Saturday, December 09, 2023

Advent 2B

Advent-Nativity designs created from Winter Essentials
by Alena Bugrova with legal reuse rights

Every valley shall be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low,
then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together!

Isaiah 40:4-5

Isaiah 40:1-5; 9

1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"

Advent / Isaiah

Scriptures on the first Sunday of Advent announced the end of the world as it always had been. I love starting a new year a month before the one on January 1st! During the season of Advent we wait and hope together for the infant Jesus. We wait and hope together. Today's first reading tells us we will experience God's glory together, too.

Last week's Old Testament reading came from Third Isaiah, God's spokesperson featured in chapters 56 - 56, who's sometimes known as the post-exilic Isaiah. Back in Jerusalem and Judah after being exiled to Babylon, God's people engaged in rebuilding social, economic, and religious structures and infrastructure. In some ways they'd returned home to the land of promise, but so much had been destroyed and devastated, they'd need to do a whole lot before they again could live in safety, comfort, and shalom, before they'd recapture a sense of belonging, a feeling "we're home now."

This week for the second Sunday of Advent we hear from the opening of Second Isaiah (chapters 40 - 55), who ministered with inspired poetry during the Babylonian exile. We know today's First Reading, "Comfort ye… every valley" from Handel's Messiah. In today's scripture, Isaiah announces God's arrival—or more accurately, God with them in a way people could see and appreciate because God never had left. God then calls the people (Zion) to announce God no longer being hidden. In exactly the same way, God calls us to proclaim and testify to God's presence in the world today.

The Road Home

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40:3

Exiles in the culturally and politically strange Babylon wanted to go home, though you may remember Jeremiah telling them to settle down and contribute to Babylon's greater good—the original "Bloom Where You Are Planted" that's written down in Jeremiah 29:4-7.

The road second Isaiah sings about is not for the exiles' return home; maybe surprisingly, the highway is for God's journey.

For most of us in this mobile, peripatetic society and culture (maybe you've heard of digital nomads?), homecoming is a street, a path, an avenue, and not a static location, even if our GPS thinks it can locate us on specific coordinates. Isaiah continues with talk about the earth moving and major civil engineering enterprises: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. All that sounds easier to walk on and drive on than we'd expected or known in the past, and probably quicker, too.

• How do you capture (or recapture) a sense of belonging, that feeling "I'm home now?"

• Is home for you a perspective or a location, or is home both a viewpoint and a place?

• Do you have a particular attachment to a childhood home or homes, to the city or town where you grew up, to a grandparent's house, or to a vacation spot you enjoyed when you were growing up?

• Do you ever go back to your place of roots, desire to go back, or do you consider that chapter thankfully closed? Or maybe wistfully finished?

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Advent 1B

Advent 1 2023 Isaiah 64L1
Advent-Nativity designs created from Winter Essentials
by Alena Bugrova with legal reuse rights

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent Hope

With the first Sunday of Advent, the church begins a new year of grace as it waits for Jesus' birth. Advent means toward (ad) the coming (venire). Maybe you know esperar in Spanish means wait, hope, and expect? Advent is a harbinger of Easter when we celebrate hope's fulfillment.

Opening each window in your advent calendar reveals a mini-surprise that brings us closer to the gift of Jesus' birth, brings us nearer the day we'll give gifts and receive gifts. At church and at home, Advent wreaths are another sign of the season that's especially welcome in the northern hemisphere as we anticipate Jesus' lighting the world at the darkest time of year.

But calendars and candles are homespun and tame. They have become too familiar. Advent calls us to get to the root, literally to be radical.

Advent Apocalyptic

With calls to repentance and hope, Advent definitely is a season of waiting and watching. Every year's scripture readings open up Advent with a splash of apocalyptic, signaling the end of the world as we've known it—the end of death, destruction, empire, violence, exploitation. The end of despair and discouragement. The dawn of hope and possibility. Apocalyptic/ apocalypse means revealing or uncovering something that's hidden. Very broadly, apocalyptic is a type of writing that uses one concept to illustrate another and that needs to be responsibly interpreted.

We're now in Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) year B with Mark as the featured gospel; here's a short overview of Mark. I'm reflecting on the Hebrew bible passage, so here's Mark 13:24-37 the gospel reading for today. It's from the middle of Mark's passion narrative!

Today's First Reading

Today's Third Isaiah comes from back on home land in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Along the way from Egypt through the promised land, into exile and back, the Israelites had lived some solid theology. Like us, in their heads they knew God could not be controlled by humans or confined to a small space. They already had experienced God as an extraordinary deity who heard the people, traveled alongside, and entered into unbreakable covenant them them. In their heads they knew God never would leave them. However, similar to our experiences, events had gone down in ways that made them wonder if God had disappeared.

This poetry is interesting because instead of characteristic prophetic content that addresses the people with inspired words from God, we hear the people speaking to God. Pleading with God. Begging God to remember! It's very much like the psalms! The Hebrew for "tear open" implies a rip or rupture that cannot be mended, and is similar to the Greek word used when the temple curtain tore at Jesus' death.

During Advent we wait for Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, who obliterates divisions between earth and heaven. This Jesus heals creation's brokenness and prepares our future.

Memory and Hope

It often feels as if God has abandoned this planet. With the overall state of the world, egregious and targeted violence everywhere, climate degradation, social distancing and estrangement (in more than one sense), and psychological distress that has led almost everyone to seek some kind of solution for restoring their emotional and mental wellness, even people who routinely trust God, frequently sense God's presence, and pray a lot have serious doubts. This week's second lection from 1 Corinthians 1:7 says "we wait for the revealing [literally apocalypse] of our Lord Jesus Christ." In today's first reading the people beg for God's self-revelation and intervention because they have a history with this God. They remember. And they remind God.

