s Reign

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 OR Matthew 17:1-9


“Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and imagine almost nothing” – Walter Brueggemann

More than forty years since its first publication, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination has lost none of its urgency. In opposing the biblically-grounded imagination to what he calls “royal consciousness” – that system of individual affluence, concealed oppression, and spiritual smugness in service to the powers of the day – Brueggemann reminds us that before we can live into the reign of God, we must first imagine what that reign might look like. This presumes, however, that we can sufficiently free our imagination from the narcotizing grip of royal consciousness to recognize and lament our fears, shared suffering, and mortality. “It is the vocation of the prophet,” Brueggemann writes, “to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”

Royal consciousness conspires to numb us everywhere and always, even in this season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving meant to prepare us for the celebration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. I succumb to the power of that consciousness when I mistake Lent as boot camp for my weak and wayward will. Not that my will doesn’t need a major overhaul, something that – with God’s grace – would be a most welcome consequence of my Lenten practices. True metanoia, however, depends far more on imagination than on the will. In order to embody God’s word and live into God’s reign, I need the necessary grace to imagine other ways of living, of thinking, and of desiring than the stale and lifeless habits of the dominant culture. Read more

Confession, Resistance, and Restoration

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

 

“Going to confession is hard…. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step of getting rid of them.”

~Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

 

This week’s Sunday cycle of texts brings with it a change in season, moving from the period of ordinary time after Epiphany to the journey of Lent. Having been reminded of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, we now walk with Jesus and the disciples toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him there. On that journey this week, we are confronted by the reality of sin and its remedy. Read more

Stalemate

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

I have come to the conclusion that we are at a stalemate. Now, your mind may be jumping to all sorts of binaries in the world, but I’m thinking about the divide between the Church and the world. No matter how you conceptualize that binary, Scripture is clear that there is a difference and that the difference matters. The Church and the world are oriented toward different ends and are interested in steering the other side toward their own agendas.

But that steering, that’s the stalemate I’m thinking of. Whether we are talking about ontological proofs of God’s existence, evolutionary biological proofs against the creation narratives of Genesis, the plausibility of Christ’s resurrection, social scientific accounts for religious phenomena, we all can marshal evidence in support of our beliefs. Nobody has yet provided the definitive evidence in support of theism or atheism.

This was what modernity was supposed to. Science and empirical rationalism would provide all the necessary explanations for existence and causation. God would fade into irrelevance as people gradually awakened to the reality that He is unnecessary. The Church in the era of modernity took the bait and attempted to “play the game” on the world’s terms. The Church attempted better arguments for the existence of God, for the existence of miracles, for the life of Christ. We would convince the world of the necessity of Christ through our arguments.

Several decades into postmodernity, however, we can see that this has not happened, not on either side. Since the Church was never supposed to play by the world’s rules, we have at best arrived at a stalemate. More realistically, we, the Church, are licking our wounds and regrouping, turning again to the Scriptures to understand not only our identity as the Church, but the rules of our engagement with the world.

When the Church turned its attention to tighter arguments for the existence of God it allowed itself to bifurcate the cognitive life of the apologist from the worshipping life of the community. An obsession with “grace alone” arguments within a guilt/innocence framework neglected the Bible’s emphasis on Christ’s reign as king and our relationship to that king as one of the “obedience of faith.” This is not to suggest that we ought never to think rightly about God or to never think within philosophical frameworks (it is unavoidable, in fact). Rather, just as in ancient traditions of rhetoric, where the character of the speaker was intertwined with his/her argument, the Church must always keep in mind its own character.

The writers of our lectionary passages in Deuteronomy and Matthew understood that the shape of our witness is the shape of our communities and vice versa. Proper relationship with God required a proper relationship with one another and when those two dimensions are aligned then the world will take notice.

In the case of Israel, they were to be a beacon to the world, drawing all the nations to Israel to marvel at their God, who makes perfect laws. When they failed to do so, they were ejected out of the land of their inheritance for they lost sight of the purpose of that inheritance. In the case of the Church, they were to be a beacon to the world, going out into all the world where it all belongs to the Lord and none of it belongs to us.

There is a remarkable passage in the ancient letter to Diognetus: “And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.”

The nations noticed these peculiar people within their lands and it was the particularity that marked them as different. It was the witness of their ethical communities that was the greatest testimony to Christ.

So we are indeed at a stalemate with the world at large with regards to our arguments for the existence of God and the plausibility of the resurrection. We believe in Christ so we find the proper arguments. They do not believe in Christ and so they find their proper arguments. Let us instead stop playing by the rules of the world and instead focus on the shape of our communities, where Christ’s otherwise insane commands against hatred, lust, marriage, and oaths become possible. Let us be a Church that demonstrates the gospel through our restored relationship with God through our restored relationships with one another. There can be no argument against it.

Fasting From Privilege: Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-12

In both Isaiah’s immediate history and ours, God’s people ordained and blessed an oppressive and extractive government/economy and the Israelites, like us, lived in the ugly results: an unjust society that divides people, accruing significant excess to some and increasingly preventing many others from meeting their basic needs for shelter, food, and clothing.

Israelite society didn’t stratify until they chose to inaugurate a monarchy. Economic injustice increased under Solomon, when the government introduced a tax structure and conscripted labor that accrued benefit to a few at the expense of many. Read more