Bishop Michael Rinehart

MLK Day 2019

A fun MLK Day with friends from Faith Bellaire and Christ the King Houston.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church Chalmette 2019

This morning, January 20, 2018 was a big day in New Orleans. It was a chilly 38° when we got up. This afternoon the Saints were playing the Rams in the NFC Playoffs.

The gospel reading was the Wedding at Cana, a text about transformation. Chalmette had a population of 32,000 before Katrina. Pre-K as they say. After Katrina, Chalmette population had fallen to 16,000. Half. Today it’s around 22,000. I spoke to a woman this morning who lived in Tennessee for seven years after Katrina, because, having lost everything, she couldn’t afford to move home until 2012.

Gethsemane had suffered about six feet of water after Katrina. Many churches have closed. The LCMS church closed. The Methodist church is just hanging on. Only two of Chalmette’s seven Cathioic churches are still open. But Chalmatians are a hearty lot. Gethsemane is going and growing.

Their preschool has 116 children. Their food pantry is a vital service, especially during this longest-ever government shutdown. With the Chalmette National Battlefield nearby, Pastor Sandra Barnes says several furloughed federal employees have been by looking for food. Gethsemane does ashes to go for 100 on Ash Wednesday. I’m grateful for Gethsemane’s ministry.

Epiphany 3C – January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the returned exiles in the public square, reminding them that the joy of the Lord is their strength.

Psalm 19 – The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a – The church is a body with many members. One member of the body cannot disown another.

Luke 4:14-21 –  Jesus in his hometown synagogue, part 1. Jesus announces his job description at the Synagogue of his hometown: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

January 18-25 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity


The week of Prayer for Christian unity began in 1908, running between the feasts of St. Peter (January 18) and St. Paul (January 25). This octave was conceived by Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars, according to Wikipedia. During this week, Christians from around the world gather to pray for Christian unity, remembering Jesus’ prayer,

…that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

John 17:21

The 6th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service will take place on Thursday, January 24, at ChristChurch Presbyterian in Bellaire, 5001 Bellaire Boulevard 77401.

6:15 – Gathering with a light meal
7:00 – Prayer Service

Pastors and deacons, I ask you:

  • Plan on coming
  • Bring a group of lay people from your congregation
  • Publicize the event as widely as you can in your congregation and community

Ezra in Nehemiah

This first part of this post will focus on Ezra, from the Old Testament reading in Nehemiah. The gospel readings for these next two Sundays are Jesus in his hometown. I will take up Homecoming 1 below.

ezra1 After the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), come Joshua, Judges and Ruth. Then the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings. Then Chronicles. Then come Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah are actually one book in the Hebrew.

Ezra was a fifth century priest and a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6), during the reign of the Persian King Artaxerxes. He went up to Jerusalem from Babylon, to reintroduce the Torah. Artaxerxes sent along a generous amount of financial support in this endeavor.

Nehemiah, “God comforts” is the longer version of Nahum “Comforter.” He was the governor of Judea under Persian rule, during Artaxerxes’ reign (465-424 B.C.). He started out as Artaxerxes’ Cup Bearer. A Cup Bearer was actually a high ranking officer. To keep the king from being poisoned, only an extremely trustworthy person would be put in this position. He asked to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city.

Our reading comes from Nehemiah 8. Of the first ten verses in this chapter, our text leaves out verses four and seven. I’m always curious about surgical edits, so here are 4 and 7 for your perusal, I can only guess why they were left out. Perhaps the framers of the lectionary felt they were too difficult for the average lay reader to wade through, and irrelevant to the point of the text, not to mention a gauntlet for the lay reader.

4: The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.

7: Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.

ezra2 Ezra and Nehemiah appear together in this passage, Nehemiah 8:1-10, though some believe verse nine, where Nehemiah is mentioned, is a later addition.

Ezra reads from the Torah. The people stand. Ezra also expounds on the Torah, so that the people understand what they are hearing. The day will later become Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

It becomes clear why the framers of the lectionary chose this passage to go along with Jesus’ hometown visit. Just as Ezra stands and reads from the Torah, Jesus stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah.

At Ezra’s reading, the people begin to weep. They have been through so much during the last forty years of exile. Their temple, their city and culture were wiped out. The restoration touches a deep chord. The tears are inevitable. But Ezra and Nehemiah told the people not to grieve, but to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

It doesn’t take much for the preacher to tap into the irretrievable losses on our hearts and minds – a recent school shooting, a terrorist act, Harvey flooding, Katrina, 9/11. Whether personal or public tragedies, all of us have been touched, more some than others.

What gives you strength in the midst of loss and tragedy? How do you get through? When the rug has been pulled out from under you, and you’ve landed hard on your back, what buoys you up? What makes it humanly possible for you to get up in the morning? Be aware that there will be those listening to the sermon who are going through their dark night of the soul now. Some may be hanging on your every word.

Hope is the only way through. Hope comes in many forms. You cannot offer yours. One person’s hope seems trite to another. Each person must find their own.


