Finding the Lessons

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Monday, February 19, 2024

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 28, 2024


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 forever 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, "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 is 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 Johannine literature.)

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, and we 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 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 a 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 Christians, 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 henotheist; 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 real 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-centred 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 centre 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 worshipping other gods, etc., 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 honour 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 the freedom to write a new story. Every day, 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 honoured with an opportunity for 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, let's 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 is 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 historical 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 of this passage. He is explaining the paradox of the gospel. That which is meant to kill will bring life to the least and loss. 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.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 25, 2023

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 authority's 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 the sacrifice of Christ's body in comparison to the prophecy 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 it is 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 our fists at the organization, culture, or institution versus rolling up our sleeves, entering the arena and getting our hands, feet and faces 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 believing 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 favourite 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 to 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 requires 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 themselves 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-commoditised 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 on 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 or theological principle.  For all, faith and belief are 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 passages 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 too 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 too 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. However, 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 to 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 living out of 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 against 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 a 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 a 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 choose 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 the virtuous action of being peaceful and just. 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 a 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 11, 2024

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 18, 2023

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 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, and the difficult hardships to be endured as a follower of Jesus are manifest; some are as physical as martyrdom, some social, and 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 a 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 neighbour 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 lawkeeper. 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 the 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, and 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 the 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 unachievable 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 nations 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, and 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 a woman is a mere companion - a kind of "behind every good man" theology. But that is not the way scripture speaks of it. Women and men 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 him 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
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, and 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 the 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, modelling 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.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

First Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 18, 2024


Gracious God, every true to your covenant, whose loving hand sheltered Noah and the chosen few while the waters of the great flood cleansed and renewed a fallen world, may we, sanctified through the saving waters of baptism and clothed in the shining garments of immortality be touched again by our call to conversion and give our lives anew to the challenge of your reign.

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

Some Thoughts on Mark 1:9-15

"Believe in the good news" is better translated as 'Trust into the good news,' since the whole point is not, 'Have an opinion about the good news.' Rather, Jesus is calling for a radical, total, unqualified basing of one's life on his good news."
Holy Textures, Understanding the Bible in its own time and in ours, Mark 1:9-15, David Ewart, 2012.

"To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark is to call attention to our greatest temptation -- the temptation to think that God is not present."

"The Greatest Temptation," Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2015.

"The loneliness of God's servant, a theme that persists throughout the gospel, is already suggested in these verses. "

Commentary, Mark 1:9-15, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

Oremus Online NRSV Text

We move quickly from the image of Jesus resplendent in light at the moment of transfiguration in Mark's Gospel, Chapter 9, to his baptism and the immediate work of preaching the Gospel in Chapter 1.  This is the first Sunday in Lent and we are reminded as we make our way from Ash Wednesday that we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God - the Good News of God proclaimed by Jesus on the edge of his own wilderness journey of preaching and healing.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (vs 15)  Could our author have captured the words of Jesus and the words of an early baptismal formula? Perhaps both. What is very clear in the scholarship is that these words that Jesus offers in our passage today is key to the understanding of his message.  Joel Marcus (Mark, vol 1, 176) writes:

"Repent, and believe in the good news!" - at their baptism they would have heard this exhortation as a call to bury the moribund world in the water and to rise from it to view, through the eyes of faith, God's new creation.  They would in short, have been reminded by Mark 1:15 of the moment when they became disciples of Jesus."

Jesus' proclamation begins following the imprisonment of John the Baptist.  This is the first public ministry of Jesus recorded in Mark's Gospel.  We might remember from a previous Sunday that while Jesus has come to heal and to over power the evil of this world, ultimately he is here for this single purpose.  To bridge the divide between this world and the kingdom of God - the dominion of God.

Joel Marcus (Mark, vol 1, 175) gives us a very clear suggestion of what Jesus is saying:

time has been fulfilled  AND   dominion of God has come near
repent                            AND   believe in the good news

The time is now, the dominion of God is near.  Our response to that grace is repentance and to trust in the good news of God.