Advent calendars and candles have become almost too familiar. Advent calls us to the root – to ground zero – of our lives together as people of God. We recreate our history with God in Word and Sacrament as we join with God's people in every place, every time. Worship and sacraments make those past events present to us right here and right now. As we re-member and re-enact the past, we trust God's future redemption and astonishing actions yet to come because we have lived solid theology with this God. Getting to the taproot of our lives together with God, we actually remember the future. We wait and watch and look for signs of God's tomorrows breaking into our midst.

Friday, December 01, 2023

Mark's Gospel

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1

Concept, Author, Date

• Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) Year B belongs to Mark's gospel. Along with Luke and Matthew, Mark is a synoptic gospel that views Jesus from a similar perspective, although each has a distinctive personality. As the shortest and most immediate of the four canonical gospels, Mark is the one for texting and tweeting (also known as posting on the app called X).

• Prior to Mark, good news or gospel was the returning Roman general's announcement of annihilating the enemy. Mark subverts that into the Good News of God's victory over sin and death, the triumph of the reign of life. All known manuscripts carry the heading The Gospel According to Mark, but this Mark probably is an unknown person or group and not Peter's ministry companion John Mark.

• Probably written to Greek speaking gentile Christians, possibly but not probably as early as 45 C.E., almost definitely no later than shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E..

• Between them, Matthew and Luke include 631 of Mark's 661 verses. with about 90% in Matthew, 50% in Luke, making Mark's gospel an important resource for Luke and Matthew.


A variety of documents that circulated in the dynamic oral tradition before being written down. Scholars sometimes consider a possible source called Q for the first letter of the German Quelle; "Quelle" means source or river. Was there really a Q? That's still unknown. Was Mark Q? Almost definitely not.


• Proclamation / announcement rather than history
• No birth narrative
• No resurrection account
• Mark doesn't mention Jesus' earthly father Joseph, yet because 6:2-3 asks, 2 "…What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 2 Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?…" we identify Jesus' as a tekton, something like a multiskilled handyman.
• Many miracles, healings, and exorcisms
• Mark famously features the Messianic secret: Jesus tells everyone don't tell anyone!
• Just as in Matthew and Luke, Mark's Jesus loves to refer to himself as "Son of Man" – the Human One.

After his baptism followed by 40 days in the wilderness that Matthew and Luke also report (but in greater detail), Jesus calls disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John; then in his first act of public ministry, Jesus casts out a demon during a synagogue service.

Just as for Luke, in Mark's gospel the journey to Jerusalem and the cross is particularly intentional and incessant. For Mark, Jesus' passion and death provide the fullest understanding of Jesus' purpose and identity.


Mark brings us God coming near to humanity and to all creation. God no longer is far away, behind the clouds. Think of how central the Jerusalem temple was to economic, political, and religious life! In Jesus of Nazareth, God no longer is contained and protected in the temple. Is there a new God in town? (But then again, all four gospel accounts are about God-with-us, God-among-us, God-for-us…)

Mark particularly asks, "Where do we look for God? Where do we find God?"

• Not hidden behind clouds or anywhere far from earth
• Not in the temple – but on the cross
• Not in established religious, economic, political institutions – but outside the city limits, in the wilderness. In the stranger and outcast.

During this year of Mark's gospel, let's consider: do we find God in the mainline church and in mainstream society?
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Reign of Christ / Christ the King

Thou hast taken thy great power
and begun to reign.
Revelation 11:17

Ephesians 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Reign of Christ / Christ the King

A king like other nations have! I Samuel 8:4-22

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, "No! We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles." 1 Samuel 8:19-20

As Pastor James Howell describes it, Christ's reign is only powerful by its lack of power, its gentle compassion, its subversive humility. His palace is a lowly manger, his crown one of thorns, his retinue a bunch of clueless dudes fleeing for the exits, his armies the poor and pitiful of the world.

Every year the church's year of grace concludes by celebrating Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Pope Pius XI instituted the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe in 1925.

This King reigns from a cross:
"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. John 12:32-33

Reign of Christ 2023

Martin Luther reminds us if we want to see God's power, sovereignty, and lordship, look to the Bethlehem manger. Look to the Calvary cross. This Jesus, this Christ, rules against all ordinary human ideas of power, glory, fame. Unlike other gods of the ancient near east, Jesus reveals a god not of a particular people and place, but a God for all people and all places. Jesus' authority and reign is one of servanthood.

My July 2022 reflection Colossians 1:15-20 for Pentecost 6 fits today well. The pre-existent Christ fills and rules the entire cosmos, subverts empire, inverts the political, social, economic, and religious status quo.

Today's Second Reading

Jesus Christ's ascension refers to his reign, rule, sovereignty, power, authority, stewardship—his caretaking and responsiveness to creation's needs. Does Christ the King /Reign of Christ sound and look something like Ascension? Today's Ephesians passage is the second reading for Ascension Day / Sunday in all three lectionary years; it's also sometimes scheduled on All Saints.

"Seated at God's right hand," [1:20] is a way of saying Jesus ascended, or assumed authority over all creation. Unlike with human governments and organizations, Jesus' authority has no checks and balances. It is supreme. It is absolute. Jesus is "King of all the earth," as Psalm 47 says.

These verses from Ephesians provide three poignant (body part!) images of Jesus' ascendancy, lordship, leadership, rule:

• 1:20 – seated at God's right hand
• 1:22a – all things under his feet
• 1:22b – made him the head over all things for the church…

…1:23 which is Christ's body!

The Church…which is Christ's Body

As Luke reports in Acts 1:6-11.

