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Bishop Michael Rinehart

Get Out of the Boat

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Jesus walks on the water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

August 9, 2020 is Pentecost 10A/Proper 14A/Ordinary 20A

1 Kings 19:9-18 (complimentary series) …and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
OR

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 (semi-continuous readings in Genesis until September) – 17-year-old Joseph is loved by his father the most, and hated by his brothers, who sell him into slavery. 

Psalm 85:8-13 (complimentary series) – Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

OR

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (semi-continuous) – Give thanks to the Lord, offspring of Abraham, children of Jacob, who caused famine in Egypt, and sent ahead his servant Joseph, who saved them, and became a lord in Pharaoh’s house.

Romans 10:5-15
The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Matthew 14:22-33
Jesus walks on water. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught [Peter], saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Prayer of the Day
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. I wait for | you, O LORD;
in your word | is my hope. Alleluia. (Ps. 130:5)


Genesis 37 – Joseph sold into slavery

Our Old Testament reading in the semi-continuous series is Joseph being sold into slavery, Genesis 37. Isaac died in Genesis 35. Genesis 36 is dedicated to the descendants of Esau and his legacy in Edom. Genesis 37 to the end (chapter 50) is really about the Joseph story. This is 30% of the book of Genesis. We will read only two portions of this story, Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 this Sunday (August 9, 2020), about Joseph being sold into slavery, and Genesis 45:1-15 next Sunday (August 16, 2020), in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and promises to provide for them in the midst of the famine. The semi-continuous reading of Genesis ends here. The next Sunday (August 23, 2020) we start in on the book of Exodus. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers in Genesis 50 does appear in the complimentary series of the lectionary, a month from now, on September 13. This is the climax, and it must be included if one is to preach on this story, either on a Sunday or as a series. “Do not be afraid,” Joseph said. “Am I in God’s shoes? You may have meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

1 Kings 19 – Elijah encounters God in the silence after the storm

The complimentary Old Testament readings follow the ancient practice of choosing Old Testament readings that complement the Gospel reading. We read about Elijah encountering God in the quiet after the storm.

Like so many characters in the Bible, Elijah’s theophany takes place as he is fleeing for his life. Think of Jacob’s two dreams which take place when he is being pursued first by Esau and Laban. Elijah prays about Israel’s unfaithfulness, and boasts of being the last faithful one standing: “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

God tells him to go stand on the mountain. We don’t know if this is supposed to be a vision or an actual event. There is little distinction in most Old Testament stories anyway. The text begins by telling us Elijah spend the night in a cave. What happens next may be understood to be part of his dream/vision, or something that awoke him in the dark, as one might wake to a storm in the night.

I am reminded of Paul’s description of one his many visions, from 2 Corinthians 12. Paul speaks of himself in the third heaven, in the third person. Even he isn’t quite sure whether this was an actual event in the body, or a vision in the spirit:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 

On the mountain, Elijah hears a mighty wind, so powerful it breaks rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Earth, wind and fire. No revelation.

Then there was silence.

At this point, Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle. Moses also hid his face (Exodus 3), when God appeared in the burning bush. The glory of God was believed to be likely to be too much for a human to bear. When Moses was on the mountain in Genesis 33, he did the same, because God says, “no one shall see me and live…”

18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

It was in the silence that Elijah heard God’s voice. One is reminded of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” We could all use a little more silence in our lives.

God’s message begins with a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gives God his I-am-the-only-one-faithful-to-you speech again. He is instructed to anoint two kings, and then Elisha as a prophet in Elijah’s place. Leaders make leaders. Raise up leaders. By so doing, there are 7,000 faithful who remain in Israel.

Romans 10

During the five Sundays of August 2020, we read from the next four chapters of Romans: 9, 10, 11, and 12. The epistle readings make no great effort to speak to the gospel reading as do the complimentary Old Testament readings.

Romans 10 is a continuation of Paul’s extended argument and struggle (Romans 9-11) with his fellow Jews who have not accepted Christ as the messiah. All three chapters read like an interpolation, as if Paul inserted them after having finished the rest of the letter. One can read from the end of Romans 8, and skip to the beginning of Romans 12 and see the continuity of his teaching about the Spirit.

Paul is perplexed that so many polytheistic, pagan Gentiles are flocking to the one God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but so many of his own fellow Jews are not. The argument is hard to follow. Interpreters have struggled with this section since the day it was written.

5Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Dr. Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago points out Paul’s use of the Old Testament to make the point. Six of the 11 verses in today’s reading from Romans 10 contain quotes from the Hebrew Bible. Consider:

  • Romans 10:5 > Leviticus 18:5
  • Romans 10:6-9 > Deuteronomy 30:12-14
  • Romans 10:11 > Isaiah 28:16
  • Romans 10:13 > Joel 2:32

Verses 14-15 have come to be a passage about mission. Paul, using a common rhetorical device as he has in other letters, offers a series of four successive questions: All who call upon the Lord will be saved, but how can they call if they have not believed? How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear without proclamation? How can proclamation happen if no one is sent? So, blessed are the travelling feet of missionaries and preachers who are sent to bring good news.

Matthew 14:22-33 – If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Our text begins, “Immediately.” Immediately after what? This text takes place immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, which we read last week. Matthew 13 had three weeks of parables of the kingdom. Then Jesus received news (Matthew 14) that John the Baptist had been executed as entertainment at Herod’s party. (We did not have this text in the lectionary.) Jesus went off to be alone and lick his wounds (Matthew 14:13), but the crowds followed him. Then, two miracles occur immediately in the wake of the death of John the Baptist: the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which we treated last week and Jesus Walking on the Water, a curious story. Keep in mind that Jesus calmed the storm back in Matthew 8.

After the feeding, Jesus sends the disciples back across the lake, and dismisses the crowd. He finally gets the alone time he has been craving, heading up the mountain to pray, just like Moses, Hauerwas notes in Matthew, The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Exodus 32:30-34).  By evening, he is alone on the mountain. One can dwell on this a bit. If Jesus needs down time, don’t we all? We dare not engage in constant decisive action without sufficient time for reflection. Action needs to be informed by prayerful reflection.

In the middle of the night (like Elijah?), Jesus comes to the disciples, still in their boat, walking on the water. David Garland (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary) reminds us of what many of the translations leave out. In 14:25 literally says that Jesus comes to them τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς ἦλθεν, on the fourth watch of the night. For this society, night begins at 6 p.m. Each watch is three hours, so the fourth and final watch is 3:00-6:00 a.m. It is also the time that God’s salvation comes. The Lord rescues the city of God at the break of day, in Psalm 46:5. I believe this story tracks closely the salvation from the raging waters spoken of in Psalm 46, an awesome alternate possibility for the Psalm of the day.

Garland also reminds us that what most translations render “far from the land,” regarding the position of the boat, is actually σταδίους πολλοὺς, “some, or many stadia.” A stadia, from which we get our word “stadium,” was a foot race about 1/8 of a Roman mile, a bit over 600 feet (200 yards, or two U.S. football fields). So, let’s say “some” means four. Four stadia would be half a mile out to sea. It’s a decent distance.

