Friday, December 24, 2021

Nativity 2021

Nativity 2021 candles

The pastor asked three of us to share our testimony of Christmas for the proclamation on the Sunday after Christmas: where do we find Jesus, the Christ child? Here's approximately what I plan to say.

During this time of the year the northern hemisphere experiences more night than it does day, we first observe the advent season of waiting for, hoping for, and expecting the birth of Jesus, light of the world. We don't know the actual month or day of Jesus' birth, but the early church wisely calendared it at the winter solstice that also coincided with the Mithric Feast of the Unvanquished Sun. Jesus, Son of Righteousness spelled with an "o" also is the Sun of Righteousness spelled with a "u" who is Light of our Lives. After Advent and Nativity, the day and then the season of Epiphany continue with Jesus as light to all.

Martin Luther particularly loved the New Testament book of Titus. The anonymous author tells us, "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all." [Titus 2:11a] Jesus is that light-filled grace, our grace-filled light.

Nativity Prayer

Root of Jesse, Son of Heaven, Mary's Child.
Cradle of Joy, Word in the Manger, Astonishing Gift.
Lord of Creation, Abundant Promise, Dayspring of Peace.
Be with us here in this place; make us shepherds of your grace.
May our lives season the world with salt;
Nurture our neighbors with leaven;
Light a path to show your way.
In your name we pray—

Valley Winter Song – excerpt

You know the summer's coming soon
Though the interstate chokes under salt and dirty sand
And it seems the sun is hiding from the moon
And late December can drag a person down

[While] the snow is falling down
In our New England town
What else is new?
What could I do?

I wrote a Valley Winter Song
To play for you.

by Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger

Christmas in this Valley 1

So sang Fountains of Wayne in a song LL Bean gave lots of airplay to in a commercial during 2008. In these days of endless pandemic in a different valley on the other coast, besides Jesus light of the world and the created lights of sun, moon, and stars, what brightens our days better than music? Music in church and on the street is a huge part of December's identity and festivities. Even people with no experience of clinical depression typically have a lower mood during the winter months. Have you ever heard a song or a symphony that instantly gave you hope? I'll mention two major pieces of music and a recurring event that always bring the grace and hope of Jesus into my world.

Along with a few million others across the centuries, Handel's oratorio The Messiah is a December perennial for me. Especially the opening solo for tenor from Isaiah 40 with its announcement, "Comfort Ye, My People – Every Valley Shall be Exalted." Our God. God's people. My second concert-type composition that takes a trained university or professional choir is the Christmas Cantata by Daniel Pinkham, a Boston area composer and church musician who lived during the mid-twentieth century.

My recurring event is [Scripture] Lessons and Carols that can take many forms. We had a participatory Lessons and Carols here on Christmas Eve; this morning on the first Sunday of Christmas it's Lessons, Testimony, and Carols. When I lived on the east coast, as an undergrad at Boston University I sprung for the free tickets people needed to enjoy Lessons and Carols at Harvard's Memorial Church. I believe they presented it three times each year back then, but it was so popular you still needed a ticket. Later on when I was a seminarian across the river from Boston University, at Lessons and Carols I often ran into classmates or friends I hadn't seen in a long time due to our schedules and because days and months pass so fast. That became a time we'd resolve to get together first of the new year, which virtually always happened.

Christmas in this Valley 2

In addition to music, as we celebrate the nativity with God born in Bethlehem as a baby formed out of created stuff from the earth, what is Christmas without all that special yummy food? What you enjoy depends somewhat on your current place on the planet along with traditional winter holiday foods of your home country or home region, or maybe what your grandparents and great grands considered necessary for Christmas.

Besides feasts with friends and families, food also has got to be the best ever Christmas present because in itself it's a gift of creation. From my perspective, giftable foods ideally are things like home baked cookies or quick breads or homemade jam, preserves, or pickles. Maybe home brew, if there's a brewer in your household. These days supermarkets, specialty shops, and farmer's markets offer a whole lot of tasty food. They're a live option if you won't or don't bake or can or brew.


What else can we do but sing and play valley winter songs to brighten lives and remind us of Jesus in our midst? We can create and enjoy culinary gifts of creation. Grace has come to the entire world in Jesus; many of us know grace and glory and joy through music and edible gifts from the earth.

• What's your favorite Christmas music?

• What Christmas food is absolutely a necessity?

Friday, December 17, 2021

Advent 4C

Luke 1:46b-55

And Mary said,
magnificat mary icon by Scott WardI'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!

What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
God's mercy flows in wave after wave
With a bare arm God showed strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
Knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.

The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
on those who are in awe before this God.
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
God embraced the chosen child, Israel;
God remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It's exactly what God promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

The Message (MSG), alt. Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Magnificat icon by Scott Ward Art


Both the responsive psalm and the gospel for Advent 4 feature Mary/Miriam's Magnificat we sing every day at Evening Prayer/ Vespers; in addition, the appointed gospel reading begins with Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth—pregnant with John the Baptist. When churches use the Magnificat as the response in place of an OT psalm, they sometimes omit the Magnificat section of the gospel, though it's so glorious, why not read it or sing it twice?

Although we have words Luke wrote, it's very likely Mary sang a very similar song because this passage closely evokes Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Mary would have been familiar with large chunks of scripture, so she'd have been able to recite and paraphrase them, making those texts her own.

Magnificat is Latin for making larger, magnifying, making greater, like a magnifying glass does. It has the same root as "magnificent." The office of Vespers/Evening Prayer in the liturgy of the canonical hours always includes a spoken or sung Magnificat.


Coming out of the theological traditions of the Reformation, I need to remember that Martin Luther had a great devotion to Mary, though I still haven't learned how to have an attitude of devotion and reverence toward a person or place without making it more central in my life than Jesus Christ. In my previous city of San Diego I served on the Ecumenical Council's Faith, Order and Witness committee, and moderated one of our discussions of the Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, though when I checked my blog archives I realized that was one I didn't blog. I think Mary is awesome… and as a model for us to follow Mary said, "Yes! I will, yes!"

• What are your thoughts and feelings about Mary, Mother of Jesus?

Musical Settings

Sometimes speech simply isn't enough. Consider how pale "And His Name shall be called, "Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," comes across on the printed page or read aloud once you've heard "For Unto us a Child is Born" from Handel's Messiah!

I've quit blogging links to YouTube videos because they don't necessarily have a long shelf life, but I'm happy to list three musical settings of the Magnificat that fully capture its promise:

• J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243 for 5-part (2 sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass) chorus and orchestra that includes trumpets and timpani.

• Dale Wood, "My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord" from Evening Prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship. I'll never be able to comprehend why this powerful setting didn't get into the denomination's most recent generic hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

• Rory Cooney, "Canticle of the Turning," set to a traditional Irish tune – Star of the County Down – is in almost all recent English language hymnals. YOU NEED TO DANCE to this song!
Advent 4 Candles

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Advent 3C

Advent 3 Candles
Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 So sing, Daughter Zion!
    Raise your voices, Israel!
Daughter Jerusalem,
    be happy! celebrate!
15God has reversed judgments against you
    and sent your enemies off chasing their tails.
From now on, God is Israel’s king,
    in charge at the center.
There's nothing to fear from evil
    ever again!

