This is Hilary Cottam in a TED talk from 2015.[i] She’s a social entrepreneur whose been thinking much of her life about how we solve some of these deep and complex social problems that have been perplexing us for some time now.
She has a new book out, called Radical Help[ii] that takes a deep dive into the welfare state and how we might remake it. As you can tell, she’s doing her work in Great Britain, and has spent most of her life in Europe and Africa exploring these questions. But I think her work speaks to our own experience in the states as well, and to the needs for many of our institutions to adapt to changing realities.
In her presentation, Cottam goes on to provide a pretty stark picture of how the system as it currently is does not serve Ella well or others in similar circumstances, but may, in fact, work to keep them imprisoned in a cycle of despair, even as the people and the institutions they serve were and continue to be well-intentioned.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 † Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 † Romans 10:8b-13 † Luke 4:1-13
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No doubt you’ve heard this adage that suggests that if you possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who merely says they own it.
The doctrine allowed Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pig that the McCoys claimed was their property, although we can imagine it didn’t make their lives better or help to de-escalate the historic dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The old saw has underlined feuds on too many school playgrounds to count. It has destroyed countless friendships. It has been front and center in disputes in U.S. history with tragic results for many of the early dwellers of these lands. It has contributed to the fire between Palestinians and Israelis, and all of their proxies, and in too many stories to tell on every continent throughout every age. The question of ownership and land is arguably at the root of every conflict, all human violence, and the climate change peril that our planet and its inhabitants are facing.
So it may interest us to note that this is something of a theme in the telling of our scriptures today.
“I’m drawn to places,” writes Eric Weiner, “that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”[i] He is speaking of what we’ve come to know as thin places.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. The ancient Celts used the term to describe places like the wind-swept isle of Iona where Julie Kae will have an opportunity to spend some time this summer as a part of her sabbatical.
I am an avid reader of the comics. If I’ve read nothing else from the paper on a Sunday morning I will look at breaking news to see what we need to be mindful of, and I will read the comics--religiously!
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comics these days, and I love how this one gets right to the heart of our stress-filled, bubbled, and too-often disconnected existence. And more to the point, I love how it gets to what is at the center of this gospel today: Love your enemies.
Or maybe it doesn’t. To imagine the person who cut you off on the freeway is your enemy is something of a stretch, isn’t it? It’s a verbal weaponization of a pretty mundane event, to imagine my neighbor on the freeway is my enemy, and not instead, someone who may be having a bad day, like I might be.
We probably shouldn’t domesticate the notion so carelessly, because there is much, much worse that is done for which we should preserve such a decisive word like enemy. In these days of Fake News, we should try to be as accurate and truthful as we possibly can.
Jeremiah 17:5-10 † Psalm 1 † 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 † Luke 6:17-26
As I was studying our texts for today, I found myself rooting around for a way to understand blessing as it is portrayed in Luke from Jesus: Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. God is on your side.
But the more I tried to unpack this idea, the more I tried to understand how really this translates into blessing, the more stuck I got. How is it a blessing to be hungry now even if you’ll get something later? How is it blessing to weep now, simply for the promise of a laugh later? Sure, there are some ways to get at this, but they are problematic, too often approaching some twisted endorsement for suffering or persecution. And how is the promise of the Kingdom a blessing now for a poor one who has nothing and is in danger?
If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know how to understand this idea of blessing. I don’t understand how it is a blessing to be poor and to go without and to live on the edges of society. I don’t see it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Perhaps you do.
Given that, I’ve realized I’m not in a position to unpack this first part of the passage in Luke that is blunt and gritty and material and so much in contrast to the ethereal “blessed are the poor in spirit” that Jesus proclaims in Matthew.[i]
At least part of the problem, if not all, of course, is that I’m not poor. How should I expect to understand something I haven’t experienced—especially something as hard as this? And the fact is, most, if not all of us, by objective standards are not poor. If we measure ourselves and our wealth and well-being through the arc of history, this is abundantly clear. We have access to food and the basic resources needed for survival in far greater quantity and more reliably than previous generations and even more so than our pre-modern ancestors. And even if we measure ourselves in comparison to the world population as it is today, it is difficult to argue we are poor by any standard.
Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
1 Kings 17:8-16 † Psalm 146 † Hebrews 9:24-28 † Mark 12:38-44
Beware the comma! It can change everything.
It can be a matter of life or death.
It can be the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma.” Or consider another sign I saw not too long ago:
“Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians on the trails” …which could have benefitted from a comma so that it would suggest that one should be aware of the presence of others while hunting.
Now when it comes to our ancient biblical texts, there is an added problem. As you may know, the original texts of both the old and new testaments didn’t have commas, or really, any punctuation at all!
Isaiah 35:4-7a † Psalm 146 † James 2:1-7 † Mark 7:24-37
I had a conversation this week with a mom whose child is something of a challenge at the moment. Her description of the behaviors, the wild fluctuations between kind and crazy, tenderness and nastiness, tolerance and small-mindedness brought me back to my own days as a college student and young adult. I remember even today the struggle that raged within myself. There were times when it almost seemed like an out-of-body experience—I was angry and ugly and yet there was a more mature adult part of me that watched from the outside fully aware of a better way to be but not sure how to get there.
I hope I was helpful to the mom as I was able to reassure her this is a part of the growth from childhood to adulthood—that the work of transitioning from one to the other involves weighing the values and beliefs and perspectives we’ve inherited from our parents and other adults, evaluating them, testing them, and ultimately accepting some for ourselves, making them our own, while perhaps rejecting others.
Many developmental psychologists have spoken of this work and of the importance of creating space for this work to happen. It can be incredibly painful at times for us because, if you’re a parent of mentor, it can feel like you are being rejected, but in the long run it is what’s necessary for identify formation.
There is a sense that there’s some developmental work that Jesus is doing in this story in Mark. It’s a curious thing to consider as we play with these classical Christian notions of Jesus’ identity as both fully human and fully God.
2 Kings 4:42-44 † Psalm 145:10-18 † Ephesians 3:14-21 † John 6:1-21
In the fall of 2014 IHNFA, the Honduran Childcare services were restructured by a Honduran government that was under pressure from UNICEF and in a season of reform. It had been an open secret for some time that the majority of the IHNFA budget was enriching administrators and bureaucrats rather than serving the vulnerable and abandoned children it was charged to protect.
Many services were cut, including the government-run children’s homes and some of its foster programs. This created its own challenges in a country of 8.5 million people in which 138,000 are already without a home and more than 1 million are housing insecure.
St. Andrew Sermons