So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Acts 1:6-8

When the disciples ask the risen Christ if now he finally would "restore the kingdom to Israel," Jesus replies, "the question is wrong," and tells them to wait. They will receive power (that's the dynamite word), and then they'll be his witnesses everywhere. In other words, in the power of the pentecostal Spirit of Resurrection, Jesus' disciples (that's us!) will continue restoring the reign of heaven on earth.

The Heidelberg Catechism asks,
"Why is the son of God called Jesus, meaning Savior?" And, "Why is the son of God called Christ, meaning anointed?"
And then: "But why are you called a Christian?"
Answer: "Because by faith I share in Christ's anointing, and I am anointed to reign over all creation for all eternity."

Jesus' Presence and Reign

You may have heard about reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli in their encounter at Marburg. Arguing the eucharistic real presence, Zwingli claimed the real or authentic presence (Geneva Reformer John Calvin preferred "true presence") of the risen Christ in the Lord's Supper wasn't possible, because the ascended Jesus Christ sits (is incumbent, rules from) at the right hand of God the Father.

Though along with Zwingli he acknowledged Christ's ascension to God's right hand, in response to Zwingli Luther pointed out the Right Hand of God – God's sovereignty and dominion – is everywhere and throughout: in, with, and under all creation. Thus the right hand of God to where Jesus Christ ascended and from where he now reigns is in Zurich, in London, at Marburg, in Los Angeles, in Tokyo, in Sydney—all places at all times. And, of course in Holy Communion.

Amen? Amen!


So that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which Christ has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. Ephesians 1:18-19

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see you

To see you high and lifted up
Shining in the light of your glory
Pour out your power and love
As we sing holy holy holy

© Paul Baloche – Integrity Hosanna! Music, 1997

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Pentecost 25A

Psalm 90:1-2
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
From everlasting to everlasting
you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

Matthew 25:14-30

14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'

22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'

24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

This Week

The next to last Sunday of this year of grace, and here's the Parable of the Talents, beloved of stewardship committees! Although parables in the gospels often begin with, "The reign of God is like, the kingdom of heaven will be like," this one doesn't mention the reign of heaven/kingdom of God. Today's good news comes between wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom and Jesus separating sheep from goats on the last day by assessing who had faithfully fed, clothed, welcomed, and visited needy people.

Jesus told this story shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. Is it about managing finances? About overall stewardship? Is it about characteristics of the reign of heaven on earth? The reading seems to start out with a cash infusion. It goes on to tell us two of the servants increased the value of the huge sum they'd been entrusted with.

Torah forbids charging interest on a loan. Not only charging excessive interest (usury—think of payday loans)—but any amount of interest whatsoever. So our contemporary practice of "investing" money in securities, commodities, derivatives, or another market would have been against Torah. (Two millennia later, if money is making money, someone still is being exploited.)

Some commentaries in-your-face point out a talent isn't an ability or tendency to do a particular thing well, yet we derive our concept of talent as a special way to gift the community from the instrument of financial exchange called talent. One source said a talent was about twenty years' wages. Although it would vary depending upon the person's job and skill, in that case, five talents would be 100 years' pay!


We need to contextualize scripture into our own social and economic setting. Stewardship committees love this parable. Is it about using God-given resources of talent, treasure, and time in ways that multiply the presence of the reign of God in the world?

This passage isn't about entrepreneurship; it ain't Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; it's not investment banking or municipal bonds. On its own, money is neutral, and to keep afloat, we absolutely need ways to get what we need, with dollars, pesos, or euros; with baking for baby-sitting, or another type of exchange. Individuals, churches, governments, and other organizations need money to survive and do their things. Tracking cash flow and reserves is an important aspect of trusting God in areas of receiving and giving.

When we contribute to the church's ministry and the world's future, both giver and gifted enter into the joy that results from faithful use (stewardship) of monetary and other gifts. But what is this parable really about?
• The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 25:16-18

The master chides, "Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest." 25:27

Torah forbids charging interest on loans, so "investing" in stocks, bonds, cryptocurrency (or likely even your neighbor's startup) not only would have been risky; it would have been morally suspect. But at least on paper, would growth of the original sum offset any apparent decrease in financial holdings of any party?

Then and Now

In Jesus' time and place, people believed all resources were finite, so everyone assumed a zero-sum existence. If the rich got richer, the poor must have gotten poorer. If someone's social status increased, someone else's had to have decreased, and so any changes the third slave experienced would have been negative ones. Given that expectation, he logically pursued the then common practice of burying the money so his assets wouldn't decrease. However, a slave was bound to do the master's grunt work, that in this case meant growing his wealth, which explains the master's anger.

The master chides, "Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest." 25:27

Despite the master telling the guy he could have invested that money, Torah forbids charging interest on loans.

What do you make of this parable? In his first act of public ministry recorded by Luke, Jesus announces the time of Jubilee when debts will be canceled, when all creation will thrive in shalom-filled "enough." When that time arrives, saving, investing, and stockpiling won't be considerations. But given the size and diversity of this planet, will that ever happen? Can it happen? Besides, some inflation is necessary to maintain a healthy market economy.

Textual note: New Testament words for slave and servant get translated into English almost randomly as either servant or slave; the Greek here is "slave," so these weren't voluntary at-will or contracted workers.

Into God's Future

"Well done, good and trustworthy one, enter into the joy…" The master promises faithful servants will be in charge of (steward of) many things, "more will be given." But what is this parable really about?

During formal stewardship drives the church asks for pledges of money, abilities, and linear time people will contribute to the church's ministry and the world's future.