16Jerusalem will be told:
    "Don’t be afraid.
Dear Zion,
    don't despair.
17Your God is present among you,
    a strong Warrior there to save you.
Happy to have you back, God will calm you with love
    and delight you with songs.

18 "The accumulated sorrows of your exile
    will dissipate.
I, your God, will get rid of them for you.
    You've carried those burdens long enough.
19At the same time, I'll get rid of all those
    who've made your life miserable.
I'll heal the maimed;
    I'll bring home the homeless.
In the very countries where they were hated
    they will be venerated.

20On Judgment Day
    I'll bring you back home—a great family gathering!
You'll be famous and honored
    all over the world.
You'll see it with your own eyes—
    all those painful partings turned into reunions!"
    God's Promise.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Advent 3

The third Sunday of Advent historically takes a break from the somber, penitential tone of the first two Sundays. Although Advent now mostly emphasizes waiting, hope, and expectation, the season that initiates a new church year still retains some sense of judgment and repentance. Aside from the gospel reading from Luke with John the Baptist's call to repentance and his rude comments to onlookers, today's scriptures all focus on the joy that gives the day its traditional gaudete or "rejoice" designation that comes from the opening of the prayer of the day or collect.


Scholars don't know a lot about Zephaniah or even if someone by that name actually wrote these writings that bear his name. From the Book of the Twelve that's sometimes referred to as "Minor Prophets," much of Zephaniah conveys a feeling of judgment and near-despair. Because of that, parts of the whole may have originated in the southern kingdom Judah before the exile of many leaders to Babylon, or it could have been composed retrospectively during the exile itself. As another option, Zephaniah could have been assembled from assorted documents after the exile as Jerusalem was being rebuilt and restored, during the time existing scrolls were being edited, codified, and canonized into a coherent body of texts that led to Jews becoming a People of the Book. Yet another possibility? The burst of optimism and joy in the first reading for today makes a case for this poetry coming from the actual exilic period as it parallels the hope for a future we find in Isaiah 40-55, who's sometimes called Second Isaiah or the exilic Isaiah.


Claiming a scripture as God's Word to you because it sounds good and you want it to apply to your situation can be "downright irresponsible," but providentially the lectionary recently has featured quite a few passages that give us hope for a restored future despite the pandemic and its many related restrictions continuing. I live in the city of Los Angeles that recently mandated showing your vaccination card if you wanted to eat inside a restaurant. How inconvenient—or is that "how bureaucratic?" Because of a high rate of unvaccinated immigrants in my particular area, some fast food places have reverted to takeout only. Yet I know how far we've come because I even included my first time lunching inside a restaurant during early July in my monthly summary pictorial blog—it was a true milestone, yet I realize some people have been understandably cautious and haven't returned to indoors dining (except at home, of course).

The church has made today's reading a Messianic prediction of God's loving, healing embodied presence in the midst of God's people that we know in Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the Little Town of House of Bread. When you love someone, you want to be with them, and being with those you love makes you happy: it really is that simple. Glancing backwards over the various iterations of denominational lectionaries and later common ones shared across traditions, the image of a creator, redeemer, sustainer God's joy in being with the people and journeying alongside them becomes irresistible.

Immigrants and exiles would glory in God's promise of homecoming in verse 20, but those of us who haven't been physically displaced by the pandemic still have been exiled and displaced from our usual normal and even our expectations for a future. This has gone on so long and to such an extent it's hard to trust in the future scripture tells us God is preparing for us.

Zephaniah's Day of the Lord that Pastor Gene Peterson renders "Judgment Day" (in continuity with some others) becomes a time of human joy, of ingathering and homecoming so intense that people actually are able to forget the bad stuff. Christmas is two weeks away! Rejoice!

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Advent 2C

Advent 2 All Earth is Hopeful

God of all creation, again this year we anticipate your Holy Presence among us in the Bethlehem manger. We also find you in our neighbor next door, the homeless family in the park, the clerk at the convenience store, frontline medical and municipal workers, scientists studying COVID, and conflicts across the world, may we bring to all of these the joy of the Bethlehem baby. We pray in the name of the Bringer of hope and Author of peace, amen!

© Leah Chang, 2006, 2021

Luke 3:1-16

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

10And the crowds asked John, "What then should we do?" 11In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14Soldiers also asked him, "And what should we do?" John said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Prophetic Predictions

For this second Sunday of Advent I've included verses from the gospel for next Sunday, Advent 3. Here we catch the famous scene of Jesus' unconventional cousin John the Baptist alongside the Jordan River. Far removed from the Holy City Jerusalem and its temple that people believed connected heaven and earth, John offers a baptism of repentance for new beginnings. After John more or less quotes the prophet Isaiah who wrote hope and a future to the exiles in Babylon, a future that would happen because everyone – "all flesh"– would see God's salvation, onlookers (waiting for their turn to be baptized?) asked John what they needed to do to get ready for the inversion and subversion of the status quo that would happen with God's arrival in their midst.

Preparing for Christmas

In response to people asking how on earth they could get ready for God's wrathful judgment, John says, "If you have two coats—share. If you have food—share." The root of the Greek word translated share means "gift giving." To religious types (like us?), this is astounding! Foretelling God's fiery arrival, John didn't say, "run and hide" or "go and pray," nor did he remotely suggest, "make costly sacrifices to atone for your sins."

John the cousin of Jesus the forthcoming Messiah said, "Share, give a gift." Go beyond yourself and get beyond yourselves! If you have more than you really need, share it with the have-nots. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has no coat. If you have more than enough food (how much do we really need?), give food to the hungry—and there are many ways to do that. Because when you share, if you give gifts, you prepare for the coming of God, our Judge and Redeemer by being a bearer of gracious gifts. When you give your excess (how much of everything do we really need?) to others, you help create a kindred community of equals. You become a big part of making God's reign happen right here, right now.

Getting Ready to Give

Be givers of gifts? Be the gift? Yes! But first, before we can be gifts or give gifts, we need to receive. No one can give what they don't have, and God never asks us to part with what we need in order to be well.

With almost two years of COVID-19, everyone has lost time and opportunities. Some have lost family and friends, or their own physical health has taken a big hit. In addition, I doubt if anyone is as emotionally and mentally whole as they'd like to be (note: but when are we ever?). We can celebrate and take advantage of the resources for mental health and emotional wellbeing that happily have circulated the interwebs. Despite the pandemic, let's still give gifts. If our wardrobe is minimal or our food budget is so stretched we truly can't donate any or share a simple meal, we still can give our neighbors the gift of our gracious, un-condemning presence.

Back in the days of John the Baptist, people believed the Jerusalem temple connected heaven and earth. These days God's people help bring heaven to earth like Jesus did. We can show everyone we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive community. We can listen to them and hear their stories. We even can invite them to Advent or Christmas worship. Amidst so many consumer-focused days like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday (maybe originally an afterthought, but an excellent one), how counter-cultural would that be to show and tell them how Jesus still is the reason for this season?

Friday, November 26, 2021

Advent 1C / Luke

Advent 1 Candles

Advent Family Prayer

God of Love,
Your son, Jesus, is your greatest gift to us.
He is a sign of your love.
Help us walk in that love during the weeks of Advent,
As we wait and prepare for his coming.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Savior.

Author unknown; from Xavier University, Cincinnati: Jesuit Resources–check them out!


On the first Sunday of Advent the church begins a new year of grace. Happy New Year!

