Saturday, January 29, 2022

Epiphany 4C

Do you remember when "Covid" wasn't even in our vocabulary? Back in those remote pre-COVID days, our choir sang an exquisite setting of this week's second reading from 1 Corinthians 13 composed by Alfred Fedak. Here's an excerpt from A Song of Paul:

Should I rehearse with human voice
the words which angels make their choice,
devoid of love, my song resounds,
magnificent but empty.

In love is patience always found,
for love kind hearts make common ground,
from love, conceit and pride take flight
and jealousy is banished.

Love keeps no score of what's gone wrong
nor sings a pessimistic song
nor lets regret or guilt prolong,
for love expects tomorrow.

Paraphrase by John Bell; copyright 1988 Iona Community, Scotland.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." 6Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." 7But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."

9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched [strike, jolt, shock: not gentle] my mouth; and the Lord said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."


The church's year of grace is in a fairly short segment of green and growing Ordinary Time as we count Sundays after the feast of the Epiphany. After the Festival of Pentecost, we'll be in Ordinary Time again, with a six month long Season of the Spirit, Time of the Church. Ordinary refers to structured, organized, patterned, arranged: "in order." With an emphasis on Jesus as light of the world and redeemer of all creation, Epiphany focuses on God's self-revelation from many angles.

Today's first reading is a biblical call story—this time it's the prophet Jeremiah. Section title could be "God Calls Jeremiah," and throughout this passage God is the main actor. Remember the calls of Moses, of Isaiah, of Jesus' mother Mary? Jesus' earthly father Joseph? Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea? Jesus calling his original followers? Narratives of the gift of the Holy Spirit to individuals and communities? As the main agent behind every call, the Holy Spirit or Paraclete – called-alongside One – enables us to hear, act upon, and fulfill God's callings. Like many throughout the centuries, Jeremiah feels less than adequate because he doesn't believe he can speak well, because he doesn't feel old or mature enough. But God has known, consecrated, and appointed Jeremiah; God will send, instruct, and be with Jeremiah.

Call and Response

Like Jesus' call narratives, the story of Jeremiah's call or vocation (same word from different languages) fits our lives well. We sometimes think of calling or vocation as a profession, job, or series of different more or less major work opportunities. People often feel strongly "called to" direct service professions like pastor, teacher, and nurse, though anyone assessing their interests, talents, and opportunities and putting the pieces together has discerned a call from God.

Those big ones are important, but God calls, sends, and enables everyone to hundreds of smaller jobs, ministries, or acts of service. Locally for our families, in our communities, in or on behalf of the church, in the workplace besides our main employment there. God sometimes calls and directs us to locations and work we hadn't dreamt of. Have you ever felt "this had to be a God thing, because I wouldn't and couldn't have thought of it?" Just as God did for Jeremiah, God leads us to every mega or micro opportunity, ministry, or task (all the same thing), enables us to do it, and stays with us through it. Like Jeremiah, we sometimes feel unqualified…

The season of Epiphany focuses on God's revelation from many perspectives. The Epiphany symbol of light feels highly appropriate in terms of God revealing continued or new involvements to us.

This Week's Questions

• Do you feel the endless pandemic has opened even more doors for meaningful service than it has closed off? Or maybe not?
• Can you think of an especially surprising time God has called you into a particular situation?
• Has God ever called you to a volunteer setting or maybe paid employment you initially felt unqualified for, but when you assessed your background you realized you'd fit the calling well, though maybe with some additional training?
• Have you every dived head first into something that intrigued you, but you had zero experience with? If so, did you sense a direct call from God or did you simply have a feeling it might be for you?

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Epiphany 3C

Psalm 19

1The heavens tell of the glory of God;
And their expanse declares the work of God's hands.

2Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.

7The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

8The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

10They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much pure gold;
Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

New American Standard Bible (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

1All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3Ezra read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.

5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

11So the Levite priests stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.