They are terrified. “People do not walk on water,” Hauerwas reminds us, though the modern reader will not need the reminder. The disciples assume it is a ghost: Φάντασμά: a phantom.

One might take this opportunity to talk about theophanies. In my three decades as a pastor, I have heard many amazing stories from parishioners. People have had mystical experiences, but they don’t want to be thought of as weird, or crazy, so they rarely tell them to casual listeners. I don’t have explanations for what I’ve heard, and they’ve seen. Visitations by dead relatives, or crime victims or divine messengers. I listen carefully then wonder with them about interpretation. What does this mystical experience mean for you? Obviously, if someone presents as mentally ill, we would seek medical help. However, as any pastor will tell you, often these experiences are recounted by everyday people, who are as surprised as anyone, and trying to understand their own experience. It helps, in a postivistically philosophical world, for the preacher to acknowledge that people have mystical experiences. Be prepared for some appointments if you open that door.

When they freak out, shouting for fear, Jesus responds, ἐγώ εἰμι. The first two words are often translated “It is I,” but these are the words that God speaks when Moses asks who he should let Pharaoh know sent him (Exodus 3:14): “I AM.”

The Israelites were not a sea-faring people. Their literature is filled with a sense of fear and respect for the sea. That the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea was a big deal. Hauerwas points out Psalm 77:19, which might make a better Psalm for this Sunday than the appointed texts: “You walked through the sea; you passed through the surging waters, but left no footprints.” I AM provides food, freedom and a way through the raging waters of life.

Then, immediately after “I am,” Jesus says the usual: μὴ φοβεῖσθε. “Be not afraid.”

Psalm 46:
God is our strong refuge;
A sure help in time of trouble.
We will not be afraid,
Though the mountains quake in the heart of the sea
Though its waters roar and foam!

But the story does not end here. Peter asks to come out on the water as well. Jesus gives a single-word response: Ἐλθέ. “Come.”

Peter does walk on water (only in Matthew’s gospel), but when a strong wind comes along he starts to sink. σῶσόν με. “Save me!” he cries out. Jesus reaches to him and pulls him up. He then calls Peter what often used to be translated “O ye of little faith.” It is actually a one-word name:  Ὀλιγόπιστε, “Little-faith-one.” And then, “Why doubt?”

Jesus seems to be insulting Peter for his lack of faith, but we need only think back one chapter to the text we read on July 30. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty bush. And in three chapters we will read that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. It only takes a little.

Garland asks, “If this is a story about discipleship, what is the lesson?” (Reading Matthew, p. 159 of 274). Are followers of Jesus to go out and learn how to walk on water? Shall we go out and walk on The Gulf of Mexico, Lake Houston, Lake Conroe, Lake Ponchartrain? If the boat is the church, as many ancient Bible interpreters agreed, don’t disciples belong in the boat?

Perhaps the message is that Jesus should be the focus, not the church.

Or, the subtle message here may be, if you lose sight of Jesus you’re likely to sink down. Many of us have found this to be true in our lives. It is faith that buoys us up. In times of grief and sorrow, when the waters of life get rough, it is a deep-seated trust of God that puts things in perspective, bringing peace and comfort.

When life gets difficult, in plagues, pestilence or pandemic, when the seas of life get choppy, it is normal to be afraid. We are seeing this now. People respond to fear differently. Some respond by cowering. Some respond with anger.

Courage is not a lack of fear. It is moving forward in spite of our fear. Keeping our sights set on Jesus is a way forward. This requires risk, humility, and vulnerability. I commend to you Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability. This is a scary new idea for some. The preacher will have to bring it to life. Christ, our relationship with God, Jesus’ way of being in the world – these become our compass in life when skies are gray and threatening.

Peter may have little faith, like many of us, but he has enough faith to get out of the boat. I love the title of John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. There are some awesome sermon illustrations in that book. You could download this book in the next couple of minutes and find some inspiring ideas.

What listener in your assembly will not identify with Peter, his desire, his fear, his doubt, his hope? Life is risk. Vulnerability. People, congregations, communities and even nations can be driven by fear. We are not our best selves when we are afraid. John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). He may have a little faith, but keep in mind that Jesus renames Simon, Peter: The Rock. Rocky. Peter is the original Rock, not Sylvester Stallone or Dewayne Johnson.

David Garland takes an alternate view. He sees Peter’s step out of the boat as a bit impetuous and self-aggrandizing. “Jesus does not promise to deliver [us] from the storm, but through the storm. The disciple’s task is therefore to stay in the boat worshipping and confessing, not attempting the sensational.”

Our text ends with, “Those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Surely you are the Son of God.’” We are only half way through Matthew’s gospel, and the disciples have already grasped who Jesus is, and are worshipping him. These words convey Matthew’s purpose in telling the story. The event is meant to reveal who Jesus is, as should a good sermon.

Enough

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Mosaic of two fish and a basket of four loaves of bread, from the floor of Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, NW shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

August 2, 2020 is Pentecost 9A/Proper 13A/Ordinary 19A

Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob wrestles with God/the angel, in our ongoing walk through Genesis.
OR
Isaiah 55:1-5 – Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – An interesting juxtaposition with Jacob’s dream in the Genesis reading: if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress… As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
OR
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16) – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 9:1-5 – They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. One does not live by | bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the | mouth of God. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:4)

Before I begin, I want to offer a word of thanks to Aimee Elles on our staff, and John Turnquist, both of whom read and proof these posts each week. Aimee also edits and posts the weekly podcast. Thanks also to Don Carlson who researched some of this post a few years ago.


Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with the angel

To fully appreciate this coming Sunday’s reading from Genesis 32, we need to recall where we are in the story. On July 19, 2020 we read about Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28. Jacob was in liminal space. In reality, he had fled for his life to the border of Israel and Canaan. In his dream, he was on the border between heaven and earth, space and time. In that dream he received grace, the patriarchal promise of progeny, and patriarchal promise of protection, in spite of his many deceptions and betrayals.

This week’s story is four chapters and twenty years later, according to Genesis 31:41. You know the background story:  Last week we read about how Jacob came to marry the two sisters, Leah, the elder daughter of Laban, with the tender eyes, and Rachel, the younger, who is pleasing to the eyes. He worked seven years for Rachel, but Laban switched out Rachel for Leah on the wedding day, tricking Jacob. Served Jacob right, for his many deceptions. So then he worked another seven years for Rachel, who he “loved more.”

Leah gave birth to Simeon, Reuben, Levi, and Judah. Rachel was having trouble getting pregnant, and getting desperate, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah got jealous, so she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. (For a midrash on Dinah’s rape, check out this awesome but challenging read: The Red Tent). Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then died giving birth to Benjamin.

Jacob had two wives, two concubines and at least fourteen children. This is why I always chuckle when I hear the phrase, “We believe in biblical marriage.” I think not.

