Psalms 26, 28 * 36, 39; Exodus 19:1-16; Colossians 1:1-14; Matthew 3:7-12
I stopped at the gas station on the way to the church yesterday. After I finished paying nearly a week's wages to fill up my tank and was waiting for the machine to spit out my receipt, a neatly dressed woman came over to me and said, Here Father, here is something for you to read, and God bless your congregation.
I usually make it a rule to either not take those kind of handouts (for they usually infuriate me) or simply take it and then toss it in the nearest garbage receptacle For some unknown reason, perhaps because I was not fully awake, I took the offered small pamphlet, thanked her, got my receipt from the machine and got in the car. Washington morning traffic being what it is, I had plenty of time in the car, listening to NPR and doing my best not be aggravated by the other imbeciles on the road, so I decided to glance at the leaflet that I had tossed on the passenger seat. It was one of those small little four page leaflets measuring the size of a small index card. On its cover was a picture of a US Coast Guard boat and the words "A choice to serve." I looked at the back cover next, where there was some continued writing from the inside of the pamphlet and noticed that this was a document prepared by a retired Sgt. Walter Smith of the USCG. Then I opened the pamphlet and learned that I was going to hell.
This pamphlet took snippets of phrases from different books of the Bible (Leviticus, Romans, Colossians, 1 Peter, 1 Thessalonian) and strung them together to prove the author's point. When I say snippets, I mean not even full sentences, with nothing put in context. And I thought, How sad. Surprisingly for me, I didn't get annoyed or aggravated or pissed off, I just felt a great sense of sadness for the individual who wrote this pamphlet, but also for the the folks who receive this pamphlet and unfortunately only see this as the whole of a Christian message.
Today's lectionary selection from Matthew has us listening to John the Baptist berating the Pharisees and Sadducees. There are some rather harsh images presented to us today by John (the winnowing fork, and chaff burned in unquenchable fire). I am surprised these weren't included in that pamphlet - although the author seemed pre-disposed to ignore the Gospels and only refer to the OT and Epistles. Today's passage from Matthew is an important part of the Gospel, preparing us for the adult Jesus' entrance onto center stage. Taken out of context, as this passage often is, it can be utilized in ways that ignore the bigger picture of Jesus' message of love and forgiveness and outreach. Certainly we can't ignore these kinds of passages, but they need to be always read with the larger canon in mind: so that leaflets like the one I received yesterday, can be put in their proper place.
Copyright 2008 John F. Dwyer