Today's post-exilic Hebrew text from the book of Nehemiah writes Torah for every instance of the English translation "law." Torah is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah is all of the spoken and written history, poetry, songs, liturgies, and sagas God used to call and claim a people, to shape a common life to the fullest extent possible before Jesus Christ. Torah includes the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant—Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21.


Ezra and Nehemiah originally were a single book on one scroll. Similar to the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, they got separated because available scrolls weren't large enough to write all the text onto only one. Some of Ezra-Nehemiah probably belongs to early on when some of the people who'd been exiled to Babylon returned to their former home turf in Judah; some may reflect centuries later. Babylon had been cultural, geographic, religious (probably culinary, too) displacement. By the time of the New Moon Event in Nehemiah 8, they'd rebuilt the city walls (safety) and the temple walls (identity), yet the people found themselves subjects of Persia—another empire. During this general time period scribes and scholars assembled, edited, and codified much of the current Old Testament. Nehemiah and Ezra both were employees of Persia that actually sent them to provide spiritual and political leadership to God's people.

Ezra 7 tells us Ezra (who traced his heritage back to Moses' brother the high priest Aaron!) was a "scholar of the text of the commandments of the Lord" and "had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to teach the statues and ordinances in Israel." As priest and scribe, Ezra would have been among the approximately 3% of the people who could read and write. Ezra's heart for scripture and his position as spiritual advisor to those he'd known from exile would have qualified him to interpret Torah to the community.

Today's reading is the only time the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) features Nehemiah in its 3-year cycle, though the Anglican Communion (that sometimes differs slightly) has two additional ones.


You know the story! After God's people left slavery in Egypt they technically were free and on their way to the place God first promised Abraham. As they wandered across the desert they needed to trust God's daily provision because (without technology) no one could build, manufacture, count, or stockpile anything in any desert. Along the way they received God's gift of the ten words or commandments with guidelines and boundaries for continuing together in freedom. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant constitutive events, similar to how the constitution of an organization or a country defines individuals and communities.

You may remember there were several water features along the way to the Land of Promise, starting with the sea that overwhelmed the enemy, finally arriving at the river they had to cross. Water is life!

Today's Scripture

Around this time of Nehemiah 8 previously spoken or orally transmitted texts were starting to be written down. Around this time of Nehemiah 8, most of those who asked Ezra to read Torah had returned from exile in imperial Babylon; though they'd had some familiarity with scripture and carried their devotion with them, very few could read or write, and we know how forgetful humans can become, especially when engulfed by a different culture and religion.

At the start of today's account everyone (men, women, children) gathered at the Water Gate. Near Gihon Spring? On the way to the pool at Siloam? Water is life! Almost definitely many of Ezra's listeners had forgotten Torah because they'd been exiled from the Exodus' identity-forming embrace of the Sinai Covenant. As Ezra read, "The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the [interpreted] reading."

Every time I've read and loved this passage, I've imagined "all the people wept when they heard the words of the law" must have been tears of joy, yet the half-dozen commentaries I read all said tears of grief from being convicted of their sins and wrong-doings. Yet again… although we know the commandments as gifts of grace; we sometimes talk about the bitterness of the law, the sweetness of the gospel. Could those tears have come from mixed feelings of sorrow and joy? Nehemiah and Ezra both told the people don't weep! Celebrate with rich food and extravagant drink! In a preview of Jesus' welcoming and feeding all comers, the governor and the priest charged them to provide festive food for everyone who didn't have any.

This interactive communal experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture was very much the same as we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about being "fully texted people" who know and who live scripture: People of the Book who interpret scripture for their own context.

Keep On Reading!

Immediately they celebrated the Feast of Booths or Sukkoth, a festival of double thanksgiving for the exodus and for the commandments. Sukkoth re-enacted the exodus in tents that offered some shelter yet stayed somewhat open to weather and elements. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant experiences that formed Israel as God's people. At this Sukkoth, former exiles who likely had forgotten a whole lot claimed trust and obedience in God of the Exodus, God of the commandments, in the same way as people of the original exodus. In a real, physical, tangible sense they became People of the Book! Read, heard, interpreted, and lived.