Jacob is doing well. His flocks are increasing. He is, however, having trouble with his father-in-law Laban, and also with Laban’s sons. Jacob’s flocks have done better than theirs, so they are jealous. The tension builds. His life is in danger, so God tells Jacob to return to his homeland.

Afraid of what Laban would say, Jacob sneaks out with his wives, concubines, kids and all the cattle which he considers his (but which Laban considers his). 3 days later Laban discovers they were gone and furiously sets out in hot pursuit. 10 days later Laban catches up. It is only a dream from God that prevents Laban from killing Jacob the cheater, who always seems to be in hot water with someone. Laban is angry, at the loss of his daughters, grandchildren and flocks, but somehow they are able reach an agreement. Jacob erects a standing stone, like he did at Bethel after his ladder dream, and they part company.

Whew.

Safe finally? Except this: A scout tells Jacob his betrayed brother Esau (whom Jacob had cheated out of his birthright and his father’s blessing) is approaching with 400 men. The last time they were together, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob. Uh oh. Jacob divides the entourage into two camps. This gives him a 50/50 chance of surviving. Always the trickster. Then he sends gifts to Esau. A peace offering? 200 female goats, 20 male, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 40 cows, 20 female donkeys, 10 male donkeys, 10 bulls, 30 female camels and so on.

This is the point that our reading for this coming Sunday begins.

In the night, Jacob packs up and sends ahead his wives, slaves and children. Esau wouldn’t kill them would he? Jacob himself stays on the far side of the river to watch what happens. Most would protect the women and children, but ever the scoundrel, Jacob acts in a cowardly fashion. I love it when people refer to the “Heroes of the Bible.” Have they read the Bible? Not so much. These are stories of deeply flawed people in highly dysfunctional families, whom God uses for God’s purposes anyway. This should give us all hope. Is it possible that God can use us too, in spite of our failings?

In the middle of the night, waiting to see how things go with the women and children, and Esau, Jacob is tossing and turning. He has one of his many dreams. This is a bad dream. No stairway to heaven this time. In his dream, he wrestles with a man, and when it is all over, although he prevails, he is left with a broken hip. Did Jacob wrestle with an angel, or with God? Hosea (12:3-5), in his poetic prophecy recalling Jacob, seems to think both:

 In the womb he tried to supplant his brother,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed,
he wept and sought his favor;
he met him at Bethel,
and there he spoke with him.
The Lord the God of hosts,
the Lord is his name!

This is a common motif. Remember in June, when we read about Abraham meeting with the three figures near the oaks of Mamre? Later we are told Abraham met with the Lord.

In Jacob’s dream, he asks for a blessing. Classic Jacob. “Give me something.” The man asks Jacob’s name, and renames him Israel (which means “who prevails with God”). Jacob also apparently believed he wrestled with God: “Certainly I have seen God face to face and prevailed.” Jacob was the first to think he was a hero.

This is where our reading ends, but it’s good to know the rest of the story. Esau approaches with over 400 men. Jacob, limping, puts the slaves and their children out front, then Leah and her children, the Rachel and her children. Priorities, right?

At the climax of the encounter, Jacob goes out front to face the music. He goes up to Esau and bows his head to the ground seven times. The listener is in agony to see how Esau will respond. Esau begins running toward Jacob, and the last minute, embraces him and kisses him.

This story is grace upon grace upon grace. All of Jacob’s life is grace, in spite of himself.

Some have called this a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. That may be a bit much.

Homiletical possibilities abound. Every interesting person I have known has wrestled with God in one way or another. You can wrestle with God, but you’ll probably come away with a limp. Can we as preachers speak of our own wrestling with God? Can you dig deep and tell a story of your own Jacob moment? Let people know that their own wrestling with God isn’t unfaithfulness, but rather a normal experience, one that even Jesus had. “Let this cup pass from me.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”

In this story, God appears as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector. Sometimes our experiences of the divine are like that. You will wrestle with God, but it’s an uphill battle. You never come out the same.  Just ask Jonah.

Jacob’s dreams and encounters with God come when he is exposed and vulnerable. Has this been true for you? Fears, darkness, loneliness, vulnerabilities, empty feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion and relentless pain are often precursors for a divine encounter. Ever been there?

Jacob is forced to confront his fears, weakness, sin, failings, and ruthlessness. Luther calls this tentatio in Latin. Anfechtung in German. In Luther’s theology of the cross, this is a path to God. Suffering often reveals God. There is no revelation without agitation. There is no art without struggle, without confronting our brokenness, our restlessness, our pain and weakness. Think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

When have you wrestled with God? Why? When have you experienced the Dark Night of the Soul, described by St. John of the Cross? What keeps you up at night? When have you experienced undeserved grace and blessing? You will receive blessings, in your divine encounters, but you may come away with a limp.

JACOB’S BLESSING

If this blessing were easy,
anyone could claim it.
As it is,
I am here to tell you
that it will take some work.

This is the blessing
that visits you
in the struggling,
in the wrestling,
in the striving.

This is the blessing
that comes
after you have left
everything behind,
after you have stepped out,
after you have crossed
into that realm
beyond every landmark
you have known.

This is the blessing
that takes all night
to find.

It’s not that this blessing
is so difficult,
as if it were not filled
with grace
or with the love
that lives
in every line.

It’s simply that
it requires you
to want it,
to ask for it,
to place yourself
in its path.

It demands that you
stand to meet it
when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know
you could move,
that you agree
to not give up.

So when this blessing comes,
borne in the hands
of the difficult angel
who has chosen you,
do not let go.
Give yourself
into its grip.

It will wound you,
but I tell you
there will come a day
when what felt to you
like limping

was something more
like dancing
as you moved into
the cadence
of your new
and blessed name.

—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Isaiah 55:1-5 – You who have no money: Come and Eat!

If you choose to preach the Feeding of the 5,000, below, Isaiah 55 may be the better choice for the first reading.

Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Second Isaiah. First Isaiah, chapters 1-23, 30-39, are pre-exilic. Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, are exilic. Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic. Fourth Isaiah, chapters 24-29, are post exilic.

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. 

Walter Brueggemann

The most profound and troubling words in this passage come in the second verse, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript, speaks to these words in 19 theses.  Three of the more pointedly germane theses talk about a common script that empires hold, especially today. I quote them at length:

3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

    • I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.
    • I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
    • I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.”

The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated. 

4. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy. Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection. 

5. That script has failed.I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable.

We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.

This article was written in 2005; it is increasingly true today. A marvelous song of the best songs based on this text from Isaiah 55 John Foley’s Come to the Water – original arrangement and contemporary arrangementDownload the sheet music and MP3 arrangement samples.

I think of all those who are participating in food distributions in this difficult time. Come you who have no money. You who cannot work because of the pandemic, come and eat

Romans 9

Daniel Kirk points out that these first five verses of Romans 9 are an introduction to Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11. If salvation is now open to Gentiles, where does that leave the Jews? Kirk also points out that this passage is quite self-referential. In the English translation, Paul uses “I” or “my” over a dozen times. This is personal for Paul.

