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?