The Conundrum of a Coin

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Some years ago I was working with a medical team in rural Honduras. We were in a village new to us, seeing many patients while assessing if the area had sufficient need and community interest to establish a permanent clinic there. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week), and there was a lot going on. The small Catholic parroquia was the center of fervent liturgical prayer and sometimes gruesome pageantry, including a Stations of the Cross procession through town on Good Friday and a bonfire on the church square to begin Saturday night’s Easter Vigil.

The medical team, however, was staying on the roomier grounds of the nearby Iglesia Evangelica, which observed the week before Easter rather more quietly. The pastor was an engaging man who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his congregation and extended great hospitality to his North America guests. Without his assistance, easygoing manner, and negotiating skills, the medical mission would have failed.

Judging from his church’s communal worship, though, Semana Santa seemed just another week, with evening Bible study and Wednesday church services that hinted at – rather than calling attention to – the significance of the Sunday to come. Even so, it still surprised me when, on Easter morning, he chose as his Sermon text the opening verses of Romans 13.

As best I could grasp with my inadequate Spanish, we were to understand the Resurrection to mean salvation was now available to anyone who put faith in Jesus and obeyed the secular government. Later that afternoon, I – along with a few others from the medical team – asked him to elaborate. Though I was again hindered by my inadequate command of the language, I managed to ask if Paul’s instruction that “every person be subject to the authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), was in any way qualified by what preceded it in Romans 12, or by the knowledge that those very authorities later put Paul to death.

Judging from his response, I’d hit some raw and tender nerve. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand. The reason this country is poor and the reason there are drunks in this town is because there are Catholic churches – like the one just up the hill – with statues in them.” And that, for him, was the end of our discussion.

I share this story not to shame a good man, but to illustrate in a particularly colorful way how certain scripture texts – such as Romans 13:1-7 or this Sunday’s gospel reading – can launch some Christians off the exegetical rails. Read more

Dressed in Something New

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14

Sunday evenings, I help set the tables for the urban dinner church where I am the community coordinator. In our small congregation, anyone is welcome, and often anyone comes. At our tables, those who might not usually set foot in a church for a multitude of reasons find their way in for a warm meal and a cool respite from the Houston heat and humidity. At the table, we find friendship, and get to hear the good story. As our pastor says week after week, “All are welcome here – believers, skeptics, sinners, saints. All are welcome at Christ’s table.” Read more

Weird Justice

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I write the rest of this meditation. I think it is imperative that we see ourselves as the tenants in the vineyard Jesus describes. It is clear at the end of the gospel that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes of his day – the ones who saw themselves as righteous and holy. I think that we Christians in the 21st century are now often the ones who see ourselves as righteous and holy. We mostly presume we are good people trying to do the right thing – and that can get in the way of hearing Jesus’ message to us in today’s parable.

With that in mind, let us consider this vineyard that the landowner has created. It is a carefully-planted vineyard with a tower, wine presses, and a fence around it. The owner has done as much preparation as he could to dedicate this space. Read more

Who’s in Charge?

For anyone who spends any amount of time listening to our national conversation (if we can call it that), whether tuning into more traditional forms of media or wading into the facebook/twittersphere –where there is nothing hidden that won’t be revealed–it should be painfully obvious that we, as a people, have a hard time with authority. Not just with obeying authority, an issue that we have always wrestled with. We also have a very difficult time discerning authority, knowing how to recognize authority, and ascribing authority to all the wrong things and people. Thus, we allow our actions and words, the practices we embrace and the stories we tell, to be shaped by this confusion. Recent debates over flags and anthems, standing and kneeling, free speech and censorship, demonstrate that we don’t even have a common language for discussing these matters, let alone common convictions about what God’s people should do when confronted by competing, and sometimes mutually exclusive, claims to authority. We argue endlessly over who is in charge, when deep down inside we all want to be in charge. Read more

Economy of Grace

The “bookends” of this week’s lectionary readings, from Exodus and Matthew, reintroduce us to the economy of grace characteristic of God’s now-but-not-yet reign of shalom. These texts also poke at our raw spots by challenging us to recognize ourselves in them, confronting some of our deepest anxieties, and exposing our bent toward greed, envy, and pride. In reading them, and allowing them to “read us,” we are reminded of the vastness of the expanse separating God’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this world; yet we are also given hope, that God remains at work, healing Creation and transforming us, its broken members. Read more

“Certainly, Certainly, Certainly Lord!”

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35

Preachers tend to tell big forgiveness stories about people who wrestle with the devastating effects of war, murder, and stupendous acts of unfaithfulness. I am more comfortable talking about penny-ante examples of forgiveness. Jesus covered the entire spectrum with one story. When Peter asked Jesus to define the limits of forgiveness, Jesus told a tale about settling accounts. It’s easy to find ourselves in Jesus’ stories. Jesus never said, “I’m going to tell you a story about two builders, but it’s really about you.” He didn’t have to. In a good story we recognize ourselves instantly. Jesus’ parables are mirrors into which we are invited to take a hard look. Read more

A Harsh and Dreadful Love

In today’s second reading, Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another….Love is the fulfilling of the law.” To say that Christianity is about love is, of course, right. But if we mistake love for niceness, the same statement becomes terribly wrong. Dostoyevsky had his wise spiritual leader Fr. Zossima comment, when a woman came to him disappointed and embittered by her attempts to be charitable, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today calls us to a harsh and dreadful love, one that speaks words we would rather not speak and hears words we would rather not hear. Read more

Holy God

13th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15

How do your prayers usually begin? Chances are there is a phrase, a title, an address that is more natural to you than all the others. I begin with “Loving God” about nine out of ten times—which undoubtedly says as much about my needs as it does about God’s character. All the other adjectives are left fighting for space in my remaining prayers: gracious, merciful, living, everlasting, and perhaps least of all, holy. These days, holy is a word reserved for the covers of Bibles, or to pair with the occasional expletive; holy is a word with far less popular appeal than love. And yet, holy is a word with deep roots in our faith—used consistently across the church’s history and throughout Scripture. So why has it all but dropped it from my/our language for God? Read more

Be Transformed

I am starting to write this as the eclipse happens, after getting a chance to safely see some of the action through proper viewing glasses being passed around at the market. Earlier this summer we took in a local astronomy night with larger telescopes that gave us a chance to view Jupiter with three of its moons visible and Saturn, tilted at just the right angle to see its magnificent rings. I have always loved the perspective these events provide—we are gifted with the reminder, if we take the time to ponder it, of our tiny stature and brief sojourn upon the Earth against the backdrop of Creation’s majesty. None of us controls this, or owns it, and many of us can experience it together, uniting us in our life here on this blue jewel of a planet.

Brother Guy Consolmagno S.J., Pope Francis’ official astronomer, reflected to journalist Elizabeth Diaz last week that the eclipse “reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us remember that we are part of a big and glorious and beautiful universe.” Read more

Witness to God’s Story

Due to recent tragic events, offering reflections on the lectionary texts for this week is a daunting task, perhaps only eclipsed by the pastoral task of ascending into the pulpit last Sunday to name the powers and declare the fullness of the gospel. In times like these, we can often struggle to find the words to say. It seems to me that this is the beauty of the lectionary, though. When our words struggle to take shape and emerge, the lectionary calls us back to the story of God’s work in the world, a story that we must continually recount and rehearse because we will not find it anywhere else. These texts call us to remember and embrace that story. Read more