From the Latin Ad + Venire, Towards Coming of Jesus, every lectionary year Advent opens with a splash of apocalyptic, signaling the end of the world as we know it, the beginning of a new way of living and being—the world is about to turn. Many churches sing Canticle of the Turning that's based on Mary's Magnificat at least once during Advent.

Blue, the color of hope, has become the official color for Advent. Advent is especially about hope, although it also includes a theme of repentance. In Spanish esperar/espero means wait, hope, and expect. We hope for and anticipate not a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays as the rest of the world sincerely wishes us; we hope for the incarnation of mercy, grace, and love. Instead of the rest of the world's irenic peace that's not much more than a temporary cease fire, we hope for, wait for, and expect the fullness of shalom the Prince of Peace brings us. We hope for the dawn of the new creation the death and resurrection of the Prince of Peace will initiate. Advent light shines amidst all kinds of darkness, including a seemingly endless pandemic, injustices that don't or won't quit, an earth that grieves its own losses. Come, Lord Jesus!

The Gospel According to Saint Luke

This is Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Luke's year. Luke is a synoptic gospel that views Jesus' life and ministry in a similar manner to Matthew and Mark. Luke is the only Gentile, non-Jewish writer in the entire New Testament. Luke was a highly educated physician, but think "bronze age" in terms of sophistication. Luke wrote a two-volume account consisting of this gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke's distinctives:

• world history and Jewish history

• Jesus' genealogy in Luke ends with "Adam, son of God."

• the Holy Spirit has been prominent throughout scripture's witness, but Luke-Acts brings a fulfillment of God's reign in the Spirit

• prayer

• women

• marginalized people of every class and type, the underclass

• table fellowship

• neighborology: the word about the neighbor! During Year C the lectionary has quite a few readings from Jeremiah and Deuteronomy that also emphasize the neighbor, the other, living together faithfully in covenantal community despite differences.

• Starting with John the Baptist counseling people to share what they have with others in order to prepare for the arrival of God in their midst, we find a lot of "social gospel" in Luke. However, this isn't let's see how many good works we humans can accomplish on our own; it's always about the indwelling and outgoing power of the Holy Spirit.

Luke includes three psalm-like songs or canticles based on Old Testament sources:

• Mary's Magnificat, "My soul magnifies the Lord; he has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…" – Luke 1:46-55

• Zechariah's Benedictus, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; he has visited his people." This is John the Baptist's father Zechariah—not the one from the OT Book of the Twelve or Minor Prophets. – Luke 1:67-79

• Simeon's Nunc Dimittis: "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace; mine eyes have seen they salvation, which thou hast prepared…" – Luke 2:29-32

Uniquely in Luke:

• Sermon on the Plain – Luke 6:17-49, which emphasizes re-distributive justice and material well-being. Matthew's parallel Sermon on the Mount is more about spiritual well-being.

• Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

• Prodigal Son – Luke 15: 11-32

• Stones cry out Luke – 19:37-40

• Emmaus Road in Luke's post-resurrection account takes us back to the Maundy Thursday Upper Room and to Luke's many accounts of Jesus' table fellowship with all comers – Luke 24:13-35

The Gospel for Advent 1C

Rather than coming from the beginning of Luke's gospel, in the gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent Jesus speaks toward the end of his public ministry. We hear about signs and symbols coming alive in nature/creation; we'll soon celebrate the birth of Jesus who is not a god in nature, but God and Lord of nature. Look at creation; consider what's not manufactured or engineered.
Luke 21:25-28

25"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place,

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Reign of Christ 2021

Prayer in Response to the Verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial
"I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amos 5:21, 24

I lift my eyes to the hills, Holy God, from where will our help come? We pray for those confused and demoralized by our system of justice. We pray for those who can't keep from hoping and praying for justice, yet who also can't forget our history.

We pray also for those with the luxury of forgetting history, those whose privilege protects them from the pain of this moment, those whose lives need not be interrupted by controversial trials or an urgent need to work for a more equitable world.

Embolden us all, Holy God, to interrogate our systems and structures, to risk creative change, to listen to people long silenced and to work for peace. Hear us as we pray that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


by Teri McDowell Ott

John 18:33-38

33Then Pilate entered the praetorium again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

35Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

37Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

38Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"

So Far

About nine months into pandemic awareness and mandated measures to help stop the spread, late November 2020 we began a new year of grace with Advent anticipation and hope. Since then we've welcomed the newborn Jesus, followed him to baptism by the river whose waters still interconnect all waterways and all peoples, experienced his ministries and his teachings, journeyed to Jerusalem, been in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, grieved at his trial, death, and burial, met the risen Christ at the dawn of resurrection day, trusted his promise to be with us forever, and started to follow him into our futures.

Today the church concludes another year of grace as we celebrate the sovereignty of Jesus Christ who reigns from a cross of shame.

Today's Scripture

John's gospel uniquely brings us a dialogue between Jesus and Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, who had sole authority to sentence a person to death. Earlier in this gospel Jesus rejected the title "king" and all four gospels frequently call him Son of Man or the Human One that in Mark is Jesus' favorite title for himself. However, in today's short account, Jesus evades Pilate's, "are you the King of the Jews," yet announces his kingdom or reign is not from this world – not from here, which sets Jesus' subversive ways of justice, love, mercy, and inclusion at right angles to conventional human rules of injustice, hatred, violence, and exclusion. Particularly that of Rome two millennia ago? Especially that of many authorities in this twenty-first century?

Jesus lived fully engaged here in this world—wherever he found himself, yet he revealed a different kind of power – whether elected or hereditary – than most of the world sees most of the time. Jesus announces to Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth, and those who belong to the truth will listen to him. Jesus' truth is not necessarily verifiable data or observable events. Jesus embodies God's truth that will redeem ("buy back") and restore all creation as we follow his way. Jesus' own life, death, and resurrection was just the beginning; now it's our turn!

COVID Continues

Raise your hand if you even remember when COVID-19 wasn't part of our vocabulary? Next week on the first Sunday of Advent a brand new year of grace opens wide and mostly will feature the gospel according to Luke. Please join me in hope as we again prepare for Jesus of Nazareth's birth in Bathlehem as God among us!

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Pentecost 25B

Mark 13:1-8

1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

• Overview of the gospel according to Mark from November 2020

Today's Scripture

The church's year of grace will end next Sunday with Reign of Christ / Christ the King, After that, Advent begins Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) Year C, Luke's year. Although the current Year B mostly has belonged to Mark, for Reign of Christ we'll hear from John, the Fourth Gospel; today is the last time we'll consider a passage from the gospel according to St. Mark.

In verse 4, Peter, James, John and Andrew beg Jesus for a sign related to the destruction of the built environment he has predicted. Jesus' reply in verses 5-8 includes some apocalyptic related to the badly labeled "end times." Apocalyptic writing and art incorporates symbols and words that don't mean what they initially look like or sound like: they need to be interpreted. In scripture, those symbols often come from nature such as fires, floods, skies, and earthquakes. Similar to a sign, a symbol points to something beyond itself.


Mark maybe especially brings us the end of the world as we've known it, but all four gospels reveal God's newness in Jesus of Nazareth. Although Jesus shows us a way of being that's in radical (at the root of) continuity with God's self-revelation and salvific actions from the dawn of time, God's revelation in Jesus is ultimate and definitive! Jesus also refers to birth pangs of the new creation that's constantly in progress and process, that won't be complete until planet earth's last day.

