Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Bad_Rich_Man_in_Hell_(Le_mauvais_riche_dans_l'Enfer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Lost Sheep and Broken People

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 7:11-14 OR Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15: 1-10

I once imagined the easiest commandment to keep was the one against idolatry. It seemed rather simple: don’t go sacrificing animals to statues of false gods and I’d be fine. I was much younger then. I hadn’t yet lived into life’s ambiguities, hadn’t yet recognized the power of my own desires, hadn’t yet read enough theology – Augustine in particular.

When I understood idolatry as getting the order of my loves wrong, specifically by desiring (and thus secretly worshipping) something more than God, I saw false gods everywhere. Nearly all recorded history – from the founding of ancient Sumer to the unedifying rhetoric of the current US presidential race – can be read through a biblical lens as a very long series of idolatries, all of them sad.

In the same way that a microscope reveals nasty-looking creatures swimming in a glass of tainted water, a biblical lens makes visible the idolatries that reign in what we like to call “the world,” as if we were merely in the world and not of it. The Bible doesn’t cut us much slack when it comes to our dealings with the world. What other nation besides the Jews would include the prophets – those town criers of communal betrayal and merited retribution – in their sacred texts, second only to Torah itself?

As for Christians today, it’s not as if the line between faithful church and idolatrous world is bright, broad, and evident to all. Nor am I one to lecture another on keeping one’s loves in the proper order. If I’m able to rightly name another’s sin, it’s because I know that sin from the inside. Read more

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Slavery and the Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Philemon 1:1-21

Tradition supplies a backstory for the short book Philemon: the slave Onesimus had run away from his owner, seeking refuge in the anonymity of Rome. But there he encountered Paul and was converted. In fact, from the text, we know very little about what how Onesimus ended up with Paul and less about what followed. Still the letter continues to speak to us about power and the cost of discipleship, a cost spelled out in no uncertain terms in today’s gospel.

Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker” Philemon, a believer whose faith Paul praises, had a slave. It shocks us now to realize that the early Christian communities included not only slaves but also slave-owners. Being baptized did not automatically mean that a slave-owner would free his or her slaves. And this is not because ancient slavery was a humane institution. Slavery meant then as now that a person is property. If an owner decided to beat a slave or to use a slave for sex, that slave had no right to resist. While a slave might have a family, the owner was under no obligation to honor those ties.

Perhaps Philemon was not cruel to Onesimus. But in the ancient world, even though a slave might be well-fed, educated, and even able to wield some of the owner’s power, slavery meant shame, because it meant being unable to demand respect. Philemon has power. Onesimus has none. Read more

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God Calls People

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

I know, I know. There’s no one that pastoral types like me distrust more than someone who declares they are called by God to do this or that. Self-proclaimed prophets and preachers in church are a dime a dozen. Believe me, I am one! In an election year we have to make do with narcissists who tell us they are God’s answers to the nation’s pressing issues. Yet if you pressed me on the matter, I would be forced to admit that I too have been called by God. Read more

Illustration from the 1980s showing the elements of a Peacekeeper missile. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A Deeper Communion

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 5:1-7
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division.”

At first glance, Jesus’ proclamation seems to resonate profoundly with our current cultural moment, which has a surplus of division and a deficit of peace. The faction-based rhetoric clogging our airwaves and the vitriol that plagues our social media sites seems just the sort of thing that divides “father against son” and “mother against daughter.”

We have elevated divisiveness to an art form, so that not just households, but communities, classrooms, and congregations bear the marks of estrangement. Even among followers of Christ, virtues like gentleness and kindness are dismissed as “political correctness,” and a willingness to offend is worn as a badge of honor.

It’s not hard to see why this Jesus found in Luke chapter 12 might excite some readers. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” it seems, has been replaced by a tough-talking firebrand who tells it like it is and who isn’t afraid to burn bridges and upset apple carts.

Imagine this Jesus on Twitter, taking no prisoners as he drops truth bombs, 140 characters at a time. At first glance, this is a Messiah tailor-made for our times. But a first glance, at this biblical passage or any other, hardly makes for a responsible or faithful reading of God’s word. We have to ask whether Jesus is really laying out the kind of iconoclastic vision that animates our political rallies and fills our Facebook pages, or if, when he informs his disciples not to anticipate that he will bring peace, he might be getting at something deeper. Read more

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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