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

Learning to be Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43 OR Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Sheep again, that well-worn metaphor. The Bible tells of countless flocks and many working shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, and the shepherds of Bethlehem. The image of a shepherd tending a flock (the latter a frequent stand-in for the people of Israel) recurs often. In the Old Testament, shepherd imagery may point to God, the promised Messiah, or human leaders appointed by God: prophets, priests, and kings. Some of those human shepherds are said to have scattered their sheep, as in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34. In such passages, a worthy shepherd is typically promised to gather from the scattered remnants a new, well cared for flock.

Sheep, as I’ve noted in previous lectionary reflections, are not intelligent. Left alone, they wander off, get into tight spots, tumble over cliffs, and fall to predators. After centuries of human-directed selection and husbandry, whatever survival skills wild sheep began with have long since been bred out of their descendants. To be called “the sheep of his flock” is no compliment.

Even so, this week’s readings might tempt us to smug self-recognition, as if, after a perfunctory admission of past stupidities, we are now undoubtedly the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice and will soon enough stand in the presence of the enthroned Lamb (who is, paradoxically, the eternal shepherd). It’s tempting to see those flock-scattering shepherds as someone the other: first century Jewish leaders, members of other churches and denominations, clergy or theologians whose actions or convictions we find appalling. It’s tempting to imagine we know who is and who isn’t on the right side of salvation history. We may well be among the sheep who listen, and we may fervently hope to one day stand before the Lamb, but the smugness and certainty must go. Read more

Passages

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

My friend Stan Dotson claims that texts are called “passages” because they offer us passage. They can take us somewhere.

The culmination of this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one, as we are one,” takes me to a question posed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: “How do black people and white people become one in Christ Jesus? And what does that look like?” (Free To Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line, p. 61).

Given the demographics of the part of the county where I live in western North Carolina, I could be totally absorbed in congregational life and never even have to consider that question. In fact, by exhorting my flock to become more involved in “church” as it’s commonly understood, I could conceivably make matters worse. As much stress as Baptist polity places on the local congregation, the temptation is ever present to narrow the scope of Jesus’ prayer to internal relationships alone. Read more

Signposts and Seeds

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

This week’s comments are pointings and plantings rather than a single extended reflection. My focus is on Matthew 16, but first a word about the other readings.

Rene Girard’s seminal insights, as well as those of his able interpreters (and critics) provide a profound context for the lectionary passages of the day. It is worth wrestling with how these insights shine light on parts of the texts that can be overlooked in more conventional readings: seeing through the “official” policy of “justified,” veiled violence by telling the story from the perspective of victim; turning “the logic of sacred violence” and blood sacrifice on its head, unveiling God’s revelation of Christ’s atonement and the witness of the Church as “living sacrifice.” Psalm 124 then becomes testimony. (Athanasius says that most Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us).

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Now some signposts and seeds from Matthew 16: Read more

Embodying God’s Unity in a Fragmented World

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2, 29-32

Psalm 133 begins with a refrain that will be familiar to many of our ears: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!,” but it is the powerful imagery of the latter two verses of this brief psalm that drive home the depths of the God’s desire for the people of God to live in unity.  The psalmist flashes two quick, familiar images into the imaginations of his Israelite audience – first the anointing of the priest Aaron, with the precious oil flowing down his head, coursing through the hairs of his beard and dripping down unto his robes, and the second image is that of the dew of God’s blessing falling upon the mountains of Zion – that place that Israel associated with eternal and abundant life.  These vivid images reminded Israel that living together in unity is the life to which God has called them, and indeed calls us as the people of God today.  This deep longing of God for unity is echoed in the prayer with which Jesus leaves his disciples in John 17: “that they may be one, as we are one.” Read more