potter's wheel

To Rest in Requiring Hands

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

I have long admired hand-made pottery. So when a friend who had been throwing pots for some time asked me if I would be interested in learning, I was more than enthusiastic. All of my exposure to wheel-thrown pottery indicated a serene, meditative act, and I could use a bit more of that in my life. The first day at the wheel, I held my newly kneaded lump of clay, eager for peaceful art-making, when my friend instructed me to raise up my clay in both hands and slam it down on the wheel.

“Slam?” I asked, perplexed.

“Slam,” she answered. Read more

Praying for the Nation’s Peace and Justice

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Last week, in our Episcopal church, the prayers of the people began with these two petitions:

Let us pray for the Church and for the world.

Grant, Almighty God, that who confess your name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world.

Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.

(Followed by a short period of silence, and then: “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”)

How does praying as the church, the holy people of God, united as one, inform our ability to pray for justice and peace in the nation? Read more

Deep and Wide

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 1:4-10 OR Isaiah 58:9-14 OR Isaiah 66:18-21
Hebrews 12:18-29 OR Hebrews 12:5-13
Luke 13:10-17 OR Luke 13:22-30

It’s a difficult week for ecumenical commentary on the lectionaries, a rare Ordinary Time Sunday when none of the Revised Common Lectionary and Catholic Lectionary passages match. Books and even chapters nearly align, but as the carnival barker says after the darts are tossed, “Close, son, but no cigar.” But this is the hand we’re dealt this week.

I’m suspicious of harmonizing texts. From Tatian’s Diatesseron to shepherds rubbing shoulders with magi in crèche scenes, well-intentioned acts of smoothing over create more problems than they solve. Even so, I’m enough of an intertextualist to identify a theme emerging from our varied readings this Sunday, one I believe as orthodox as a reader of scripture can get. When readers, in their own time and place, engage scripture with the heart and mind of the Church, we sense a double expansion of meaning and application. In short, we’re on to something when we find ourselves implicated in texts that grow wider and deeper at the same time. This Sunday’s texts offer examples of how to do this. Read more

The Church in the Wild

Isaiah 5:1-7

Several years ago I heard an interview with Alan Weisman about his book The World Without Us.  The book’s title is fairly explanatory of its subject–it is a book about the world after humankind–how long it would take for the asphalt and concrete to crack; how well all those animals we’ve bred to live with us would fare after we are gone.  It was fascinating to hear Weisman describe the changes that would come to a place like Manhattan–how the weeds, and successional trees, and cats would take over (dogs it turns out have tied their fate to ours).

I like to entertain such ideas–of a city overgrown with weeds, of the industrial countryside reforested–not because I am a misanthrope but because I like the idea of a reset.  The way we’re living on this earth isn’t sustainable, much less flourishing and it would be good to start fresh with our cities and our countryside alike.  There are certainly times for repair, but then there are those times when what is in place has been so corrupted that it needs to be let go, to lie fallow for a while until something fruitful and flourishing can be made of it again.

This seems to me to be the theme in our text from Isaiah this week.  In this strange love poem, of which we see only a portion, the prophet talks about the people of Israel and Judah as a vineyard, a garden that God did all that God could to make flourishing.  But as any gardener knows, its not all up to the grower.  Sometimes the crop fails due to no fault of our own–some bad seed, a disease, the uncontrollable variances of weather.  The only solution is to plow it under or pull it up.  If there is a disease in the soil then we have to let the ground go uncultivated for a time.  God has seen the vineyard he planted that should have become fruitful with a bounty of love and righteous justice bear the diseased fruit of greed, violence and oppression.  The only answer is a reset.   Read more

Sacrifice

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

“God is raging in the prophet’s words,” says Abraham Heschel. In the vision of Isaiah, the word of the Lord scorches every act of the people’s worship and prayer.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Trample my courts no more. Bringing offerings is futile. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your appointed festivals my soul hates. Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This is the message to faithful temple-goers! How could things go so wrong? Read more

The Happiness Market

 

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.

Annie Dillard, “The Book of Luke,” The Annie Dillard Reader, 276

By the twelfth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel we get it: Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurates turn everything upside down. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty, the poor find good news, the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, the oppressed go free. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep; woe to the rich, the full-bellied, and those who are laughing now.

