The Weeds in Our Hearts

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 20:10-19
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-43

“You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
There is no drum.
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.

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

– from “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen

I have laid waste my life in pursuit of a better past, grieving twenty-year old mistakes while ignoring my all too present sins. I am also – and by no means coincidentally – overly attentive to the sins of others, at least those sins I know from the inside, through personal experience. As the Twelve-steppers say about calling out failings in others, “If you name it, you claim it.”

The plain sense of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests a world in which the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one are distinct and readily identified, if not easily separated in this life. I trust that is sometimes – perhaps more frequently than I care to admit – the case. I hope those who can reliably tell wheat from chaff or sheep from goats benefit from this parable, reassured that God will identify and deal with each justly and in due time. We may all be grateful in knowing that’s not our job.

For now, however, we must accept that the weeds aren’t going anywhere soon. We can all pray to receive the necessary grace to love our enemies, despite the current climate of partisan rancor and public denunciation. We can all pray to resist the weight and pull of worldly ways.

Yet my own experience of good and evil reminds me of an insight from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Read more

The Walking Dead

Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

While they have long been a part of traditions and folkways in various cultures, in recent decades the concept of zombies has become enormously popular in comic books, films, and TV shows. From the late-night B-movies that thrilled audiences in the middle part of the twentieth century to more recent treatments like 28 Days Later, World War Z, and of course, the television series The Walking Dead, these productions, however predictable and familiar they might be, still intrigue viewers with their depictions of the slow-moving, dim-witted, yet always terrifying “undead”. Read more

It Can’t Come Soon Enough

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

In the undergraduate Christian Ethics course I teach just about every semester, we are talking this week about a notion many of my students seem to regard as quaint, if not downright archaic, namely sin. Among the more important points I have tried to highlight is one well-worn in many strands of Christian tradition; sin is self-destructive, in that it separates us from our true ultimate end and therefore from the possibility of genuine flourishing as women and men made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Insofar as it is self-destructive, moreover, sin is by and large its own punishment, for it entails forever restlessly seeking happiness in places it doesn’t exist, except as the palest simulacra, which are bound always to disappoint. Read more

Between the Narrative and the Psalm

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Samuel 11:1-15 , Psalms

“I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic… I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I had a liaison with another woman. I was painfully honest with my family and I asked my wife’s forgiveness. I have been stripped bare….”

– John Edwards, August, 2008

“I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong. There is no one else responsible for my sins. I am responsible…. I don’t think God is through with me. I really believe he thinks there are still some good things I can do, and whatever happens with this legal stuff going forward, what I’m hopeful about is all those kids I’ve seen…in the poorest parts of this country and in some of the poorest places in the world that I can help them in whatever way I’m still capable of helping them.

– John Edwards, May 2012

In the summer of 2008 I departed from the lectionary to preach a sermon series on David. That was the summer the scandal involving then presidential candidate John Edwards broke. The David story is among the readings for this summer’s lectionary cycle, coinciding with the news of Edwards’ trial that filled North Carolina media.

Like it or not, I wonder how to read one story in the light of the other. Do we pass off Edwards as just another politician doing religious things? Do his emotional confessions stem from political expediency or from refiner’s fire? Are they expressions of hand-in-the-cookie-jar panic or scalpel-in-the-heart contrition? And if we hear John Edwards’ words with nothing but suspicion, can we hear the David story with anything other than the hermeneutic of suspicion? Read more

Fallible Church, Deliberate Grace

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 33:1-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

 

It is strangely comforting to hear Jesus talking about a sinful church.

Some heap admiration on Jesus’ teaching, and then dismiss it as too lofty to be attainable. Turning the other cheek is for the spiritual elite. Loving one’s enemies is for the age to come. The Beatitudes are true spiritually, but not in practice.

But if ever we wondered whether Jesus were a realist or not, his words in Matthew 18 put that question to rest. The church Jesus envisions is not some idealized community we have not yet discovered or planted, or can’t belong to. The church Jesus envisions is entirely realistic: it is my sinful congregation and yours. We don’t need to be told that sin exists among the saints. We see the havoc wrought in our parishes by pride, greed, and sloth. We know the devastation of own wrath, envy, lust, and gluttony. Consequently, these words hold out the hope of experiencing grace because they reveal that Jesus knows full well the half-born condition of the community he leaves behind. His words take hold of us as we and our congregations are today and not as they can never be. Read more