For those who now are making their way in Lent, and for those who are still seeking to be restored to the family of God,  the faith reality is one that challenges us to change. To be aware.  To take notice of our own selves and the way we do not live in the ways of God and to amend our lives.

I was interested recently in an interview that I did and the question that I was asked: Do you think that at times like this we especially need Ash Wednesday? Our culture is a mess the interview seemed to be saying perhaps we all needed this special day and season in order to make things right.

Human nature is the same. Ash Wednesday, as is Lent, a very personal discipline.  The confrontation of this ritual life of repentance we so carefully cling to during this season as Christians is one that is not just for today but true for us year round. It is not specifically more important today than it was when Jesus invited us to respond to the dominion of God and the good news.  It is only specifically so because you and I today choose to follow Jesus. Relevance to the culture and all of our want to be special is washed away somehow in this invitation of Jesus.  Our season is not a time when we are to critique others, a time when we are to find the splinter in another person's eye, or blame and castigate our culture, rather (and on the contrary) it is a time when we remind ourselves personally that we have not done what Jesus asked us to do.

I claim to follow Jesus but fail. I try to amend my life and fail. I make the kingdom of God my goal and do not reach it.  Yes the dominion of God is near and I rest fully upon his grace and mercy to discover it. I repent because of my continuing human frailty which is my nature. I take a moment on this Sunday to be reminded of Jesus' invitation to rise out of the depths of my failure and moribund world/life/relationships and to see before me grace, mercy, forgiveness and invitation.

Some Thoughts on 1 Peter 3:8-13

"In our text, Peter counsels a very different response to persecution. Rather than focusing on your persecutors and being overwhelmed by fear and hatred, keep your eyes on Christ."

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"While talk of principalities and spirits bound in prison may strike us as a vestige of a bygone world, we should not be so quick to discount the contemporary relevance of this text, especially during this season of Lent. "

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

The letter of 1 Peter is written in the midst of Christian persecution - many believe. So it is that the author concerns himself with the questions about how to be ready. Be ready to make your defense of your faith he offers. This is not to make some kind of argument though which wins the day. Instead we are to give, according to the author, our understanding of hope. We Christians have hope in our life when it is going well and we have hope in our life when we are suffering. We have hope because we know that we are not alone in this work of suffering - Christ too suffered and so God understands and knows what we go through on our behalf. But this is not where hope comes from. 

Partnership with God is not the locus of hope. Instead hope is in the certain faith that death has no victory. We share in Christ's death and in Christ's resurrection. So it is that we shall on the last day enter into our heavenly habitation. We will be forever united to God through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is our earthly entrance into this new life believes the author. In our own baptismal words we hear the hope of people delivered out of slavery, people delivered into freedom and the promised land. We understand that for the Christian, the follower of Jesus, pain, suffering, and death do not have the last word. And, that when the end does come, in hope we make our song to the grave: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 9:8-17

"The Old Testament readings for the first three Sundays in Lent give us glimpses of three covenants: God's covenant with Noah, God's covenant with Abraham, and God's covenant with Israel at Sinai."

Commentary, Genesis 9:8-17, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"This is a salvation story, a tale of commitment to the opposite of genocide, commitment to preserving the diversity of life and all of life's messiness. And God is actively part of this commitment."

"Lent - The Season of Good News," Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple, 2015.

"Contemplating the destruction of an entire civilization is disturbing, and so it should be."

"When Bad Things Happen to Bad People," Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman. Torah Commentary at BeliefNet.

