At work amidst human trickery

A few days ago, I was reflecting on the myriad of kingdom images Jesus provided for his listeners (the Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost). I had hoped for some feedback from my readers; but, having none, I went instead down the path of the Old Testament reading in which Laban agrees to sell his youngest daughter Rachel to Jacob in exchange for 7 years hard labor. After 7 years, Jacob "takes" Leah in a wedding night ruse plotted by Laban and then serves another 7 years for the right to take Rachel as well.

I looked at several commentaries this week including the ones in Sojourners magazine and The Christian Century and also followed some conversation on the Gen X Clergy listserv and so I cannot recall at the moment who pointed out the irony (or if, perhaps, in a moment of genius, I myself came up with the idea - not as likely) that this text is being read in the midst of the Lambeth Conference (for related reading consider pp. 27-33 of this pre-Lambeth reading).

Here we have a text (referring now back to Genesis 29:15-28) that, on a literal reading, could be used to justify polygamy - a practice that is under question in Texas in light of the child abuse scandal and a practice among some Mormons in Utah and other [I confess to not knowing enough about Mormonism to know whether or not this is a "reputable" website, but I provide the link nonetheless]. Now polygamy is a practice that the Anglican Communion considers to be contrary to God's plan. I want to be clear that I am not in favor of polygamy - primarily for its tendency (or potential tendency) to be abusive to the women in these relationships (it is rare indeed hear of a matriarchal-based polygamous marriage - such relationships tending to be labeled "promiscuity" in our society being yet another aspect of the inequality of gender that lingers). However, I find it interesting that we read "against" Scripture on this issue and insist on reading "into" Scripture issues regarding the acceptability or lack of acceptability of homosexual practices. Shouldn't Biblical literalists at least be held to a standard of consistency?

Now for those of you sometimes attend St. Barnabas in the Villas and missed out on today's sermon, you should be aware that this is not what I preached about. Instead, you are being treated to one of my more internal, quiet rants. This morning's sermon instead focused on how God can work through and around human deceit and weakness to get God's job done! As Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans:

". . . neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else [including human deceit, weakness, foibles, etc.] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38) [text in italics are words of this author, not St. Paul].


Thy Kingdom Come: Ponderings for this coming Sunday's lectionary readings.

The gospel for this Sunday has a myriad of images for the kingdom of God. . . it is like a mustard seed, it is like yeast, it is like a treasure in the field, it is like a valuable pearl. And, early in the week, my mind is swirling in all of these images. Following are some of my thoughts - more random (or, at least, less polished) than usual. But, I am always interested in my readers thoughts; so, if any of this strikes you, please feel free to send a comment.

Thought A: In the first place, the sheer multitude of images - of mini-parables - seem ultimately to obscure the issue, not elucidate it! Instead of understanding what Jesus is saying, I want to find the common thread - in what way are a pearl, a mustard seed, a hidden treasure and yeast similar? Perhaps if I could identify the similar element, then I would have a clearer understanding of what God's kingdom will be like.

Thought B: Maybe Paul's letter to the Romans will be more helpful. He writes,

"we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

In the Lord's prayer, we say, "Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." What a prayer! We don't even know what we are asking for and yet we ask for it - many of us every day. Why?

Thought C: Maybe the multitude of images are to remind us (a) that we can only see glimpses of the kingdom - for some of us we'll see it as the yeast that, once mixed with the flour, cannot be separated and together (yeast and flour) accomplish more than either can accomplish alone - and (b) that despite our inability to see clearly, we yearn for it so deeply that we pray for it daily.

Thought D: Don't worry about the kingdom that will come. Pay attention to the here and now - to the aspects of the kingdom that have already come.

Other ideas?


Turtles and Patient Endurance

What's on my mind as I think about a sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost?

Last week as I drove across Stone Harbor Boulevard near the Wetlands Institute, several adults (one dressed as a turtle) held signs reminding passers-by to "slow down for turtles." And, in this part of New Jersey, it is not uncommon to see a motorist pull over by the side of the road to help (i.e., carry) a turtle across the busy streets. As I reflected on these small acts of human kindness I thought once again on our unique capacity for empathy. Not only can we have feelings with and for other humans, but also for all sorts and species of God's creatures.

And yet. Another curiosity struck me: Why is it that many of us - myself included - are frequently drawn in to news stories about atrocities committed against animals - drawn in, in some cases, to the point of tears - but we watch the evening news as we eat our dinners, not unaware, but somehow less viscerally moved, by what we see there - the violence of wars, the catastrophic effects of storms, the senseless acts of violence committed human against human - brother against brother and sister against sister. Why does a story about a puppy being beaten by its owner evoke tears and a story about an elder being abused by his own son or daughter not (mind you, it does disturb me greatly, but I am not pulled to that same physical response)?

Some years ago I read a book by my college philosophy professor, Dr. Loyal Rue - By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs - in which Rue suggests that deception is at work throughout nature. Moreover, he writes that deception is not, in and of itself, a bad thing - in fact, it is a natural thing - a survival thing. For example, brightly-colored butterflies are deceptive by nature as they blend in with the flowers off of which they feed, thereby protecting themselves from preying enemies. And even human beings, use deception (and self-deception) to protect ourselves on a psychological level.

What does this have to do with the turtles that we stop for, the abused animals we shed tears for, and the human beings killed, maimed, and abused that we do not shed a tear for? Perhaps it is not so much that we don't shed a tear, but rather that we dare not shed a tear. Is our inability to viscerally respond to human atrocities actually a deceptive tactic we use to protect ourselves from the overwhelming nature of these atrocities? I have known people who feel very strongly - people whose families shelter them from "bad news" because they are fearful that they will not be able to cope. And, the people I have known who do, in fact, feel with and for every victim of every atrocity that they hear about are literally paralyzed by their grief, paralyzed by their emotions. Perhaps we deceive ourselves by not feeling so that we can survive, so that we can continue to move forward.

In this Sunday's reading from the letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." And yet, we are not ground down by these realities - we dare not be ground down by them - we sustain ourselves in the "hope for what we do not see" and, indeed, "we wait for it with patience." Rather than becoming paralyzed by the many injustices around us, we continue to move forward out of the hope for what will be - the promises of God.