The preacher is called, anointed by the Spirit, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to those in slavery, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and news of God’s favor.

Life can be hard. The struggles of life can only be borne through an abiding faith and hope that gives us joy, and a peace that passes all understanding. The good news is that through God in Christ, we are offered such an abiding peace and joy. These are fruits of the Holy Spirit, given to sustain us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes I think that we spend all our lives, growing into the faith, hope, love, peace and joy that will sustain us for our hour of trial. We pray, hear the word and receive the sacraments that are means of grace, so that we grow to the place where we can say the best words of this reading from Nehemiah:

The joy of the Lord is my strength.

Homecoming 1: Good News for the Poor

I really like Luke 4:14 – “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…”

What a joy, to act, to do life’s tasks and callings “filled with the power of the Spirit.”

The Spirit figures prominently in Luke’s gospel. He uses the word Spirit twice as many times as Matthew or John.

Jesus’ ministry is conducted under the power of the Holy Spirit, about whom Luke will tell us more in Acts 2. Is your ministry driven by the power of the Holy Spirit? Is your life?

You can hear that question as law or gospel. As law it sounds something like this: “You’re not spiritual enough.” However, as gospel it invites us to consider the resources available to us for living our lives. We are like a person rowing furiously through life and ministry. We suddenly realizes the wind is blowing, and raise our sail. Our sails billow and burst as they are filled with the wind of the Spirit. Our boat lurches forward.

What might it look like for us to allow ourselves to be more filled, lifted, carried by the Spirit, and less dependent on our own frantic and frenetic activity? This is not a theological proposition, but as a practical experience. What are the obstacles keeping this from happening?

In Luke 1-2 we have the Prologue, with Infancy Narrative.

Luke 3 has John and Jesus’ Baptism.

Now, Luke 4 begins Jesus’ ministry with the Temptation in the Wilderness which we will read Lent I. Then we have today’s story, starting at verse 14. The narrative has bounced us around between Nazareth in Galilee and Bethlehem/Jerusalem in Judah. In Luke 3 the adult Jesus emerges in the region around the Jordan and is baptized by John. After going into the wilderness, we are told he returns north to Galilee, and begins his public ministry there. He begins by teaching in the synagogues. When he arrives back in Nazareth, his hometown, it gets interesting.

His φήμη (fame) spread quickly. Luke says it was his custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, so when he strolls into his hometown congregation, they immediately know who he is; they’ve heard his fame spreading.

Jeffrey (“Luke”) Helps us understand the likely synagogue order of service:

  1. Reciting the Shemah (Deut. 6:4)
  2. Prayers
  3. A reading from the Torah
  4. A reading from the Prophets
  5. Commentary by a member of the congregation
  6. Benediction

The Torah reading (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy) would have been prescribed by a lectionary. Then the local synagogue leader would choose a reader for the second reading, perhaps from the prophets. The synagogue leader chose the famous hometown boy. Famous hometown boy is handed the Isaiah scroll. He can choose his own text. Taking his time rolling through the scroll he arrives at Isaiah 61 and reads aloud:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jubilee year. Interesting choice. Jubilee may never have actually been practiced as proscribed, but it casts a vision of grace, and freedom from debt and slavery of every kind. Jesus reminds them about Jubilee, a time of redemption for the indebted poor.

He closes the scroll and sits down quietly. Every eye is fixed on him. The room waits in silent expectation. It is time for commentary, but the young preacher employs an age old rhetorical device: Extended silence draws attention and builds anticipation. Then: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

One can imagine the response. “Yeah… Wait… What?” We don’t get to hear the second-guessing and sarcasm until next week, when we will hear “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. What he says to them next causes them to take him to a cliff with the intention of throwing him off, but you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that. If you’re not in a series, perhaps this is a two-part sermon that leaves people hanging until next week. It reminds me of the old Batman series where Batman and Robin would be strapped to a lumber-cutting conveyor belt, headed toward the spinning circular saw blade. “Is this the end? No more dynamic duo? Tune in next week and find out…” Invite people to tune in next week.

Personally, I would prefer to read Isaiah 61 as the first reading in our lectionary. I have nothing against Nehemiah. I love “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10), but if you’re going to preach on Jesus in the synagogue, Isaiah resounds with the Luke 4 passage. The repetition is good. The congregation needs to hear this again. This is Jesus’ theme verse for his ministry. Our people will not hear Isaiah 61 again until Advent 3B, nearly two years from now.

Jesus chooses two verses of Isaiah as his theme verse as he begins his ministry. They are his mission statement. The theme is Jubilee:

  • Good news for the poor.
  • Recovery of sight for the blind.
  • Release for the captives.
  • Freedom from oppression.
  • The year of the Lord’s favor.

This is what Jesus is all about. Whatever you may believe about the gospel, this is what Luke’s Jesus says about his agenda. It is his mission statement. It’s fairly aggressive. Whoever is going to preach on or understand Luke’s gospel will have to come to terms with what this means. This is no “pie in the sky when you die” gospel. This is engagement with the poor, blind, imprisoned and oppressed of this very existential world. It has real-world implications – implications that will ultimately cost Jesus his life.