Oremus Online NRSV Text 

Let me be honest. As I have grown older, I have become more uncomfortable with the story of the flood waters. Rabbi Litman's words about it resonated with me:
I find that my discomfort with the flood story is not so much with the Torah's sacred narrative, but with our modern response to it. The Torah relates a fearful epic of evil, punishment, and salvation. By ignoring the most chilling part of the story, we have trivialized and discounted the Torah's moral message. This is a common American cultural process. One only has to look as far as this week's holiday of Halloween to see how we have to come to trivialize and discount even death. It's pretty difficult to feel much genuine awe around an 8-year-old Grim Reaper complaining that it's cold outside. 
The unjust suffering of the innocent still evokes moral outrage and pain in most of us. We wish and hope that the good are rewarded. But we have become uncomfortable with the reverse. We know that human evil is complex, sometimes as much a sickness as a sin. We are often unwilling to grapple with human cruelty and wrongdoing, to expect justice against those who harm others, because that justice is often very difficult to define. Even God's justice, as in the mighty flood, makes us nervous.
("When Bad Things Happen to Bad People," Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman. Torah Commentary at BeliefNet.)
When we Christians read this story we read it through the eyes of our childhood and a small version of our story of creation and redemption. With more than two thousand more years of reflection on this passage I find the Rabbi's words resonate in a deeply powerful way. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says:
The story of the first eight chapters of Bereishit is tragic but simple: creation, followed by de-creation, followed by re-creation. God creates order. Humans then destroy that order, to the point where “the world was filled with violence,” and “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth.” God brings a flood that wipes away all life, until – with the exception of Noach, his family and other animals – the earth has returned to the state it was in at the beginning of Torah, when “the earth was waste and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (
Perhaps there is more here than another creation story - or recreation story. Perhaps there is more here than a story of an angry God at the unjust behavior of humanity.

As Sacks reads the texts compared to Genesis he notes that Genesis 1 tells us God makes humanity in God's image - he and she God created them. Genesis 9 tells us that other human beings are made in the image of God. As if bringing full circle the sin of man (murder which is created by humans - see Cain and Abel story) this story reminds us that not only am I created in Gods image but you are too.

Again Sacks writes,
Genesis 9 speaks about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of murder. The first chapter tells us about the potential power of human beings, while the ninth chapter tells us about the moral limits of that power. We may not use it to deprive another person of life. 
This also explains why the keyword, repeated seven times, changes from “good” to “covenant.” When we call something good, we are speaking about how it is in itself. But when we speak of covenant, we are talking about relationships. A covenant is a moral bond between persons. 
What differentiates the world after the Flood from the world before is that the terms of the human condition have changed. God no longer expects people to be good because it is in their nature to be so. To the contrary, God now knows that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8: 21) – and this despite the fact that we were created in God’s image. (Ibid)
It is not good for humans to be alone and the flood narrative tells us that we are to see each other, those of our tribe and those outside our tribe as created in the image of God.

This is a new idea and a constant theme for Christians. God is interested in a human community bound together for our common goodness, that in fact when we do this, we are reflecting a kind of fullness of God. Other religions teach fear of the other. Other religions teach sacrifice of the other. Christianity rooted deeply in its ancestral faith of Judaism is about being the beloved community - a blessing of peace, of shalom, to the world.

Interestingly, the New Testament does not play on this message from Genesis very much at all. There are not quotes, no parallel passages in the Gospels. Certainly there is mention of "Noah's Ark"in the letters - I Peter for this day's reading is an example. Only later would Roman Catholic Theologians compare Mary to the Ark. However, one might argue that as this passage is partnered with Mark there is something important here. That is: God in Christ Jesus continues his work of reconciliation and solidarity by breaking open the community of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit including all people. The mission to the other cannot be lost and is intimately tied to a heritage that did not begin with Jesus but is deeply rooted in the ancient texts of Israel that we find in our canon. In my sermon from 2018 I point out that a theological case (beyond typology) could be made that God's saving act from a sin sick world in the Ark is what Jesus does permanently. From the word "good" to the word "covenant" we see a story arc (pardon the pun) to Jesus and his cross which becomes a new ark and a permanent promise. Creation, de-creation by humanity's inhumanity to man, and recreation by God.

