This week we read one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables, and the other texts do not make it any clearer on first glance. Amos rebukes his audience for economic injustice, while Jesus seems to commend a sketchy bookkeeper. Let’s assume that Jesus is consistent with Amos—not to mention himself. There must be something else here.
I have had a long fascination with the Rule of St. Benedict (as has the Church since the sixth century). At first, long stretches make for tedious reading about eating and housekeeping. Every time I return to it, however, I discover deeper layers that have been carefully shaped by Scripture. In chapter 66, the rule outlines the role of a porter or doorkeeper:
My three-year-old son has somehow tapped into an innate knack for negotiation. We are driving home from an errand in the evening and from a quiet backseat he suddenly begins informing me of the plan for when we get home. We’re not going to take a nap. We are going to watch a movie with a snack and then put on jammies, he says. And he concludes by actually stating,"That’s my deal.” He can really only count to ten, but if I say two Oreos, he knows he can say four to try to get three.
The command of God sounds comprehensive because it is: “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” But that does not make it "too hard" or "too far away.” We must remember that “your” really means your. We often listen as if Scripture is speaking to a different person, an ideal person I should be someday. According to Deuteronomy, the word of God is not "above and beyond.” It is here, “in your mouth and in your heart.” It requires the whole you, but not a different you.
In what do we rejoice?
We must confront the same question the disciples did when they were first sent to proclaim the kingdom. Especially as we continue to reflect on the mystery of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we run the risk of fixating on the power of the Spirit and missing the point.
As Peachtree looks ahead to our 100th anniversary, in order to express and celebrate our unique story and space, I have been working on a project to write a new hymn for each clerestory window in our Sanctuary. Sometimes it happens that a tune or turn of phrase unravels an entire song rather quickly. When I reflect on the window of the Lord’s Supper, all the names for the meal flooded my mind: communion, eucharist, feast, altar, table, banquet, supper, dinner, etc. Within 24 hours I had a sketch of twelve verses (far more than anyone would want to sing in succession on a Sunday morning). Many have been modified, omitted, or combined, but one remains as it was written that day.
A passer-by hears nothing but the sound of hushed giggling as the secret—often a verse of Scripture—is passed from ear to ear. When it has whispered its way around the room, the final listener—almost always with an audible question mark at the end—repeats aloud what the message has become. And the giggling can no longer be hushed. Whether by expected error or by intentional intervention, the phrase has been altered, sometimes so far that it cannot be traced back its source. Everyone delights in sharing what it was when it came to them.
Only a full house. Acts 11, Psalm 148, and Revelation 21 will abide no less.
In Acts, God presents animals of every kind to Peter, even those preciously considered unclean, declaring, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” God’s blessing breaks down barriers between Jew and Gentile: "The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” In the Psalm every feature and detail of creation is enlisted and embraced in praise. Every voice joins in the song of the whole. In Revelation, the “sea" of isolation and division disappears. Heaven and earth are joined in marriage. The pain of separation is replaced with togetherness.
A young resident at the hospital is off her shift and getting herself ready to go on a date. Just as she is headed out the door, her directing physician tells her that test results have come back indicating that one of her patients is dying. It is up to her to inform him and his family. When she protests the interruption to her plans, her director responds with less-than-subtle sarcasm, “Oh I know, this would be just the most terrific place to work on the planet if it weren't for all these sick people. Wouldn't it?”
Disciples preacher and professor Fred Craddock once told a story:
Used to have a kid down home who’d believe anything you’d tell him. You could say, “The schoolhouse burned down. We’re not having school tomorrow.”
“Oh boy!” He’d believe it.
“They’re giving away free watermelons down at the town hall.”
“Really? Free watermelons?” He’d go running off.
Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem marks the culmination of the whole middle movement of the Gospel of Luke “toward Jerusalem.” Popular anticipation built from “all the deeds of power” along the way now unleashes in celebration. The proclamation of the multitude—“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”—is adapted from Psalm 118:26, which may have been used as a greeting to pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover. As they “praise God joyfully” it rings with relief, possibly not only remembering Israel's deliverance from Egypt, but also joyfully anticipating the overthrow of the new Egypt—Rome.
I have always been fascinated with the lives and habits of writers—especially poets and novelists—people who bend over a page and pour themselves out. Some are methodical and disciplined, others unpredictable. They often live the kind of lives that look prodigal and impractical from the outside. But in the act of writing, each is weighing out the world as well their own soul, losing and discovering themselves in the writing and the written.
“They couldn’t have been more different.” I had heard it said of siblings before, but as my wife and I draw near to the birth of our second son, it sunk in closer to home this time. We sat after dinner with a couple whose two sons are now adults, and as our own son explored their home, they reflected on how their first as a child had been so easy and peaceful. The second: “holy terror."
For the Jewish worshipper, desert language in the psalms would conjure images of the Exodus and exile, times of wilderness, weariness, and want. Paul reflects on these annals of Hebrew wandering and the way God guided and provided: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them.” Paul may be referring here to a Jewish tradition that the rock from which God brought water was actually carried by the Israelites as they journeyed.
“Keep death before your eyes daily."
This is one of the “tools of good works” listed in chapter four of the Rule of St. Benedict. Though it is only one of over seventy, it jumps off the page. It is how we begin this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, being reminded “that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent has death at the start as well as the destination.
Every time I officiate a wedding, I warn the couple that if their ring bearer and/or flower girls are under 6, they are almost guaranteed not to make it down the aisle by themselves. (It's not a bad thing; I just want to make sure they know.) I share this from experience not only as a pastor but as a former toddler. At three or four, I was ring bearer in a family friend’s wedding. The story goes that my parents told me so often not to “wander off,” that by the time the reception came I looked at them and groaned, “Can I wander off now?"
The small town in Illinois where I went to college had an inexplicable wealth of thrift stores, and I quickly developed a thrifting habit. (“Habit” sounds better than “problem,” right?) I shared this secondhand lifestyle with my roommate, and we would do the rounds at the local shops at least once a week. For me there was (and still is) something deeply satisfying about the treasure hunt, the searching and discovery. During one of our forages among the dusty shelves, my friend found a light therapy lamp—one designed to mimic sunlight and shine on your face to combat seasonal depression.
Jumping into Genesis 45 feels like dropping in at someone else’s family reunion right around the point when everyone has “drank freely” (43:34) enough to start a tearful trek into the past. We are left to catch up. This passion has patiently waited over the twenty years that have passed since Joseph’s brothers jumped him, threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery, and lied to their father that he was dead. Joseph is known for his dreams and interpretations of dreams, but I wonder how he slept those long years.
I was by myself taking care of a particularly overflowing sink of dishes on what I believe was a Tuesday night. On the mission style armchair behind me was a copy of Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, my seminary reading that I had just put down to go about some housework. One blessing of such ordinary tasks is the space they leave for the mind. Mine began to wander.