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Wrath and Mercy, Law and Grace

Third Sunday After Pentecost – 13 June 2010
1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3 (Revised Common Lectionary)

The readings for this Sunday, taken all together, create some unsettling tensions.

The passage from 1 Kings recounts the refusal of Naboth the Jezreelite to sell his vineyard to his neighbor, King Ahab. When the king goes home to sulk about this, his wife Jezebel takes charge and soon enough a property dispute has led to a crime scene: Naboth is wrongly defamed and summarily executed. Ahab gets his vineyard after all.

Psalm 5 reads something like Naboth’s own prayer from beyond the grave in which he petitions Yahweh to “give heed to my sighing . . . for you are not a God who delights in wickedness . . . you destroy those who speak lies” (vv. 1, 4, 6). Back in 1 Kings, the shocking story does indeed conclude with a chilling warning delivered to Ahab by the prophet Elijah: “I will bring disaster on you” (v. 21a). Read more

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All Things Shining

Revised Common Lectionary, Second Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 17: 8-16, 17-24; Luke 7:11-17 / Catholic Lectionary, Feast of Corpus Christi: Genesis 14:18-20, Luke 9:11-17

Ordinary time. Words not crafted to stir the soul. “Ordinary” here, of course, refers to the numbering of Sundays outside of festal and penitential seasons, but that’s far too abstract to make up for its dull connotations. Even in times of sadness, we may feel new life in Easter season. It’s far more difficult when spring is past.

The liturgical color for Ordinary Time is green. Green for life, growth, renewal. Focusing on the ordinary, the Humean predicament of “one damn thing after another,” it’s easy – perhaps inevitable – to miss how life’s greenness marks our lives as cottonwoods in the desert line a river or tap an aquifer.

I suspect it’s always been the case, but steady bad news makes it difficult to ignore the mess we’ve made of the ordinary. No longer content merely to sacrifice the lives of our children or the tops of mountains for the material comforts of a fossil-fueled economy, we lay waste oceans – over an already designated “dead zone” – in ways our words have yet to capture. Less a “spill” than a “spew,” less an “accident” than a predictable event, the baleful consequences of extractive science are made, not for the first or last time, visible. Read more

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Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

I must admit, I am not very comfortable with spirits. God the Father, God the Son—these are concrete realities that show up on mountaintops, write on stone tablets, and die on wooden crosses. But the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Wisdom? I have a hard time understanding.

Thankfully I don’t have to understand—the Spirit itself brings that. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, the Spirit “will guide you in all truth.” But as he goes on to say, this truth is not a truth that the Spirit has on its own—it is a truth that comes from the Father and the Son—it is a truth held in the consensus and community of the Trinity that we worship.

I find it striking that in all three of our readings for this Sunday—Proverbs, Romans, John—the Spirit comes to a community. In Proverbs the Spirit of Wisdom cries out “To you, o people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” In Romans, Paul speaks of faith by which “we are justified” and speaks of the love of God having been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Read more

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Soldiers of Conscience


Whatever your stance on war, here are some contemporary voices to consider, voices much closer to the reality of killing than most of us. For those who wish to learn more about the documentary, visit the website.

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Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

St. Augustine considered the Feast of the Ascension the crown of all Christian festivals. Today we may give it an obligatory nod as we make our way liturgically from Easter to Pentecost, but we’re often not quite sure what to do with it exegetically, theologically, pastorally. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into space—is not a little perplexing.

Whatever historical event lies behind the Luke-Acts narratives of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—and the fact that the two accounts differ in important ways might be a clue that a surface-literal reading is not what the author had in mind—a couple of things stand out: the centrality of worship and the reimagining of “all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
Tom Wright points out that Luke’s gospel ends, as it began, in the Temple at Jerusalem. “Worship of the living God,” Wright says, “is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life.” Jesus’ ascension into heaven, then, is not “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but rather that which makes possible the Church’s existence. Because Jesus is not here, the Church can be, must be—the Church is constituted as and empowered to be his worshiping, witnessing body here and now. (Douglas Farrow makes this point by insisting that the Church exists “by its mysterious union with one whose life, though lived for the world, involves a genuine break with it.”) Read more

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Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:20-26

[Two lectionary posts this week: one for the Seventh Sunday of Easter and one for Ascension Sunday (reposted from May 2009)] 

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20-21a).