In chapters 1-8, Paul discussed the unity of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) – a unity they shared in and through Christ.

In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians. (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.)

Paul makes it clear that the covenants and promises are intact:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. 11:25ff is one of the high points,

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’

Paul is a Jew. In fact, he is a Pharisee. He cannot understand why his fellow Jews don’t see in Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. This section of Romans has been used anti-Semitically, but not Paul. Paul is a Jew, speaking to Jews. His conclusion, even in his agonizing disappointment, is that all Israel will be saved. God will make good on the covenant’s promises. Period. In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought to be “in” and who ought to be “out.” God is up to the business of inclusion, not exclusion. The reign of God is a centripetal, not centrifugal, force.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.  

Once again, a song by John Foley Who Has Known would be a great contemplative piece during communion – words and sheet music.

Matthew 14: A Tale of Two Banquets

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is an important text. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels.

The text begins, “When Jesus heard this…” The congregation won’t know what “this” is. “This” is the announcement of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus’ cousin. He is devastated, so he does on a boat to a deserted place, by himself.

The crowds, however, followed him. Like the story of Jacob, often God is revealed in the wake of a great crisis. It is when we are flat on our backs that we have nowhere to look but the heavens.

The Feeding in Matthew must be understood in light of the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s wedding banquet. Matthew is contrasting two banquets: Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet. Matthew retains the juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet in Mark, from which he gets the story.

This Herod is not Herod the Great from the infancy narrative, who, as we know, died, making possible the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. This is Herod’s son, less powerful as indicated by the fact that he is simply identified as Herod the tetrarch. Herod the Great’s kingdom has been split into four territories, weakening it. Nevertheless, Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew) points out that this Herod seems to be skilled in the politics of death like his father before him.

These are two very different meal stories, as Barbara Lundblad (http://day1.org/1259-two_very_different_banquets) and Gordon Lathrop (The Four Gospels on Sunday) have both so articulately pointed out.

Herod’s banquet is in a lavish place. Jesus’ banquet is in a deserted place. In Herod’s place there is plenty. Excess even. It is a place of power. Call it a power lunch. There is plenty for a few, while the masses starve. Important officials are invited. Herod’s wife is there, the one he stole from his brother, an act of power which John the Baptist denounced. Women are brought in to perform and pleasure the powerful men. A powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. Herod seems reluctant to execute John, but he has promised the party he would give Herodias what she wants. In order to maintain power, the powerful must maintain the myth of power. The leftovers of Jesus’ banquet are twelve baskets of bread. The leftovers of Herod’s banquet are death and decay: John’s head delivered on plate, like a pig, like the final course.

Barbara Lundblad asks,

Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death–even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.

We who live in the world’s most powerful empire must ask this same question. When do the bloody sacrifices of being an empire compromise our ability to serve the world, to be a blessing?

In contrast to the banquet in Herod’s palace, Jesus’ feast is outdoors, in nature, a deserted place – a place to which he took his disciples for rest, but the crowds followed. It is not in a lavish place, like Herod’s banquet. Those invited to Jesus’ feast are not the few, the rich and powerful, they are the poor, the lame, the blind, as in Isaiah’s prophecies. This is consistent with Jesus’ preaching (Luke 14:13).

Herod takes much, then leaves behind only death. Jesus takes a little and makes a lot of it. He spreads things out so that everyone has enough. Herod consumes. Jesus multiplies.

The Feeding is an apt parable for a hungry world. Jesus provides for all. Sharing is the order of the day, the principle of the kingdom. “That’s communism!” Someone said to me once. “No, it’s enough-ism.” It’s not about everyone getting exactly the same. That might not be fair. It’s about making sure everyone has enough, that’s all. This is not so radical a concept. People aspire to more than just “enough.” But clearly, there are many in our world who do not have even enough. Half the world lives on $2/day. One quarter live on $1/day. The thing that drives me nuts is that we have the wealth and now the technology to feed everyone. There’s plenty of food. We seem to lack the will. This is my sin too. Me having more is apparently more important than everyone having enough. I reaffirm this self-centered reality with nearly every nonessential purchase.

You give them something to eat,” is Jesus’ strong call, right up there with, “When I was hungry you gave me food,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Barbara Lundblad echoes the prophetic voice:

Jesus knows we are perplexed, but my excuses are no better than those of the disciples! Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take $13 billion a year. That’s not even 3% of our defense budget.

Don Carlson suggests an article by Walter Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, as a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.

The feeding of the multitudes recorded in Mark’s Gospel is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.

The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane – life consists of buying and selling, weighing, measuring and trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. Jesus promises a new economy.

Five thousand are fed. 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread, comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the joy of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.

The feeding of the 5000 – or 4000 in some accounts – shows up six times in the gospels.  John Dominic Crossan suggests that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain; the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both were built to feed and sustain the empire.

[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias, for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counter-story tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes- for the kingdom of God. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126)

As we have had parables about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?

A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough” elaborates on a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance, starting with Genesis. Make these very different ways of thinking and being in the world come alive for your people, for their own sake, and for the sake of the world.

Lutherhill Summer 2020

The pandemic has delivered us a summer like no other. Instead of the usual staff of 80, after canceling in person summer camp, Luther Hill decided to keep on a staff of 20 to do some internal projects. You can help support these projects right now here: https://2020Lutherhill.givesmart.com

One group is painting a mural near the ropes course.

The staff of 20 began by quarantining for 14 days to make sure everyone was COVID-free. Then they formed several cohorts, or bubbles. Within these bubbles they do not need to social distance. Outside of those bubbles they always wear masks and stay 6 feet apart.

There is a maintenance bubble, and office bubble, and a summer staff bubble. They have daily temperature and symptom checks. Because of their diligence, they have not had one case of coronavirus. They have, however, had an outbreak of poison ivy, with a 41% infection rate! They have daily temperature and symptom checks. Because of their diligence, they have not had one case of coronavirus. They have, however, had an outbreak of poison ivy, with a 41% infection rate! :-O

Although they don’t have their traditional summer camp, the camp has remained open to small outside groups. Pastor Jared Stillions was there with a group from St. Peters in Hallettsville. Last week they had a group from McDade ISD, in retreat to figure out what they were going to do with school in the fall.

Kylie from Celebration Lutheran Church and Cypress and Coonor from our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and College Station are making 250 T-shirts. The whole staff had a tie-dye party to work on the shirts. All 250 will be given to the Krause Children’s Center (Upbring) so each girl knows that she is Wonderfully Made and loved.

Lola walked around with us and was in rare form, enjoying the opportunity at ever turn:

Kylie (Celebration, Cypress) and Grace (Kinsmen, Houston):

Guy is working on a landing pad for the climbing wall:

Check out there new welcome board with magnetic letters. Great job on your Eagle Scout project Zack Walker (Lord of Life, The Woodlands). Don is preparing meals for 20, and taking requests:So, life continues at Lutherhill, with the new normal. Next week is the summer staff’s last week. Sunday, Russel’s dad is making barbecue. Projects will be complete. Come check it out sometime.