• Rather than identifying with one of the servants/slaves or imagining Jesus as the master, what does this passage reveal about the gifts of God?
• God already has been to our future and waits for us there; we've received talents/gifts to contribute.
• Does this scripture promise or imply anything about trusting God with our future?
• Would you call this a parable of grace or a parable of judgment?
• Jesus announces Jubilee when all debts will be canceled, and all creation will thrive in shalom-filled "enough" so saving, investing, and stockpiling won't be considerations.
• What do you imagine God is doing at your future, at the church's future, and for the world's future?

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Pentecost 24A

Joshua 24:24
The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve,
and the Lord our God we will obey." Joshua 24:24

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors – Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

• Intervening verses 3b-13 narrate salvation history from Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, and Esau; to Egypt, Moses and Aaron; then to deliverance in the Red Sea to Exodus wanderings through the desert; finally entry into Canaan with the gift of the land. God's actions. God's faithfulness. This history with God's grace-filled provision forms "why" for Israel continuing to trust Yahweh as their real god.

14 "Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God."

19 But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." 21 And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the Lord!" 22 Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses."

23 Joshua said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel." 24 The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey." 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Hearing, Doing

Today's alternate first reading from Joshua pairs well with the designated first reading from Amos 5:24 that concludes, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amos 5:18-24

Joshua, the sixth book of the OT, chronicles Israel's actual entry into the Promised Land of Canaan forty years – four decades! – out of imperial slavery. Not very far into the exodus or departure trek, God and people had covenanted at Sinai to serve God by serving the neighbor that later on would include strangers, sojourners, outcasts, and people who in many ways were "very other than" Israelite. They'd be going into Canaan that already was occupied with people who worshiped many other gods of various types. Joshua 24:15 includes the famous "…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." This is another covenant text.

In an echo of the rationales for keeping covenant with the God of the Exodus, before Joshua asks the people whether or not they will serve the real God of heaven and earth, "The Lord," he gives them reasons for trusting God by retelling substantial portions of the people's experiences with God. This God hears and heeds, acts and cares; God rescues, protects, frees, and redeems. This God of signs and wonders is powerful enough to annihilate enemies. This God reliably comes through for the people every time.

19But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. … 24The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey."

After the people affirm they will serve God, Joshua tells them they cannot serve this holy God, yet again they insist they definitely will. What does it mean to put away other, "foreign" gods (we all have them now and then—a god is anything we put before and above God at any time) and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God of Israel, God of Jesus Christ?

Holy God, Holy People

What does it mean to put away other gods and put the God of presence, power, mercy, and grace first before anything or anyone else? What does it mean to serve a holy God? What does it mean to be holy people in the image of that Holy God?

In Leviticus 19:2 God instructs Moses, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." The chapter then summarizes the commandments and includes love your neighbor as yourself in verse 18b. The Ten Words or Commandments of the Sinai Covenant call us to righteous lives of justice, love, and mercy, revering God by serving the neighbor and establishing a common-wealth of care, sustenance, and shalom sufficiency.

You may have some acquaintance with holiness churches that derived from the traditions of John and Charles Wesley. Historically members of those churches don't drink alcohol or smoke nicotine; recreational drugs are off limits, too. (Some don't dance socially… just like some pietist midwestern Lutherans and Scots Presbyterians?) Those practices and prohibitions help keep head, heart, and body clear and clean for lives of service to God and neighbor, because true holiness in God's image is both inward and outward.

Witness, Testimony

Seeing, hearing, telling.

22Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses."

Although the people agreed to testify to their choosing to serve God, chapter 24 continues,
26 Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 Joshua said to all the people, "See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God." 28 So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

This stone shall be a witness against us, but how can a rock, a river, a plant or any natural or inanimate object testify? Stones and other objects that serve as witnesses (seeing or hearing) in the Hebrew bible would make a interesting standalone study. Who would like to prepare and present one? Let me know! I'll blog it here and on desert spirit's fire! and circulate it on social media.

• You might enjoy Joshua chapters 16-17-18-19 where Joshua portions out inheritances of allotments (land plots and cities) to the different tribes with a poetic description of each tribe that Marc Chagall drew upon for his stained glass Jerusalem Windows.

Saturday, November 04, 2023

All Saints 2023

All Saints ELCA, University City, San Diego, California
All Saints ELCA in the University City neighborhood of San Diego, California

All Saints Day / All Saints Sunday

Though we especially commemorate and celebrate those in the Church Triumphant and their forebears, All Saints also is for those of us in the visible church, a day for everyone God has chosen, called, sanctified, and sent.

When churches observe Reformation and October 31st isn't a Sunday, the last Sunday of October becomes Reformation. You may know Halloween on October 31st as All Hallows' Eve—the day before All Saints on November 1st. A hallowed person, place, or event is a holy one.

In Central and Latin American culture, November 2nd is Day of the Dead – Día de los Muertos.

Sanctification, theosis, and divinization all mean the same thing. Eastern Christianity tends to use "theosis" with its Theo or God word root; Western Christians typically refer to "sanctification." That sac prefix means holy, as in the Sanctus–"Holy, Holy, Holy" we sing during the liturgy. With its root in divine, "divinization" means the same. All three terms describe the Holy Spirit inspired process of claiming, growing into, and living out our divine nature of being holy, just as God is holy. Some church bodies place themselves very consciously within what's called holiness traditions.

Saints Alive

For 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. Saints or holy ones could be neighbors, parents, friends, relatives, colleagues still on earth or in heaven. Saints can be people in scripture or universally famous ones. What saints do you especially admire, remember, and maybe try to emulate? Today's remembrance includes all of us still in the visible church. "All of us" because in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and become hallowed or sanctified; we become saints.