Beginning late February / early March 2020, life as we'd known it and expected to continue albeit with usual disruptions and disappointments slowed down and ended with COVID-19. A once in a century pandemic caused countless deaths (will we ever have an accurate count?) and devastated families. It shut down businesses and affected the worldwide economy. COVID led to even more political divisions, maybe particularly in the USA.

Mark probably was written down around the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Scholars suggest a range of dates and there are no extant source documents Mark might have drawn upon, but in any case the temple still was standing during Jesus' earthly life. Consider how central the J-temple was to economic, political, and religious life. People believed it was a conduit between heaven and earth. In today's scripture Jesus' followers gaze awestruck at the ginormous building! They imagined the temple actually contained and protected the God who never asked for and never wanted a physical structure to call "home!"

Into a Future?

Mark has no birth narrative and no resurrection account (in the earliest manuscripts), but strongly implies Jesus' ministry continues in his followers who have received their second birth and first death in baptism. Beyond those who formally belong to the church, God doesn't mind being anonymous and delights in using people who don't acknowledge him to help meet the world's needs.

Even more than the other three gospels, Mark asks, "Where do we look for God? Where do we find God?" Mark shows us we find God not in religious, economic, or political institutions–but in the vulnerability of a human dying on a cross. Do we find God in loss and devastation? Have we been finding the divine presence hidden in the COVID-19 pandemic? Do we recognize God in health care workers, police and fire professionals, delivery drivers and retail personnel, all those "frontliners" who keep us safe and keep our homes and businesses stocked with essentials? Do we find God in the sick and in the dying?

Our earthbound lives need houses, schools, religious buildings, stores, offices. We've learned to design safe buildings and to construct them out of stuff of the earth. The sight and size of the J-Temple wowed Jesus' disciples; humanly built and divinely inspired structures like Saint Patrick's Cathedral and the WTC Memorial impress and awe us in the twenty-first century. Without a doubt God indwells places people gather to pray and celebrate sacraments, where we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us.

In the earliest manuscripts, Mark has no resurrection account, but implies Jesus' ministry continues in his followers who live and serve as Jesus' presence. Then again, all the gospel accounts are about God-with-us, God-among-us, God-for-us in Jesus and in the church that's Jesus' presence in the world…

And we find God in other temples. Not in Large Stone Structures that might contain and protect God, but in defenseless, imperfect humans God has created in the divine image. In the people God chooses to inhabit. In us!

Saturday, November 06, 2021

All Saints 2021

Psalm 24:1

The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof—
the world and those that dwell therein.

Isaiah 25:6-9

6And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

7And God will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations.

8God will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of the people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.

9And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God we have waited for, and God will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for, we will be glad and rejoice in God's salvation.

King James Version (KJV) Public Domain

All Saints Day/Sunday…

…particularly commemorates saints who have gone before us and now reside in the church triumphant, but the festival includes all of us because baptism makes us saints! You probably know Halloween on October 31st is All Hallows' Eve—the day before All Saints on November 1st. A hallowed person, place, or event is a holy one.

Back in Martin Luther's time, people were required to attend church on All Saints Day, so legend has it Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31st because everyone would notice them on their way to mass. These days most people don't attend weekday services, so when November 1st isn't on Sunday, we celebrate All Saints the following Sunday. When churches observe Reformation and October 31st isn't a Sunday as it was this year, the last Sunday of October becomes Reformation.

On All Saints many churches display pictures and mementos of beloved saints; we celebrate their lives, cherish their memories, often still feel and grieve their loss. All Saints 2021 happens eighteen months into COVID-19. Despite All Saints' emphasis on human lives – one million COVID-related deaths worldwide – in addition we can mourn and hope into a future on the other side of economic and organizational losses due to the pandemic, because God's ultimate response to any disappointment, bereavement, or devastation is the same as to physical bodily death: resurrection!

Isaiah 25:6-9

Today's verses from First Isaiah are from the Little Apocalypse of chapters 24 through 27. As with many biblical texts, scholars aren't sure of its author or origins, although most believe Isaiah of Jerusalem who wrote most of First Isaiah (chapters 1 through 39) before the Babylonian exile probably didn't write it.

Every lectionary year (A,B,C) God's glorious promise via Isaiah of "beyond abundant" life is the first reading for Easter afternoon and evening. It's also the first reading on Easter Day for our current lectionary year B.

This scripture reminds us the God of Israel is God of all people. It borrows from ancient near east (ANE) legends that personify death as a life-devouring monster; it assures us God will take the shroud of death that negates life along with death itself into God's own being. And God will wipe away our very necessary tears of grief! In a fascinating parallel, the white pall that covers the casket of the deceased at a funeral is a baptismal garment that symbolizes the person has been baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection.

Wars, corporate greed, over-farmed turf, and other factors can result in insufficient or not very nutritious food—sometimes famine. As important as justice is, food is even more essential. You won't have energy to advocate for justice if you haven't eaten. You've probably noticed the many accounts of Jesus providing food and sharing a meal with friends and strangers? Jesus' IPO/first act of public ministry or "sign" in John's gospel is a wedding banquet. Today's first reading tells us God will prepare and serve an amazing spread. I quoted the King James version because I love Love LOVE "Feast of Fat Things!" This Easter-All Saints feast will be God's sign that death and dying have been obliterated! Abundant food also signifies people aren't hoarding in anticipation of scarcity that may or may not ever happen. They're not consuming more than they need. You've heard there's enough for everyone, but not too much for anyone?

Death. COVID. Hope.

When we consider this scripture on All Saints rather than on Easter, do we interpret it differently? On Easter we especially celebrate God's victory over death in Jesus' resurrection. On All Saints we particularly celebrate God's victory over death in Jesus Christ. The Judeo-Christian scriptures are very clear about the realness of death. Besides too many COVID-related bodily deaths, countless social, emotional, and financial deaths of dreams, organizations, and plans have cascaded through almost two years of pandemic. Death is real and hope is real.

In his letter to the church at Rome [5:20], the apostle Paul announces, "The law came in so that the transgression would increase, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." Alongside that we can affirm, "Where death increased, life abounded all the more." You may recall that for Paul, the good news of the gospel is death and resurrection.

All Things New

The second reading for All Saints from the last book of the New Testament brings us a promise similar to Isaiah's:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. Revelation 21:4-5

People, animals, plants, and dreams continue to die, yet our theology tells us Easter, the event of Jesus Christ's resurrection, marked the end of death and dying. We remember, grieve, and celebrate the world we knew before COVID. In the same way we live in resurrection hope that we'll again be face to face with loved ones we've lost to death, we can claim God's future for every lost aspect of our lives.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Reformation Day 2021

Reformation 2021 Be Still and Know that I Am God
Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the heart of the sea;
3Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

4There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken;
God shall help her, just at the turning of the morning.
6The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

7The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

8Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.

10Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

11The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

New King James Version (NKJV®) Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson.


I'm blogging late because I've been wondering how on earth I can write or say anything about Reformation Day and the church's ongoing reformation through and beyond close to two years of COVID-19. We've got masks and we have vaccines; infections have been declining as we gradually ease out from the pandemic, yet its fallout surrounds and overwhelms us.