But don’t hear this as law. Jesus is announcing good news, recovery, release, freedom and Jubilee. This is undeserved grace for all who are in debt or slavery of any kind. A sermon of law and gospel will first announce the law: the debt and slavery that we are in. The preacher must name this truth for the sake of integrity. And the good news Is the gospel vision of a love that transcends the human condition.

Epiphany 2C – January 20, 2019

Isaiah 62:1-5 – The fortunes of Zion will be restored. The land will be married to God, who will rejoice over Zion like a bridegroom rejoices over a bride.

Psalm 36:5-10 – Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 – There are varieties of gifts, but on Spirit. Nine gifts mentioned.

John 2:1-11 – Jesus turns water into wine, the first of his “signs” in John’s gospel.

January 18-25  – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The week of Prayer for Christian unity began in 1908, running between the feasts of St. Peter (January 18) and St. Paul (January 25). This octave was conceived by Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars, according to Wikipedia. During this week, Christians from around the world gather to pray for Christian unity, remembering Jesus’ prayer,

“that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” John 17:21

picture1The 6th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service will take place on Thursday, January 24, at ChristChurch Presbyterian in Bellaire, 5001 Bellaire Boulevard 77401

6:15 – Gathering with a light meal
7:00 – Prayer Service

Pastors and deacons, I ask you:

  • Plan on coming
  • Bring a group of lay people from your congregation
  • Publicize the event as widely as you can in your congregation and community



I’m going to focus on John’s story of the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, but first a word about our 1 Corinthians 12 text. Here it is:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

When Paul writes to a “church” in Corinth or any other place, consider this: He is writing to a synod (diocese, district, conference). He is writing not to one congregation, but to a network of house churches.

He wants to make sure they are not ignorant (ἀγνοεῖν, agnoein). You see the word “gnosis” there, knowledge. He doesn’t want them to be unknowing, or without knowledge. With gnosticism flourishing, this will strike a chord with his listeners.

His word is about unity in diversity. Yes, we as individuals and house churches, may have different gifts, but that doesn’t mean we lose our unity, because the same God gave them all, for the common good. The purpose of our spiritual gifts is for the common good. Sometimes I feel we have lost a sense of the common good in modern society.

These gifts are given by the one or the same Spirit. Paul makes this point several times, notice the numerous references:

  • 4 “same Spirit”
  • 5 “same Lord”
  • 6 “same God”
  • 9 “same Spirit”
  • 9 “one Spirit”
  • 11 “one and the same Spirit”

Notice also the subtle Trinitarian overtones in vv. 4-5:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God

He then lists nine gifts:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Knowledge
  3. Faith
  4. Healing
  5. Working of miracles
  6. Prophecy
  7. Discernment of spirits
  8. Tongues
  9. Interpretation of tongues

It strikes me how very different worship in the early church must have been, compared to a formal Western liturgy. After the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity, and a few years later Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, worshipping communities went from small charismatic house churches, to large basilicas with worship modeled after the Roman courts. Prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues and the like reveal a worshipping community that looks more like a Pentecostal prayer group engaged in ecstatic prayer, than a formal Euro-Lutheran liturgy.

The Lutheran churches I have visited in Africa, where Christianity is growing, tend to be less formal. While not Pentecostal as such, there is a higher value on prayer and healing. When Bishop Golicke visited us, and worshipped at our Tri-Theological Conference, I asked him how worship compared to worship in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic. He was reluctant, but after I pressed, he gently said, “We might be a bit more… enthusiastic.” His successor, Bishop Samuel Ndanga-Toue said our worship, “felt Catholic.” He seemed genuinely surprised. He didn’t mean it as a critique of Catholics as much as a statement about worship style.

Paul’s point seems not to be about worship style, however. He’s not pushing tongues. In fact, he will, in other places, encourage the churches to tone it down, so as to not freak out the unchurched visitors. Indeed, on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, observers were so convinced that the Christians were intoxicated, Peter had to begin his sermon with the words, “These people are not drunk…” I’ve never had to begin a sermon like that. We may not wish to embrace the whole of Pentecostalism, but we could probably use a bit more enthusiasm in our worship, to use Bishop Golicke’s term.

And I’ll point out that not all the gifts Paul mentions are these Pentecostalish gifts. He mentions wisdom. There are some wise people in our communities. There are people with knowledge. We have people who know a lot. We need them. We have people that are very discerning.

Paul would encourage us not to see our differences in gifts, between churches, or between individuals, as church-dividing. The Spirit gives different gifts, for the common good, but it is the same Spirit that animates them all. This is perhaps an important lesson to remember in January as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes around, and we find ourselves praying with Christians from other traditions.

Water to Wine

John is the only gospel writer who conveys this story about Jesus at the Cana wedding. This Sunday is the only time this story appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, Epiphany 2C. We will not read it again until 2022.