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

Moving into the Desert to Meet Jesus

Monday, February 5, 2024

Ash Wednesday, Year ABC


At this, the acceptable time, O God so rich in mercy, we gather in solemn assembly to receive the announcement of the Lenten spring, and the ashes of mortality and repentance. Let the elect, exulting, to the waters of salvation; guide the penitent, rejoicing, to the healing river; carry us all to the streams of renewal. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 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 A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Matthew 6:1-21

"In Jesus' prayer we are connected and bonded with each other. We find our health, our integrity, and our righteousness; that is true piety."

"Preaching on the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:1-8)," Irving J. Arnquist and Louis R. Flessner, Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, Luther Northwestern Theological School, 1990.

"What are we praying for when we pray for God's kingdom to come?"

"Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord's Prayer," N.T. Wright, The Christian Century, 1997.

"That piety should be a private matter is a radical not to say revolutionary idea. It goes totally against the cultural grain. For traditional piety is something performed for others to see. In Roman culture, pietas referred to the public veneration of the gods. Without such a display from prominent citizens, what would happen to the traditional values that were associated with the gods? Pietas was the cultural glue, holding all things in place. How could there be law and order without it?"

"The Call to Secret Service (Matthew 6:1-18)," John C. Purdy. Chapter 4 inReturning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living. At Religion Online.

Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

If we were reading along in the scripture and we arrived at our passage for this Ash Wednesday we would see the continued conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. The religious hierarchy have set themselves above the faith and have become, if you will, arbiters of piety. They are the intermediaries between God and God's people.

Jesus has been expanding and expounding on the nature of the law revealed by the messiah and now he turns to talk a little about how Christians should live with one another. What we have in our passage are the characteristics of a Christian community according to Jesus; and they are contrasted with the practices of these other religious leaders. Of course we are doomed to exhibit the same tendencies at our very worst but we have here some outlined behaviors that should at least set our trajectory.

Don't get in other people's faces about how you are better than them when it comes to prayer, believing, and the rest of it. After all, living a Christian life benefits God and others. Here are a couple of examples of what not to do...

Example One: Just be a good steward and don't brag about it.
Example Two: Don't be verbose in your praying. It is a real turn off to God an others.
Example Three: Please pray privately and sincerely.
Example Four: God knows what you need so you don't have to always be telling God out loud.
Example Five: Don't look dismal and sad. Look happy and enjoy your relationship with God.
Example Six: Remember that what matters is the love of God, the love of neighbor - these are the treasures worth having.
All of this is because good works are done for God and on behalf of others. This service is purely for the reward of doing what is good and well in the eyes of God and not for a community's lauds or glory.

What we have in our reading today is very good and it is the parenthesis between Matthew's teaching on the Lord's prayers.

I say this because in my mind it helps to frame what Jesus is teaching about prayer. The reality is that Jesus' prayer is very powerful when seen through the eyes of the overall passage and its meaning is much greater than the by rote version we say without thought most Sundays. So, here is a meditation on Jesus' Prayer with an eye to Matthew's Gospel and to the passage for Ash Wednesday.

Jesus’ Prayer
In the Episcopal Church, the Lord’s Prayer--the prayer Jesus taught his disciples--is central to our common life of prayer. It is present in all of our private and corporate services of worship, and is often the first prayer children learn. With the simplest of words, Jesus teaches those who follow him all they need to know about prayer, as they say:

“Our Father”: Our Father, because we are to seek as intimate a relationship with God as Jesus did. We are can develop this intimate love with God, recognizing we are children of God and members of the family of God.

“Who art in heaven”: We are reminded of our created nature as a gift from heaven. Life is given to us from God, who is quite beyond us. We recognize in this short phrase that we are not God. Rather, the God we proclaim is a God who makes all things and breathes life into all things.

