Finding the Lessons

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Liturgy of the Palms B, March 29, 2015

The Way of the Cross, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

O God, for whom all things are possible, you have highly exalted your suffering Servant, who did not hide from insult but humbled himself even to death on a cross.  As we begin the journey of Holy Week, take our sin away by Christ's glorious passion and confirm our worship and witness, so that when we proclaim the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend and  every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Now, let me say here that I am not in favor of preaching the passion on Palm Sunday. I am well aware that the pilgrim Egeria c380 participated in a palm procession to the Holy Sepulchre in the same day. However, our tradition is a Holy Week and I encourage you to invite people to make it so. I would be in favor of removing the passion reading to an evening service. You will have to read my thoughts on the passion narratives in the Good Friday postings.

Some Thoughts on Mark 11:1-11

"This Palm Sunday can we get beyond a scrap of palm we never know what to do with, & a feel- good procession that leads to nowhere?"

Marginally Mark, by Brian McGowan, Anglican priest in Western Australia.

"The use of palm branches in Maccabees was related to military victories. Is that what the people were expecting from Jesus?"

Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen

"Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest there was not only a procession from the Mount of Olives on the east that day, but also a Roman procession entering from the west, which would have had as a focal point the Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. The juxtaposition of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast."

Join the Feast, Mark 11:1-11, Kirby Lawrence Hill, Union PSCE, 2009.

"Jesus Enters Jerusalem as Messiah," Michael A. Turton's Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, "a complete verse-by-verse commentary on the Gospel of Mark, focusing on the historicity of people, places, events, and sayings in the world of the Gospel of Mark."

Online NRSV Text

"Let us remember, by turning our hearts and minds to the actions of God’s dearest Son, who went not up to joy but first suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified. May God bless us in these days, that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace."

How will you bear witness to Jesus' passion and resurrection?  How will you walk the way with Jesus this week?

One of the first things I want to encourage you to do this Sunday is to really pay attention to the triumphal entry and its narrative offering.  All too often we rush to the foot of the cross! While we certainly have a long tradition of reading the passion this Sunday, we also have a long tradition of bypassing the triumphal entry.

Encourage your people to attend the pilgrim journey through Holy Week.  Dare to preach the passion narrative as it comes. Resist the "cliff notes" version of preaching Good Friday's message Sunday.  Invite people back and invite them into the life journey of Jesus as experienced in our liturgy this week.

So then, what to do with our passage from Mark 11?  This carefully constructed passage parallels 14:12-16; and provides for an understanding that what is taking place is of central importance to Jesus ministry.

He has been very clear from the beginning of his ministry (in Mark's Gospel) that to walk the Way (the reoccurring theme of this Gospel) is to walk towards the cross.  This is true for Jesus' own ministry. It is true in the life and ministry of all those who would follow him.  Here in this passage the pilgrim way of walking leads directly to Jerusalem and to the Temple.  Therefore the way is tied inextricably to the faithful traditions of our Abrahamic ancestors and will in the end unleash God's presence in the world, God's embrace of the world.  The triumphal entry is the point at which walking the way TO the cross arrives on the doorstep of Jerusalem to become the the way OF the cross.

The entrance rite is royal (see Genesis 49:10-11 and Zechariah 9:9).  This is an eschatological and messianic reign that is being unfurled into time.  The stage and the plan are underway and the unfurling of a new creation and new order of living is at hand.

From Psalm 118 comes the imagery of a new Davidic reign.  The gates are open and the people fervently receive their king; yet as the reader know this crown will be laid upon the king not in victorious triumph but complete and utter powerlessness.  The worlds undoing and recreation will come from an explicit rejection of power as this world deals it out and an embrace of forgiveness and grace of which the world had yet to behold.

This is all in juxtaposition though to the victory parade of Pilate who is entering the city on a stallion with the might of an army behind him. By the end of their conflict it will be the one who rides in on a donkey, suffers, and dies...who has no army...and who gives over all the power of God to completely enter the death of the least and the lost that will be victorious.

Note in this Gospel there is no cleansing of the Temple but only an embrace.  Jesus enters, and retires to rest. Why? Because in Mark he has been on The Way to the Cross since chapter 1. The way is a way of suffering where by weakness he will deliver us all unto God. Robert Farrar Capon, Episcopal priest and scholar wrote that while the people are thinking of an interventionist king Jesus has only one thing on his mind and that is his "left-handed" and "implausible" death by which he will become the sacrament of abundant life. ( Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 433.)

And, so we begin. We make our journey. We choose to follow Jesus along the way of the cross. We pledge fidelity not to power which overcomes, but a power which will yield unto death.  Unlike those who met Jesus at the gate, we greet him this Sunday knowing that only complete submission and not a powerful revolution brings about the creative cataclysm.  And, we rehearse, remind, and remake our way to the foot of the cross as a reminder that our Christian way is clearly marked by grace, mercy, and forgiveness - and not by authority, power, and abuse.

So, I charge you to remember, Walk with determination turning your hearts and minds to the actions of God.  A God who went suffered pain, and entered was crucified. By walking in the way of the cross, may you find a blessing, and a way of life, and a way of and peace.

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

Sermon on the Atonement and an invitation to experience Holy Week again for the first time. Palm Sunday - Trinity, Galveston. Year B.

Sermon for Palm Sunday at Trinity Galveston, 2014. Year A.

We Hope In Jesus: Reflections on the Parade

Sermon preached Palm Sunday, Trinity, Galveston 2013. Year C.

The Man in the Arena

Sermon Preached at St Cyprian's Lufkin Palm Sunday Year B.

This is Jesus - The Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem

Palm Sunday Sermon preached at St. Cuthberts, Houston, Texas 2011. Year B.

Debes soportar Sufrimientos por el Evangelio

This sermon is in Spanish and was given at San Mateo, Houston, Texas on Palm Sunday, 2009. Year B.

If you just can't resist it... here is the textweek resources:

Special Resources for the Reading of the Passion

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lent 5B March 18, 2018


Hear, O God, the eternal echo of the prayers and supplications your Son offered when, to establish the new and everlasting covenant, he became obedient even unto death on the cross. Through all the trials of this life, bring us to a deeper, more intimate share in Christ's redeeming passion, that we may produce the abundant fruit of that seed that falls to the earth and dies, and so be gathered as your harvest for the kingdom of heaven. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 12:20-33

"Who knows how the awareness of God's love first hits people. Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn't believe in God if you paid him."
"Salvation," Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog.