John’s gospel can be divided roughly into four parts:

  1. Chapter 1 – Introduction
  2. Chapters 2-12 – The Book of Signs
  3. Chapters 13-20 – The Book of Exaltation
  4. Chapter 21 – Epilogue

This story is the first of seven signs or miracles that take place in the first half of John’s gospel. The signs occur in the second part, chapters 2–12. The seven signs are:

  1. Changing water into wine in  John 2:1-11
  2. Healing the royal official’s son in  Capernaum in  John 4:46-54
  3. Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in  John 5:1-18
  4. Feeding the 5000 in  John 6:5-14
  5. Jesus’ walk on water in  John 6:16-24
  6. Healing the blind at birth in  John 9:1-7
  7. Raising of Lazarus in  John 11:1-45

Cana is mentioned only three times in the Bible, all three of them in John’s gospel. We don’t actually know where it is. There are three candidates in Israel (Kafr Kanna, Kenet-al-Jalil and Ain Kana) and one more traditional candidate in Lebanon (Qana).

St. Augustine (Tractate VIII) points out that God turns water into wine every year. Rain water grow grapes which eventually ferment into wine. It is so commonplace we have lost our amazement. This miracle reminds us of the everyday miracles of life. Later, in Tractate IX he says the six jars of water represent six fruitless ages without prophecy, the inter-testamental period, until Christ came.

Like Augustine, Luther sees allegory in the text, as usual. “Galilee signifies…” he says. The six stone jars of water signify six days of labor before the sabbath. They also are of stone, Luther says, like Moses’ stone tablets of the law. The gospel renders the law delightful. The drawing of the wine and passing it to the guests signifies the preaching of the gospel.

In one of his 1525 postil sermons (sermons for the entire church year that Luther wrote to be preached by pastors) Luther uses John 2 to preach a sermon on marriage. He says Jesus’ presence at the wedding indicates his high regard for marriage. He also says the miracle indicates Christ is ready to supply any need arising in marriage, even turning a distasteful marriage into a joyful one. Furthermore, this text shows Christ approves of lavish receptions:

Here too Christ indicates that he is not displeased with a marriage feast, nor with the things belonging to a wedding such as adornments, cheerfulness, eating and drinking, according to the usage and custom of the country; which appear to be superfluous and needless expense and a worldly matter; only so far as these things are used in moderation and in keeping with a marriage. For the bride and groom must be adorned; so also the guests must eat and drink to be cheerful. And such dining and doing may all be done in good conscience; for the Scriptures occasionally report the like, even the Gospel lessons mentioning bridal adornment, the wedding garment, guests and feastings at weddings. Thus Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24:53 presents ornaments of gold and silver to Rebecca, the bride of Isaac, and to her brothers; so that in these things no one need pay attention to the sour-visaged hypocrites and self-constituted saints who are pleased with nothing but what they themselves do and teach, and will not suffer a maid to wear a wreath or to adorn herself at all.

The phrase, “sour-visaged hypocrites and self-constituted saints” makes me smile. Self-appointed saints are not in short supply these days. Luther goes on to critique gluttony as well, but his heart in this has already been made clear.

In any case, a sermon on marriage, on a Sunday morning, not during a wedding, might be a refreshing and helpful thing.

There is much allegory built into the stories of John’s gospel:

  • In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus asks how someone can be born again from his mother’s womb, but Jesus is speaking of a spiritual rebirth.
  • In John 4 Jesus asks the woman at the well for water, and after some conversation, offers her water that will quench her thirst forever. She replies, “You don’t even have something with which to draw water.” Jesus, however, is speaking about quenching a spiritual thirst.
  • Later in John, Jesus heals a blind man, and talks about the Pharisees being blind. The Pharisees balk, but Jesus is speaking of a spiritual blindness.

claypotsIf this is the pattern in John — Jesus moving from the ordinary physical things to extraordinary spiritual things — then what are we to make of this sign (the first of seven) in John 2? Perhaps this first sign lays out the pattern for us. Water represents the physical and wine represents the spiritual. In John 3 Jesus will say, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:5-6) Is water the physical and wine the Spirit?

Jesus turns that which is ordinary into something extraordinary.


I find it interesting that the water that is used is in the large stone jars used for the rites of purification. Purification laws came from the Levitical codes. Washing was required for a hundred maladies and after a number of everyday events (see Lev. 14-17, Num. 19, et al). Could this also be Jesus turning the law into gospel? Could it be Jesus changing the waters of the law into wine with spirit and life? There are some interesting theological overtones here. The law does not pass away. Jesus does not get rid of the water; he simply transforms it into something more. It would not be unlike the writer of John’s gospel to be making a point several layers deep: Jesus has come to transform the religion of his day, based on laws and rituals, into something with some Spirit, some… Life, to use one of John’s favorite words.