“Hallowed be thy name”: In response to the grace of being welcomed into God’s community, bowing humbly and acknowledging our created nature, we recognize the holiness of God. We proclaim that God’s name is hallowed.

“Thy kingdom come”: We ask and seek God’s kingdom. The words of Jesus remind us that, like the disciples’ own desires to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, this is not our kingdom. The reign of God is not what you and I have in mind. We beg, “God, by your power bring your kingdom into this world. Help us to beat our swords into ploughshares that we might feed the world. Give us strength to commit as your partners in the restoration of creation, not how we imagine it, but in the way you imagine it.”

“Thy will be done”: We bend our wills to God’s, following the living example of Jesus Christ. We ask for grace to constantly set aside our desires and take on the love of God’s reign. We pray, “Let our hands and hearts build not powers and principalities but the rule of love and care for all sorts and conditions of humanity. Let us have a measure of wisdom to tear down our self-imposed walls and embrace one another, as the lion and the lamb lay down together in the kingdom of God.”

“On earth as it is in heaven”: We ask God to give us eyes to see this kingdom vision, and then we ask for courage and power to make heaven a reality in this world. We pray to God, “Create in us a will to be helping hands and loving hearts for those who are weary and need to rest in you. May our homes, our churches, and our communities be a sanctuary for the hurting world to find shelter, to find some small experience of heaven.”

“Give us this day our daily bread”: In prayer we come to understand that we are consumers. We need, desire, and just want many things. In Christ, we are reminded that all we need is our daily bread. So we pray, “O God, help us to be mindful that you provide for the lilies of the field and you provide for us. As we surrender our desires, help us to provide daily bread for those who have none today.”

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”: Sanity and restoration are possible only because God forgives us. Because of that sacrificial forgiveness--made real in the life and death of Jesus--we can see and then share mercy and forgiveness. Then we can pray, “God, may I understand your call to me personally to offer sacrificial forgiveness to all those I feel have wronged me. I want to know and see my own fault in those broken relationships. May I be the sacrament of your grace and forgiveness to others.”

“Lead us not into temptation”: As Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and replaced God with their own understanding of reality, we need help turning away from our own earthly and political desires and turning toward the wisdom of God in Christ Jesus. So we ask, “We are so tempted to go the easy way, to believe our desires are God’s desires. We have the audacity to assume we can know God’s mind. Show us your way and help us to trust it.”

“And deliver us from evil”: Only God can deliver us from evil. There is darkness in the world around us. We know this darkness feeds on our deepest desire: to be God ourselves. That deceptive voice affirms everything we do and justifies our actions, even when they compromise other people’s dignity. It whispers and tells us we possess God’s truth and no one else does. We must pray, “God, deliver us from the evil that inhabits this world, the weakness of our hearts, and the darkness of our lives, that we might walk in the light of your Son.”

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”: Without God, we are powerless. So we devote our lives to God, resting in the power of God’s deliverance. We humbly ask, “Help us to see your glory and beauty in the world, this day and every day. Amen.”

Using prayers like this one, Jesus modeled a life of prayer as work, and work as prayer. The apostles and all those who have since followed him have sought a life of prayer. They have engaged in prayer that discerns Jesus’ teachings and then molded their lives into the shape of his life. We can take up the same vocation and become people whose lives are characterized by daily and fervent prayer. Indeed we reflect and acknowledge the centrality of prayer and work in our own commitment to God when we say, “I will, with God’s help, continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” [This is an excerpt from Unabashedly Episcopalian.]

Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:20

"First, what does Paul mean about reconciliation in this passage? How does the church today demonstrate in various ways the practice of reconciliation -- including liturgically, ethically, practically and theologically?"

Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-16:10, Susan Hedahl, Preaching This Week,, 2013.

"When we receive the cross on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to remember that it is in Christ (5:17, 19) and through Christ (5:18) that reconciliation is possible. Yet, we are also invited to remember that as we leave the church with the seal of the cross of Christ, we are Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation."

Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-16:10, Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

One of the things that has happened to us in our culture is that we think not about whom we represent.  Yet, we represent (as Christians) Jesus Christ to the world.  This lack of mindfulness is complex; yet for the world in many respects God in Christ Jesus is not the problem for Christianity but rather it is his followers that create the stumbling block.  This passage is about the life of Grace which transforms the Christian first.

We are ambassadors for Christ.  In Paul's setting this would have meant that we are the oldest and wisest of Christ's children.  We represent Christ but not in the worst way but on behalf of him in the very best of manners.  This is difficult to do if we are always at war with ourselves.  It is hard to be Christ's representative if we can't represent Christ to one another; which means forgiving one another and offering Grace.  We are the great law givers rather than the donors of grace.  So what do we do?  How do we get there? How do we make room for the other?

We like Christ must give grace, make room for grace, and offer grace.  However, before we can do this we must receive Grace.  This is easier said than done.  We must really and truly receive the saving Grace of Christ; this means allowing God to love and save us in our mess and not waiting for perfection.  We are truly saved and perfected through the grace we receive. We are made a new creation by God if we will but let him.  Instead of performing for God or hoping that God will deliver us out of our "labors and sleepless nights" we are invited instead to live under the umbrella of God's Grace; within the saving embrace of God.  When we do this Paul believes the other things will fall into place.

We don't become the new creation and then we get grace.  Instead we allow ourselves to receive God's Grace and we become new.  We don't live and so we don't die.  We die to our desire to be perfect and so we live in the Grace of God who takes us just as we are.  It is this reversal of the world's economy of salvation that enables us to be alive, joyful, satisfied, and content.

When life is lived with the mantle of God's Grace upon our shoulders then we are beautiful and resplendent ambassadors of Christ to the world.  When we live in Grace we give grace freely, we share life freely, we embrace the other freely, we see there is enough and offer plenty of good things freely.  This is the life lived as a new creation, this is the life of Grace. This is the life of ambassadorship.

Some Thoughts on Isaiah 58:1-12

"We've been hearing about incarnation and God-with-us throughout Advent and Epiphany. Lectionary passages during Epiphany tell us something about this God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ."

Commentary, Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12), Amy Oden, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

"Given that the Gospel Lesson for this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany reminds us that Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, we might consider one of these ancient, Hebrew Scriptures for our ...."

Commentary, Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12), Tyler Mayfield, Preaching This Week,, 2017.

Remember, that we have this passage from Epiphany 5A. Here are my reflections on the passage, now adapted for Ash Wednesday:

This passage is written while the Israelites are divided, most in exile in Babylon and a few in the homeland. The prophet invites, and God invites the people to remain faithful. God is faithful and God will move on behalf of God’s people.

While the people see faithfulness as turning inward and to God by fasting, God and Isaiah offer these words:

“[God desires a fast that] looses the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” God offers a mirror to the people an is clear – when you do none of these things you are most unlike your God and the people you are meant to be.

Remembering Jeremiah and other prophets over the past months, we know that God see righteousness not as simple religious faithfulness but as acts of bounty where people take care of the oppressed, loosen the yoke of another, help with food for the hungry, roofs for the homeless, and clothing for the naked. Here Isaiah prophesies that these are the kinds of true fasting and sacrifices that God declares as righteousness.

When this happens Isaiah tells the people: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

God desires that people, “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Light is the light of God’s actions through his people. Light comes by means of work of the faithful for the other.

When nations forget their most vulnerable they shall lie in ashes and sackcloth. When the vulnerable are cared for light, life, and the rebuilding of community are the results. Foundations of generosity will lead to generations of strength among the people.