At the start of Leviticus 19 we hear,

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

Holy people? Holy God? Leviticus 19 then outlines the essence of the Ten Commandments, with added details.

Writing to the church in diaspora, 1 Peter 1:16 quotes Leviticus, "for it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'"

The baptismal hymn in 1 Peter declares to us:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, people of God's possession,
So that you may proclaim the mighty acts of God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people;
Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9-10
Becoming more holy, just as God is holy. Hallowed be each of our names? Yet even as we act with greater justice, love, mercy, and righteousness, our holiness (sanctification, divinization) depends not on our actions but on God's grace and love.

All Things New

Our Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear about the reality of death. Physical, social, emotional, financial and other deaths. Death is real but hope is real.

The Día de los Muertos website explains, "The skulls are often drawn with a smile as to laugh at death itself."

With many life-giving, hopeful promises, Revelation 7:9-17 is the first reading for All Saints.

Later on in Revelation 21:1-5:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
God will be with them and be their God;
4 "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." 5 And the one seated upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
All Saints 2023.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Reformation / Pentecost 22A

1 Thessalonians 2:8
So deeply do we care for you
that we are determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God but also our own selves,
because you have become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:8

Reformation 506

Most people know about Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the front door of the Wittenberg Church on All Hallow's Eve, 1517. The church was the community center, the door the community bulletin board and with All Saints Day on November 1st being a holy day of obligation, everyone would notice and possibly read Luther's concerns. The sale of indulgences and supposed selling and buying salvation was Luther's immediate concern. Luther also had major reservations [understatement!] about:

• general papal corruption and overreach from ecclesiastical life into temporal politics
• clerical corruption, incompetence, and simony (selling and buying religious positions)
• essential loss of the scriptures because only hyper-educated people could read Latin and because most churches neglected interpretation and exposition of God's word, thereby also losing the essence of the sacraments
• misuse of tradition that turned past practices and even Fathers of the Church into lifeless relics rather than living ideas to inspire here and now

Reformation 2023

Here's a version of what I said last year for Reformation:

In this ecumenical twenty-first century, it may feel unfriendly to observe the Reformation that split the church (even though it restored the gospel). Because contemporary theology and practice of most Christian traditions and denominations – including the Roman Catholic – align with Luther's demands for change and renewal despite some differences, why not a special day to celebrate the sixteenth century Reformation, and for a church that's always reforming? The phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda attributed to Karl Barth, became a catch-phrase of Vatican II.

But let's not celebrate Martin Luther! Don't celebrate Jan Hus, the Czech reformer whose life bridged 14th and 15th centuries—did you know that Martin Luther said he stood "on the shoulders of Jan Hus"? Don't celebrate renewers of the church John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Pope John XXIII. Celebrate God's grace and freedom in the love of Jesus Christ. Celebrate the church's mission and future. Celebrate the first fruits of the new creation in the reign of the Pentecostal Spirit of Life.


Every year's readings for Reformation are the same:

• freedom that is ours when we continue in God's word and abide in Christ – John 8:31-36
• justified before God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ – Romans 3:19-28
• the new covenant promise of God's law on our hearts – Jeremiah 31:31-34
• Psalm 46 that Martin Luther loosely paraphrased to create his hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."

Claiming counsel to "preach the text, not the day," let's also look at scriptures for Sunday, Pentecost 22. At least for this year 2023, they're a great fit for a church that's always reforming. For people who always want to move closer to Jesus.

• Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 As God's people we can be holy (sanctified, set apart for a purpose), in the same way God is holy by acting with justice and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
• Psalm 1 tells us a blessed life means to delight in, meditate upon, and follow God's ways. That would be loving God, self, and neighbor.
• In Matthew 22:34-48 Jesus summarizes the commandments into a simple love God, neighbor, and self.
• The second reading continues Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica. Though he can't physically be with them, he expresses love of the gospel and of the people.
• All four scriptures activate plain and simple love and concern for God, neighbor, and self.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals but to please God, who tests our hearts.

5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed, 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.

But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Loving our Neighbors

To conclude this Reformation reflection, Luther's explanations to the commandments in his Small Catechism describe life-giving love in action we can make in order to keep each command. For Thou shalt not kill, "We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every need and danger of life and body."

For Thou shalt not steal, "We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor's money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business that his means are preserved and his condition is improved."

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Pentecost 21A

1 Thessalonians 1:5
The gospel came to you not in word only,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit
and with full conviction.
1 Thessalonians 1:5

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy from the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For they report about us what kind of welcome we had among you and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

1 Thessalonians and Thessalonica

This week the lectionary also gives us:

Matthew 22:15-22 Whose icon? Whose brand? The lordship of Tiberius Caesar, who was a "son of god," or the lordship, the reign of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains everything? The God whose Son embodies God's love, justice, and presence?

Exodus 33:12-23 God's glory is God's goodness! God's grace and mercy. God-sightings? Many times we realize God was there only afterwards, as we review the incident.

1 Thessalonians is probably the earliest extant NT writing and the earliest of the apostles Paul's genuine or undisputed epistles. However, Paul almost definitely didn't write 2 Thessalonians. Although the commercial, trade, and population center of Thessalonica was the Roman capitol of Macedonia, it was a free Greek city, with its own coinage and city council. In Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch version of Paul's epistles, Macedonia is Mississippi is Macedonia.

Paul the evangelist probably wrote this elegant pastoral letter from Athens or Corinth around the year 51 or 52 C.E.. That would have been near the end of his second missionary journey after he'd visited Philippi and established First Church there. In Acts 17:1-9, verses 1- 4 describes both Jews and gentiles responding to Paul's preaching death and resurrection. And it says those people who've been turning the world upside down have arrived! Silvanus in this letter is Silas in Acts of the Apostles.