In an age of metaphysical dualism, with Gnosticism in the air, John offers us a vision of transformation:

Water > Wine
Physical > Spiritual
Flesh > Spirit
Law > Gospel
Ordinary > Extraordinary
Commonplace > Sacred
Meaningless > Meaningful
Survival > Life!

I can’t help but think of the dualism in Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred let me sow > love
Where there is injury > pardon
Where there is doubt > faith
Where there is despair > hope
Where there is darkness> light
And where there is sadness > joy

 O divine master grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
to be loved as to love

For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life


Could water to wine be the Spirit of Christ transforming

hatred to love
injury to pardon
doubt to faith
despair to hope
darkness to light
sadness to joy

This first of Jesus’ miracles reveals his “glory,” John says, but I think Jesus’ glory is much more than a few magic tricks. These “signs” have much deeper meaning. The real trick for Jesus, and for us, is the transformation of lives. In this sermon I might like to explore how faith transforms life from a drab going through the motions into something with purpose, joy, meaning, Life! It might be interesting to distinguish religion based on the law from religion based on faith: trusting God’s promises.

In John 10:10, Jesus says,

I have come that you might have Life, and have it abundantly.

Psalm 104:15 says that wine,

Wine gladdens the human heart.

How has Christ gladdened your heart? How has Christ brought joy and a sense of purpose to your life?

In every congregation I have served there have been those who would say they would not be alive today if it wasn’t for Christ, faith and the church. What if we allowed them to tell their story? In every congregation I have served there have been those who could speak eloquently of how faith in Christ had transformed their life, saved their marriage, impacted their career choice. FIND THOSE STORIES AND TELL THEM. Let these folks speak for themselves during a Temple Talk, or write their story for others to read. Collect these stories and create a Lenten devotional book, or email them out each day in Lent. Let the people to carry the good news, and share how Christ has turned water into wine in their lives.

The preacher may also consider telling the congregation’s story. How has the wine of the gospel transformed the life of your congregation? How has it transformed the community around you?

One final possibility is a stewardship sermon. We often approach life and ministry with a scarcity mentality. Jesus approaches this and other situations, like the feeding of the 5000, with an abundance mentality. Life is not a zero-sum game. God provides enough of the basics, and maybe even enough of the goodies, like wine, so that we can be a blessing to others.

Baptism of Christ C – January 13, 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7 – Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Psalm 29 – The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.

Acts 8:14-17 – Baptized Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by John and Peter.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 – The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism. “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


  • Consider using Affirmation of Baptism/Affirmation by the Assembly in place of the Confession. Move the font to a central location to draw attention to it.
  • Sundays and Seasons suggests making simple necklaces out of seashells and ribbons to give as a gift to remind people of their baptisms. Children could distribute them during the service. Inexpensive shells with pre-drilled holes can be found online at




Unlike the birth of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels. Historians, both Christian and non-Christian, consider the baptism of Jesus to be one of the most historically plausible events in the Gospels. Neither Mark, nor John, nor Paul ever mention Jesus’ extraordinary birth. No stable, no star, no virgin, no angels, no shepherds, no Magi. Either they did not know the stories, or did not consider them important to their theology. Apparently it is possible to write a gospel of Jesus without referring to his birth. But his baptism is central.

Baptism is entrance into the Christian life of faith. The baptism of Jesus was an important event for the early church. This is the perfect Sunday to lift up, and do a remembrance of baptism.

Luke is precise. In Luke 3, he dates John the Baptist to the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. He also points out that Judea has been divided up between Herod’s three sons, with Pilate in charge. According to David Lyle Jeffrey, in his commentary on Luke’s gospel, when you correlate this with the historian Josephus, and with Roman history, this means John comes on the scene in 29 A.D. This date is known by early Christian commentators.

The fact that John preaches in the wilderness is a clear connection to Isaiah, a voice crying in the desert. His offering of Temple-free forgiveness is a critique of the religious establishment, and a word of grace to a post-Jerusalem-siege community without a Temple. There is a connection between the judgment and comfort of Isaiah, and the judgment and comfort of John the Baptist. Judea has been dominated and carved up by Rome. According to Jeffrey, Gregory the Great and Bonaventure make it clear that “Judea had come to an end, for it was subjected and divided into so many kingdoms.” Like the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist made it clear that the former glory had departed, and there was nothing left to do for Israel but repent.

John accused the religious folks of being like vipers, fleeing the wrath to come. I have heard this described as the rush of snakes and wildlife ahead of the flames when a brushfire sweeps across the land. The wrath to come strikes me as Israel’s judgment: The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (41 years in the future).

John’s baptism is one of repentance. Ambrose says it’s a baptism of law. Get your act together, and then come for baptism as a sign you have committed to it. It is only in Jesus’ baptism that the Holy Spirit comes, as signified by the dove and the voice from heaven. There are still many who view baptism in this way, not as a means of grace, but as a work, a sign of obedience. For us, the significance of baptism is the forgiveness of sins, as we teach in the catechism.