Along with the day of Pentecost, Reformation is a major "wear red" festival. The church uses red for celebrations of the Holy Spirit and for commemorations of prophets, martyrs, and renewers of the church like Martin Luther, John XXIII, Jonathan Edwards, Ulrich Zwingli, Oscar Romero… for ordinations! During October 2017 we celebrated Reformation 500; we continue in a church that's still reforming and now includes the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity.

Aside from readings the Revised Common Lectionary specifies for Reformation, if we study scripture and talk about, when we write about the prolific pouring out of God's transforming Spirit of creation, re-creation, new creation, we'd start at the beginning of Genesis and wouldn't be finished by the end of Revelation because dreams, visions, hopes, newness, and resurrection keep on keeping' on and will keep on until Jesus returns.

The Church Has Left the Building…

…was a common social media update during spring 2020. The church always leaves the brick and mortar, steel and glass gathering place after worship and those other meetings that prepare us for ministry in the world outside the building. We always aspire to continue the lives of service Word and Sacrament model for us. However, for the past eighteen months we've stayed outside the building most of the time, so we've been experimenting with new ways of being church.

Fortunately(?) this pandemic has happened during a time digital connections are easy to come by, when almost everyone has a minimal online presence beyond email. Zoom and YouTube worship, committee meetings, and bible studies have become commonplace through the electronic amazement of the internet.

My sudden anxiety over what to blog was laughable. Many of us have been reading books and articles about church identity, "growth," member retention, program possibilities, and multicultural authenticity almost forever; since COVID more have appeared, not a single one claiming to have a solution. So what can I do? Remind myself. Remind my readers. Trust the Spirit of Reformation that's the Spirit of Resurrection.

Spirit of Reformation

Martin Luther insisted worship and hymn-singing in the vernacular (the common, ordinary, speech of regular people) was a mark of the true church. We can present Christianity with vocabulary and with symbols everyday people understand. We also can be a vernacular church that speaks the cultural language of the people.

We are Jesus' presence in the world. Meet people where they are as Jesus did. Be love. Be mercy. Show grace. Shower kindness. Learn people's spoken and cultural languages / practice translating your spoken and read language into theirs. Explain your ethnic background! Make yourself at home in their homes—if not at their street address, in other ways. Food is a wonderful, exciting, opportunity for connection and understanding! Take risks! Make mistakes!

Defy empire. Live locally. Moderate your consumption. Remember! God has been to the future. God waits for us there.

In his "Mighty Fortress" hymn paraphrase of Psalm 46, Martin Luther announced:

That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.

Spirit is a-moving all over the land!

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Pentecost 22B

Jeremiah 31:1-14

1"At that time," says the Lord, "I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people."

2Thus says the Lord: "The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest."
3The Lord appeared to me from long ago: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4"Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take up your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5"Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
6For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.'"

7For thus says the Lord: "Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, 'Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.'
8"See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.
9"With weeping they shall come, and with consolations. I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn."

10Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
11For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12"They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

13Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty," says the Lord.


Hello God,

This reading springs to life in this time of COVID, this time of loss, these wilderness weeks and months of wondering what's next. Jeremiah's words help us hope during literal exile from much of what we knew and assumed would continue. God, we are so thankful for all that's brought us together. Where would we be without essential medical and municipal workers? Where would we still be without masks and vaccines? Help us hold unto your promises and trust in the grace-filled future you're preparing for us.

In the name of Jesus,

© Leah Chang

Biblical Prophets…

…include the former prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, the writing prophets or latter prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel plus the Book of the Twelve or the Minor Prophets that are minor in length but not minor in content. Scripture distinguishes between prophet or nabi, who speaks truth to power, lining out alternatives (the reigning monarch most characteristically being that power), and seer or roeh, who peers into the future and predicts what will happen. Later in the history of Israel the roles became somewhat conflated.

Continuing the tradition of the pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Bible, prophets bring an authoritative Word of the Lord; pentateuch and prophets emphasize God's covenanting with all creation as they reveal an active, intervening, trustworthy God.


Jeremiah was a priest from the Benjaminite tradition; the Apostle Saul/Paul of Tarsus also came from the tribe of Benjamin. Although he may have lived in a mostly oral tradition that transmitted texts by talking, listening, hearing, and sharing again, Jeremiah probably had some written-down texts in his possession, and he had his own scribe. As he responds to "Is there a Word from the Lord," Jeremiah is The Classic Prophet. He also is within the tradition of Deuteronomy with its care for the marginalized, the neighbor, the stranger, the immigrant, the sojourner. Jeremiah would have known much if not all of Deuteronomy that influenced him during his forty year long ministry. In fact, the book of Jeremiah probably got edited by the same post-[Babylon] exilic committee that compiled the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets.

Jeremiah ministered before and during the Babylonian exile. In the scripture selection for today, the prophet speaks hope to people who have experienced extreme social, cultural, and religious dislocation. Today's lection brings assurance of God's redemptive faithfulness that will bring healing and joy to land and people.

Pentecost 22; COVID-19

Today's reading comes out of chapters 30 to 33 that collectively sometimes are called the Book of Consolation or Comfort and contrast with much of the rest of the Jeremiah.

For this Sunday, the Lectionary specifies only verses 7 through 9 of chapter 31 that later on announces God's New Covenant; those three verses come out of a longer passage appointed for Easter Day Year A (Jeremiah 31:1-6) and every year for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (Jeremiah 31:7-14). Through Jeremiah, God promises homecoming, restoration, and joy! Scriptural proclamations like this will continue to be huge in months – and probably years – ahead as world, church, and individuals recover and rebuild in the wake of the unprecedented devastation the worldwide pandemic has caused.

Wilderness for Jeremiah and his original audience could have meant the Exodus desert that formed God's people Israel; it could have been the current Babylon exile, or maybe both. COVID-19 has meant a degree of wilderness for absolutely everyone, even those who haven't lost loved ones, income, or their way of life because of the pandemic.

God restores and redeems the people and the land who depend on each other. God brings us home. Yet God also calls us to transform wherever we are into home, into a safe, welcoming, fruitful place. The way our scriptures are arranged, a couple of chapters earlier Jeremiah counsels (maybe that's consoles?) the captives in Babylon with the very original Bloom Where You're Planted:

Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and enjoy their bounty. Seek the wellbeing of wherever you are, even though it's unexpected exile from the familiar and the loved, because if the place where you are is healthy and well, you and your family will thrive and be whole. 29:4-7

The hope-filled witness of scripture never quits reassuring us! To quote Pastor James Howell, "God just can't stop making life happen."

Grace in the wilderness and everlasting love!

Friday, October 15, 2021

Pentecost 21B

Hebrews 5:1-10

1Every high priest is taken from the people and put in charge of things that relate to God for their sake, in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2The high priest is able to deal gently with the ignorant and those who are misled since he himself is prone to weakness. 3Because of his weakness, he must offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as for the people. 4No one takes this honor for themselves but takes it only when they are called by God, just like Aaron.

