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."

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Pentecost 15B

Isaiah 45:6-7
Isaiah 35:4-7a

4Say to those who have fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vindication, with restoration. God will come and save you."

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.


Today we'll consider a reading from the 66 chapter long book of Isaiah. You may remember we divide Isaiah into three main sections:

• chapters 1-39, 1st Isaiah, before the Babylonian exile;
• chapters 40-55, 2nd Isaiah, during the exile;
• chapters 56-66, 3rd Isaiah, after the exile—

though it's not quite that neat. Each major section also includes prose or poetry that's probably from a different individual. After a series of judgments in previous chapters (that lead up to the bad news of exile to Babylon in Isaiah 36 through 39), today's chapter 35 brings the spirit of hope, renewal, and resurrection we find in Second Isaiah (chapters 40 through 55) that likely was written during the exile, and then got edited or redacted after homecoming to Jerusalem.

Practicing Resurrection

First Isaiah, or Isaiah of Jerusalem celebrates the effects of God's presence. The presence of God's people? Throughout scripture, death isn't only when you stop breathing and your body shuts down. Death is everything that limits a full life. Death is whatever interferes with our common life. Death is there when creation doesn't flourish. Resurrection sometimes restores spiritual life, sometimes physical or emotional or communal health. In baptism we receive God's Spirit of Resurrection from the dead. The poet Isaiah celebrates the outcome of God's presence, of the presence of God's people.

When John the Baptist was in prison, John told his followers to go ask his cousin Jesus if he [Jesus] was the promised one "who is to come," or if they needed to keep looking and searching for someone else. Jesus told John's followers, "Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, dead are raised, good news proclaimed to the poor…" [and blessed are those who take no offense, do not consider me a stumbling block/scandal."] Matthew 11:4,5,6 Luke 7:22,23

This Isaiah vision is even more dramatic than Jesus' message to John. Springs and streams, maybe actual rivers, glorify the desert wilderness. Water is life! Once-lame people not only walk, but leap like gazelles. Formerly speechless people not only talk, but sing!

Like God's promise in today's scripture, like Jesus' reply to his cousin John the Baptist, God often calls us to be the reversal, the newness, the resurrection God promises and the world needs. God calls us to help the blind see, deaf hear, lame walk (or leap), speechless talk (or sing). Jesus assured John he was the promised one who'd change the course of history. Baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection, we become Jesus' presence as we practice resurrection and help create the future!

Do you know Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by farmer-poet-theologian Wendell Berry? Among other things he advises us:
Every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Practice resurrection.