The Wisdom to Hope in the Gospel

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

July 26, 2020 is Pentecost 8A/Proper 12A/Ordinary 18A

1 Kings 3:5-12
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

OR

Genesis 29:15-28
The semi-continuous (summary just before June 14) Old Testament readings continue our walk through in Genesis, culminating on September 13 with (spoiler alert) Joseph forgiving his brothers in Genesis 50. In this Sunday’s passage, the tables turn on Jacob, who works seven years to marry Rachel, but Laban sneaks in Leah instead, so Jacob has to work another seven years for Rachel.

Psalm 119:129-136
Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your statutes.

OR

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Remember the covenant that God made with Abraham, the promise to Isaac, confirmed to Jacob, to Israel, an everlasting covenant: “To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.”

Romans 8:26-39
For I am convinced that 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.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.


Wisdom – 1 Kings 3

The prayer from 1 Kings is the one in which Solomon prays for wisdom instead of wealth, power, or glory. God is pleased with the prayer.  “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right…”

Ecclesiastes purportedly records some of the wisdom God gave Solomon.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Ecclesiastes 3

There hasn’t been a bestselling book entitled The Prayer of Solomon like there was The Prayer of Jabez. Wealth sells. Wisdom? Not so much. And yet, in this pandemic, we have found that wisdom and prudence can protect us and those we love, while ignorance kills.

I am reminded of some of Paul’s words that my beloved mother, may she rest in peace, often quoted:

‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12 
‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. – 1 Corinthians 10:23

Psalm 111 may be a better match for today’s first lesson and Gospel reading than Psalm 119. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Convinced – Romans 8

As 1 Corinthians 13 is to weddings, so this section of Romans 8 is to funerals.  And just as Paul wasn’t talking about marriage in Corinthians….  This is the end of the first section in Paul’s letter, a section in which he addresses the unity of Gentiles and Jews. He then goes on to the unity of Jews and Christians beginning with chapter 9, and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians beginning with chapter 12. This section of Romans is about unity through diversity in Christ.

There is a lot of wisdom, and homiletical material in this passage.

26Likewise 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… 

28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He 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?… 

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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.

“Neither Death Nor Life” (ELW 622) is a joyful rendering of this passage. Congregations easily pick up the refrain, and it sticks in the ear.

Seeds and Yeast – Matthew 13

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened…” 

 44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

We are in three weeks of Matthew 13. Last week we learned that kingdom of heaven is like…

  1. good seeds that bear fruit when sown on good soil but are choked in other places
  2. good seeds sown along with weeds, to be sorted out in the harvest at the end of time

This week we hear that the kingdom is like…

  1. a mustard seed, which starts small but grows big
  2. yeast, a catalyst for growth
  3. a great, hidden treasure
  4. a pearl of great value
  5. a net used to gather, then sort

Seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, nets. The kingdom of heaven is something that starts small, maybe hidden, then grows into something significant, and worth great value, though mixed in this life and needing to be sorted out at the end of time. We dealt with the sorting out business last week, so let’s start with the mustard seed and yeast.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Jesus is still outside the house, in the boat on the lake, speaking to the crowds at this point. He tells the crowds that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, very small. In time it grows to a huge bushy tree.

The mustard seed isn’t technically the smallest seed. This is probably not sermon material, but the wise preacher should know, and it might come up in a Bible Study with agriculturally astute readers. Mark puts it even more poignantly, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” There were plenty of smaller seeds, known to Palestinians even in Jesus’ day. There are lots of microscopic seeds, but even among seeds visible to the naked eye, there are some pretty small ones. Begonia seeds are 1/100th of an inch. Petunia seeds are 1/50th of an inch. Mustard seeds are 1/20th of an inch. Black and white mustard are 1/8th of an inch.

Mustard does not need to be planted by the seed. It propagates on its own, quite nicely. Pliny the Elder says it’s a garden plant. The Mishnah says mustard grows wild in the fields. We don’t know how the Israelites or Palestinians used mustard plants. There are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall growing near the Jordan, but the branches are not strong enough to support birds’ nests. Click here for more on mustard plants than anyone wants to know.

Jesus is not teaching botany. He’s making a point with poetic means. With fundamentalism in the water, many people still read the Bible like it’s a science book, taking its cosmology, anthropology, and botany as gospel. Jesus is pointing to spiritual matters not physical matters. Any reader of the gospels must learn to read hyperbole and allegory. When someone says, “He was the largest of people,” it is not to say, he was the very largest person, but among them. Jesus uses hyperbole a lot. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…” If we get into scientific truth claims in the Bible, we are on the wrong track. Jesus is talking about the growth of the kingdom, not botany.

This is not the only place Jesus mentions the mustard seed in Matthew. Jesus uses them to create an image of smallness, perhaps because they are so prolific in Palestine. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says if we had the faith of a tiny mustard seed (a tiny amount) we could uproot trees, in fact, he says, nothing would be impossible. This is a relief, since Jesus is constantly reminding them how little faith they have. Apparently, a little dab’ll do ya’. You can pick up a spice bottle of mustard seeds at the grocery and show it, even if you’re doing online worship. It helps people get the point.

The next verse compares the kingdom of God to yeast. The point seems to be similar; a small amount has significant impact. A little bit yields explosive growth. The woman mixes in three measures of flour, and the yeast leavens the whole bunch. The yeast grows and has influence, like the gospel. Not by our exhaustive effort, though we add yeast and plant seeds. It’s all built into the way nature works.

Jesus uses images like this, everyday household images that capture the imagination. “You are the salt of the earth.” A little salt affects the flavor of the whole dish. A little pinch can make a big difference unless of course the salt has lost its saltiness, in which case it’s worthless and should be thrown out. The brave preacher/teacher could chase this rabbit down the trail. I had to throw out some yeast recently. It had gotten old. When I proofed it, it wouldn’t rise.

The kingdom starts small but expands. It may seem humble and insignificant now, but it moves toward greatness. Watch!

And how right Jesus has been. Could the disciples have imagined the gospel would grow from their small band of traveling disciples in Galilee to what it is today?

Beware, however. The greatness is not in the numbers, but in the power of what God can do, is doing and will be doing in the world. Granted, the church is part of that future as the visible presence of Jesus in the world, the body of Christ, but we are not the end product. Sometimes the church misses the point, and other times God uses those outside the church to bring the kingdom. The end product is peace, justice, healing, righteousness, and hope. The growth is not the spread of a religious institution, but the message of hope in God’s future for the world.

What does this future hope for the world look like? Are we jumping into what God is doing in the world, or trying to get God on our agenda? Are we jumping into what God is doing in the world, or content to build a personal kingdom in our church?

The kingdom is like a hidden treasure which someone found. Or a pearl of great price for which you sell everything to own. I doubt Jesus explained his metaphors and similes. I suspect he spoke enigmatically in parables, and this was part of his allure. People leaned in to hear and then leaned back to ponder. His healing ministry gave him credibility.