"John alerts his readers to the seductive powers of the world. There can be no compromise."
Commentary, John 12:20-33, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"During this season of Lent we follow him all the way to Golgotha, all the way to the cross, where we will stand beneath it, together with those followers who asked at the beginning of his ministry, "Where are you staying?" (1:38). It is there, in the face of the world's many ways of death (e.g., poverty, economic collapse, hunger, sickness, war) that we are drawn even closer to Jesus. It is there, in the light of the stark reality of life at its end that we begin to catch a glimpse of life at its fullest."
Commentary, John 12:20-33, Audrey West, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

Jesus has finished his public ministry. The arrival of the Greeks reminds us of 3:14ff: that the world is being saved through the lifting up of the Son. Even sheep not of his own fold are being drawn near as the time arrives. We ourselves, reading through John's Gospel arrive at the essential truth that the mission of the cross is not to be stopped. God, in Christ Jesus, is recreating the world. The grain is replanted, and new fruit is to grow and thrive; a gospel fruit of salvation. The cross is itself forever changed such that it shines a light on the disciple's life and upon the world revealing truth and making known that which has been hidden: God will not stop the drawing to himself of his creation or his creatures.

There is a great deal of debate over the Passover imagery between scholars. Yet, for the Christian there is ultimately a clear understanding that it is we who are passing over through the sheol of death into a promised land by virtue of Jesus (like Moses' own staff) being lifted upon a cross, descending into the dead, and rising on the third day. This is the vulnerability of courage and the power of love overcoming death itself.

Jesus promises all people and all things will be drawn to him through whom all things were made. While the gate is narrow, Jesus is the door. Jesus invites all and forgives all. Faith in him is the key with not much more required. This is a catholic understanding that the creator shall take us in the end under his wing and desires that all sit at the table of the lamb. Here is the core of the Gospel of John through which the rest may be read.

As Jesus' ministry comes to an end so ours in the mean time begins. Our work is to begin the sowing of the seeds, the gathering in from the streets, slums, hedge rows, that all may come to the feast. We are to scatter the birds, to remove the rocks and weeds, and to make sure that the seeds of individuals are carefully planted within the earth that they may truly be transformed and reborn; growing and bearing fruit. We are to create safe spaces for people to become vulnerable to the workings of God's love. And, we are to do this for ourselves first; making sure we are planted carefully and fed upon the wellspring of the waters of life.

At the opening of the Texas Children's Pavilion for Women, as one of the primary philanthropist spoke passionately about her desire to be apart of projects which are transformative - I was moved. I was touched by the transformation through vulnerability spoken about by Brené Brown in her TED talk which can be found here or here. Both women speak to me of the challenge of transformation and being involved in transformative work where "vulnerability is itself the birthplace of innovation and change."

We are to be at work releasing people from trying to get through the narrow door and accept God's forgiveness - Jesus' cross and open gate. We are to allow the work of the cross to first shine a light on our own arc of transformation and pilgrim journey. We are to engage and embrace our own vulnerability. We are to follow its direction and seek our own change by the grace of God. We are then to preach to, lead, and help organize a mission which itself transforms the world around us. This is the kind of organization we wish to be part of. This is the kind of church we long to be.

We are to be the one's - through the proclamation of the Gospel of Salvation and the witness of the uniqueness of God in Christ Jesus - bear fruit from the deep nature of our own vulnerability that is worthy of our salvation.

All of this begins with us, our own vulnerability and our own willingness to be vulnerable to others, and to the Gospel and cross. Only then does our old life end and our new life begin. Perhaps only then will others be drawn to our witness.

For it is the world of false courage, a lack of vulnerability, and a willingness to reject transformation and rebirth that allows and leads to abuse, the crucifixion of others, and ultimately the shaming of the week and poor.

Some Thoughts on Hebrews 5:1-10

Resources for Sunday's Epistle

"In actuality, the history of the high priesthood was an inglorious one, the office having become highly politicized, especially in the Maccabean and Roman periods that led into the time of Jesus. Opposition to the corrupt priesthood was one of the factors that led to the formation of the dissident Qumran community, locus of the Dead Sea Scrolls."
Commentary, Hebrews 5:1-10, Susan Hedahl, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"Why does salvation depend on a high priest who is subject to weakness, who prays in crisis, who learns what the human lot is like? Why does Jesus' service as high priest require his identification with us?"
Commentary, Hebrews 5:1-10, Pentecost 21, Bryan J. Whitfield, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

"...right in the heart of God there is empathetic love for each of us on our life's journey."
"First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Pentecost 21, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

Each Sunday I remind myself that we have a great high priest in Jesus. This prayer, commonly said before receiving communion (BCP 834), is rooted in this particular passage of scripture from Hebrews.

The author is responsible for giving us the metaphor that Jesus has taken the place of the priest's office and is our great high priest.  While we have chosen priests to help us and represent us before God, Jesus is the priest who is to intervening on our behalf before God. When it comes to the offering and sacrifices for the removal of sin (which would have been normal in the temple of Jesus' day) now Jesus is our offering and sacrifice.

The priestly role that we humans fill is always limited because of our own humanity. We are indeed to strive before God to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek (that ancient Canaanite priest who ministered to Abram and Sarai - blessing and feeding them) but we are limited. We fail, we sin, we are all too human. Jesus is our high priest.

Yet, Jesus suffers, prays that his task may be removed, has the human qualities of weakness and fear. Our author tells us this is because of his humanness. It is this humanness that enables him to know our suffering and fear - and then to take it truly into the heavenly kingdom and lay it at the altar of God.

In Jesus we see the culmination of worship, sacrifice, and offering. We have in him perfect oblation and satisfaction (as the prayer used to say) for the sins of the world. Jesus has made the offering once and it is eternal. He remains our high priest and it is he that intercedes on our part before the great throne of God.

Some Thoughts on Jeremiah 31:27-34

"Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible."

"Ferguson and Forgiveness," Walter Bruegemann, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2015. Video: Race in America.

"Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, 'I will be their God and they will be my people' (verse 33); but this time, that covenant relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned."

Commentary, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Amy Erickson, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

We just had this passage this last summer - so if you didn't preach on it you get a second chance. It will appear again this coming year.

Jeremiah continues his prophecy saying that God will bring about a bounteous future. God has not stayed the hand of those who have undone the power of Israel as a civilization rooted in the authority of this world. Remember it was Israel's political and religious machinations which brought it down. Yet, God will in the days to come bring about a resurrection from the death they brought on themselves. God will bring about life from their rubble. 

While the people have suffered and have been deported this will not be the final word. Out of lostness, leastness, and death God brings about life. From the children whose teeth are set on edge to those who at sour fruit, God will bring about a bounteous feast and plenty for the children. Jeremiah prophesies:
"The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 
God promises a new covenant - a new relationship. Christians understand this prophecy to be about the promise of God to deliver all people. The temple's politics intermixed with the state, the civil war between tribes (between the northern and southern kingdoms) has undone the original covenant that was made with God. They forgot who delivered them out of Egypt and so they thought they were responsible for delivering themselves. They forgot who fed them in the wilderness and thought that it was by their own hands that they had wealth. They forgot that God brought water from the rock and thought instead that their future and the future of their kingdoms would flow from their own power.

