The Self-Righteousness Divide, and the Peace of Christ

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a parable of two men with two very different prayer styles. God’s judgement is here, but I think it is not the kind of judgement that usually strikes us on our first reading. Rather than seeing the Pharisee and the tax collector as offering opposing prayers, one of which is “good” and the other of which is “bad”, I suggest that we see both as offering prayer to God, and being made righteous through God’s mercy. That alternate reading helps us to think about how we proclaim Christ’s peace in our contemporary divided culture. Read more

Bossy Pray-er, Living Prayer

For peace in Northern Syria, and protection for the Kurdish people who find themselves trapped between the economic and political interests of warring nations.

Lord, have mercy.

For a world where black men and women are safe in their own homes, and that the family of Atatiana Johnson knows peace.

Lord, have mercy.

For the teenagers who cry out to be healed of their same sex attraction might know themselves to be fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the congregations who have made them believe they could be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord repent and be made well.

Lord, have mercy.

For the refugee fleeing the violence and poverty of her homeland to be safe in her passage and find hospitality at the end of her journey.

Lord, have mercy.

Over the last few weeks (ok, who am I kidding…years) my prayers have taken a variety of tones. Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is straight up bossy-pants, as if God got distracted like my 10-year old son on his way to take out the trash and simply needed a stern reminder of God’s current and most important job. These directive (and sometimes salty) prayers are often accompanied by such imprecation against the enemies of justice and peace as to make the Psalmists proud and your local church-ladies cringe.

Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is the more desperate pleading of a soul at the end of her rope with no place left to turn. Like the writer of the 121st Psalm, my hungry eyes search the hills for any sign of salvation coming over the horizon.

On other days, my soul can’t even form words as I lay myself bare in the silence, trusting God to understand the groans of my heart for a world made new.

The parable of the persistent widow is a gift sent to us by the lectionary for days like these when we might look around and fear that God has fallen asleep at the wheel and simply cannot handle the mess we’ve made of this place. Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the people of Israel in exile before her, Jesus’ invocation of this widow in a parable whose lesson is the need to remain steadfast in faith in the midst of trial reminds us that hearing–and responding–to the cry of the vulnerable is one of the best and chief characteristics of God. Perhaps Jesus tells this parable because he recognizes that patience and persistence are not among humanity’s best and chief characteristics.

The widow also extends to us a challenge about the true nature of prayer. She pulls us beyond whispered conversations in the dark of early morning, out of the pages of our journals into action. See, this gal is doing more than simply writing or speaking her truth. The heroine of Jesus’ story this week is an easily overlooked, readily dismissed widow who receives the justice of her cause through her willingness to make herself a thorn in the side of the establishment figure who holds power in this situation. Her faith in the rightness of her cause has voice. It has legs. It is an action. In her resistance she becomes the answer to her own prayer. She becomes a living prayer whose very persistence shows the powers of this world for what and who they are.

Being among those in this world who desperately want to be liked, and emerging from a denominational tradition that seems hell-bent on always finding a middle ground where no one is offended, the widow is a good model for a life where seeking God’s peace and God’s justice might require putting one’s reputation and livelihood on the line. Living out of a faith that believes that God’s preferred future is not just a possibility but a guarantee for all creation will set one against the powers of this world. And, sometimes, yes, those powers live inside the people and institutions who believe they speak for God.

Fredrick Baldwin said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In the black church tradition, the statement “Won’t God do it” is equal parts question and affirmation of faith in the one who saved Israel from slavery and raised Jesus from the dead. Friends, this, too, is our God and so may this be our faith. Though we live and work in a world where the horizon of justice may be beyond us, we do not give up hope in God’s ultimate triumph. Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus’ teaching on prayer has been consistent: to pray is to actively seek God and God’s will. As with other parables, the key to this parable’s interpretation lies not in complicated exegetical leaps, but in returning and holding fast to a few basic affirmations of faith: God knows, God cares, and God triumphs in the end for God has already triumphed in Christ. The fate of the powers and principalities of this world is like that of the unjust judge: they cannot endure when the people of God rise in power against them.

All through history there have been feisty women (and men) like this widow who have refused to rest until justice was won. Standing alongside these saints, may God make of us all like this widow: bossy, desperate, and living prayers until that day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Image Credit: Fr. James Hasse, SJ

Unified in Prayer

The Gospel this week (Luke 11:1-13) gives us the very familiar account of Jesus teaching us to pray the Lord’s Prayer (or the Our Father as we Catholics name it). I’m ashamed to say that there have been times in my life when I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer and thought: this again? Often I don’t even think about what I’m saying, I just go into saying it by rote. More than once, I have said, “You know, this prayer is kind of boring.” And I have heard those words from friends and parishioners too. After so many times of saying it, the prayer can feel a bit lot a hot Sunday summer afternoon, when listlessness and ennui are the order of the day. Read more

Implicating Prayer

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
James 5:13-20

The little boy seemed perfectly formed. Five years old. His tanned skin contrasted sharply with the crisp white sheets, and hinted of summer fun around the pool, maybe rides at the local carnival. But something had gone terribly wrong. Unknown to anyone, he had carried a hidden, ticking time bomb in his chest since the day of his birth, and one day as he played with his brothers and sisters, it detonated. When I got there the breathing machine and the drips and tubes were simply marking time. He was gone.

His parents’ preacher had come in the night before, talking big, staking a claim for the boy’s recovery. Faith would raise this child up, he said, and the only thing that could ruin the boy’s healing was lack of faith. The preacher was home in bed when the child was pronounced dead, which was a good thing, because several of us present around that bed would have welcomed a few minutes alone with him. Instead we were left to watch, and wait, and weep. Read more

Desert Silence

Second Sunday After Epiphany
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51 OR John 1: 35-42

I woke up this morning and looked out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight on the high desert of the Navajo Nation. It was much quieter than usual in town. It was, in fact, nearly silent, perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because it was Sunday morning, and many were still sleeping.

As the sun rose and the snow began to melt, sounds emerged: water dripping from the rooftop, the low grumble of a raven perched on a lamppost, the chattering of finches and sparrows. Were I back home in Baltimore, all that would have been lost in the background noise from the busy intersection nearby. The desert is blessed with the quiet necessary to notice these subtle changes. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Prominent among my desert memories are sounds made audible by ambient silence: the wingbeats of a raven flying just overhead, the cheery cascade of notes from a canyon wren, the roar of a Colorado River rapid around the bend, still hidden from view.

Prayer comes naturally in such moments, or rather, I find myself already in an ongoing prayer I had only to notice. I’m not the first person to associate encounters with silence and encounters with God. A long line of witnesses sought God in desert silence: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist. Jesus went to “remote places” to pray and was “cast out into the desert” to be tested. When Constantine made Christianity safe within the Empire, those seeking a less domesticated encounter with God left the cities and became desert fathers and mothers.

Yet, even to me, much of that seems a bit off, counterintuitive. Read more