5In the same way Christ also didn't promote himself to become high priest. Instead, it was the one who said to him,

"You are my Son.
Today I have become your Father,"

6as he also says in another place,

"You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek."
[Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 5:6; Psalm 110:4]

7During his days on earth, Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. 9After he had been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him. 10He was appointed by God to be a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Common English Bible (CEB) Copyright 2011 by Common English Bible


As I mentioned two weeks ago, scholars believe this book addressed to Jewish Christians either nearby or in widely scattered diaspora originally was a sermon intended to be proclaimed aloud, and not a round-robin letter in the traditions of the apostle Paul and others who wrote the New Testament epistles. Hebrews clearly knows Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine; Hebrews describes Jesus as continuation and fulfillment of God's self-revealing presence and action throughout all ages.

The Hebrew bible is full of "types" or "precursors" of Christ, meaning persons, objects, or events that anticipate being fully developed in Jesus. As today's second lection describes Jesus' as priest or mediator between earth and heaven, it refers to Melchizedek, someone we first hear about in Genesis:

14:18Now Melchizedek the king of Salem and the priest of God Most High had brought bread and wine, 19and he blessed Abram,

"Bless Abram by God Most High, creator [or possessor] of heaven and earth;
20bless God Most High, who gave you the victory over your enemies."

Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything.

Common English Bible (CEB)

also in Psalm 110:4
The Lord has sworn a solemn pledge and won't change his mind:
"You are a priest forever in line with Melchizedek."

Today's Reading

The book of Hebrews contains many references to Old Testament practices and ritualized observances. Chapter 7 goes into (a whole lot of) detail about Melchizedek, about Jesus as a type of successor to Melchizedek, and about high priests in general. Although it's dense reading, it's also clear, even in the King James Version.

Hebrews 5:1 tells us a high priest comes from the people, and so he is one of us, yet verse 4 explains the call comes from God, and isn't self-appointed. Ancient near eastern priests offered sacrifices to bridge the distance between humanity and divinity and theoretically to appease the gods humans imagined must be angry. Like everyone else, traditional high priests were less than perfect, so their ceremonial offerings included themselves along with the everyone else. High priests represented the people to God and they represented God to the people; you may have read some of the extensive instructions in Leviticus.

Hebrews' unknown author then mentions Moses' brother Aaron, a high priest from the tribe of Levi. Levites were an entire tribe of priests and had no inheritance of land when Joshua portioned out plots of the Land of Promise—"But Moses gave no legacy to the tribe of Levi. The Lord God of Israel is their legacy, exactly as he promised them." [Joshua 13:33] We know Jesus as sovereign/king, prophet, and priest, yet Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. Hebrews 7:3 says Melchizedek is without genealogy; like Jesus, he wasn't from the hereditary priestly Levites. In addition, Melchizedek had no other apparent inheritance. More than one scripture commentary I read cited Melchizedek as an example of God choosing persons without standard credentials, of God acting outside of ordinary institutional structures: on the margins rather than in the center.

Melech means King—King Melchizedek is doubly king! Zedek / zedekah or tzedek / tzedekah is "righteous." Salem can be both a place-name location and refer to shalom, the peace that's completion, integrity, reconciliation of all creation. You probably noticed Melchizedek brought "bread and wine," gifts of creation?! Unlike conventional sacrificial offerings of newly harvested raw grain or grape, these had been prepared the same way as our sacramental bread and wine, symbolizing meaningful work and nourishment for the community:
Behind the bread is the flour;
behind the flour is the mill;
behind the mill is the rain and the sun and the Maker's will.
Behind the bread and the rain and the sun is the Maker's will.
The vintner, the potter…

And Abram, our ancestor in redemptive faith (who later on becomes "Abraham") gave Melchizedek a tithe of everything he had!

Through unexpected people and circumstances, Melchizedek brought righteousness and shalom. Throughout generations of unexpected people (check out especially Matthew's genealogy) and circumstances, Jesus brought righteousness and shalom.

Melchizedek and Jesus

Verse 6 names Jesus as high priest forever. Unlike all those conventional priests, though jesus died, he reigns forever because of his resurrection. The text says, "forever after the manner of Melchizedek," who shared many characteristics with his perfect successor, Jesus.

Traditional priests make animal, grain, and harvest sacrifices to their gods; verse 7 says "Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death." It's striking that verse 8 says Jesus learned obedience in the same way we need to pray about, work through, and take risks related to what's next in our journeys.

We sometimes hear "Jesus' sacrifice on the cross," misinterpreted as an event and action God required. The God of love, mercy, and righteousness never would require or condone violence or destruction. Jesus' trial, conviction, and crucifixion happened because of human violence and injustice, not because of God's demands. Jesus' death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension became the source of creation's redemption because of God's love, mercy, and justice.

Because God in Christ finished all the work of salvation, praise and thanksgiving are the only sacrifices we need to offer God. Christians and most humans work to improve society and planet earth in general, but we do our best to love others, to offer mercy and compassion, and to use our gifts in service to God and creation in thankful response to God's grace and salvation, not in order to earn salvation.

Hebrews 5:11, the next verse after today's reading says, "We have a lot to say about this topic, and it's difficult to explain, because you have been lazy and you haven't been listening." Did I mention Hebrews originated as a sermon series?

Friday, October 08, 2021

Pentecost 20B

This Week in the RCL

For the responsive psalm this week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints only verses 12-17—less than half of Psalm 90. Though there's no reason not to read or chant all seventeen verses during worship, this is one of those times I wonder why they didn't suggest the entire psalm; after all, it's short and doesn't include anything that would require serious explanation. Because it's very familiar and because Isaac Watts' famous hymn paraphrase "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" closely follows the psalm text, instead of writing about one of Sunday's scriptures I'm blogging the late Pastor Eugene Peterson's particularly delightful translation in The Message followed by the hymn.

Psalm 90

1God, it seems you've been our home forever;
   long before the mountains were born,
2Long before you brought earth itself to birth,
   from "once upon a time" to "kingdom come"—you are God.

3So don't return us to mud, saying,
   "Back to where you came from!"
4Patience! You've got all the time in the world—
whether a thousand years or a day, it's all the same to you.

5Are we no more to you than a wispy dream,
   no more than a blade of grass
6That springs up gloriously with the rising sun
   and is cut down without a second thought?

7Your anger is far and away too much for us;
   we're at the end of our rope.
8You keep track of all our sins; every misdeed
   since we were children is entered in your books.

9All we can remember is that frown on your face.
   Is that all we're ever going to get?
10We live for seventy years or so
   (with luck we might make it to eighty),
And what do we have to show for it? Trouble.
   Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard.
11Who can make sense of such rage,
   such anger against the very ones who fear you?
12Oh! Teach us to live well!
   Teach us to live wisely and well!

13Come back, God—how long do we have to wait?—
   and treat your servants with kindness for a change.

14Surprise us with love at daybreak;
   then we'll skip and dance all the day long.
15Make up for the bad times with some good times;
   we've seen enough evil to last a lifetime.
16Let your servants see what you're best at—
   the ways you rule and bless your children.
17And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us,
   confirming the work that we do.
   Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
Author: Isaac Watts, 1719; Tune: St. Anne. Published in 1152 hymnals, so far!

Hymnary dot org entry

1 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.

2 Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure.
Sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

3 Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

4 A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

5 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away.
We fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Pentecost 19B

Hebrews 1:1-4; [2:5-12]

1Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

(Scroll down to the end of this post for the rest of the appointed reading.)