The Luke writes in his Gospel that this release of people who suffer is key to the very nature of God and especially to the person and mission of Christ Jesus. When in chapter 4, Jesus opens the scroll to read in the temple it is Isaiah 61 with the addition of this passage. What is made clear in Luke’s analysis and use in the narrative is that God has been about the work and care of the poor, oppressed, homeless, helpless, and most vulnerable. God in Christ Jesus continues this mission of righteousness (the caring of others). The jubilee promised to the slaves in Egypt, and the jubilee promised to the people in Babylon is the same jubilee promised for all people under the yoke of Christ. (Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 224ff)

Release is not only for prisoners (Isaiah 61) but release for all people who are broken and burdened (Isaiah 58). This is a freedom bought on the cross and given through the Holy Spirit to all people. As we smudge ashes upon our foreheads it is to remember deeply the gift of the Holy Cross and the gift we are to be for others in bringing release. The promise to Abraham and the of Moses and Isaiah now is to be fulfilled in ministry of Jesus and the inclusion of the whole world. Moreover, that the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ministry are to continue the work of release – this same faithfulness and righteousness will be the hallmark of the every continuing body of Christ in the world.

Some Thoughts on Joel 2:1-8

"Judah has been crippled by an agricultural drought sent by God through locusts. So, they need literal rain. However, they and we need spiritual rain much more. This is the greatest gift that we can receive in spite of all of our other perceived needs."

Commentary, Joel 2:12-17, Martha Simmons, The African American Lectionary, 2010.

" We, like Israel in the time of Joel, are in need of repentance, for their lives and ours are far from the paths that God has established for us.

Locusts and Lent, Reflections on Ash Wednesday from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2011.

"Joel has confidence that ritual repentance can change the course of the history of God's people because he believes the old confessional formula: [God] is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, And relents from punishing. (2:13)."

Commentary, Joel 2:1-12, 12-17, Rolf Jacobson, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

Some of you may chose to go a different route and preach on Joel this Ash Wednesday. Let us remember that Joel, while not mentioned any where else, is a prophet and is one focused on the centrality of the Temple. There is a lot of conversation about when he wrote among scholars, but most think it was after the Babylonian captivity and during the rebuilding of the culture of Israel.

In our passage today Joel introduces himself, then immediately calls the people into a time of repentance - priests and all.  The end is near, he says, sound the alarm, and repent. Joel reminds his hearers that god is gracious and merciful but if their evil ways continue God will not hold back the end that is coming. Signs, plagues, locusts...these should be a warning that God is not happy with what has become of his people.

There is a real sense here that when the world is good to a few, God will judge against them. The history of Israel is one that has repeatedly reminded the chosen that God requires of them mercy and to do good works. The society, the community, is to take care of the least and lost. When it does not do this it will bring its own destruction down upon them. This is an underlying theme here in this passage. The judgement of the reign of God will not fall kindly upon those who have had theirs in this life.

This is a good lesson if you intend to really bring down the fire and brimstone upon the heads of the congregation. And, yet there is a piece here we don't want to forget.

Joel's warnings often get the highlight. Read again God's invitation, God's desire, God's want for his people to be in relationship with him. Hear again, how God wants amendment of life so that the community will be well and within God's embrace.

Joel prophesies:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
While Joel's invitation on God's behalf to repent takes up a lot of space in this passage. I also find these words, nestled amongst the plagues, weeping, and fasting) some of the most beautiful and touching words of scripture. Words worth memorizing in fact. Words to be heard and whispered in the good times and in the bad. Words, themselves which might very well bring us to our knees in gratitude for the mighty things God has done.

The Work of the People

Please follow the link here at TWOTP to resources for Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Previous Sermons For Ash Wednesday

You Know, I Know, God Knows: Ash Wednesday Sermon St. Thomas College Station, 2016

Welcome to Humanity: Ash Wednesday sermon preached at Episcopal High School Houston, and Christ Church Cathedral 12:05 Service

Dust, Ashes, Dry Bones, and God's Whisper: Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Tx on Ash Wednesday 2014

Learning to Pray with Jesus: Ash Wednesday Sermon, Christ Church Cathedral, 2013