God speaks through Jeremiah and he writes:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Walter Brueggeman calls this part of the prophetic book of Jeremiah "the book of comfort." God is watching and planting and build the new community of hope. While we may well remember the proverb that the parents sins are visited upon the children (even Jesus quotes this), we see in the passage that the people have an opportunity to begin again. The proverb is "null and void" says Brueggeman. All exiles have the possibility of the new. (Brueggeman, Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 504)

The covenant intends that people not work against one another but rather that they see one another face to face and see God face to face. Again a radical message says that God will forget all their sin.

For Christians this is the very mission of God in Christ Jesus. That God in Christ comes and is incarnate such that they meet God face to face, and can no longer look at each other without seeing the face of God looking back. That God in Christ will be the very law himself. We are to understand that the highest law shall be the writing of commandments and actions by Jesus himself. Humanity will know, both by sight and by relationship and by story/witness God. The living word shall come and be part of the community and with him he shall bring forgiveness of every iniquity.

While we may wonder why Jeremiah remains in the scripture because of his obvious entanglement with the Babylonian court, what we see is that his words prophesy a new faith. The first Christians, without a New Testament, understood their work as community and the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the prophesy of Jeremiah.

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

The Beloved Community of John and the Symphony of Engagement

Sermon preached on 5.b Lent at Good Shepherd in Austin. With a shout out to The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl (PZ's Podcast) Rudolf Otto and Miester Eckhart. 2015.

Dunstan's Corn or A Grain Must Be Buried in the Ground

Sermon preached at Trinity Longview. Mexico memories and our parrot named Dunstan. 2012.

We want to see Jesus

This is a sermon preached at Holy Spirit Houston on March 30, 2009 on John 12.20-33. 2009.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Lent 4B March 11, 2018


God of mercy, who sent your Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it, open our eyes to behold Jesus lifted up on the cross and to see in those outstretched arms your abundant compassion.  Let the world's weary and wounded come to know that by your gracious gift we are saved and delivered, so immeasurable is the love with which you love the world.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 3:14-21

"Nicodemus had heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep."

"Nicodemus," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"As a small minority, the Johannine community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, whether supported by the state or not, and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform."

Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"Whatever our own solution to the issues of inclusion and exclusion, John?s gospel asks us to recognise that to reject the love and light and truth we see in Jesus is to choose death ? wherever and whenever we do it, and to receive it means life, life our world which God still loves desperately needs."

"First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Lent 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

Raymond Brown wrote an article with advice for preaching John, he wrote in the article, "The Johannine World for Preachers," is the necessity to enter into the world of John and its symbolic universe. Brown advices, "Do not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive, be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear." (Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon)  With this in mind then, what are we to do with this passage?

So let us begin by remembering that these words come from a conversation that Jesus is having with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  He has come to believe in God and in Jesus because of the many signs.  Key to John's Gospel are not the signs themselves but the revelatory power of Jesus who happens to be performing them.  The purpose of the signs is belief in the Gospel.  So it is no wonder that Jesus in our passage has moved from a previous discourse about spirit to one about God's intentions: the salvation of the world.

Second, the passage we read today follows directly upon Jesus' teaching about being born again.  The baptismal conversation is important.  How it plays out sacramentally is one discussion that I will not go into; nevertheless, it seems that the basic idea here is that one is born both by the spirit and through water.  (Raymond Brown, John vol 1, p 142ff, has an excellent discussion of the details surrounding this particular piece of Johnanine liturature.)

What Nicodemus has heard so far is that while coming to believe through signs, entrance into the kingdom is not something humans can accomplish on their own.  In other words your faith does not save you, only God saves you.  Moreover, one is brought into the Kingdom of God through God's outpouring of the spirit.  We believe in the Episcopal Church that such an outpouring is measured in the sacrament of baptism.  Nicodemus then asks, "how does this happen?"  He fades into the background as we move into the monologue we have for today's passage.

We receive the Holy Spirit, we are are welcomed into the Kingdom of God, only through the power of Jesus' work on the cross (vs 14), his resurrection, and his ascension (vs 15).  Leaning on Isaac typology (Brown, 147) Jesus explains.  The purpose of not allowing death to be the final answer (just as Isaac's death was not required)  is for the gathering in of the world and its people.  God intends the embrace of God's people; and their freedom to live and be who they were created to be.  The creation story will be successful.  We enter the reign of God only through Jesus' work.  The incarnation and Jesus' presence in the world will necessarily create a decision point for individuals: to either live life following Jesus; or to live life not following Jesus - perhaps against him.

What is interesting here at this point (vs20-21) is what we typically do with this passage.  While Jesus is not here to condemn the world - we do.  Our human nature is to immediately divide up the world into working groups we can get our minds around.  That typically means we go to the save and the not saved. We move quickly to do the judging.  But it is (according to our Nicene Creed) Jesus in his second coming that will judge.  It doesn't seem to stop us, so we typically take what comes next to decide who is in and who is out.  I also think we do this in a way that automatically removes us from the sinning proposition and into the category of people who "do all kinds of good works."  Such a missionary mindset is hardly one I think Jesus would recognize.  Raymond Brown writes:

"...the purpose clauses which end vss. 20 -21 are not to be understood as giving the subjective reason why men come or do not come to the light, that is, a man does not really come to Jesus to have it confirmed that his deeds are good.  Rather, the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life.  Jesus is penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is." (John, vol 1, 148-9)
Before the cross we are all judged.  And, instead of condemning we are to engage in a conversation not unlike the one between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are to let people come to the cross for their own judgment and make their own faithful pilgrim way into relationship with Jesus.

Our work is the invitation.  We are to invite people into this sacred relationship.  Not unlike Jesus, we are to make the Gospel message known:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

As a Christian we believe that this is the only way to salvation.  To believe anything else is essentially to not be a Christian but to be a henothiest; that is believing there are many gods and many salvations.  We have one language and one cultural story to tell and that is of Jesus, his cross and his resurrection.  We are to engage the world in a conversation that allows people to be listened to, and invited into, a deeper profoundly transformational relationship with God in Christ Jesus.

The world will be drawn into this relationship not by condemning the world but by disciples living transformed lives.  Through the rebirth experienced in baptism, through the grace and mercy of God, and the empowering Holy Spirit, we are to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection.  As we do this people will be drawn into life with Christ and may in turn be discipled.  They are drawn in by our example.  Subsequently, like our own, their lives are transformed by their own coming to terms with who Jesus is and his work.

When we as a church community move away from this singular proposition we are apt to argue over all manner of condemnations: sex, structure, liturgy, and polity.  When we begin with this singular proposition (that we are saved by grace alone) then we may all find ourselves truly transformed as we come to the foot of the cross together.  