Why would Jesus need to come to John to be baptized? Christian doctrine has held that Jesus was “without sin.” John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Even John himself in the gospels seems to see the problem. He asks Jesus straight up why he is coming to be baptized by John. John seems to think it should be the other way around.

Cyprian answers for us: “Although he was himself not a sinner, he did not disdain to bear the sins of others.” We in the Western world operate with a very individualistic concept of sin, repentance and forgiveness. But if this is Jesus repenting for the sins of the country, it makes perfectly good sense. Jesus is participating in Israel’s corporate atonement.

Jeffrey says that in the exegetes there is a profound sense that in the Baptism of Jesus, we have the hinge between Old Testament and New Testament theology. Jesus’ baptism fulfills all righteousness and puts him theologically in line with John the Baptist, and his critique/compassion for Israel.

Baptism isn’t mentioned as such in the Hebrew Bible, but ritual washing was a common part of Jewish life. One washed so that one was not unclean. Many things made one unclean, not just sin. Sometimes it was being ill. You could not approach the Temple in an unclean state. Archaeological digs have uncovered huge washing pools (baptistries?) outside the Temple. If you had come in contact with a corpse, you would have to go through a ritual bathing (mikvah) before entering the Temple.

John’s baptism is unique because he seems to approach it as a one-time event, attaching to it the forgiveness of sins and eschatological overtones. Also, in John there is a sense that the exterior washing corresponds to an interior washing. This is also evident in Jesus’ theology.

1-13-3The Pharisees would have been unhappy with John baptizing because they didn’t believe that ritual washing was necessary for the forgiveness of sins, only animal sacrifice, which was strictly controlled by the Temple authorities. The leaders of the Temple would have been even more upset, since they were the authorized agents to forgive sins. Just as some people today believe you must have your sins forgiven by a priest, so did many first-century Jews. Forgiveness was the domain of the Temple system. John was offering an unauthorized forgiveness of sins through baptism. He was circumventing the Temple system.

What John is doing may be described with a word used by another John, John Nunes (President of Concordia Lutheran University in Bronxville, New York), which describes a cultural shift we’re seeing today: disintermediation. Disintermediation is the circumventing of the mediator. Technology, the internet, and communications have made it possible to eliminate the “middle man.” This was also an emphasis of the Reformation, where the church controlled so much of spiritual life. The same seems to be happening here. John’s baptism allows people to move directly to God in repentance, for forgiveness, without the priests and the Temple.

Note that John the Baptist is not just in trouble with the Temple authorities, he is also in trouble with the political authorities. He has been criticizing Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and for “all the evil things” he has been doing. Like Jesus, he will be executed for offending those in power.

Brian Stoffregen helpfully reminds us that the season of Epiphany is bookended with two pronouncements from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” in Luke 3 at Jesus’ baptism, and “This is my Son, the Chosen…” in Luke 9 at the Transfiguration (February 7, 2016). The central purpose of this passage is to remind the reader who Jesus is. The people are wondering (in expectation) if John might be the messiah. John makes it clear that a greater one is coming. The rich and powerful never tied their own shoes. This was beneath people of privilege. This, like foot-washing, was the job of the lowest slave in the pecking order. John is exalting Jesus, while at the same time saying he is lower than the lowest slave in the pecking order. Humility is a central to John’s and Jesus’ and Paul’s proclamation of the gospel. “For the Son of Man came not to be served…”

But there is another interpretation. In Hebrew culture, when a man was betrothed, and did not wish to marry her to whom he was obligated, another could come along and “loosen his shoe,” agreeing to marry her and letting the original betrothed off the hook.  In other words, John is not worthy to replace Jesus in this marriage with his bride Israel. Israel represents the virgins (unfaithful though they may be) waiting for the bridegroom to appear. Augustine, Cyprian and Ambrose prefer this interpretation.

John then is the forerunner announcing that the bridegroom has returned for his bride in the fullness of time. John says he’s unworthy to be the bridegroom. Jeffreys likes to think of John as the Best Man. Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom. Paul at times refers to himself as the paranymphos: the friend of the bridegroom (best man?). John’s Revelation also stresses the theme: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!'” (Revelation 22:17). And the beloved hymn:

From heaven he came and sought her
To be his holy bride
With his own blood he bought her
And for her life he died

John says this Jesus will baptize you with fire and Spirit (a reference to the Spirit and tongues of flame at Pentecost in Luke’s volume 2: Acts)?

The voice from heaven seals the deal. And of course the bird. Animals were signs of the divine, omens in the Hellenistic society for which Luke was writing his gospel. To this day the dove is a symbol for the coming of the Spirit, without which all our endeavors are in vain.

There is a lesson in John’s humility. This ministry of the gospel is a powerful tool. When applied well, it can change lives. Pastors find that people will sometimes turn to us as religious icons or even idols. It is all to easy for the focus to become on us. It is for us, like John the Baptist, to point beyond ourselves to something greater, someone greater, whose shoes we are not worthy to lace.