The kingdom is hidden. It isn’t obvious or in your face. It lurks beneath the surface of life. If you aren’t looking you could miss it. But for those who seek it will find it. Knock, and the door will open.

The last image is that of a net. The kingdom is like a net that is thrown into the sea. Once drawn ashore, people put the good fish in baskets and throw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age (end of time?). Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, God will sort out good and evil at the harvest.

Have you seen this mustard seed/yeast phenomenon in your town? Have you seen it change lives, grow and spread in the world? If not, why not, do you think? What could be inhibiting growth? Revisit The Parable of the Sower and the Seed from two weeks ago. What birds, rocky soil, sun, or thorns are in the way? What roots need to be set?

The great joy of the preacher/teacher is this: all we have to do is plant seeds, sprinkle yeast. The gospel does the rest. The Word has power. It is a catalyst. We plant this tiny seed of possibility and hope for what God might be doing in the world, and the Spirit does the heavy lifting. Through our preaching and teaching about the kingdom we spark imaginations and stuff happens. Often things will happen that we could not possibly have imagined ourselves. I’ve seen it happen. A homeless ministry is started by a member who is captivated by the problem, and the call that haunts her dreams. A divorce ministry is started by a broken person who found a healing so great it had to be passed on to others. Ministry is most exciting when it is out of control, greater than the leader could accomplish alone, even beyond the leaders’ imagined future.

This explosive gospel power works even when we are in this exile of quarantine. Maybe the power of the gospel is seen even more clearly in crisis. Some people who are out of work, and struggling to pay the rent need food. Knowing Jesus’ concern for the hungry, one person plants a mustard seed idea of sharing food. Dozens of people show up to make a difference.

What jewels of hidden treasure have been revealed to you? What tiny mustard seeds has God planted in the good soil of your heart? This summer, stir up the imaginations of your people for what God is doing in the world, during this pandemic. Give them permission to run amok. Plant that seed. Add that yeast. See what happens. See if the gospel is indeed like yeast, or a tiny seed, with the incredible power of life and growth in it.

Stairway to Heaven

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

July 19, 2020 is Pentecost 7A/Proper 11A/Ordinary 17A

Genesis 28:10-19a – JACOB’S LADDER. His dream at Bethel. The promise of offspring. He puts up a standing stone to commemorate the Lord’s presence in this place.
OR
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 – There is no god but you. You show your might. You condemn the proud.
OR
Isaiah 44:6-8 – Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 – THE INESCAPABLE GOD. O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Where can I go to flee from your spirit? Even if I go to the depths of Sheol, you are there.
OR
Psalm 86:11-17 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Romans 8:12-25 – For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – PARABLE OF THE WHEAT AND THE TARES. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

Prayer of the Day Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation Alleluia. My word shall accomplish that | which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for | which I sent it. Alleluia. (Isa. 55:11)


Genesis 28:10-19a – Jacob’s Ladder

The last few weeks the semi-continuous Old Testament reading has been in Genesis. Two weeks ago, we encountered Rebecca, who traveled 500 miles to marry a stranger. Last week we learned that after marrying Isaac, she conceived and gave birth to Jacob and Esau. We heard the story of a famished Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for some stew. This we week encounter Jacob on the run.

10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He 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. 12And he 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. 13And 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; 14and 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. 15Know 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.”

16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.” 18So 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. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Dreams figure large in the Bible. Consider Abimilech, Jacob’s three dreams, Laban, Joseph, Pharaoh, Samuel, Daniel, Joel (your young will have visions, your old dreams, women, slaves), Joseph (Mary’s husband), the magi, Paul and others.

Jacob is running for his life. He has cheated his twin brother Esau not once, but twice, first out of Esau’s birthright, then out of his blessing on his blind, aging father’s deathbed. He’s no hero. He’s a deceptive cheat. Esau has it out for him: “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41) When we are in trouble, or feeling guilty, or afraid, we sometimes have restless sleep and vivid dreams.

Jacob is on the border, between Canaan and Israel, as well as between heaven and earth. He is in liminal space. Liminal means at a threshold or a doorway. You’re no longer in the old room, but you’re not yet in the new room. Sound familiar? These days, we’ve been deprived of our old way of life, but the crisis is still on. The new normal is yet to come. Jacob is in his own personal exile.

Being on the border, in liminal/thin space, is unsettling. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s also a place of great possibility. Life is often what happens when you’re on your way to do something else.

Jacob ended up at a place called Luz. Exhausted, he grabbed a rock for a pillow and fell into a restless sleep. In his dream, heavenly beings were moving up and down a staircase. God was at the top. If you were God, what would you have to say to Jacob? “You despicable, good-for-nothing cheater, incur my wrath…?” Instead, Jacob hears a word of grace: promise and blessing:

  • Patriarchal promise: Your descendants will number like the dust of the earth.
  • Patriarchal blessing: I will be with you. I will protect and make good on my promise.

When have you been surprised by a word of unconditional love and grace? Up the ladder goes Jacob’s guilt and fear. Down come the promise and blessing: offspring and presence.

Jacob responded curiously: Well, what do you know? God’s in this place! He poured oil on his rock/pillow and stood it up. There are standing stones all over antiquity. If a great battle is won, a stone is stood up. Or a vision, or a holy place. Some say these standing stones are the predecessors of our gravestones.

Jacob renamed the place (Luz) to Bethel, Beth-El, which means “house of God.” Then, after receiving an unconditional and undeserved blessing, he made a conditional vow: “If God will give me food, clothing, shelter and protection, then the Lord will be my God, this place will be God’s house and I will give back one tenth of everything you give me.”

What strange dreams have you had? What recurring dreams do you have? What if dreams are a stairway to heaven, a way God speaks in the deepest places of our psyche? How do you understand dreams? Do you write them down? Have your tried to explain a dream to someone? The language of dreams is non-linear.

A key to coping with difficulty, with making a breakthrough, and with creativity may be getting in touch with our dreams, where we encounter thin space. Start a dream journal. Share a dream you had recently. Listen. God speaks.

God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel.

God of the exile,
God of all who cannot go home.

You show up in the in-between places of our lives, speaking a word of undeserved, unconditional love and grace, in spite of our brokenness. What wondrous love is this?

Be present with us in the liminal space of this pandemic.
Show up in surprising ways, with surprising words. Be thou our vision.
Open the eyes of our hearts. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear.

Matthew 13: The Wheat and the Weeds

Let’s talk about judgment, in the context of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, otherwise known as The Wheat and the Tares. We are walking through Matthew, and we are amidst three weeks in Matthew 13’s intriguing Parables of the Kingdom, the third of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. This parable is an inclusio, which we discussed last week. First, Jesus tells the parable, then he changes the subject, then he returns to the parable to explain it.

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a story. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in a field. Then, while everyone was sleeping, an enemy sowed weeds. This is a truly diabolical act. Can you imagine a more cut-throat way to undermine the competition? Sow weeds in your neighbor’s crop.

The owner’s slaves want to pull the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you might unintentionally pull up the wheat too. Leave them to grow together. We will sort it all out at the harvest.”

