Friedrich_Overbeck_008

Forgiven to Forgive

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

American culture has bastardized forgiveness into a self-serving tool. For proof, look no further than the Mayo Clinic website or a personal favorite, wikiHow Comparable to its detailed instructions on how to train for a 5k or get rid of a pimple, Wiki provides a 12-step prescription on “How to Forgive,” complete with additional tips and warnings like “forgiveness is hard!” These sites, in addition to others of the self-help variety, commonly extol using forgiveness as a way to better your own physical and emotional health, with the bonus of decreasing stress and potentially increasing your life span. Forgiveness is 100% about you.

This week’s parable in Matthew offers a corrective to this stunted understanding of forgiveness. We first learn, per Jesus, that we have an obligation to extend forgiveness – or release someone from the metaphorical debt they owe you – essentially without limit. The parable also makes clear that we forgive even small slights, because we have already been forgiven a debt that we could never repay. Our ability to forgive is a reflection of and witness to God’s forgiveness of us. Finally, even though it is expected of us, the gesture has to be genuine – “from your heart” (18:35). Read more

Scream

The Self Under Attack

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10 OR Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

We live in times of anxiety about identity. Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that modern people are especially pressed to play some active role in determining who we are. We construct our identities not only in conversation with others, though this is an important part of the process. We are also involved in a “self-conversation,” as the story of our lives will often be an uneasy weaving of various threads. These threads are born out of the transitions of our attachments and allegiances over time. Moreover, some new threads will be defined by overcoming earlier ones—i.e., the new, fit, and productive me supersedes the lazy couch potato.

How these threads remain together may itself be an important moral task, a task of proper story construction, or integrity. We face a great temptation to protect our identities against attack. It’s a strange war we wage when fighting for our identities, for we project outward a war raging within. It is difficult to locate one’s enemies in such confusion. For instance, I was raised in a Catholic church, a tradition from which I was in a sense orphaned (or, at least, put up for foster care). Later on, I was taken in by a Protestant community. How do I narrate that story? Dark to light? We are tempted, even here, to do violence to ourselves. Read more

Junk yard dog

Junk-yard Dog

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

“Junk-yard dog.” The first time he ever called her that, I bristled. Wish I could tell you it was said in private, out of ear-shot, but it wasn’t. It was his term of affection for her, said often to her face. I’d been coaching kids’ soccer for all of three weeks, eight year olds, and her mom had struggled to consistently get her to practices and games. So my assistant, a dear man and veteran coach, but living in a place where such ignorant terms of endearment (or not) were still somewhat culturally accepted, had offered to give her rides to practices and games.

She was from the “wrong” side of town, he told me. He worried about her, he told me, and wanted different for her. He ached for our team to be a shiny spot in her life, where she didn’t have to think about home. His daughters were the same age; I watched his huge dad-heart at work over this little girl and I knew for certain he cared. But his name for her most of the season long still grated on me each time I heard it – just the same way Jesus’ words in the gospel text this week grate on me. Read more

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Rocking the Boat

Proper 14A/Ordinary 19A/Pentecost +9

Genesis 37:1-4Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45bRomans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s post is a reflection originally published in 2008.

 

I’ve been following a blog debate over at www.theolog.org [ed. note - this blog is now part of http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs] 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.

Impasse.

What to say about such a text when there are probably many science guys and defenders guys (and gals) in our congregations? Whose side does the preacher take? Read more

shrub

The Greatest of All Shrubs

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

What a time in the life of the American church to read this brief parable of Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of …shrubs.” A shrub. Not a towering redwood, not a spreading chestnut, nor a big oak, and not even a nice fruit tree. Just a shrub. At least Ezekiel thought the kingdom of God would be a cedar, about as big a tree as existed in the ancient Middle East. But a shrub? What’s going on here, Jesus?” Read more