Some Thoughts on Ephesians 2:1-10

"Even Jesus? name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means 'the Lord saves.'"

"Just As I Am," Thomas G. Long, The Christian Century, 2006.

"To be a Christian, says the text, is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him, to be enthroned with him. Spiritual? Yes. Mystical? Perhaps. Subjective? Partially. Will-o'-the wisp? Never. Experiential but inseparable from history? Always."

"From God, to God," Fred Craddock, The Christian Century 2003.

"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that."

"Paul," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you."

"Grace," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

Paul begins by speaking about those who received their faith, baptism and the Holy Spirit. He prays that they will receive wisdom and revelation as they continue their journey.

The reality is that the following of Jesus is a journey, a process, by which people come to understand more and more their inherited faith.

I always feel Paul is buttering them up for the one-two punch. And, here he goes...he reminds them of their life before faith. You must remember that the world in which they live is diverse and filled with a plurality of beliefs and different religions. He reminds them that this faith is typically a faith which is self-centered and focused upon their own needs - their own life.

He uses powerful language about being spiritually dead and living apart from God and under the wrath of God. This language reminds me in my time that Paul is correct that living a life focused upon my needs is to live a life oriented around a god of my own making. When I focus on my needs as the primary directing power of life not only am I the god at the center of my universe - I worship other gods in order to control my world - money, sex, social standing, pleasing others, and many many more.

Then we get the grace! Even though we were far off God loved us. A fellow blogger, Chris Haslam, Anglican Diocese of Montreal, wrote:

God loved us greatly, so greatly that he brought us life together, raised us together and enthroned us together – "with Christ". Christians have been given a new status, a new life, and new freedom, in order that, by living in this way, we may be channels through whom God shows his gifts to us to the world. We are saved by God’s freely given inestimable gift of love (“grace”, 2:7). Our salvation is already happening through the medium of our “faith” (2:8), but even “this” (salvation) is a gift from God, rather than a result of our efforts (“works”, 2:9). God’s plan has always included making Christians what we are: “created in Christ ... for good works” (2:10): being saved, we do “good works”.
I once learned that when emotions are deep and high it is easier to get angry than it is to get sad, or feel the pain of loss, and suffering. Sadness, loss, and suffering can be so painful that avoiding them with a bit of anger is an easier way to go. 

Sometimes when we get to a passage like this we are tempted to do the same kind of avoidance. We will find it easier to focus on how we were far off and worshiping other gods, etc, and etc. "Let's have a shame fest" is always an easier answer...even better with a touch of anger. We can go to anger rather than to a place of reality where we recognize, name, and honor our deeper selves, our deeper emotions, and our deeper pain. We have tremendous guilt for what we have done and left undone. Shaming people for being beyond hope will never give them the hope they are looking for now.

I dream of a church that is preaching, teaching, and living a grace filled life. I dream of a church that is hopeful and redemptive. I hope for a church that can be honest about the pain most people are sitting in, their hopelessness, and sense that everything they experience now is "as good as it gets". The message Paul is trying to communicate is one worth communicating today: even when we were far off God loved us. Even when we are far off God loves us. We are given freedom to write a new story. Everyday we are surrounded by grace and given the opportunity to move beyond our sadness, loss, and suffering. We are offered through the continuous recreative work of god the opportunity to put behind us the guilt of things done and undone. This is Good News indeed - we have a new life, even our failures are redeemed, and our loss honored with an opportunity of redemption. WE are forgiven, we are saved, we are resurrected, and enthroned with Christ Jesus.

Some Thoughts on Numbers 21:4-9

"What I thought might kill me became for me the way of healing. But I have still much looking at the bronze serpent to do if I am to continue my healing. Does my story in any way resonate with yours?"

"Of Snakes and Things," John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2015.

"The text for today doesn't seem like altogether good news."

Commentary, Numbers 21:4-9, Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"What cures us from serpents? The cure is a serpent that we call forth for ourselves , even more deeply 'serpenty' in its essence than the deadly living snakes."

"Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face," Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center.

"'Kedusha' can cleanse us totally, but if we try to yoke it, to work it, it becomes unfit."

"Hukkat Commentary," Rabbi Michael Graetz, The Shalom Center.

Oremus Online NRSV Text 

Let me begin by simply saying that I think this passage from Numbers fits better in Lent 5b given the themes presented in John's Gospel. Nevertheless, the powers that be have chosen to have this fall in our teaching this week. It does allow you to weave the two gospels together using the imagery here. So, lets look at the passage first from a wisdom perspective of our faith ancestors.

The great rabbi of the middle ages ibn Ezra explains on ha-seraphim: "Figuratively they loose their tongue to bite; thus they were sent against them" (on Num. 21:6). (Also cf. Sforno on the words, "Make a seraph figure [alt.:fiery serpent]" (Num. 21:8): "The serpent was burned by his idle words, and likewise was their sin and their retribution.") Dr. Leah Himmelfarb, Bar-Ilan University, offers, "The complainers in the desert sinned with their tongues, so, measure for measure, they were struck by the same instrument."

Part of what is happening here is the idea that the complainers receive their punishment. No grumbling allowed in the desert. Seriously, though, what is actually at work here is linked to the story that comes before. They are being punished for their words, because they doubted God and Moses.

Elizabeth Webb, Episcopalian and theologian, offers a helpful understanding of the historic background to our passage here:
Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, marked off by two censuses. The first census is in chapter one, in which the descendants of each of the twelve tribes are named, up to the present generation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of these men will live to inhabit Canaan (14:28-30). The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge of Canaan when the book reaches its end.

Between the two censuses, among stories of battle and ritual regulations, the people repeatedly complain and rebel against Moses. God's anger is kindled by this rebellion, and God sends a plague (11:33), inflicts Miriam with leprosy (12:10), and more than once asserts that this complaining generation will die out before Canaan is reached (14:20-25 and 28-35; 20:12). It's as if God is picking off the older generation a little bit at a time; Moses admits as much, when he urges God not to kill them all at once (14:13-19).
Turning to the New Testament use of the passage we find something interesting. In John's Gospel Jesus refers to himself as being lifted up and those who look upon him shall be saved, not unlike the pole and bronze serpent of this story. (See next week's gospel.) Richard Hays in Echoes of the Scripture in the Gospels links this as do many others. It is the core of Robert Farrar Capon's theology. Jesus' own lifting up is the lifting up on the cross for the sins of others. One difference is that while the bronze serpent only saved some Jesus' promises that his lifting up will draw all to him.

John Wesley, in typical Wesleyan style, writes in his notes on the passage, "The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ."

Terence E. Fretheim, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Luther Seminary, offers this, "Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole." I think it is this that best captures the idea. 

Jesus is offering his own interpretation on this passage. He is explaining the paradox of the gospel. That which is meant to kill will bring life to the least and lost. In the wilderness God sets God's feet down and makes his stand there. But, it is a show of weakness rather power, of suffering rather than strength, it is surrender in the service of other that in the end brings about victory. 