14They found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month. 17And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. … And there was very great rejoicing. 18And day by day, from the first day to the last day, Ezra read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.

Where We Live: Keep On Reading!

The interactive experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture is exactly what we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. I've mentioned the gospel in one word? "Remember!" When they heard Ezra read, some within the assembly gathered at the Water Gate started to remember; some probably learned for the first time because the community had been exiled a long time. Contrary to many popular purveyors of self-improvement, instead of forgetting the past, rather than concentrating solely on the future, scripture tells us remember, remember, remember. Recall and recollect by telling the stories of liberation and resurrection—re-enact, them, too. Bring them to life!

Fully texted People of the Book? Read, heard, interpreted, known, and lived!

God called and claimed Ezra's listeners by the Water Gate. God called and claimed Israel amidst seas, springs, streams, and rivers. How about us?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Epiphany 2C

MLK Day Prayer

Holy God,

Today, we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for equality, justice, and dignity for African Americans that inspired so many other reform movements that seek to highlight the plight of the oppressed in society.

We pray that all of those in civil and religious authority be reminded that we all have been created in your image, and that there is an intrinsic dignity in each of us that calls for uplifting every man and woman, young and old.

We pray that your Holy Spirit remind us all that you show no partiality with regards to nationality, race, ethnicity, or gender, and to do so is to go against your great commandment of love toward one another.

We pray that the church will not be complicit of injustice by being silent, but that it can rise up with a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power and advances the values of your Kingdom.

We pray these things in the name of our blessed redeemer, Jesus Christ.


From Bread for the World

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Epiphany: the Season

We're in the season of Epiphany with its emphasis on light and revelation. In Advent we wait for, hope for, and expect Jesus' arrival as God-with-us. Advent begins as nights grew longer, days became shorter. We celebrate Jesus' nativity just after the Winter Solstice; increasing daylight, decreasing night promise spring's fresh new life soon will be on the way. Depending on which lectionary year we're in, Epiphany Sundays reveal (uncover and show us) a different aspect of Jesus. Lent happens next in the Christian year; the word "lent" refers to lengthening days and literally means Spring in old-fashioned parlance.

The church's year of grace follows Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and then for about six months after the fifty-day long season of Easter, we count Sundays after the day of Pentecost. During the Pentecostal Season of the Spirit, the church year tracks ministries we accomplish in Jesus' name through the Holy Spirit.

Today's Epistle

Maybe surprisingly, today's second reading for this Second Sunday of Epiphany isn't about revelations of Jesus; instead it reveals characteristics and gifts of people who follow Jesus. That's us!

This week of Epiphany 2 happens not long after many of us engaged in gift-giving on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. For some cultures and church traditions, the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th is the day to give gifts because that's when Visitors from the East brought gifts to young Jesus. Writing to the Church at Corinth, apostle-pastor-theologian Paul discusses particular gifts within the church itself, gifts the Spirit grants the people of God for the well-being of everyone. Either Unity in Diversity or Unity and Diversity could be the buzz-phrase for this scripture. This passage follows instructions on worship and sacraments in chapter 11 and comes before the love chapter 13. In his Message translation of verse 7, the late pastor Eugene Peterson succinctly describes the purpose of all God's gifts—including the gifts of Jesus and of the Spirit: "everyone gets in on it; everyone benefits." Not only those who consider themselves God's people, but all humans everywhere. Because of these gifts, humanity flourishes, and so does all creation.

