A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 1, 2017: Matthew 21:23-32

From 2017: First, listen to the people.


Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by…

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A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 24, 2017: Matthew 20:1-16

From 2017: There are several possible viewpoints from which to present this parable. Which one will you choose? Why?


Matthew 20:1-16
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

20:3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;

20:4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

20:6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

20:8 When evening came, the owner…

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A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017: Matthew 18:21-35

From 3 years ago: “Maybe it’s time we started taking the Incarnation seriously, and stopped thinking about ‘salvation’ as the payment of a large debt.”


Matthew 18:21-35
18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

18:24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;

18:25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

18:26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

18:27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him…

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A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 10, 2017: Matthew 18:15-20

A Provocation from 3 years ago.


Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it…

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A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 3, 2017: Matthew 16:21-28

From 2017, still relevant.
“ If you are not offended by items on this list, I have not done my job as an interpreter of the words of Jesus, because crucifixion was an obscenity in the ancient world, and everyone knew that.”


Matthew 16:21-28
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

16:22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

16:26 For…

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A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: August 27, 2017: Matthew 16:13-20

A Provocation from three years ago.

“A classic description of “sin” names it as the condition of being “curved in on oneself,” being concerned first with how all things affect me. ”

This is worth consideration in the midst of ongoing wrangles about white privilege.


Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound…

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A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Another blast from the past. And it still fits the world that is keeping us awake at night.


Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

15:16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes…

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A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 9, 2020: 1 Kings 19:9-18

He said: 
     Go out, 
     establish yourself 
          in the mountain 
          toward the face(s) of the God 
               Whose Name is Mercy.  
     the God Whose Name is Mercy 
          crossing over: 
               and a breath, 
                    great and mighty, 
                    tearing away the mountains 
                    shattering cliffs 
                         toward the face(s) 
                         of the God Whose Name is Mercy.              
                    Not in the breath, 
                         the God Whose Name is Mercy.  
               Behind the breath: earthquake.  
                    Not in earthquake, 
                         the God Whose Name is Mercy.
               Behind the earthquake: fire.  
                    Not in fire, 
                         the God Whose Name is Mercy.  
               Behind the fire: voice of sudden silence, crushed to dust.

A few short comments on Elijah and the God whose voice is sudden crushing silence. These comments come from a book I am writing: No, God Did Not Have a Plan To Kill My Sister with ALS.

Listen slowly to the story of Elijah hiding in the cave.  The triumph over the prophets of Ba’al ended in headlong flight.  Not what you might have expected.  Shouldn’t such a clear demonstration of Divine activity have settled the matter?  Apparently not.  And now Elijah, that prototypical speaker for God (prophet, nabi), sits abandoned, hiding in a cave.  Wind there was, and earthquake, and fire.  For all the destructive power of those forces of nature, God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire.  And then comes a translation problem.  The usual English texts say next there came a “still, small voice.”  It is a lovely phrase, and I am glad that a translator composed it.  

But that is not what the Hebrew says.  The Hebrew is, to my eye, difficult to render.  There is a voice (qol) in the text.  And there is silence, in fact, a “thin silence,” whatever that means.  This is hard to translate.  I do not know what a “thin silence” might be, but I love what it suggests: this is not a pregnant pause, full of poignance.  It is thin and empty.  

But the word for “thin” also means “small” (hence the still [silent] SMALL voice).  But it means “small” as in “crushed into tiny pieces.”  That opens the door to a translation that hears only a crushing silence.  Again, this is a powerful image.  There are thunderous silences in the world.  The absence of sound can be deafening.  And it can crush you.  

But the problems go further: the “smallness” can also imply “suddenness,” as in “the silence erupted immediately, after a space of time too small to measure.”  As before, we know such moments, when everyone, and everything, becomes, not deaf, but speechless.  

And the task of proper translating is to somehow catch all of this.  Original audiences, having learned Hebrew from their mother’s lullabies, would have heard these notes in Elijah’s silent scene.  When I translate this scene, I render it as a “voice of sudden silence, crushed to dust.”  I don’t know for sure what that means, but I recognize how it feels.  And I think it renders how Elijah feels.

Even though the Divine Voice has never rattled human eardrums, God’s durable silence is a problem.  We find ways to fill the silence.

No, God Did Not Have a Plan to Kill My Sister with ALS, Richard W. Swanson (in process)

We should think about our need to find ways to fill the silence that is God’s voice. We should think about our need because our discomfort with the actual silence of God is significant. It is always a good thing to recognize, name, and track our discomfort because discomfort makes us do things that are sometimes destructive, or at least unhelpful. We should think about our need because our discomfort leads us to invent a very noisy God who is as uncomfortable in actual silence as we are.

And because we are inventing this God, we invent a God who says exactly what we want God to say. That God says exactly what we would say, perhaps with a more resonant voice, and with a certainty that we wish we ourselves had.

That God rushes and thunders and roasts. On cue. In directions and with outcomes we would choose.

In these days after the death of John Lewis, a man who dared to stand up in the silence that preceded the snarls of police dogs and the sirens and the crack of police batons, we would do well to imagine the silence he heard just before the violence was unleashed. If, in our discomfort, we fill that silence with the clear and easily-heard voice of God, we misunderstand both Lewis’s courage and ours.

Lewis stood in the silence, and crossed the bridge that was named for a man twice a traitor to his country, once by joining the Confederacy, and again by serving as grand dragon of the KKK. Lewis’s skull was fractured that day, Bloody Sunday, in 1965. Read about that day, and the silence that required courage here: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/eyewitness/html.php?section=2

Our current silent moment requires courage, as well. I am bright enough not to imagine that I know the silence in which you stand, but I am a good enough reader of stories to expect that both Lewis and Elijah have something to teach us.


A Provocation: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 13, 2017: Matthew 14:22-33

This is from three years ago. Surprisingly timely, but then stories about dangerous chaos probably always are.


Matthew 14:22-33
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.”…

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A Provocation: Ninth Sunday After Pentecost: August 6, 2017: Matthew 14:13-21

From three years ago…


Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and…

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