Perhaps this is a good Sunday to do Affirmation of Baptism, in place of the confession. The church where Luther was baptized has chosen to do this with visitors. Rather than restoring St. Peter’s in Eisleben to its Medieval glory, they refurbished it for an existing congregation and as a center for baptismal renewal. An in-ground, full-sized immersion font was installed, in the ancient tradition. People who visit will participate in a service of Affirmation of Baptism.

1-13-2Move the font to a central location to draw attention to it. Consider giving everyone a shell. Children could distribute them during the service. Or you could put them in the font for people to draw out. Teach them to mark the sign of the cross with the baptismal water. Inexpensive shells can be found online at Oriental Trading. $15 for 150 (10¢ each) assorted in 2015:

This is a good time to preach about baptism, not as a legalistic ritual, as so many see it (especially down here in the South), but rather as an announcement of God’s free grace and forgiveness, coupled with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Sprinkle the congregation with water and the Word. Pronounce a robust forgiveness of sins and encourage the faithful to live into their baptismal covenant.

The Text


15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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


15Προσδοκῶντος δὲ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ διαλογιζομένων πάντων ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν περὶ
τοῦ Ἰωάννου, μήποτε αὐτὸς εἴη ὁ Χριστός, 16ἀπεκρίνατο λέγων πᾶσιν ὁ Ἰωάννης, Ἐγὼμὲν
ὕδατι βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς: ἔρχεται δὲ ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν
ἱμάντατῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 17οὗ τὸ
πτύον ἐντῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ διακαθᾶραι τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ καὶ συναγαγεῖν τὸν σῖτον εἰς
τὴν ἀποθήκηναὐτοῦ, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

21Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ βαπτισθῆναι ἅπαντα τὸν λαὸν καὶ Ἰησοῦ βαπτισθέντος καὶ
προσευχομένου ἀνεῳχθῆναι τὸν οὐρανὸν 22καὶ καταβῆναιτὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον
σωματικῷ εἴδει ὡς περιστερὰν ἐπ’ αὐτόν, καὶ φωνὴν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ γενέσθαι, Σὺ
εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.


El pueblo estaba en la duda, y todos se preguntaban interiormente si Juan no sería el Mesías,  [16] por lo que Juan hizo a todos esta declaración: «Yo les bautizo con agua, pero está para llegar uno con más poder que yo, y yo no soy digno de desatar las correas de su sandalia. El los bautizará con el Espíritu Santo y el fuego. [17] Tiene la pala en sus manos para separar el trigo de la paja. Guardará el trigo en sus graneros, mientras que la paja la quemará en el fuego que no se apaga.»

[21] Un día fue bautizado también Jesús entre el pueblo que venía a recibir el bautismo. Y mientras estaba en oración, se abrieron los cielos: [22] el Espíritu Santo bajó sobre él y se manifestó exteriormente en forma de paloma, y del cielo vino una voz: «Tú eres mi Hijo, hoy te he dado a la vida.»


15 Le peuple était plein d’espoir et chacun se demandait si Jean n’était pas le *Messie.

16 Il répondit à tous:
—Moi je vous baptise dans l’eau. Mais quelqu’un va venir, qui est plus puissant que moi. Je ne suis même pas digne de dénouer la lanière de ses sandales. Lui, il vous baptisera dans le Saint-Esprit et le feu.

17 Il tient en main sa pelle à vanner, pour nettoyer son aire de battage, et il amassera le blé dans son grenier. Quant à la bale, il la brûlera dans un feu qui ne s’éteindra jamais.

21 Tout le peuple accourait vers Jean pour se faire baptiser. Jésus fut aussi baptisé. Or, pendant qu’il priait, le ciel s’ouvrit

22 et le Saint-Esprit descendit sur lui, sous une forme corporelle, comme une colombe.
Une voix retentit alors du ciel:
—Tu es mon Fils bien-aimé. Tu fais toute ma joie.


15 Da aber das Volk in Erwartung stand und alle in ihren Herzen sich wegen Johannes fragten, ob er vielleicht der Christus sei, 16 antwortete Johannes allen und sprach: Ich taufe euch mit Wasser; es kommt aber einer, der stärker ist als ich, und ich bin nicht würdig, ihm seinen Schuhriemen zu lösen; der wird euch mit Heiligem Geist und Feuer taufen. 17 Er hat die Worfschaufel in seiner Hand, und er wird seine Tenne durch und durch reinigen und den Weizen in seine Scheune sammeln; die Spreu aber wird er mit unauslöschlichem Feuer verbrennen!

21 Es geschah aber, als alles Volk sich taufen ließ und auch Jesus getauft wurde und betete, da tat sich der Himmel auf, 22 und der Heilige Geist stieg in leiblicher Gestalt wie eine Taube auf ihn herab, und eine Stimme ertönte aus dem Himmel, die sprach: Du bist mein geliebter Sohn; an dir habe ich Wohlgefallen!






Understanding Immigrants, Refugees and Asylum-seekers

Immigration policy is fairly complicated. Here are some resources to help get your mind around it.