Then Jesus drops the story and moves on. We won’t read verses 31-34 until next week, but they are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus compares the kingdom to things that grow? Wheat, mustard plants, yeast. More on that next week.

Then Jesus goes back into “the house.” (Since the beginning of chapter 13 Jesus has been preaching from a boat. Jesus had stepped out of the house to the lake, and the crowds pressed him into the boat. Check out last week’s post.) Now back in the house, and away from the crowds, the disciples ask Jesus to explain his parable to them privately. It is a great literary device on Matthew’s part. The crowds don’t get to hear Jesus’ explanation, but we the listeners do. The reader of the gospel gets to listen in on Jesus’ private instruction with his inner circle of disciples.

Luther (in a 1525 treatment of this passage) points out that Jesus explains the parable in seven points:

  1. The sower is the Son of man.
  2. The field is the world.
  3. The good seeds are the children of the kingdom.
  4. The tares are the children of the evil one.
  5. The enemy that sowed them is the devil.
  6. The harvest is the end of the world.
  7. The reapers are the angels.

(We never learn who the owner’s slaves are supposed to be.)

Therefore, we shouldn’t burn heretics at the stake, Luther concludes, but rather leave them time to repent. It is a somewhat self-serving passage, since Luther-himself has already been declared a heretic by this time. In fact, it would seem Luther uses this very text to question the inquisition and other forms of religious persecution:

From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus uproot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.

This is a refreshing view for a Medieval mindset. The parable itself is troubling though. So, some people are children of the kingdom, and others are children of the evil one? Hmm. Who to trust? My dad used to jest, “I trust everyone but you and me, and lately, I’ve been wondering about you.”

Jesus usually puts things in extreme terms to get our attention. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” So this shouldn’t surprise us. But there are questions. What makes one a child of the kingdom? What makes one a child of the evil one? What if one has both the tendency toward good and evil? If one is mostly evil with a little bit of good is one a child of the evil one? And if one is mostly good, with some mild tendencies toward wrong, is one a child of the kingdom? M. Scott Peck would tend toward such an interpretation. He says that some people are so caught up in evil, that every decision, thought, action stems from it.

Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, claims that 4% of the population, one in twenty five people, are sociopaths. A sociopath is someone with no conscience, who can do wrong to another or see them suffer without feeling remorse.

I heard one preacher say the children of the kingdom are the followers of Jesus. This sounds good at first, but play it out. Are we saying that those who don’t follow Jesus are children of the evil one? Are all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, agnostics, atheists and the like children of the evil one? That would be an awful perspective, but sadly, one that has been held too often by Christians. I have non-Christian friends who aren’t children of the evil one. And I have some Christian friends who very well might be.

Here’s another question. How can we tell the children of the kingdom from the children of the evil one? I’m thinking of some of my neighbors right now. I think I have a pretty good idea, but, you know, it would be really nice to have some confirmation. (Tongue in cheek.)

This parable seems to recognize that it really is hard to tell. The word for “weed” in this text (ζιζάνια, zizania) refers to a weed (a darnel grass, sometimes poisonous) that looks very much like wheat. It mimics wheat.

The text also suggests that in overreacting to evil, we might do more harm than good, ruining the harvest, by uprooting the good as well. Indeed, many an effort to root out evil have proven disastrous, creating more misery than would have been otherwise. These are wise words.

What would Matthew say makes one a child of the kingdom? Paul would say those who are “in Christ” or those who are justified by faith in Christ. What would Matthew say? Powell (God With Us) is a big help. In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for the righteous (13:43, 25:34, 37). Anyone who obeys God’s commandments may enter (5:17, 19:17, 25:46). Not everyone in the church will be saved (“not all who call me Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom…”)

It will not work to superimpose a Pauline theology on Matthew, and yet we have to land somewhere don’t we? Wouldn’t it be fun to have Paul and Matthew in a room together and hear them argue. Matthew himself may suggest a way through. Matthew’s Jesus not only uses the phrase “children of the evil one,” but even the phrase “children of hell” (Matthew 23:15), though he reserves it for the Pharisees. In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are shown to be evil persons throughout Matthew’s gospel (9:4, 12:34, 39, 45, 16:4, 22:18). One would think, if righteousness gets you into the kingdom, the Pharisees would be the first through the door. They are law-keepers to the nth degree, adhering to every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law. But apparently for Jesus this is not enough.

Maybe there is more Pauline theology in Matthew than we see at first glance. In Matthew Jesus views the Pharisees as missing the forest for the trees. They tithe of their herbs, but have forgotten the weightier matters of the law, justice and compassion, Micah 6:8 stuff. Justice for the orphan, widow and alien is a more critical matter than whether or not your pull your donkey out of a ditch on the Sabbath in terror of actually working. Loving your neighbors is more important than ostracizing them if they don’t live up to your moral standards. In fact, for Jesus, loving God and neighbor embodies all the law and the prophets. If you keep the law, but have no compassion in your heart, you may be a child of the evil one.

Sounds like a fun confirmation game. “Hey kids, tonight we’re going to play a fun new game called You Just May Be a Child of the Evil One. Now, question number one. Jeffrey?

The wolves in sheep’s clothing comment in Matthew also seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not too easy to tell one from the other. Just as the weeds are disguised as wheat, the wolves are disguised as sheep. This is why it is so critical to not judge. The one you judge may have been in a very difficult spot. Judgment is God’s business, at the end of time. Not ours, for right now. Matthew 7:1 ff and Romans 2:1 ff. make this perfectly clear.

Parables are not meant to be parsed word-for-word. They convey a sense. They are allegory. Even Chrysostom says as much, “And, as I am always saying, the parables must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities will follow…” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii.XLVII.html)   So what is the “sense” of this passage?

Expect good and evil to be jumbled together in this life. It won’t get sorted out until the eschaton. That seems to be the point.

The next question, then, is “So what?” What is the good news of this passage for the faithful, striving to live lives of faith, hope and love in daily life?

There are those who struggle with doing the right thing in a business world that is corrupt. Perhaps the preacher could tease out the challenges of living a moral life in a morally compromised world. We can teach people how to sin boldly when facing moral dilemmas and making difficult decisions between what may very well be the lesser of two evils.

There are those out there who wrestle with heaven and hell, and what happens to people when they die. Did Uncle Fred go to heaven? After all, we all know he was no saint. What will judgment day look like? I know a man whose son committed suicide. He’s worried that his son might be in hell, in spite of gracious conversations he’s had with many people. It might be worth wrestling with different concepts of judgment.

What if on Judgment Day all that is evil, all that is bad in you gets burned up, and all that is good in you continues on into eternity? What if everything that is against God gets cast into the proverbial fire, and all that is for God, endures? What if, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing endures except faith, hope and love, these three, which abide forever.

If all that was bad in you was burned up, how much of you would be left? What percentage? How much of you is faithful, hopeful and loving? How much of you is self-centered, angry, hateful and greedy? How is God transforming one into the other?