It seems there’s not much talk of ecumenism these days—not in books, not on blogs, not even in and among churches.  Maybe that’s because forty years of dogged efforts at dialogue and mutual understanding have borne some real fruit: Calvinists are far less suspicious of Catholics than they used to be and vice versa; Methodists and Lutherans are now in full communion with one another.

Of course, the ecclesial traditions most vested in the ecumenical movement are now among those experiencing significant decline, and the growing churches—Pentecostal, non-denominational, “emergent” of this or that variety—don’t seem to place the same high premium on bridge-building and cross-over conversations. So maybe it’s too soon to say “mission accomplished” when it comes to Church unity.

Of course it is. Jesus’ prayer in this week’s Gospel reading is a stinging reminder of his Body’s continued disunity. But what can and should be said about this obstinate, obvious reality? How does one preach this familiar text in ways that signal urgency but not despair, that convey the gravity of the situation while also offering a word of hope? I have no idea. Read more

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Courage to be Whole

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he goes by the Pool of Bethesda. This pool, fed by an underground spring, is down, off of the street, and is surrounded by porticoes offering some shade and shelter. Legend said that on occasion an angel would trouble the waters of the pool and the first person into the water would be healed. Hence, the pool and the surrounding area had become the gathering place for anyone and everyone with some sort of sickness, but especially the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. All gathered watching the surface of the water for the smallest sign of the rippling of the waves. A small bubbling from the underground spring or even a slight breeze could cause a stampede of invalids trying to be the first into the water.

And Jesus asks this man lying over to one side, “Do you want to be made whole?”

“No thanks, I think I’ll just stay here on my pallet and wait for the waters to ripple. I’ve been here 38 years and I know what to expect and I know all of the other people nearby. True, I’m probably not going to get better, but – you know – I’ve gotten used to being here, so thanks all the same, Jesus but I’ll just lie here.” Read more

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Apocalypse of Love

“Behold,” says the One who sits on the throne, “I make all things new.” God dwells with humanity. Tears, pain and mourning are no more. It sounds wonderful. Sign me up.

“I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus to the Eleven: “love one another…as I have loved you.” What lovely and inspiring words.

Take time, though, to read the fine print: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Loving one another hasn’t been Christianity’s strong suit, however much we talk about it.

There has never been a time in Christian history since Luke wrote Acts where the people were of one heart and mind. Christian divisions have rarely been civil. Many have been deadly. It’s not terribly persuasive to lecture others on the necessity of love when our hands drip fresh blood. Read more

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In Unity We Lift Our Song

 

John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17

One of the many blessings in my life has been the gift of church music.  I grew up in a family who valued music and in a church that valued music. Because I was reared in a high steeple church, I was privileged to be exposed at a young age to string ensembles, handbell choirs, professional singers, and an organist who is a professor of organ music in a prestigious university music program.

When life took me away from home, I got to experience other kinds of church music.  I served a church in North Carolina which had a teenage show choir and a men’s quartet who sang southern gospel music.  I served a church in a small town in West Virginia whose pianist played every hymn in a gleeful, upbeat bluegrass style. I visited a Melkite church in Zababdeh in the West Bank, who sang their entire liturgy a capella. Read more

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Struck Blind on the Damascus Road


Acts 9.1-20

The conversion of Saul provides us with the New Testament example of a conversion experience.  Saul’s transformation from a persecutor of the Lord to an Apostle continues to serve as a word of hope to the sin soaked conscience of those who feel that truly their failings are too great to be forgiven.  The story of Saul’s conversion gives narrative power to the concept of being “born again” from John 3 or becoming a “new creation” from 2 Corinthians 5.

The power of this experience transformed the murderous Saul and immeasurably impacted the Christian faith.  Indeed powerful personal experiences of God have dramatically altered the direction of ‘the Way’ more than once. Remember that Luther shuddered under the righteousness of God until he came to understand the true meaning of the phrase, at which time he said “I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”  We can also call to mind the conversion experience of John Wesley who claimed his heart was strangely warmed and recorded in his journal “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (Italics original) Read more