Friday, July 28, 2023

Pentecost 9A

Romans 8
"Neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else
in all creation, will be able
to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Romans 8:38-39

Romans 8:26-39

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Romans is the seventh and the latest of Paul's undisputed epistles. "Undisputed" means they carry strong evidence of his authorship (grammar, sentence structure, syntax, vocabulary), although all of these letters probably garnered edits and additions as they circulated round-robin style to various churches. We sometimes refer to Romans as Paul's systematic theology. Systematics is the philosophical-style theology that presents ideas about God with definitions, outlines, logic, and structure. By standards of people like Augustine and Barth, Romans isn't particularly systematic, but it still gives us Paul's mature, well-developed theology. More than one person has observed if Paul wrote only Romans 8, he'd forever be remembered as a high level theologian.

Today in the Church's Year of Grace

Although I wrote about Jacob last week, six years ago I blogged about Romans 8:12-25 and referred to the "interwoven interdependence" of humans and the rest of creation. That was long before Covid, and rather than attempting a semi-coherent weekly essay, I copied the notes I used for teaching and inserted any interesting class discussion material I remembered.

In today's second reading we hear about the constant presence of the Trinity in our lives, especially in our prayer lives—especially the Holy Spirit. This scripture is packed full of profound Trinitarian theology. You can discover reliable commentaries and helpful devotionals that relate well to it, yet we can take much of it at plain "what you see is what you get" face value. However, because of the famous and well-known words in this passage we need to listen and hear very carefully.

Where We Live

This Sunday we hear God's promise we will be formed into the image of Jesus Christ; according to the section immediately before this one (18-25), all creation waits and hopes for humans to act more fully in our in-God-created imago dei (image of God): "interwoven interdependence!" Verse 23 says we humans wait for adoption. In a logical continuation from earlier in Romans, our baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection births us as Jesus' sisters and brothers, offspring of God. Paul's most famous baptismal essay is in Romans 6:1-11.

Verse 29 assures us Jesus is firstborn of many siblings in "a large family" that includes each of us. At the start of this epistle, Romans 1:4 says God appointed Jesus son of God at his resurrection, but please note carefully, this is not the heresy of adoptionism.

On desert spirit's fire, the long-running blog I started mid-July 2002, I've written about home and homecoming at least one hundred times—and counting. I can't imagine any individual feeling totally "at home" absolutely everywhere and with everyone, but the simple head knowledge of our relatedness in Jesus Christ can help take the edge off at least some strangeness and alienation.

On several occasions I've mentioned checking into a summer hostel in L├╝beck, Germany long ago. While the only other person in the room and I got to talking, she told me about the incredible confidence and freedom she lived with because her parents chose her in adoption. We live with that same confidence and freedom because God chooses us, elects us, adopts us in Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Pentecost 8A

Genesis 28:10-19a

10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

12 And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said,

"I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!" 17 And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz.

Jacob and Place

Today's Jacob episode comes midway in his story:

• after he deceived his father Isaac in order to steal his brother's birthright;
• a while before he reached his uncle's place in Haran and married Leah and Rachel;
• a few chapters earlier than the wrestling match that dislocated his hip and caused God to change Jacob's name to Israel.

You may remember Jacob as father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Geography and climate are central to God's earthbound activity. Two weeks ago I observed how some churches, communities, and organizations receive their names from their location, whether a city, town, neighborhood or street. Jacob first arrived at "a certain [as yet unnamed] place." [28:11]

Named locations in this passage include Beersheba that means well of the oath because legend says Abraham dug the well after making a pact or agreement with Abimelech (Genesis 21:31). Isaac also called the well Beersheba (Genesis 26:31-33). Jacob is on the way to Haran that means "parched." The place name Luz that probably refers to an almond tree also is familiar to us as the Spanish word for light. When he arrived at the "certain place" it either didn't have a name or Jacob didn't know what it was.

In his dream, Jacob heard God's promise of land, descendants, blessings, and nearness. After experiencing God as he slept, Jacob called it Beth-El, "house of God."

Jacob's Dream

Jacob's is one of several dreams so life-transforming they got into the annals of scripture.

• What other biblical dreams and dreamers do you remember? Do you have a favorite?

Jacob "…dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." [28:12] When he recruited Nathaniel, jesus said, "You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man/Human One." [John 1:51] In Jesus of Nazareth, God lets down a ladder and comes to us, stays with us at the bottom of the ladder, walks among us and with us.

• Do you expect to meet God in your dreams? Have you met God in your dreams? We know sleeping and dreaming are different overall conditions than our waking hours.

Where We Live

Place, geography, and climate are essential to God's original creation and to the completion of God's new creation. God's Holy Spirit of life fills the world, but there is no purely spiritual, disembodied creation. No discarnate redemption exists, either. Early on in the witness of scripture, Israel and Judah recognized Yahweh as a fertility god, but it took God's people quite a while to realize Yahweh was not a place god confined to and connected only with a single particular location, but a God at home everywhere.

Every October the blogosphere offers several Write 21 Days challenges to web-log every day of the month on a given prompt or on a topic of the blogger's choosing. For October 2017 I wrote 31 Days of Celebrating Place because "What other could it [my topic] be than landed place that's so central in the Hebrew Bible, so essential for human wellness, that continues to be a high incentive for immigration to the USA?"

Last week I asked where you especially sense God in nature.

• For this week, where can you know you are in a holy place, in a place God inhabits?

• Where do you most expect God to show up?

