Strained to the Breaking Point

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 — Week of Proper 21

George Kennedy Allen Bell, Bishop of Chichester, and Ecumenist, 1958

John Raleigh Mott, Evangelist and Ecumenical Pioneer, 1955

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 985)

Psalms 101, 109:1-2(5-19)20-30 (morning) // 119:121-144 (evening)

Hosea 4:11-19

Acts 21:15-26

Luke 5:27-37

Today’s readings are full of disquietude.

Psalm 109 has one of the longest and most complete sets of curses I’ve ever seen. The Psalmist is hurt and threatened by someone powerful. He pours out his anguish and venom to God, begging God to intercede and to annihilate his accuser. “Let his children be fatherless and his wife become a widow. Let his children be waifs and beggars; let them be driven from the ruins of their homes. …Let his descendants be destroyed.” What is the wicked man’s offense? “He did not remember to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the brokenhearted.” The Psalmist identifies himself: “I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.” It sounds like the fury in some of the streets of America, or maybe in other parts of the world, where the poor know themselves to be abandoned or manipulated. Their anger is fierce and potentially violent.

We’re reading the prophet Hosea, who uses the metaphor of marriage to accuse Israel of unfaithfulness to God. Israel is like a whore, says Hosea. Israel is forsaking the true God and following Baal, the Canaanite god who promises rain and agricultural prosperity. Sometimes these passages about worshipping idols can sound quaint and antiquarian in our ears. We don’t believe in idols, after all. Or do we? My friend Jay McDaniel says that our false religion is consumerism, and that our idols are pictured in every commercial that promises that we will be affluent, powerful and attractive. That’s the only America that some other cultures see. We look arrogant, impious and threatening to them. It doesn’t take a far jump before they are thinking of us in the same terms the Psalmist uses.

In Acts, Paul returns to Jerusalem after his long mission to cities in Asia Minor and Europe. He has been going to Jewish synagogues throughout the diaspora teaching about Jesus. And he has been sharing his message with Gentiles as well, creating communities of Jews and Gentiles who gather together in Christ’s name. The word is out about him. People in Jerusalem have heard and are angry. “They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” That’s pretty accurate. The only inaccuracy is that Jewish Christians in Paul’s churches often continued their traditional Jewish practices, but they were expected to eat with their Gentile brothers and sisters in their common communion. James tries to accommodate the traditionalists. He has Paul perform a very public rite of Jewish piety, hoping to quiet the accusers. It won’t work. Paul will be smeared with the “law-breaking Gentile-lover” label.

And in today’s gospel, Jesus offers two wonderful metaphors for the strain of conflict that change brings. You can’t patch an old, faded garment with bright new cloth. And old, dry wineskins will burst if you put new wine in them. That’s his response when Jesus is criticized for going to a banquet at the tax-collector Levi’s house. It is a scandalous act. Jesus gets criticized roundly for his partying ways: Your disciples don’t fast and pray, they eat and drink. Jesus presents a different way of life. His new cloth and the new wine will have a hard time mixing with the old ways.

There are so many rips in the fabric of our contemporary life. Change and conflict are ubiquitous. The poor and marginalized are hurt, and many are angered. The rich and powerful clutch their idols possessively. There is fear and exclusion of the other. And Jesus’ message of generosity and inclusion still stretches us to the breaking point.

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