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

How Bright Is The Light You Are Using? John 3.14-21

This sermon was preached at Christ the King, Atascocita during a Confirmation Service. The Lesson is from John's Gospel: 3.14-21.

When did you meet Jesus for the first time?

Sermon preached on John 3:1-17, Nicodemus meets Jesus.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Lent 3B March 4, 2018

Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, Cathedrale d'Amiens. 


O God, the living fountain of new life, to the human race, parched with thirst, you offer the living water of grace that springs up from the rock, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Grant your people the gift of the Spirit, that we may learn to profess our faith with courage and conviction and announce with joy the wonders of your saving love.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you int he unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 2:13-25

"I read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours."

"Subtle as a Sledge Hammer: Jesus 'Cleanses' the Temple," The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation.

"Followers of Jesus confess that Jesus is King and the emperor is not. If the consequence of challenging the imperial powers is death, as it was for Jesus and many of his followers, so be it."

Commentary, John 2:13-22, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"Is the community good news for the poor or is it chaplain to the rich who oppress? Mark with telling irony contrasts the widow and her poverty with the oppression of the temple authorities who exploit widows (12:38-44). Lent is also a time for the church to take a good look at itself."

"First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Lent 3, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

I guess I want to begin my reflection with, "Wow."  This passage never seems to get easier to read. It also challenges my thinking about who Jesus is for me...most days.  So, I think it deserves some very important reflection.

First, the cleansing of the Temple is a sign. It is a sign that the messianic age is upon us, and a call for purification in the presence of the Messiah.

Second, in the face of the authorities desire for a sign, Jesus gives them one by cleansing the Temple.

There are many mixes of imagery and theology. We cannot ignore the imagery that comes to mind about our own faith and religious traditions. We can imagine too the sacrifice of Christ's body in comparison the prophesy regarding the destruction.

But as I sit here on this particular day I ask myself what needs to be cleansed. It is Lent and I am wondering in a particularly reflective mood, what is it in me that I need to have cleansed by the Grace of Jesus, his mercy, and his forgiveness.

Not out of shame, believing that I will then be worthy...not out of a desire to be perfect...rather to ask myself the question where do I do things, or not do things, that need to be cleansed and transformed by God.

You see more often than not (I think - only you preachers can tell me) we spend time talking about how everything else needs to be cleaned out...our culture, our church, our politics, our...whatever.  On this day I am reminded of that habit I have of cleaning my desk before I do the work.  A necessary thing - sure - more often than not a diversionary tactic.

It is always easier to see the easy work of cleaning out someone else's temple than it is to clean out our own. Or to spend time shaking the fist at the organization, culture, or institution vs rolling up our sleeves, entering the arena and getting our hands, feet and face dirty with the sweat and blood of ministry.

The tables that need turning over in my life are: my belief that there is no power greater than myself; that I can control people's reactions; that other people are responsible for my happiness; that cynicism is an appropriate response to believe there is no good in the world; that if I am allied with the right people I will be safe; that faithfulness means attendance; that my excuses are really pretty good; that what I most often do is my "best;" that I am right; and that politics will save us.

I have to drop my shields and move out vulnerably.

I guess I want Jesus to turn my tables. I pray for grace and wisdom so that my need for self-esteem is replaced with God's forgiveness and love.  I hope the tables are turned so that my sarcasm will be transformed into spiritual joy.  I hope God will help me replace my selfishness with self-giving and my dishonesty with honesty.  May I seek others instead of myself; seeing them as God sees them.  That my fear may be overwhelmed by God given courage.  That I won't blame but be accountable.  And that in all these things I will have a humble and contrite heart.

There is a danger in this lesson though and that is to let the church off the hook. We can talk about the tables being turned "out there" and the tables being turned "in my life" but does this have anything to say to the church.

Well, in fact I think that is much the point. This is a favorite Gospel lesson to Heist. I mean that Jesus as a prophetic voice in his time is speaking clearly through word and action about the Temple itself. Centralized religion makes a commerce out of the gospel that is meant to heal people and the world. Centralized religion will require sacrifices be made to uphold its system of power. It will require obedience to the priest and in the case of this particular Temple we must remember it is requiring obedience to the occupying power. Religion that supports a different kingdom than the Kingdom of God is not the faith of Jesus. So it is that we might well examine our own centralized structures of attractional church and governance driven church structures.

The mission of God in Christ Jesus will always be limited by the time and energy spent on the structure. When the structures serve itself more than the world in God's name then the structure needs its tables turned.

Some Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that."

"Paul," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him."

"Emmanuel," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"In this week's passage, he shows how the particular divisions plaguing Corinth can be given the same diagnosis. And here is where things might start to get a little more personal."

Commentary, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (Epiphany 4A), J.R. Daniel Kirk, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

Paul tells the truth - the non-comoditized Gospel of free love and grace does not make sense in our culture. A Gospel without shame and plenteous forgiveness is nonsense in a world of commerce where everything from feelings, narratives, personal journeys, and real products are traded based upon a supply and demand basis. 

The reality is that no matter what divides the church at Corinth or divides our own church there is a pretty simple understanding of conflict - people who are willing to argue their own perspective vs a humble perspective that begins at the foot of the cross, offers one's whole self to God and others in response to the grace of Jesus, and opens themselves up to the movement of the spirit. There have forever been and will forever be great debaters in the church - but debaters rarely get much accomplished.

We will never know the Gospel through wisdom or some philosophical theological principle.  For all faith and belief is rooted in the context of hands on ministry. Knowing God is experiencing failure, guilt, brokenness, suffering, and rising in glory because of the hope that is in us and the grace given to us.

The very proof of this is God's saving work without the great debate! God acts. God depends not upon our theological wisdom. And, furthermore, God does not choose us because of what we know, understand, or are able to convey. God chooses us out of God's desire to have us as his very own. 

This is what we boast in our Gospel - God chooses us. God makes us, God chooses us, God dwells with us, God invites us to dwell in harmony with one another. That is a Gospel worth boasting.

Some Thoughts on Exodus  20:1-20

"The Decalogue, when viewed as a part of this series of tests that were to shape the people's identity, is thus not only a series of laws but a fertile ground from which blessings and health and prosperity can grow from God."

Commentary, Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Callie Plunket-Brewton, Preaching This Week,, 2014.

"It has been said that we need a far more rich and comprehensive theology of marriage if we are ever to tackle effectively the epidemic of adultery. I agree, but is there still place for a sermon on adultery?"

"Let's Not Talk about That (Adultery!)" John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2015.

"The Decalogue was God's direct address to Israel: 'God spoke all these words' ('words,' not commandments)."