This is a clear example of how reading a Pauline letter often feels like listening to half of a conversation. Scholars guess it may have been written after a positive report from Timothy after he visited the fledgling church:

1 Thess 3:6 notes, "But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, just as we long to see you."

Here is the young, zealous, passionate Paul. Gentile converts were a matter of urgency for Paul. Many of the Thessalonian group of Christ followers probably hadn't been Jewish; verse 9 celebrates, "how you turned to God from [dead and false] idols to serve a living and true God."

Where We Live

Paul wrote beautifully and with admiration to the Thessalonian Christians. Even when we know we're hearing only one side of the conversation, it's often helpful to place ourselves inside the NT epistles. After all, they reflect God's action in Jesus of Nazareth as they offer counsel that usually applies anywhere at any time.

• 1 Thess 1:2 What do we make of "your work of faith?" "Labor of love" is familiar. And hope is an ongoing theme in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
• 1 Thess 1:4 – chosen, elected, by God in the Holy Spirit and look at all the evidence of the results! I sometimes think of a "choice" line of gourmet foods. A little more special, desirable, nicely done than the usual run of the mill. All good behaviors derive from love, grace, gift, and hope.
• 1 Thess 1:6-8 "Inspired by the Holy Spirit … the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it."

The Thessalonian Christians' lives shone so bright … words aren't necessary! Do you remember the advice attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi to "preach the gospel, and use words if necessary?"

• 1 Thess 1:10: Jesus rescues us from "the coming wrath." A new day is on the way!

We often place ourselves in the position of the people the letter was written to, but if we wrote a letter to people we've served or even worked alongside, what would we say? Maybe you've been or currently are a teacher, pastor, health care worker, work in retail or construction. Would you write many drafts of your letter until it felt exactly right, or would you trust your best instincts to express everything perfectly first time around? Think about it!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Pentecost 20A

bright flowers with scripture
If there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
ponder these things.
Philippians 4:8
Philippians 4:1-9

1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and petitions with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will protect your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, ponder these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.


Philippians is the "Epistle of Joy," with joy or its cognates at least 16 times. We refer to Philippians as a captivity letter because Paul wrote it while he was incarcerated in house arrest or possibly in a dungeon. Along with confidence in his essential identity in Jesus Christ, he assures us of God with us, God among us, God for us.

When I prepare these reflections I always check out Pastor James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions and usually two or three commentaries from Working Preacher. Doubtless the contributor wrote it at least a couple months ago in time for publication, but Jane Lancaster Patterson mentioned how perfect this comforting passage of God with us and God's call to "rejoice anyway" is for now.

4:2 "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord…" often gets misinterpreted by assuming the two women had been seriously disagreeing, but it's almost definitely a style of discourse called paranaesis (encouragement or exhortation) that was common in that era and that we find elsewhere in Paul's writings and in other epistles. In addition, unlike in Corinth, there's no evidence of any particular conflict at First Church Philippi. 4:9 confirms this when Paul advises them to keep on keepin' doing everything they've learned from him, their pastor and teacher.

4:8 is one of Paul's famous lists: true; honorable; just; pure; pleasing; commendable; excellent; praise-worthy…

The Lord is Near.

Philippians 4:5b – How?

This lectionary year emphasizes Matthew's gospel. At the start of Matthew an angel tells Joseph to name the baby Emmanuel, God-with-us; at the end of Matthew, Jesus promises to be with us forever, "Lo, I am with you always."

Through Luke we know Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit of life, of resurrection, of presence the world received in a spectacular manner on the day of Pentecost, and that we as the church bring to worlds around us. John's gospel also brings us God's abiding presence in the Spirit.

The Lord is near as God self-reveals in holy ordinary stuff of creation—water, grain, fruit of the vine. The sacraments model how God comes to us in everyday physical, "means" or vehicles.

• What evidence of God's presence do you especially rely on and return to?
• Do you have a favorite scripture for comfort or reassurance? A particular book of the bible?
• Is there a special place or activity that almost always helps you feel better and/or closer to God?
• How does the world know God is with everyone and with all creation? How does the world perceive God in its midst?

Where We Live
The Lord is near. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will protect your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … the God of peace will be with you.
• Today's second reading promises God is with us; it also commands us "Rejoice in the Lord always." If you've sung in choirs, you may know Henry Purcell's "Rejoice in the Lord Alway" based on Philippians 4:4-5.

• This Letter of Joy more than suggests:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [famous or renowned – Greek is euphemism], if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, ponder these things.

• Amidst all the ugly, disappointing, devastating, and degraded, how does thinking about good and pleasing things feel?

I'd seen the quote, "And shall not loveliness be loved forever?" but had to search for its source. It's from Bacchae by Euripides:
"What else is Wisdom? What of man's endeavour
Or God's high grace, so lovely and so great?
To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait;
To hold a hand uplifted over Hate;
And shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?"
bright flowers in a vase

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Pentecost 19A

picnic table with festive food
Original festive table photograph by Dmitry Shironosov

Exodus 20:1-5, 7-17

1 Then God spoke all these words, 2 "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods besides me.

4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

7 "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 "You shall not murder.
14 "You shall not commit adultery.
15 "You shall not steal.
16 "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

• The Ten Words in Deuteronomy 5:1-21. The lectionary schedules this passage for Epiphany 9B. but Easter almost never happens late enough for nine Epiphany Sundays.