Why we care

People of faith care about immigrants and refugees for numerous reasons. Immigration is the story of the Bible and the story of the world. There are dozens of passages about this. Here are a few:

  • Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden.
  • Abraham was commanded by God to go from his home in Ur to a new country he didn’t know.
  • The central story of the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus, is one of a great migration of greed slaves from Egypt to Israel.
  • The Bible commands the people of God to welcome, love and treat strangers as citizens, “for you were once sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
  • The Israelites in the Babylonian captivity were refugees who had lost land, king and temple.
  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph were told by an angel to flee into Egypt during Herod’s persecution.
  • Jesus commanded his followers to love and welcome the stranger. “When I was a stranger your welcomed me… fro whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”

Lutherans in the U.S. care about immigration because there would be no Lutheran Church in the U.S. without immigration. We are an immigrant church.

What’s the difference between an immigrant, a refugee and an asylum-seeker.

  • Immigrants are those who move from one country to another. The majority of immigrant in the U.S. are here legally. Of those here without proper documentation, nearly half came legally, but overstated their visas, usually because visas are so hard to get.
  • Refugees are those who have been forced from their home, and who request to come to another country. They are vetted and approved before they come to the U.S. In 2019 the U.S. has a ceiling of 35,000 refugees. That number has been as high as 200,000 (during the Reagan administration). They are here legally.
  • Asylum-seekers are people who come to the U.S. and request asylum (protection). They apply and are given a court hearing to determine their eligibility. They are here legally.

Why don’t they come legally?

Most do. Those who come to the U.S. and stay without documentation often do so because our immigration system is outdated and backlogged. Some visa applications from twenty years ago are just now being processed.

Here is an infographic that may help to get some clarity on how complex the system is:

What Part of Legal Immigration Don’t You Understand?

What about the crime rate?

The crime rate among immigrants is lower than that of native born citizens.

Are immigrants a drain on the economy?

Studies show that immigrants pump much more into the economy than they take out. And yes, they pay taxes. Even illegal immigrants pay social security, which they will never collect. Some believe illegal immigrant has kept Social Security afloat.

Aren’t immigrants taking our jobs?

Immigrants often take low paying, hard working jobs that native-born citizens won’t, line picking cotton.

Immigrants are also much more like to start businesses which employ people. Immigrants are job creators:

Why don’t they learn our language?

They do. In one generation. Every immigrant knows you can make more if you speak the language. Grandma may struggle, but the kids learn English right away, and the grandkids already start to lose their mother tongue.

Comparatively, Lutherans continued to speak German for 100 years in the U.S. Confirmation was taught in German and the Texas Synod newsletter (Der Treue Zeuge) was in German until World War II.

Are we in a border crisis?

No. Illegal border crossings hit a historic low in 2015, and have remained low. Immigration to this country, legal and illegal is lower than 100 years ago:

“Between 1905 and 1914, ten million people, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, poured into the United States—a country that had only eighty-three million people to begin with… By 1910, immigrants and the children of immigrants made up almost three-quarters of the populations of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston.”

—Bill Bryson, “One Summer”

Here is a June 2018 Forbes article on the “border crisis:”

Why Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service says a wall won’t work:

On the racist origins of immigration policy

In 1909, in a report for his employers, future president Herbert Hoover declared that black and Asian laborers should be avoided because they suffered from “a low mental order” and a pathological “lack of coordination and inability to take initiative.” Stressing his own firsthand experience, Hoover concluded that “one white man equals from two to three of the colored races, even in the simplest forms of mine work such as shoveling or tramming.”

It was often taught that immigrants during this era (mostly from southern and eastern Europe) we the cause of all the country’s ills: disease, unemployment, divorce, alcohol abuse and so on. Keeping immigrants out was considered the way to keep order.

At the Sesquicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1926, the American Eugenics Society had a stand with a mechanical counter showing that a person of inferior nature nature was born somewhere in the United States every forty-eight seconds, while “high-grade” persons came along only once every seven and a half minutes.

The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, was published in 1916. Grant believed the best race of humans was what he called the “Nordic race,” by which he meant essentially all northern Europeans except the Irish. America needed to breed better. Interracial marriage was illegal in many states. The seeds of why would find horrific manifestation in Nazi Germany were alive and well in the U.S.

Congress responded to the “research” being done on race, and public sentiment by quickly passing the 1921 Dillingham Immigration Restriction Act followed by the 1924 National Origins Act. This legislation, designed to keep America white, determined racial quotas for immigration. People could only be admitted by the percentage that they were already represented in the general population. By 1927, more people were being deported from Ellis Island than were coming in through it.

Much of what is diving the immigration debate today is also racism, or what some call nativism. Yes, there are legitimate border security issues, but let’s face it, there are some who simply don’t want “those people” here.

It’s easy for any country in any age to blame immigrants for the problems of the day. We believe immigrants are what have made the US what it is today. We believe welcoming those seeking a new home, for whatever reason, is a sacred duty.

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