Commentary, Exodus 20:1-17, Terence E. Fretheim, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

Oremus Online NRSV Text 

Today’s Old Testament reading is the Ten Commandments. In fact this passage came up previously last summer during the season after Pentecost Proper 27A. So if you missed it you can circle back around, or perhaps look at a different one of the commandments. I also know in the Episcopal Church there may be more liturgical use of the commandments during the season of Lent.

The work for the people of Israel (and for the people who claim to follow Jesus today) was to learn to “love as God loved and loves” wrote Stanley Hauerwas in The Peaceable Kingdom (78).

What is interesting and somewhat important for us today is to on the one hand lean into this deep meaning offered by the passage and elucidated by Hauerwas and at the same time reject the Constantinian and Enlightenment/Reformed diversions from the story. Hauerwas defines these typical approaches to taking out the gospel in such passage in this way. The impact upon our reading, preaching, belief and practice is shaped by a “Constantinianism” that offers “the conviction that Christianity is about being religious in a general and diffuse sense.” Meanwhile the Enlightenment/Reformation “makes Christians into apologists to and for the modern world. (See Hauerwas, Scripture and Ethics, 111) Moreover, he cautions us to not make this about “advice” or about how to live in particular “circumstances”. In other words the Ten Commandments are not an ethical prescription to be filled by the loyal disciple but instead they are about a kind of community that is seeking to live into the blessings and grace of God.

For the Christian who lives between Constantine and the Reformation we find it all to easy to embrace the scripture as a list of moral imperatives – a biblical ethic. Again, Hauerwas, “The problem of revelation aside, however, the view that the Bible contains a revealed morality that can be applied directly by the individual agent, perhaps with some help from the biblical critic, flounders when considering the status of individual commands.” (71) When we do this it is all to easy to dismiss their meaning. What I am getting at is that the nature of the community seeking to respond to God’s freedom is essential, the tradition of handing along that response and then the response to Jesus’ ministry is essential. What this helps us to understand is that our own response is not one of a person alone. Christians inherit a tradition wherein the biblical story is part of a very real community that stretches over millennia and arcs towards the end of time. Moroever, that the ethic of such a community is one defined by holding community, tradition, and its scripture in hand. Scripture in this way becomes, as Hauerwas offers, “revealed reality” instead of “revealed morality”. (72) This then leads us to virtues – which is the Christian manner of approach.

So it is that when we return then to the Old Testament and read the commandments we are able to hear them in a different manner. We may instead of hearing a list hear the virtues. The community today is invited to seek to learn to love as God loves. In this way then we see a community attempting live out that learning. We might do well to return to our own Book of Common Prayer to read our approach in just such a context.

Q. What do we learn from these commandments?
A. We learn two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors. 
Q. What is our duty to God?
A. Our duty is to believe and trust in God;
I. To love and obey God and to bring others to know him;
II. To put nothing in the place of God;
III. To show God respect in thought, word, and deed;
IV. And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.
Q. What is our duty to our neighbors?
A. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as ourselves, and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us;
V. To love, honor, and help our parents andfamily; to honor those in authority, and to meettheir just demands;
VI. To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God;
VII. To use all our bodily desires as God intended;
VIII. To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God;
IX. To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence;
X. To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.
Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors. 
Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
Our New Testament refers back to the Ten Words in a very particular way. In Mark it appears that God in Christ Jesus is the God of the first commandment. Jesus is the Kyrios and the Logos. He is the living out of the these commandments as God comes into contact with the people and powers of his time. (Hays, Echoes of Scripture, 62.)

Luke picks up the theme of this passage from Exodus more in line with the language of community. He understands that these are woven into discipleship life - as Hauerwas was reflecting. Specifically in the Gospel of Luke chapter 18, Jesus not only encourages these as a way to follow but goes on to discuss five out of the ten. Jesus goes so far as to move beyond simple coveting to ownership and sharing what we have. (Ibid, 209) God is at work in the world and so we are to be at work in the world. Luke makes it clear that the sabbath itself is a time when God is working and we are to echo that work by joining Christ and the Creator by releasing those bound by the religious and the powerful. (Ibid, 269 and 282.)

Again, our work is not simply to live in isolation over and agains the world but to live out these ways of being in the world and free others from the powers that bind them.

Let us turn to our Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. From his Ebor lectures delivered in 2011 we discover that for Rabbi Sacks the "words" of God to God's people are a principled foundation for healthy society. He writes that there is a difference between a social and political contract and a covenant. These are covenant words. He says:
"A contract is about advantage, a covenant is about loyalty. A contract is about interests, a covenant is about identity, about belonging to something bigger than me. From a contract, I gain, but from a covenant, I am transformed. I am no longer the person I once was, but am part of something larger than I once was. Thus, a social contract creates a State, but a covenant creates society."
"If we take the Darwin-Tocqueville story and the biblical story together, what do we learn? From Darwin and Tocqueville, we learn that species survive, and humanity survives, only on the basis that there is not only competition but also cooperation. From the Bible, we learn there is such a thing as a State and a society, but they are different things. The State is created by a contract; the society is created by a covenant."
First, this really is a must read! What Rabbi Sacks is revealing is that God's words are far from  being the supporter of the nation - as many pretend. Instead they are the rood of good and healthy society.

He writes,
"...That we must remember what we seem to have forgotten, namely, the importance of families, communities, congregations, voluntary associations and charities. It is in these groups, these arenas of cooperation, that we rehearse our altruistic instincts, which are as fundamental to what makes us human as our instincts to competition. These instincts form the ecology of freedom because without them, we would have only the market and the State, and that is not enough for human beings to survive."
Society itself is judged by a people who chose to live differently within its midst. The people who live by the words/commandments live within a different kind of kingdom and by doing so they are a different kind of people.

All of this boils down to a very important concept within our tradition. God does not have a prophet, or a leader, or even a Christ. God has a people. We are God's people and we are to be a blessing of Shalom of peace to the world.

We are not simply people after peace and justice but we are people who are deeply rooted in a tradition that seeks to tell our story through virtuous action of being peace and being justice. We are a people of character and a particular one at that.

We are to be virtuous citizens not only on Sundays, not only within the walls of our homes; we are to be virtuous citizens at work in the political and social environs of our community. Global and national society will only work if we are a people of character caring for one another through our very relationships across the boundary of state or the "right" of the individual. In other words, I may have the right to leave you out in the cold but as a person in a covenant with God I have a different responsibility.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lent 2B February 25, 2018

A road leading to Ceasarea of Philippi

God of all goodness, you did not spare your only-begotten son but gave him up for the sake of us sinners.  Strengthen within us the gift of obedient faith, that, in all things, we may follow faithfully in Christ's footsteps, and, with him, be transfigured in the light of your glory.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Mark 8:27-38

"For those, like Peter, who are hoping for a knight on a white horse to sweep in at the last moment and save the day, the messianic expectation is bound to end in disappointment."