Ten Commandments / Sinai Covenant / Ten Words


A few chapters and years before today's event, Moses and Aaron went to the Egyptian Pharaoh and said, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: 'let my people go, so they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'" Exodus 5:1

In Exodus 7:16, a reminder and a threat to Pharaoh. And finally, after plagues, passover, and deaths of firstborns, Pharaoh finally told Moses and Aaron, "Take all your people and get out of here right now." Exodus 12:31-32 Pharaoh also asked for their blessing!

Most times the Apostle Paul refers to law, he means ceremonial, ritual, sacrificial law (including circumcision) and not the commandments. However, when magisterial Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin talked about the uses of the law, they meant the commandments. The Reformers' Third Use of the Law is about the neighbor, about the other, about those we need to consider in order to maintain community and freedom.


Out of Egypt, still far from Canaan, yet after God quenched their thirst and filled their hunger in surprising ways, Israel received the commandments as gifts that would help them stay free.

The desert intermission between imperial slavery and promise landed liberty became a time and a place to trust God for everything. Everything. In the desert you can't plan or plant, produce, create, administer, or stockpile. In any wilderness you only can receive life as gift.

We keep sabbath to help us remember bondage, to help us appreciate freedom. In a world full of political and commercial empires, Sabbath reminds us to make life as gift a possibility for others, before life necessarily becomes a task

• Joseph Brodsky: "Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant's name."

• George F. Will: "...a free future must begin with the right to talk freely about the past."

Where We Live
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, "Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though Moses struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can God also give bread, or provide meat for the people?" Psalm 78:18-20

With manna, quail, and water, God provided and Israel received food at the crossroads of empire and covenant.

Don't we all "test God in our hearts" and demand everything we crave, even ask for basics we need? Even though we've seen the grace of God, it's hard to trust in a future?

But most of us have known wilderness feasts. Some of those have been a simple meal. Others have been fabulous festivals of food, drink, conversation, and music. Do you remember some of yours? Do you talk about them? Try to duplicate them? Do you dare hope for more?

• Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

• What does grace taste like?

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Pentecost 18A

Exodus Desert
Exodus 17:1-7

1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."

5 The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink."

Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
Exodus 17:6
Strike the rock, and water
will come out of it, so that
the people may drink.
Exodus 17:6

Journeys in Stages

Today's reading is from fairly early days in Israel's extensive wilderness narratives that detail Israel's departure from Egypt, through their sojourn at Sinai where they received the gift of the Ten Words/ Ten Commandments, and on through their arrival at the edge of the Jordan River that marked the border of the Promised Land.

I blogged this Exodus passage as recently as Lent 3 in March 2023, but why not again? The lectionary scheduled it for this weekend; deserts are one of my favorite topics and the exodus one of my favorite scriptural events.

17:1 The Israelites journeyed by stages…

The "journeyed by stages" tradition says it took about forty years after leaving Egypt to reach the Jordan River and cross into Canaan. It may have been a few years more or less, but forty equals two generations—long enough for people to start forgetting and stop longing for their former lives, long enough to learn to trust God's daily provision.

Water / Moses' Staff

Today's Water from the Rock segment comes from a water-related series:

• they leave the Sea of Reeds (sometimes called "Red Sea") and travel through the wilderness of Shur – Exodus 15:22…
• and arrive at Marah, where God asks Moses to sweeten the bitter waters with a piece of wood – Exodus 15:23-26
• from Marah they go to Elim, where they find twelve springs of water – Exodus 15:27
• from Elim it's onto the wilderness of Sin, where God first provides manna – Exodus 16:1-36 (only for reference; the text doesn't mention water)
• from Sin to Rephidim, the setting for today's experience of water from a rock.

When Moses threw wood into the bitter water at Marah, it became sweet. When Moses struck the rock at Rephidim with his staff, water poured out. Moses' obedience helped awaken resources already there.

And from a series that features Moses' staff:

• Exodus 4:1-5; Exodus 7:8-10 – God turns Moses' shepherd's staff into a snake to convince the people God had heard their cries of pain and would redeem them.
• Exodus 7:17-21 – Moses' staff turns the Nile River into a stream of blood.
• Exodus 14:16 – "Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground." Moses' staff becomes an icon of deliverance.
• Exodus 17:5-6 God tells Moses to take his staff and "strike the rock" at Horeb with his staff he used to strike the Nile.

Event, Incident, Occasion Titles…


Exodus 17:7 Massah means testing; Meribah is quarreling or striving. Moses gave a name or title to this event so the people wouldn't forget their earlier distrust, and also remember God's grace-filled response:

As you reflect on your own, your family's, your congregation's, maybe your city or town's life stages, would it help you to name some of them? If you scrapbook or journal, you may have done some titling.


This year for the week from Friday 29 September through Friday 06 October Succoth/Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles commemorates God's presence and protection during Israel's forty years in the exodus desert. As a Festival of Double Thanksgiving, it also offers gratitude for the autumn harvest. You can find it in Exodus 23:16, "You shall observe the Festival of Harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor;" and in Leviticus 23:33-43.

Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies
and thy lovingkindnesses;
for they have been ever of old.
Psalm 25:6

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Pentecost 17A

psalm 145L5,8
I will speak of the glorious honour
of thy majesty,
and of thy wondrous works.
The Lord is gracious,
and full of compassion;
slow to anger, and of great mercy.
Psalm 145:5,8

Acts 16:9-15

9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
10 When he had seen the vision, we [Paul and Timothy] immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Riverways, Lifeways

Most major cities originated and then grew up alongside a river; waterways are strategic nodes of communication, commerce, immigration, and exchange of ideas. The early church always baptized in the flowing water of a river; a river is a dynamic, open system. How about our walk by faith? If you've been baptized in the Los Angeles (San Diego, Amstel, Cumberland, Chicago) River, why not identify with the city beside the river banks, especially seeking the well-being of that river and that place?

