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

The Rupture of Impossibility

The Baptism of the Lord

Acts 10:34-48

Freeze the frame, theologian James Alison instructs, on the moment in Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit falls on the surprised gentiles and on the even more astounded circumcised believers. What looks to be a scene from a pentecostal or charismatic rally is, on closer inspection, a “cultural earthquake of immeasurably greater proportions” (Quotes and wording are taken from Alison’s On Being Liked, esp. pp. vii – xvii, and Faith Beyond Resentment).

First, the trance of things vile, repugnant, unclean; animals strictly and expressly forbidden by the purity code. Peter’s visceral response showed that he had been formed by what he had inherited and had always believed to be God’s Law.

Then, the “inwardly perplexed” journey to Caesarea and the entrance into Cornelius’ household. Even to get to this point, Alison says, “Peter had to undergo a stomach-churning disorientation of losing the sense of goodness and holiness which came from being separate.”

Then Peter began to speak. Until then he had assumed that the good news of Jesus was a completely Jewish story. Now he tells the same story to gentiles… and all heaven breaks loose. Read more

A Very Messy Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

Judah is threatened, but King Ahaz, not otherwise known for piety, refuses to test God in his moment of need. God nevertheless renders a sign: Isaiah, who thinks he knows what information a calculating ruler wants to hear, announces that a girl with soon give birth.

Paul writes as a self-described slave to Christians in the imperial capital where he will eventually be executed. Yet, compelled by Christ, he greets his readers with words of grace and peace.

Joseph learns that his fiancée is pregnant with someone else’s child, and looks for a way out. Yet God speaks to him through an angel in a dream and – get this! – Joseph is persuaded to stay. Read more

More Than a Prophet

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

I live in a small city that loves to fund raise with lavish galas. The nails get polished and the clothes are glamorous. The food is decadent and the entertainment stunning. For a few hours this jeans-only oil town puts on the Ritz. And people want to know who is going; facebook, twitter and local gossip heats up. Will the beloved mayor be there? How about the multimillionaire industry leaders? Are there national and international celebrities coming to town?

It makes me wonder what kind of buzz Simon’s dinner party was generating. Luke tells us Jesus was garnering attention across the countryside after he raised a widow’s son from death to life. Now Jesus the healer and prophet is in town and Simon has snagged him for dinner. Simon has the food prepared, the setting elegant, the invited influential and important guests arrive as uninvited townspeople crowd around to see the Pharisee and his guests.

In Simon’s eyes, all is going according to plan until one of the onlookers pushes through the crowd and clings to Jesus’ feet. As she kneels anointing his feet, her tears bathe his toes and she wipes their moisture away with her hair. Read more

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Six months ago I was doing my part to rail against the folly of doomsday predictions and the dangers of rapture theology. At the time, Harold Camping and his May 21 prediction were the epicenter of media frenzy, not only in The Rapture Gazette and late-night paid programming, but also in above-the-fold NY Times articles and primetime NPR stories. This truly bewildering sensation spawned billboards, talking head reports, and “end of the world” parties.

I still shake my head and wonder if the madness in May was not only Harold Camping’s, but also biblical eschatology’s proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Did the words we needed to speak six months ago have the unintended effect of making people sink more deeply than ever into living as in the days of Noah? Read more