"Not a Super Hero, but an Authentic Human," Caspar Green, Scarlet Letter Bible, 2012.

"These verses are crucial for understanding the Gospel according to Mark as a whole and for fathoming what it means to be Christian."

Commentary, Mark 8:27-38, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing."

"Preaching the Anti-King," David Lose, Working Preacher, 2012.

"I’m curious as to what role the “having turned and having seen his disciples” plays in this conversation..."

"Jesus Rejects the Title, 'The Christ','" D Mark Davis, raw translation and exegesis/questions, Left Behind and Loving It, 2012.

There are several things going on in this passage: Jesus is recognized as Messiah and then prophesies his death and resurrection; and his instructions to the disciples about what is gained and lost in their decision to follow him.

Here on the road to Philippi his followers take stabs at who he might be. These are certainly echoes of 6:14-15, a kind of popular notion of his ministry.  While they all contain within them some element of truth they are not the Truth.  Even if we were not theologically following this discourse we would see that a claim that they are lacking is evident in Jesus' follow up question: But who do you say that I am?

Some exegetes, trying to make sense of this, have disputed Peter's confession. (Joel Marcus, Mark, vol 2, 612)  In fact his statement could be a Markan insertion of an ancient baptismal formula.  And, certainly the revelation of the exact nature of his messianic kingship is yet to be revealed. (Ibid, 613)  Nevertheless, what happens here is more than foreshadowing a future reality as you and I read the living word. It provides for us insight into the nature of the God we believe in, and the nature of the Son we seek to follow.

In these words of Jesus we receive several revelations. The first is that while these events that are to unfold are unexpected (perhaps in Paul's words "foolish") they are exactly God's will and desire.  God in Jesus has come to enfold humanity.  The cross, the great inevitability, will not stop either the proclamation of Good News nor will it keep salvation history from breaking into the cosmos.

The second revelation is that the scriptures of Israel, the Old Testament, reveal this march towards incarnation, crucifixion, and redemption.

Peter's reaction to this is normal, and in point of fact echoes our modern response to this notion. It doesn't make sense.  Typically, in the face of criticism the Christian either shuts down or retreats to a different understanding of God and Jesus.

Jesus then gathers the people towards him and tells them that there is a cost to following.The images here and the words used by our author are similar to a commander rallying his troops. They are summoned following the rebuke, gathered so they can be refocused on the work at hand.  The self sacrifice, the work, the difficult hardships to be endured as a follower of Jesus are manifest; some are as physical as martyrdom, some social, still others will be psychological.  Jesus encourages them to have the will, fortitude, and endurance to run this race.

This Sunday is an opportunity to preach the uniqueness of God in Christ Jesus, the cross, and salvation.  While I think many will like the disciples offer some turned phrase that will lesson the meaning of who Jesus is to one of the disciple's responses.  We are encouraged to pick up our cross and be apologists for our theology.

I recently read an article that appeared in The Christian Century, April 19, 1995, pp. 423-428, Robert Bellah, (emeritus professor of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley) described the tension between Christianity and pluralism. He wrote these words regarding our current challenge of proclaiming a gospel in our Western culture:

…[W]e are getting our wires crossed if we think we can jettison defining beliefs, loyalties and commitments because they are problematic in another context. Reform and re-appropriation are always on the agenda, but to believe that there is some neutral ground from which we can rearrange the defining symbols and commitments of a living community is simply a mistake-a common mistake of modern liberalism. Thus I do not see how Christians can fail to confess, with all the qualifications I have stated, but sincerely and wholeheartedly, that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus.
Bella, then offers a challenge to those who would teach Christianity today.  It is a challenge well worth our effort!

…Thus it would seem that a nonsuperficial Christianity must be based on something more than an individual decision for Christ, must be based on induction into the Christian cultural-linguistic system. Without such induction the individual decision may be not for the biblical Christ but for a henotheistic guardian spirit. And that is true not only for so-called new Christians, but for many of us in our own allegedly Christian society who do not understand what Paul would have required us as Christians to understand.
Therefore it seems to me of the utmost importance on this Sunday, with the witness of Peter given to us as the gospel, to make our cultural-linguistic case for the Gospel we Episcopalians believe.

We believe in the Episcopal Church that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and that he reveals to us and illustrates for us the very true nature of God.

Jesus reveals to us what I have said, and moreover that God is love and that God’s creation is meant to glorify God.

We believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.

We believe, what is foolish to man, that God became in Jesus human that we might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs in the family of Abraham and inherit God's kingdom.

We believe we did what humans do to prophets and we killed Jesus. God knew this and yet freely walked to the cross in the person of Jesus, that through his death, resurrection and ascension we would be given freedom from the power of sin and be reconciled to God.

While the ability to glorify God and live in a covenant community with God was given to us so too was the gift of eternal life.

We believe God in the form of the Son descended among the dead and that they receive the benefit of the faithful which is redemption and eternal life.

We say and claim that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us and that we share in this new relationship by means of baptism into this covenant community – wherein we become living members in Christ.

In our covenant community we have a language of faith which directs our conversations and gives meaning to our words; through which we understand we are invited to believe, trust, and keep God’s desire to be in relationship by keeping his commandments.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are to love one another as Christ loved us.

As preachers I encourage you to preach the Gospel that is in us.  Teach your people what the Episcopal Church believes of this foolish messiah, claim the cross as the symbol of our faith and Jesus as Messiah.

This is the good news of salvation we know in Jesus name.  So, take up your cross and preach.

Some Thoughts on Romans 4:13-25

"The law has always been a means of pointing the way toward God, an instrument that helps us to know and do the divine will. As such it is meant to liberate. But when the means is mistaken for an end in itself, the consequence can be a state of spiritual confusion in which all hope is obscured."
Commentary, Romans 4:13-25, Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"To this day, any time we are tempted to limit God to the size of our purposes or to doubt the breadth of God's generosity or the surprising power of God's activity we can return to Romans 4 as an astonishing elaboration of the familiar but life-changing claim: God is great; God is good."

Commentary, Romans 4:13-25 (Pentecost 4), David Bartlett, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

"Similar struggles emerge today when people ponder whether there can be such faith in God without the culturally specific reference to Christianity."

"First Thoughts on Passages on Year B Epistle Passages in the Lectionary: Lent 2," William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

Abraham is for Paul an archetype of faithfulness. However, Paul does not believe that Abraham was blessed because of what he did - kept the law (even though it had not been given to Moses yet), was the father of Israel, and did all that God asked (left home, was willing to sacrifice his son). At the time that Paul wrote this Abraham was seen as an example of a person who kept all the laws. He was considered God's greatest law keeper. Paul is crafty in turning this argument.

Paul believes that faith is something larger than keeping the law. Faith is attached to God's gift, God's promise. 