Gifts of the Spirit

One commentator clarified that verse 1, "Now concerning spiritual gifts," more accurately reads "matters related to the Spirit," with gifting a subset of that Spirit-related category. Every ability God graces us with is a gift in the Spirit and of the Spirit, so that would include skills like carpentry, cooking, music, accounting, caregiving, and farming. However, today's Pauline list (the apostle Paul LOVES to make lists!) is about ones that can't easily be measured or quantified. This is about more clearly spiritual rather than tangible, physical abilities. However, none of those gifts is free-floating; every one of these gifts of grace is embodied. This weekend we especially remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who used his amazing spiritual gifts for the good of the church and for the world.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Baptism of Jesus C

Isaiah 43:1
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine." Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

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. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."


Baptism of Jesus initiates the season of Epiphany, a variable length segment of green and growing Ordinary (ordered, structured) Time. Every year during after the Great 50 Days of Easter we have a long stretch of Ordinary Time when we count Sundays after the Day of Pentecost that's the 50th day of Easter. The Epiphany season begins and ends with a trinitarian theophany—a showing-forth, manifesting, displaying divinity. Today we celebrate the first theophany with the Baptism of Jesus; three days before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, we'll experience Jesus' Transfiguration.

Very few events are in all four gospels; surprisingly, all of the gospels don't even have a birth story or a resurrection narrative. But we find John baptizing Jesus in all four. Sit up and take notice!

• Mark 1:9-11
• Matthew 3:13-17
• Luke 3:21-22
• John 1:29-34


The word and concept of Trinity – Tri-Unity, three in one – is not in the bible, but scripture implies a Triune God—maybe especially in scenes like today's Baptism of Jesus and in the Transfiguration we'll celebrate to conclude the Epiphany season before Lent begins. Early on with the epistles and later when the four gospels were compiled, questions of Jesus' divinity hadn't yet started circulating. Because those concerns belong to a couple of centuries later, no one would have drawn upon "our" baptismal theology and wondered why the sinless Son of Heaven needed to be baptized.

The Council of Nicaea convened in the year 325 and gave us the Nicene Creed, the council of Chalcedon in 451 wrote the Definition of Chalcedon. Both statements affirm Jesus' full humanity and complete divinity.

"John's Baptism"

Inevitably we read a whole lot backwards when we interpret scripture. We've been living the rest of the story, so that's only natural. We interpret scripture in the same way we look back and then understand (or maybe not) our own experiences. Sometimes the pieces finally start to fit together. (And sometimes they really don't.)

After God's people left imperial Egypt and trekked through the desert, they had to cross the Jordan River in order to enter Promised Land Canaan. The Jordan formed a border and boundary between their old existence as Pharaoh's slaves, decades of desert wanderings, and new lives of freedom, obedience, and grace in covenanted community.

Like God's people Israel before him, Jesus stepped into the Jordan River that was border and boundary between his earlier, more private life and his public life of obedience, grace, and keeping righteous covenant. John's baptism wasn't as much about individuals as it was another political, religious, and economic new beginning. Jesus' baptism continued the Jewish practice of the bath – washing, mikvah – that may have started at Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt, before Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 19:10-14] Twenty-first century Jews still have a practice of mikvah that's a cleansing bath or immersion.

Our Baptism

Although it has similarities to Jesus' baptism by John, our trinitarian baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not baptized a Christian! God's affirmation of Jesus as beloved son is mostly about Jesus' call and purpose rather than about Jesus' nature. Jesus did not begin his public ministry until his baptism with God's call and claim on him. God's claim on each of us as beloved daughters and sons also is about God's call and purpose for us. For us also, living waters form a border and a boundary between our more private lives and our public lives of obedience, grace, keeping covenant with creation, and advocating for justice. In the same way the Holy Spirit filled Jesus at his baptism, the heavens open at our baptism and fill us with the Holy Spirit. In his Small Catechism Martin Luther asks, "How can water do such great things?" It is not only water, but water combined with the Word of God…

My header illustration from Isaiah 43, the traditional OT reading for this day announces, "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.'" God has Created – Formed – Redeemed – Called – Named – Claimed us.