Compassionate God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray,
and to give more than we desire or deserve;
pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those things
for which our prayer dares not ask;
through Jesus Christ
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

© Bosco Peters / Liturgy


Titled in bibles as "The Epistle to the Hebrews," scholars believe this book addressed to Jewish Christians either nearby or in widely scattered diaspora originally was a sermon intended to be proclaimed aloud, and not a letter in the traditions of the apostle Paul and others. The person who wrote it remains unknown; no one has been able to make a reasonable educated or random guess.

This Sunday begins seven weeks of Hebrews as the second reading—but it's not that simple. Because the date of Easter varies, the Day of Pentecost that's the fiftieth day of Easter changes each year. That results in the portion of Ordinary Time when we count Sundays after Pentecost being shorter or longer depending on when Easter occurs. When Easter is early in Mark's lectionary year B (as it was last spring) we'll hear from Hebrews all seven Sundays prior to Reign of Christ, the final Sunday of the Christian year. If Easter happens late, we'll hear only three or four readings from Hebrews.

Although I won't blog about the gospel reading this week because Mark 10:2-16 has enough content and asks enough questions for a long sermon series or a month of daily studies and I didn't want to approach it in a few paragraphs, I also won't write about Hebrews seven weeks in a row because the book is dense and complex and because I'm only marginally familiar with it. However, this passage is the second reading on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in all three lectionary years, and despite not having memorized nearly enough scripture, I can recite the first four verses from memory. I've headed this blog with my interpretation of verses 1 through 2b; the original design was a large banner we hung in the sanctuary and I almost definitely have a picture of the full color original somewhere, but didn't look for it… yet.

Hebrews 1:1-4

Throughout its thirteen chapters, Hebrews is extremely theological! With countless references to Old Testament history and ceremonial observances, it articulates Jesus' position as continuation and fulfillment of God's revelatory presence and action. The preexistent Christ is God's creative and sustaining Word who also redeemed creation. Does that sound trinitarian—or does that sound Trinitarian? The book's poetic opening exquisitely sums up Jesus' essence, role, purpose, and persona; the entire letter consistently reminds us Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human, with refrains of "like God" and "like us."

Ministries of healing, teaching, forgiveness, feeding, and sheltering in Jesus' name at his command occupied the early church. Telling Jesus' story and writing it down, baptizing, and celebrating the Lord's Supper happened from the start, but scrolls later canonized as scripture along with doctrine about Jesus the Christ developed slowly and gradually. That's a quick intro into saying Hebrew's explicit insistence on both "natures" of Jesus Christ looks forward to the Council of Chalcedon that in the year 451 described Jesus "…in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…" Most denominations and church bodies affirm the very short Definition of Chalcedon that's so worth the two or three minutes it takes to read.

Jesus the Word

From the beginning, God has spoken and acted on creation's behalf, often through human agents or prophets. Jesus the Son is God's definitive Word, so it's no surprise the lectionary appoints this passage for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when our songs celebrate "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing" – "veiled in flesh, the godhead see – hail the incarnate deity" – "Jesus, our Emmanuel" (Emmanuel means God-with-us.) What are your favorite Nativity songs and carols?

Hebrews tells us Jesus is human like us, Jesus is divine like God, yet Jesus has done and continues to do for us what we cannot accomplish for ourselves. In this book you'll notice familiar phrases you knew were in the bible but may not have known where, including Jesus as "author and finisher of our faith" in 12:2.

When the very young John Calvin wondered whether to begin his forthcoming systematic theology with humanity or with divinity, he finally decided it made no difference because his Institutes of the Christian Religion would travel the same (doctrinal and theological) places and come out in the same place. As we ponder post-COVID ministries, we often discuss how God created humans in the Divine image (imago dei) and calls us to be holy as God is holy, to be Jesus' crucified and risen presence bringing justice, love, and mercy to earth. Yet we are not God; we are not Jesus.

• Here's the rest of this week's reading if you want to read it without opening a bible or searching online.

Hebrews 2:5-12

5Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6But someone has testified somewhere,

"What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or or the son of man, that you care for him?

7"You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,

8 "subjecting all things under their feet."

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying,

"I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Pentecost 18B

James 5:13-20

13Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. 14Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. 15Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you've sinned, you'll be forgiven—healed inside and out.

16Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.

17Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn't rain, and it didn't—not a drop for three and a half years. 18Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.

19My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God's truth, don't write them off. Go after them. 20Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

James's Letter or Epistle

Some background on James from last week, Pentecost 17

I hadn't been very familiar with this New Testament book by James, but as I read and studied, it became clear the entire letter is about relationships of individuals in community and the community's call to care for each member. James' letter reminds me of my undergrad introductory Social Psychology class. When he introduced the course, the professor said if you studied Social Psych in the sociology department, the emphasis probably would be the individual in society; when you studied Social Psych in the psychology department, it likely would be society in the individual. James does both as he lines out the mutual responsibility of ecclesiastical/church community and individual church members. Throughout, James is about living out our calling as God's people by doing the word. Our being, learning, doing, and becoming within the Body of Christ then extends into the rest of the world when we leave the assembly gathered around Word and Sacrament, when we finish the committee meeting and start to practice what we've planned to benefit worlds beyond the church. What else about James? His call to pray in almost every setting and situation!

Today's Second Reading

Pray. Sing. Anoint each other. Confess your sins to each other and pray for one another.

Today's passage centers around church leaders (elders, deacons, pastors, committees, vestries, Stephen Ministers) prayerfully involved in ways that help effect God's healing. James reminds us, "The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with." James then refers to Elijah's prayers that God at first didn't answer in obvious ways, but later on responded with the rain Elijah prayed for. Unanswered prayer is the subject of almost every Christian's concern; literally countless books and articles have tried to explain why God answers some prayers the way humans desire, apparently ignores others.

In his commentary on this text this year, Pastor Doug Bratt helpfully observes, "While we might argue that even those no's are often effective in shaping us into greater Christ-likeness … God's no's [to prayer] are sometimes one of the difficult circumstances to which the community of God's people must respond. After all, prayer for James isn't just an exercise in talking to oneself or, as some suggest, changing those who pray. The apostle is confident that prayers also at least seem to somehow affect God."

Doing the Word

With his passion for doing the word, James' epistle sometimes has been criticized for theology that looks like works-righteousness. Works-righteousness imagines our actions can gain God's approval and therefore lead to our redemption. James is very much about knowing the word and doing the word as our human response to being saved or redeemed by grace. That's the same take the apostle Paul, the Reformers, and others have had on the value and the necessity of faithful obedience. James' epistle is about relationships of individuals in community and the community's call to care for – and pray for – each member.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Pentecost 17B


Gracious and eternal God,
to whom we turn in every need;
receive the gifts we offer.
Let our lives bear fruit,
and our compassion never wither;
in Jesus' name.

©Jeff Shrowder, 2000, 2012 on The Billabong, a worship resource following the Revised Common Lectionary

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

James 3
13Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. 17What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.

James 4
1What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don't they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? 2You long for something you don't have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can't get, so you struggle and fight. You don't have because you don't ask. 3You ask and don't have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.

7Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will run away from you. 8Come near to God, and God will come near to you. …

Common English Bible (CEB) | Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible

James: Author and Content

The Revised Common Lectionary has been in a semi-continuous weekly reading of the New Testament epistle or letter of James. With a somewhat similar style as Proverbs in the OT, James broadly falls within the tradition of wisdom literature. This is the first time I've blogged about James during this lectionary year B, and this probably isn't the best passage to start with, but here it is.

