Choosing the Evil of Two Lessers

Months ago, at the beginning of the presidential rutting season, I reflected here on the comment of a Jewish friend of mine, who said he never felt more alien in the United States than at Christmas. I’m nearly with him on that, seeing how far the consumer capitalist Winter Holiday runs from the appalling mystery of the Incarnation. Yet it’s hard to blame this culture and economy from avoiding that unprofitable Jesus business which, in the words of the late great British sitcom, Blackadder, “always spoils the Xmas atmos.” We may still call it Christ-mas, but Yuletide in America makes us all anonymous pagans. Read more


Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

A good friend who teaches Theology at a seminary in another part of the country likes occasionally to begin his new classes with the pronouncement that “God is useless.” As you might expect, this assertion is usually not well received by the pious young women and men on the other side of the lectern, who find it shocking, offensive, and even blasphemous. My friend anticipates these reactions, of course, and I suspect he enjoys his students’ outrage (All of us professors have a bit of the ham-provocateur in us.). But he does not assert God’s uselessness simply for the shock value. The claim that God is “useless” is among the most important truths of Christian faith, and one of the central messages of this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Read more

Immigration and the Hebrew Midwives

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20

“For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.” – Thomas Paine, 1776

“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”- Exodus 1:17

In a class I used to teach called “Women and the Bible” my students and I would examine the Exodus story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as one in a long line of narratives about female tricksters. Through their wily and inventive ways, these women and others like them (Rebekah, Tamar, Rahab, Michal) carry out the purposes of Yahweh and extend the fortunes of Israel. They may not possess any real authority in the patriarchal world they inhabit but these clever women do wield remarkable power. Read more

Immigration and the Crumbs from Our Table

“You speak of signs and wonders / I need something other / I would believe if I was able / But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table. (“Crumbs From Your Table,” U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)

It’s become something of a tradition: I start a conversation via email with a large distribution list I have, made up mostly of fellow church members but also including some far-flung friends and colleagues. Often, I share my bLOGOS reflections on the lectionary or make a plea for help with a project or program; sometimes I simply direct folks to an interesting website or blog. The point is not to court controversy for its own sake, but sometimes the topics and the ensuing conversation take us into complex social, political, or theological issues where the moral murkiness can be difficult to navigate. Read more

Ethics After Pentecost

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are now gathering to worship on Sundays during the Season after Pentecost, which is also often referred to as Ordinary Time even though the Scriptures for Sunday, August 17th (Roman Catholic lectionary) are full of extraordinary, even quite surprising, tidings. Another name for this season is Kingdomtide, and I would like to suggest that these Scripture passages are about the kin-dom that God desires to happen on earth as it is in heaven. That is, the common thread running throughout these readings is that God’s salvation essentially involves hospitality, compassion, and justice for all peoples–including, unexpectedly, those who are “other.” Read more

Rocking the Boat

I’ve been following a blog debate over at between a scientist of some sort, hostile to religion generally and Christianity particularly, and a pious defender of the faith. In my view, neither has been very impressive in articulating his case against the other, and the back-and-forth accusations and “gotcha’s” and outright vitriol have only escalated as the debate has gone on (and on and on). I tried briefly to weigh in on it earlier this week, calling for a little charity and humility from both sides, but, like a sister trying to pull her two brothers off each other in a backyard brawl, I was roundly ignored. Lesson learned.

The gospel text from Matthew 14 this week strikes me as the kind of passage over which science guy and defender guy would go at it, arguing past each other all the while—as they have been doing all week. The ghostly Jesus walking on the water is too much for the rationalist to take in; it’s laughable, even—easy pickins. The mocking denial of such an archetype biblical image of Jesus (and the sacrosanct truth it represents) is scandalous to the defender’s deeply-felt piety. You can almost hear defender guy quoting Jesus back at his opponent: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” (14:31). Disagreement. Accusation. Counter-accusation. Read more

The Most Segregated Hour in America

While longer on sociology than theology or ecclesiology (what can one expect from the news industry?), a recent CNN story on the difficulties inherent in integrating churches resonates with much said at the recent EP gathering.

Getting Small

About the time I was in college, young comedian Steve Martin had a routine called “let’s get small.” Playing on the mid-seventies countercultural “let’s get high” Martin invited everyone to come to his house and “get small.” Martin said that “getting small” was dangerous for children because they would get “really, really small” and it was also impossible for the police to put you in jail for being small because you’d walk out right between the bars. It was a short, quirky piece of the sort that made Martin famous.

If it was countercultural in 1977, “being small” is even more so in 2008 in a culture that seems to idolize the Big and encourages everyone to “get big or get out” as a Secretary of Agriculture once told farmers. Read more

Tasting Death, Tasting Life

(Matthew 14:13-21) Immediately before the story of the feeding of the five thousand is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the crowds fed on the beach with bread and fish (a detail unique to Matthew’s version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John’s demise. Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and ultimately the plated head to her mother. That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew’s gospel (recall also the women who appear in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter one) is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas’ 1990 essay from Theology Today.

Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s murder) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. Read more

The Metaphysics of Discipleship

Perhaps the recurring issue in discussions of Christian discipleship regards simply whether or not it is something that Christians should think they can actually do. Not long into the established church’s history the notion became prominent that the ethics of Jesus, particularly as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and other prominent texts in the gospels (cf. Luke 6:17-46; 14:15-34), simply cannot be done by people who live in the real world. They are rather “counsels of perfection” which are either only for a specific clerical or monastic caste (as in Medieval Catholicism) or they are simply there to remind us all of our complete inability as sinners to conform to God’s commands (as in Luther and most of Protestantism after him). Read more