If you haven't lived in your current town or city forever, it's still possible to claim the nearby river, stream, or estuary, pray for its well-being, participate in its cleanup days. Visit the river as a friend!

In addition, does the river with its water of ever-changing composition, potability, and overall usefulness form a valid model for our daily lives? With the cascading variety of plants and animals its deeps and its banks host? As humans we're not healthy, ultra-productive, and "on" all the time. We absolutely aren't always in a position to be hospitable to persons, ideas, and tasks. Think about it!

Church Planting in Philippi

Today's second reading comes from Paul's letter to the nascent church at Philippi. I love envisioning its serendipitous start that Acts 16 describes. Paul and Timothy went to Roman colony Philippi in Macedonia, then to the river on the sabbath, hoping to find an ad hoc synagogue. If there was no local synagogue, Jews would gather at the river to form a minyan or at least to pray together. They met Purveyor of Purple Cloth Lydia by the riverbank, finally they baptized Lydia and her entire family. Aside from God's reign of grace, did you know verse 15, When she and her household were baptized… is one of the scriptures cited for infant baptism?

I appreciate scholarly ambiguity regarding Lydia's social and economic status. Because purple dye came from rare and therefore costly seashells, they used to assume Lydia's vending anything purple indicated wealth, yet recent historical evidence has revealed that wasn't necessarily so.

Philippians 1:21-30

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation.

And this is God's doing. 29 For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul as Pastor

The lectionary schedules readings from Philippians four weeks in a row.

Paul/Saul of Tarsus was founding pastor of the Philippian assembly—probably along with Timothy, his probably younger sidekick. Although travels took him away from being with them in person, after leaving them he continued – virtually as we'd say – as mission developer and as a lovingly concerned shepherd. The apostle Paul wrote this letter from jail or prison or (most probably) house arrest. Philippians is his "epistle of joy" to that church in that colony where the Roman caesar was the default divinity. Philippians uses the word joy 16 times, Christ 50 times.

In 1:27, Paul counsels the Philippian Christians to live out their baptism via their public, political lives "in a manner worthy of the gospel" as witnesses to Jesus' death and resurrection, and not to Rome's death-dealing imperialism. How about us? As I frequently observe, even the smallest actions add up to big ones; they're synergistic: more than the sum of their individual parts.
Philippians 1:27
Live your life in a manner worthy
of the gospel of Christ, so that I will know
that you are standing firm in one spirit,
striving side by side with one mind
for the faith of the gospel.
Philippians 1:27

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Pentecost 16A

Psalm 103:8
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding
in steadfast love.
Psalm 103:8

Exodus 14:13-31

13 But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."

15 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.

17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers."

19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

24 At the morning watch the Lord, in the pillar of fire and cloud, looked down on the Egyptian army and threw the Egyptian army into a panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

• My reflection for Pentecost 3 this past June relates to this one.

Central Stories

This is one of the required scriptures at the Easter Vigil when we recite and reenact the world's history with God who creates, redeems, and sustains. It's interesting placement that with Advent a little over two months away, today's first reading brings us Israel's primary narrative and experience of salvation.

When the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and compiled this Sunday's passage (as well as most of what we know as the Old Testament canon), they interwove more than one original source. The Exodus or departure event is so important that mentions of rescue from Egyptian slavery thread throughout the prophets and the New Testament scriptures. Israel's liberation from empire and its demands parallels Jesus Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension for Christians.

Identity Formation

However, the end of Egypt was far from the end of empire for Israel. Egypt may have been in their rearview mirror (it was), but Babylon, Persia, Rome, Spain, Great Britain, et al, waited in the wings.

You know about those forty sparse years in the hot, dry desert before Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of promise. To paraphrase the late poet and songwriter Rich Mullins, "Israel and Yahweh rendezvoused in the desert," with the give and take, the questions, the conversations, the rebellions, that lead to reliable relationship. God's grace-filled gift of the Covenant at Sinai steered Israel toward the kind of concern for the neighbor that would let God's people remain free. As scripture explains, the "neighbor" or the other was not only the native-born, not simply the ethnic Israelite. Neighbor meant everyone.

The point in time physical departure from Egypt became the liberation story they told their children and their children's children, but identity as God's people was ongoing—always subject to increased understanding and better response.

Bringing History to Life

Serendipitously again this week, the one-word Five Minute Friday prompt fit Sunday's reading well. Riffing on escape I wrote:

Escape from slavery in Egypt as well as from death-dealing demands, outrages, excesses, and dehumanizations of the countless empires that hold us hostage. Escape from the worst of our own pasts—including wrongs we've done and sins committed against us. Escape from hopelessness and from those griefs that refuse to escape from us. Forgiveness unlocks the doors. Easter catapults us from past deaths into wide open futures.

Escape into dreaming and possibilities. For myself. For my community. For the world. "Redemption" is one of the theological words. God fights for us and literally redeems us. God buys back our life, re-establishes our identity. God frees us for service to our neighbors, to strangers, to family, to creation, and to ourselves.

Just as physically departing from Egypt was the start of Israel's identity journey, emerging from the waters of baptism is a central point in time and space for each of us and for the community that claims us. Then we journey still wet behind the ears, retelling the story, reenacting redemption in our current time and place.

In his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, farmer and poet Wendell Berry offers a list of countercultural ways of being and acting. How about creating your own list of ways to practice resurrection as the last line of the poem reminds us?

Exodus 14:13-14
But Moses said to the people,
"Do not be afraid, stand firm,
and see the deliverance that the Lord
will accomplish for you today.
The Lord will fight for you, and you have
only to keep still." Exodus 14:13-14