Although it wasn't sleeping dream-related, I wrote about my original Bethel, House of God.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Pentecost 7A

Isaiah 55:10-11
Isaiah 55:10-13

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Psalm 65:8-13

8 Far and wide they'll come to a stop,
    they'll stare in awe, in wonder.
Dawn and dusk take turns
    calling, "Come and worship."

9 Oh, visit the earth,
    ask her to join the dance!
Deck her out in spring showers,
    fill the God-River with living water. Paint the wheat fields golden.
    Creation was made for this!

10 Drench the plowed fields,
    soak the dirt clods
With rainfall as harrow and rake
    bring her to blossom and fruit.

11 Snow-crown the peaks with splendor,
    scatter rose petals down your paths,
12 All through the wild meadows, rose petals.
    Set the hills to dancing,

13 Dress the canyon walls with live sheep,
    a drape of flax across the valleys.
Let them shout, and shout, and shout!
    Oh, oh, let them sing!

The Message (MSG) | © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson
Psalm 65:9
Oh, visit the earth, ask her to join the dance!
Creation was made for this! Psalm 65:9


For this mid-July Sunday we get some glorious creation imagery!

• Isaiah 55:10-13 with God's assurance the Word will bear fruit, achieving God's intentions. The Hebrew is dabar that denotes both speech and action—walking the talk. This scripture promises God will send us out with joy, lead us with shalom; mountains and hills will sing, trees will applaud like an excited, appreciative audience.

• Psalm 65 depicts creation rejoicing because God visits earth. Like the 66 chapter long book of Isaiah, the responsive psalm describes earthbound universal salvation that includes rivers and meadows, valleys, canyons and mountains. You can choose words that relate best to your own context because the translator always hovers somewhere between the original text and their resulting translation or paraphrase.

Responsive Psalm 65 and the reading from Isaiah 55 are similar to Psalms 96, 98 and 148 appointed for all the Christmas services. In that nativity poetry, when God comes to us in the newborn Jesus, mountains and snowy hills, fields, streams, and rivers also sing for joy and clap.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Parable of the Sower. Jesus uses agricultural terminology, but at this particular time, he's talking to people who fish for a living. Jesus would have given versions of the same talk many times on different occasions, with details customized to his particular audience. Scholars suspect the interpretations of various types of ground the seed fell upon may – or may not be – original with Jesus. In any case, they lead to interesting and helpful discussions.

Where We Live

The psalm writer, Isaiah, and Matthew's Jesus all express confidence in the effectiveness of God's word and presence. Let's consider the astonishing, redemptive beauty of God's creation.

• Do you have a favorite indoors or outdoors place where you especially feel God's presence?

• Do you have house plants or a garden?

• Do you have a favorite national park, botanical garden, beach, or greenhouse?

• Do you grow some of your own veggies or herbs?

• Do you ever buy cut flowers from the farmers' market, street vendor, or supermarket?

• Do you draw, paint, photograph scenes or vignettes of creation? I enjoy doing all of those things.

• What region or country you haven't been to would you especially love to visit because of the reputation of their nature and wildlife?

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Pentecost 6A

Psalm 145:10
All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord;
and thy saints shall bless thee.
Psalm 145:10


Today we get selections from Handel's Messiah!

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you…" Zechariah 9:9

The reading from Zechariah includes the florid soprano aria "Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion" that announces a gentle ruler whose dominion or reign will mean the end of war and the fullness of shalom. Post-exilic prophet Zechariah ministered during the restoration of Jerusalem; he lived around the same time as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai.

All four gospels identify Zechariah 9:9 with Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week:

• Mark 11:1-11
• Luke 19:28-38
• Matthew 21:1-11
• John 12:12-19

Next in The Messiah, an alto or mezzo-soprano promises "He shall feed his flock," followed by a soprano singing "Come Unto me."

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30

Matthew 11:16-19

16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

J the B and Jesus

Verses 16-19 provide a famous contrast between wild and ascetic John the Baptist by the riverside who lives and ministers…on the margins of? No, outside the limits of conventional society. Though Matthew contrasts John with his slightly younger cousin Jesus, Jesus still is beyond counter-cultural by religious and societal norms.

It's become common to say Jesus demonstrates the lifestyle God's people are supposed to have, John's doesn't make it, yet John's invitation to all clearly models grace and community on the margins, rather than solely at the centers. Even people (like us?!) who think we know how Jesus' followers are supposed to be, appear, and act, still recognize the same God acting in different ways in different people and various circumstances.

On Advent 3 in Matthew's year, the gospel is Matthew 11:2-9 that's immediately before today's reading:
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. …

Where We Live

To be church means first to be gathered in the Holy Spirit around word and sacrament and then to be missionaries or apostles (both words refer to being sent) in the discernment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Jesus' Great Commission at the end of Matthew's gospel sends us into "all the world," but how can we do anything but start where we are right here and right now?

Just as John the Baptist and Jesus' styles were very different, God continues to act in different ways through different people. Each individual and group brings unique gifts and has different functions and callings.

We prayerfully attempt to contextualize or adapt ministry to our current geographical and cultural setting or context. Some churches even are named after their location: New Town Community Church; Fifth Presbyterian Church of Prairie City; Old Village Lutheran Church and School.

Scripture reveals many examples of God being present and acting powerfully in those who, like Jesus' cousin John, seem to be "other than, different from us." Maybe most stereotypically and characteristically in little kids, strangers, poets, artists, unhoused, any person or situation that's marginal rather than mainstream.


Given that God apparently favors the unpretentious, what do we make of Center of the World Riverside Church in NYC? Can God be there as much as God is in a back alley outcast on the edges of existence in Chicago?