Raging and Rejoicing

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 (The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The lessons this week have us thinking about anger: God’s and, more obliquely, our own. In the Exodus passage, Moses has to talk down an irrational Yehweh, lest divine rage obliterate the wayward Israelites. In Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet, an equally unreasonable host-king (God) responds in wildly disproportionate ways to what amounts to a social snubbing and an ill-dressed party guest.

Sandwiched between these troubling texts is Psalm 106, which functions as something of a midrash on both of them. (More on that in a minute). And then there’s the Epistle lesson from Philippians which, when we read it, makes us realize how angry we are—at Wall Street, at the lunacy of electoral politics, at a spouse, a co-worker, ourselves—pick your favorite target(s). Paul’s cheery command to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” seems a little trite and naïve—greeting-card wisdom in this age of high anxiety. Read more

Law, Economy, Freedom and Community

stained glass style picture of the communion cup and breadExodus 20:1-20

There’s a running gag on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report in which the fake-bluster, windbag host, Stephen Colbert, interviews members of Congress in a segment called “Better Know a District.” In a recent installment, Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland was on the hot seat, and Colbert asked the congressman about his very vocal support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings—courthouses and such. “Can you think of any other places where the commandments should have prominence?” asked Colbert, trying, mischievously, to press the point that there might be other sites (churches, anyone? a synagogue, perhaps?) where the Decalogue is more at home.

Westmoreland didn’t get it—he kept talking about courthouses—and so Colbert (a devout Catholic, interestingly) went for the kill: “What are the Ten Commandments, congressman?”

Not surprisingly, Westmoreland was stumped. Read more

Why Share?

You may remember the Garrison Keillor story of why shopping at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon is preferable to shopping in St. Cloud at the new Higgledy-Piggledy. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery has just gotten in a case of fresh cod. “Frozen, but it’s fresher than what’s been in his freezer for months. In the grocery business, you have to throw out stuff sometimes, but Ralph is Norwegian and it goes against his principles.” On the other hand, more and more people have been “sneaking off to the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud, where you find two acres of food, a meat counter a block long with huge walloping roasts and steaks big enough to choke a cow, and exotic fish lying on crushed ice.”

Keillor goes on to explain that Lake Wobegon does not run on free enterprise, which is based upon self-interest. It is run on loyalty. He goes on to say you can shop at the St. Cloud Mall instead of Lake Wobegon but the St. Cloud Mall isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and they aren’t going to teach your children redemption by grace. Read more

God’s Economy

Philippians 2:1-13

There’s nothing like money troubles—ours or someone else’s—to get our attention and hold it. To keep us up at night. To preoccupy our days and overtake all our social interactions. In fact, if you want to break the ice with a new acquaintance or fill that awkward silence with a stranger in a waiting room, on the bus, wherever—just bring up the near-collapse of the world’s financial markets. You’ll get a knowing gaze, a sympathetic nod.

It is telling that the current crisis on Wall Street has captivated our attention like nothing else in recent weeks (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Millions have suffered and died in Darfur, and continue to do so; Haiti has been all but decimated as a country; the physical, psychological, and spiritual toll of war in Iraq is now near incalculable.

But when the banks start going under, well, that is serious business, indeed. Read more

Workers’ Rights and the Kingdom of Heaven

Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:15-16

Some say that human beings are hardwired with a strong sense of what’s fair and what’s not. Maybe. But even if it’s not part of our DNA, it seems pretty clear that the resentment we feel when treated unjustly is learned early and runs deep. Ever been in a room full of toddlers when there aren’t enough toys to go around?

We don’t seem to lose that sense of personal violation and moral indignation as we get older. The toys we fight over as adults may be bigger and more sophisticated—they may even be things like careers and promotions and reputations—but we are often as petty and possessive as any preschooler in our scramble to claim what we believe is rightfully ours. Read more

Forgiveness and Evangelism

a person reaches out towards the viewerA few years ago, I was a passenger in a car that was in a minor accident in a local shopping center parking lot. Both cars, the one I was in as well as the one that sideswiped us, were traveling at an appropriate parking lot speed of about 2 mph. The collision, which put a fairly large dent in the front fender of my friend’s car and a crack in the front headlight on the other car, resulted in no injuries, no irreparable damage, and certainly no more pain and suffering than that of having to sit in the Wal-Mart parking lot for an hour in the middle of December while the police report was filed. As an adult passenger in one of the vehicles, I was, of course, asked for my license and a brief statement to corroborate the story of the two drivers. Being that it was my first real traffic accident to speak of, I had no idea what to expect after that point.

Imagine my surprise when, on each of the following three days, I arrived home from school to find my mailbox absolutely overwhelmed with offers from local law offices pandering for my business.  Read more

70 x 7 and 9/11

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

At a time like this—the week we recall the attacks of September 11, 2001—it is instructive to set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This week we’ve been admonished by politicians and others to “remember and never forget” that terrible day seven years ago. This Sunday Jesus will tell us (again) that forgiveness is the required response to those who sin against us. Read more

Love and Power

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

I’m a political junkie. And like many addicts, I’ve been bingeing lately, and I’m not proud of it. I know better (as most junkies do), but I can’t seem to help myself. Two weeks of convention hoopla—spin and jive, sentiment and spectacle, smugness and sarcasm—have left me more hopeless than ever about the state of political discourse in the United States of America.

Where’s the maturity and civility and humility? Where’s the courage to cast our political, economic, and moral challenges in the nuanced ways they require? Why are we afraid of complexity, subtlety, complicated truth? And perhaps most distressing: Why are we so hostile to one another? Read more

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

Useless

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