These words of justice and compassion stir us, move us, inspire us. Occupying a place somewhere between the destitute poor and the obscenely wealthy, we want what Jesus wants. Preach it, Jesus. Read more

Treading Silently Near Tender Hearts

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Hosea 1:2-10 OR Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

When I was in college I read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, a modern retelling of the book of Hosea. I was terribly curious what all the fuss was about, and was rewarded 400+ pages later with an icky feeling. Either I was supposed to feel like a well-loved slut or this book smelled like kitsch religious patriarchy repackaged in 1850’s stereotypes.

It has been so many years that I almost forgot the book existed, until I came across the readings for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C). There we find Hosea’s prologue staring at us, waiting for a response. I went back and revisited the amazon.com page for Redeeming Love to see how it was currently being received. Of most interest were the one-star ratings, and the reasons given. I naively expected that some sane people would read the book and reject it on the grounds that it denigrated women. I was instead shocked to find that the only people who seemed to hate the book hated it on the grounds that there was too much flesh and sex, which made it dirty and sinful, like a trashy romance novel disguised as Scripture. Read more

Listening to the Word

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 10: 38-42

Jesus is getting close to Jerusalem and confrontation. Luke says that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha, which we know from John is also the home of Lazarus, which is located in the village of Bethany, just over the hill from the outskirts of Jerusalem. Luke says they welcome him into their home and Martha gets busy doing the many things a good hostess does: preparing food, setting the table, straightening the room, picking up the newspapers that have piled up, and on and on. Meanwhile, sister Mary sits in front of Jesus listening to what he has to say. Martha, understandably frustrated says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister just sits there while I do all the work? Tell her to get up and help!” Jesus replies, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”

It is important to note that Jesus says to Martha, “you are worried and distracted.” He doesn’t criticize her for working and doing. Remember this comes just two verses after Jesus has given us the parable of the Good Samaritan with the concluding words, “Go and do …” The issue here is not simply that Martha is doing while Mary contemplates. The issue is Martha is distracted. The word translated “distracted” is a Greek word which means to be jerked around like a horse is jerked by a rider pulling on the reins. The image is that Martha is being jerked around by her frenetic busy-ness. It’s as if her desires are out of order so she is out of control in her busy-ness. The result is that she is unable to attend to the one thing most needful – sitting and listening to Jesus. Read more

Tensions in the Law

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Amos 7:7-17 OR Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Law and land are themes running through this week’s lectionary readings. In Deuteronomy, Moses spells out the law for the Promised Land that the Israelite’s will soon inhabit. In Luke, Jesus discusses Torah and its interpretation with a young lawyer as he journeys to Jerusalem, a journey that requires many Israelites to pass through the land of the Samaritans, a people in dubious relation to the law. In Psalm 82, God is the great judge holding council with the gods of the nations.

As a member of a late modern society, I sense in myself a certain complacency with regard to the law of this land. Even dramatic cases of judicial corruption do not, I am sad to say, disrupt my complacency for long. ‘We’ve got checks and balances,’ I say to myself, ‘the system will right itself.’ In blinding us to corruption, our system may find a reflection in the system confronted by Amos. Amaziah, Jeroboam’s chief priest, becomes a recognizable image of an administrator of human justice. He seems well aware that, for the system to function, protocol must be maintained. And this protocol entails a kind of behavioral training for those who live in the system. Amos flouts the dispositions for the professional prophet with the disruptive tenor of his words. It is not for speaking falsehoods that Amaziah diplomatically tries to banish him to a place where his words can do little harm; it is because he threatens the stability of the kingdom.

So the surface issue of law hovers above a deeper, systematic condition. Law is underwritten by ideology: a symbolic order by which we justify frequently unjust ways of life. Read more

A Different Sort of History

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Kings 5:1-14 OR Isaiah 66:10-14
Galatians 6:7-18
Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in

reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!”

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

“Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.”
The Killer Angels

It’s a week of significant anniversaries in North America. July 1 is the 146th year since the passage of the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada, July 1-3 is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the so-called turning point in the American Civil War, and July 4th marks 237 years since the Declaration of Independence provided justification for a military rebellion already in progress. Canada Day is rather less blood-spattered than the American anniversaries, largely thanks to the outcomes of much earlier battles in Quebec in 1759and 1775, and along the Niagara frontier and Lower Canada in 1813-14. These commemorations, however, suggest how much human history celebrates noble gestures, great events, and admirable acts of courage, while glossing over base expediencies, savage violence, and cold exercises of power. Read more