To my knowledge, even most recent scholarship hasn't assigned an approximate date to this letter. Jesus' apostle James Zebedee almost definitely didn't write it; it may have been by Jesus' biological brother James, or someone else could have honored either of those James by using the name. In any case, James/Jacob/Jake wrote to scattered, dispersed Jewish Christians in a diaspora either fairly nearby or relatively far away. Take your pick.

James is all about how to live together in community in ways everyone will be their healthiest and best. James' passion for doing the word carries echoes of Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, and Luke; James also sounds like Jesus' Sermon on the Plain in Luke, his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

Luther and James / James and Luther

You may have heard that reformer Martin Luther famously did not like Jimmy, notoriously referring to his letter as an "epistle of straw." The most common explanation for Luther's opinion is how James' insistence we need to do the word of God can feel like works-righteousness that violates Luther's theology of grace. It could have been because Pastor Martin wasn't crazy about the idea of serving some of his crudely rustic neighbors. It may have been because James doesn't affirm or confess Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, so this epistle doesn't contain a hint of high Christology. Yet five centuries after Luther, Pastor James Boyce reflects, "Just as the Word is present and assumed in the 'word of truth' and the 'implanted word' of James 1:18 and 21, so the Spirit of God would be assumed…"

Another note: in addition to James, Luther did not want to include Revelation, Hebrews, or Jude in the canon of scripture. He also had lesser opinions of 2 John, 3 John, and 2 Peter. Luther's leftovers sometimes are called antilegomena, literally "spoken against."

James and COVID-19

Wisdom in scripture isn't book learning, higher education, or high-IQ intelligence. Those things aren't bad at all; we need people who've studied hard and learned to think critically. Wisdom in scripture isn't static or one-dimensional. Biblical wisdom discerns loving possibilities with an open heart and open mind, allows (a lot of space for) mercy and grace, and trusts resurrection happens out of death.

I could say this reading addresses the ongoing debate over masks and vaccinations, and it does, but so does most of scripture. You likely remember "WWJD"? James demands, "Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom … Therefore, submit to God." People who submit to God don't ask about their own rights because God created each of us in the divine image and made us interdependent with equal "rights." According to late great Jewish theologian Martin Buber, "love is responsibility of an I for a thou."

Seven months ago on February 15 on my other main blog I observed:
Early in the COVID-19 mask-wearing mandate people started to protest. Almost a year into masks, people haven't stopped complaining, with some refusing to mask up because they insist masks take away their personal freedom. As the commandments (the law!) and the prophets (grace!) reveal, life's not about a supposedly autonomous "me" individual because no one lives by or for themselves. Polite suggestions or municipal demands to mask don't remove anyone's freedom; freedom always has limits and boundaries because no one can be that autonomous "law unto themselves." Life is about me, a person connected to the other – to my neighbor whose neighbor I become – in love that regards their greater good as my privilege and obligation, that perceives the neighbor's good as my own.

But why didn't Martin Luther love and admire James?!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Pentecost 16B

Prayer for the Anniversary of 9/11

O God, our hope and refuge,
in our distress we come quickly to you…

We come remembering those who lost their lives
in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania…

We come remembering
and we come in hope,
not in ourselves, but in you…

In commemorating this tragedy,
we give you thanks for your presence
in our time of need
and we seek to worship you in Spirit and in truth,
our guide and our guardian. Amen.

Excerpt of prayer by the Rev. Jeremy Pridgeon, First United Methodist Church, Panama City, Florida, via Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church.

Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" 28And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

34Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Where We Are

The church is more than three quarters of the way through this year of grace that mostly features gospel readings from St. Mark, the earliest, shortest, most concise narrative of Jesus' earthly ministry. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the cross is particularly incessant and intentional.

Most of the first half of Mark happens around Jesus' hometown area of Galilee; most of the second occurs on the way to, near, and in Jerusalem. After today's conversation in this place of many many deities, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem. Surprisingly(!), this is the first place in Mark where Jesus uses the word "cross."

Each of the four canonical gospels brings us the good news of Jesus Christ with its own emphasis. Jesus' first act of public ministry in Mark is an exorcism; Mark's particular concern is freedom from demons and the demonic as well as destabilizing and overthrowing the power and accretions of empire so creation can live in freedom. You may recall Mark's response to "where do we find God?" On the margins, in the stranger and the "other than us." We find God supremely in the vulnerability of a convicted human dying on a cross. Mark's God is far outside conventional political, religious, social, and economic establishments.

Caesarea Philippi

Jesus' entire story in Mark turns around in this passage with:
(1) Peter's recognition and public confession of Jesus as Messiah/Christ in verse 29;
(2) Jesus' own passion prediction in verse 31 (the first of three in Mark);
(3) Jesus' call that this time includes the gathered crowd along with his current disciples in verse 34.

Jesus and his disciples are in a Caesarville—Caesarea Philippi at the far north border. Caesarea Philippi was a center of worship of the nature god Pan, the Ba'al place gods, and the Roman Emperor.

Besides dividing the different geographical locations of the two halves of Mark and demanding an answer to the question of Jesus' identity and call, by extension they also ask about our identity and calling as people baptized into Jesus Christ.

Like many during the last three or four millennia, we live in a Caesarville—a place defined by one empire or several. Many many still perceive the USA in this late 2021 as Trumpville. Does Consumerland, Big Pharma Nation, or Mass Violence Villa hold sway and try to have the final say?

Baptism. Cross.

Hebrew bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection is a subversive act of renunciation and embrace. (My apologies for not having the book title. The phrase was so arresting I immediately memorized it.) In baptism we renounce Martin Luther's "unholy trinity" of sin, death, and the devil. In his baptismal liturgy, Luther addressed the devil: "So hearken now, thou miserable devil, adjured by the name of the eternal God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and depart trembling and groaning, conquered together with thy hatred, so that thou shalt have nothing to do with the servant of God who now seeks that which is heavenly and renounces thee and thy world."

The cross Jesus calls us to carry in Mark 8:34 is not the sorrows, losses, struggles, trials, disappointments, and difficulties everyone experiences. Jesus calls us to carry his cross that's a loud "no" to death, "no" to violence, "no" to exploitation, "no" to inequality, "no" to imperial excesses of every kind, "no" to hatred. When we carry the cross of Jesus Christ, we speak a resounding "yes" to life, "yes" to peace, to equality, community, to neighborology, to love, to inclusion, to boundless life for all creation.

Our baptism into Jesus death is at the same time baptism or immersion into his resurrection. It's about the death of the old, but it's even more about the new being, the new creation. We remember and act on Wendell Berry's (and scripture's command) to Practice Resurrection!

Pastor James Howell observes even though he gets the correct answer about Jesus' identity, Peter doesn't get (has zero clue) what that identity implies. Howell adds, "Peter is entirely foolhardy, as are all of us who dare to wield the keys and be the church. We simply stick behind Jesus, a little bit embarrassed over how dumb we can be, and count on his mercy, his mercies plural, and journey with him to the holy city not to assume power but to lose everything."

911 2001 • 20 years • 911 2021

That's all for this week as we remember and grieve 911. On my other main blog I illustrated (and also tweeted) a photograph of the 911 memorial and quoted Psalm 62:5: "Yet my soul, keep thou silence unto God: for mine hope is in him."