Paul understands full well the human condition to be unable to achieve perfection. If faith and God's promise are dependent upon some kind of contract - covenant - then we are all in big trouble. God loves us because God has created us worthy of God's love. God gives us grace because we are made worthy of forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ. Grace is given free to everyone everywhere and it is not dependent upon keeping the Mosaic law. 

So, Abraham becomes the father of the Christian faith - not because he kept a law - but because he believed in God's promise, he hoped in God's promise. It is here that Paul reorients faith not in keeping law or doing good and right things but in believing in God's promise. So it is with us. We will never be perfect. We will never keep the law. We may respond to God's love and grace by choosing how to live life differently - this is true. But we receive God's promise, God's love, God's mercy freely. And, our faith is our response to that promise.

What a gift in Lent to hear and receive these words. We are working hard to keep our Lenten laws that we have set down for ourselves. It will be interesting to preach and help people come to understand that faith is about believing in the promise and not achieving some kind of un-achievable standard of perfection.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 17:1-16

"Laughter may seem a little uncouth during Lent; after all, this is a season of spiritual practices, of discipline, forty somber days in which we pack up our Alleluias and put them in storage. Even so, we do well to remember every year that the promises of the Gospel are foolishness in the eyes of the world. "

Commentary, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"In our own day, although marriage and family may never have been more vexed as political issues, there is a steady movement towards the privatization and deinstitutionalization of sexual relations and marriage. Marriage is being shorn of a telos that exceeds the private ends of the parties within it, increasingly rendering the actual form of the union as a bespoke one and the conformity of society's behaviour to its moral norms an entirely optional matter."

"The Politics of Abraham's Foreskin," Alastair Roberts, Political Theology Today, 2015.

"It is frankly inconceivable that anyone reading Genesis 17, a text right at the heart of the long struggle for Abram and Sarai to find fulfillment with the promise of YHWH for them to have a child, could possibly leave out the quite hilarious, and yet tragic, irony to be found between Genesis 17:3 and Genesis 17:17. These two verses are nothing less than the lynchpin of the entire chapter, and the lectionary collectors have apparently missed the crucial connection."

"YHWH the Amazing," John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2012.

"A longstanding Jewish tradition sees the career of Abraham as a sequence of trials, commencing with his call to leave his homeland for an unidentified destination, and culminating in the command to sacrifice his son. Perhaps we are justified in seeing the present episode as a trial of a different sort: Had Abraham and Sarah not reacted to God's promise with irrepressible laughter, then they would have failed the test! They would have been declared unworthy bearers of God's covenant."

Scholars root Mary's song to her faith ancestors directly to this passage. Not only is all of the nation of Israel to come from the covenant with Abram and Sarai but so too will the Messiah. That Jesus is part of this lineage is made clear as he is circumcised and presented in the Temple according to the instructions to Abram. John and Paul (Galatians) will both rest in the assurance that they are members of the Abrahamic tradition and that Jesus sees this as an aspect of the universal invitation of people to be part of God's tribe.

Without this story we cannot help to understand what we are being invited into exactly. Christianity is in fact much more than a social movement against injustice. We are to be a very particular kind of people. We are, as we have said many times before, to be a people who are peaceful and a blessing to all. We are to be a people who go and a people who find God out in the world. We are a people who have a covenant with God and so see God's hand at work in the world and show it to others. We are discomforted to walk out into the world so that others might find comfort. This is the work and has been the work.

Truly the journey of Abraham and Sarah is important in this story because of the legacy, the connection to the people of Jesus' own day, Jesus' part in the arc of the story of salvation and blessing.

There is a part here though that in this particular passage hearkens back to Genesis. The first negative word spoken in the story of creation is that Adam is "lonely". This is often twisted to some idea that woman is a mere companion - a kind of "behind every good man" theology. But that is not the way scripture speaks of it. Woman and man together are the partners God creates. People need one another. There are no lone patriarchs in the kingdom of God. We are all people along the road together. This is a message Jesus repeatedly exemplifies in his calling of people and his sending out of people.

You see, the story of Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the disciples is deeply woven into the story of Abraham and Sarah.

There is some sense that perhaps Abraham thinks this is a solo act. Just as some over emphasize personal salvation...this story is not about a personal covenant with Abraham as it is with a whole family and a whole people. Abraham may think this covenant business is all about him. But it turns out it is truly about he and Sarah and a nation. For the Christian it expands even further.

Rabbi Litman tells us that in a very old tradition of biblical study Abraham has missed the point. She writes,
Abraham perceives these words as directed uniquely to him. He realizes that he must have an heir in order to become a covenantal nation, but he does not think that the identity of the mother is of consequence. Abarbanel, a medieval biblical exegete, explains that God responds to Abraham, "Abraham, you thought that all the good that I testified to do for you was for your sake [only], and therefore once you had your son Ishmael, you thought the birth of Isaac was unnecessary. Know that this is not so, but rather Sarah is deserving to bear you a [covenantal] son.and behold Ishmael is not her son, so from the perspective of Sarah, the birth of Isaac is absolutely necessary." (Read more at
The Rabbi Abarbanel, is clear we are to be partners just as Abraham and Sarah are partners. Joseph and Mary are to be partners, Jesus and humanity are to be partners, humanity is to undertake its mission with partners.

Again, Rabbi Litman writes:
Abraham's journey in Genesis is a struggle to better understand God and to discern his place in God's plan. Along the way, Abraham learns that no one person has a monopoly on God's covenant, and that great endeavors require great partners. (Ibid.)
The truth is, we cannot be a blessing of peace, a community of Shalom, without other people. There are no Christians outside of Christian community. There are truly no "Lone Ranger" Christians. We are always and everywhere at our best when we are communal in our work, bound with partners, modeling reconciliation, peace, and love.

An excerpt from my book entitled Vocātiō: Imaging A Visible Church:

Let’s begin with Abraham and Sarah, originally called Abram and Sarai, and renamed for their faithfulness. In many ways this story of calling begins the narrative of God's people. Abraham and Sarah were frequently cited by the early Church as examples of God's expansive promise to all people.

God calls Abraham and says, "Go." Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, "with this address Abraham's life is radically displaced."[i] Sarah and Abraham's lives were disrupted by God's invitation and commitment to them. All of their worldly plans are set aside as they leave their homeland for God's wilderness. Brueggemann writes, "He is caught up in a world of discourse and possibility about which he knew nothing until addressed, a world of discourse and possibility totally saturated with God's good promises for him and for the world through him. (Genesis 12:1) God’s call propels Abraham into a reality that refigures his life and removes him from any purpose or agenda he may have entertained for himself before that moment."[ii] Abraham and Sarah offer themselves faithfully to this journey and they will be a blessing to the world.

[i] I am following Brueggemann's outline of calling and sending from the essay, adding in my own reflections and understandings. Brueggemann, 122.
[ii] Brueggemann, 122.