What if good endures, and bad is cast into the fire? Because none of us are all good, and none of us are all bad. We are what Luther called a “corpus mixtum,” a mixed bag, if you will. We are simul justus et peccator: at the same time both saints and sinners.

Who knows? We speak of things beyond our comprehension, but here’s what it could mean. It could mean that if we are mostly caught up in greed, anger and hatred, if we are 95% against God, after Judgement Day there might not be much left. Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “children of the evil one.”

The prophets talked about the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2). A really hot fire can burn off the impurities in a metal, leaving behind only the pure precious metal. What if only righteousness lasts, and unrighteousness is destroyed?

Then the questions becomes, how do we get righteous? How do we get right with God, in line with God? Lutherans believe that you cannot get right with God by trying harder, or by being good enough, or pure enough. We believe even our good deeds are corrupt, often growing out of selfish motives and self-serving tactics. Like Paul says in Romans 7, the harder I try to be good, the more I realize evil is close at hand.

We believe that the law, tradition, and superstition have no transformative power. The only thing that gives us wings is following Jesus, trusting Jesus, living in the Spirit, as Paul says in Romans 8. We believe Jesus’ way is the only hope for the world. It has the power to heal and change lives. If we are “in Christ” we will act and live out of a spiritual center that will give life to us and to others. We will be transformed, over time, from being self-centered to Christ-centered. And when we turned from serving ourselves to serving others, we will find a joy that will sustain us in this morally jumbled up world of wheat and weeds, good and evil.

July 12, 2020 Third Ward Food Distribution

A bazillion volunteers, including a couple dozen from our Lutheran congregations showed up on a hot summer day to distribute food, among other things.

This is the Houston I love, that pulls together as a community when there is need.

The Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the US, provided mountains of produce.

Volunteers donated and distributed children’s books. The first photo below are the Euschers, on the right. The second flooring feature the Stephanies (Stark and Gossett).

Food got distributed and people got fed. Voters got registered. People filled out the census. Families received donated children’s books. The remainder of the books are going to be distributed at a local school’s book fair.

Like the feeding of the 5,000, there were leftovers. Police offered to take food around the neighborhood. The Houston Food Bank agreed to pick up the rest.

Below are Houston Councilwoman Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and Human Trafficking Director Kathryn Griffin. Katherine has done this work for 19 years. She knows the work because she was once a victim. She’s the first felon in Houston to wear a badge. Powerful story. Someday, when we can gather again, she would be a super speaker to invite to help people understand modern-day slavery.

Congresswoman Shiela Jackson Lee welcomed and thanked the crowd.

Thank you to all who pitched in. Let’s see, we had folks from Christ the King Houston, Kindred in Montrose, Living Word in Katy, Tree of Life in Conroe, Zion in Houston, Augustana in Houston, Kinsmen in Houston, St. Martin’s in Sugar Land, and where else?

 

Sowing the Powerful Word in the World

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

July 12, 2020 is Pentecost 6A/Proper 10A/Ordinary 16A

Genesis 25:19-34 – Jacob and Esau, the twins are born, two nations contending. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob.
OR
Isaiah 55:10-13 – For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…

Psalm 119:105-112 – Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path.
OR
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13 – You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.

Romans 8:1-11 – There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER. Listen! A sower went out to sow… and some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns and some on good soil.


Genesis 25: Two Nations

I started on the story of Isaac and Rebekah in last week’s post, which was about Rebekah traveling 500 miles to marry a stranger. This week we hear about the birth of Jacob and Esau, and then Esua’s sale of his birthright.

19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.23And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” 24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau.26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah. We don’t know how old she was. We are told Rebekah was barren, but Isaac prayed and with the Lord’s intervention, she conceived, fraternal twins as it happened. The pregnancy did not go well. The two children struggled in the womb, and Rebekah despaired: “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The Lord told her two nations were struggling in her. The elder (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob).

Esau emerged from the womb first, red and hairy. Then came Jacob, holding Esau’s heel as if to pull him back into the womb, so Jacob would be first. The name Jacob ( יַעֲקֹב) either comes from the Hebrew root עקב ʿqb, meaning “to follow, to be behind, supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach”, or from the word for “heel”, עֲקֵב ʿaqeb. The name Esau ( עֵשָׂו) means “hairy” or “rough.”

When they grew up, Esau was a hunter, while Jacob, a quiet man, lived in tents, with the women. Isaac loved Esau. Rebekah loved Jacob. What follows is a strange story in which Esau, who emerged from the womb “red and hairy” selling his birthright for some red stew. He would come to represent Edom (a word which means “red”).

This is an origin story for the Edomites. Edom (transJordan) dates to the Late Bronze Era, in the 13th century BC. It is also mentioned in Egyptian history. Southeast of Israel (and 115 miles southwest of Amman, Jordan) this stone monastery in Petra may be a familiar sight. Carved into the red desert cliffs, Edom is most definitely red. Israel conquered Edom as Jacob conquered Esau.

The Bible doesn’t make any effort to hide the fact that Jacob was a cheat. He cheated Esau. He cheated Laban. He would later deceive his aging and blind father Isaac into giving him a blessing, by pretending to be Esau. I love reading about families in the Bible. They put the fun in dysfunctional. Just like families today. No rose-colored glasses. Many of the so-called heroes of the Bible are not heroes at all, but schmucks.

Rebekah warned Jacob that Esau was out to get him, so Jacob ran for his life. We don’t know if he ever saw his mother again. While running away after deceiving his father, Jacob laid down his head had a dream. You would think God would scold him, but instead Jacob saw a ladder going up into heaven. God promised he would be the father of a great nation that would be a blessing to the earth.

Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter named Dinah (with Leah), whose rape is recounted in Genesis 34. Jacob’s son Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, where he eventually ascended to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, interpreting his dreams and averting disaster when a famine hit. The family ultimately reconciled, and Joseph famously said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

Jacob and Rebekah are buried in a cave called the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Esau settled in the hill country, quietly raised a family, and enjoyed a prosperous if not famous life. Maybe he got the better end of the deal after all.

Isaiah 55:10-13: Joy!

Isaiah 55 is the “Ho” chapter. Prior to our reading, verses one and two begin:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah can be divided into three sections, which scholars call First, Second and Third Isaiah. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is pre-exilic. Second Isaiah (chapters 40-54) is exilic. Third Isaiah (chapters 55-60) is post-exilic.

I don’t think anyone knows what the Hebrew word “Ho” means. Maybe “Attention!” Or “Listen up y’all!”

Samuel Giere, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, points out the verbs: “Come. Buy. Eat. Listen. Delight. Behold.” The scarcity of exile now gives way to these nouns: “water, wine, milk, bread…”

Why do you spend your money on things that do not satisfy? It’s an age-old question, one worth many sermons.

These exilic texts, and this post-exilic texts ring in my ears in the exile of our pandemic. Their sense of displacement is disorienting. These are tough times. Lessons are being learned. Better times will come.

3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

Isaiah reminds the people that they are beneficiaries of an everlasting covenant. They have been unfaithful, but God remains faithful.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

Then we come to our text.

10For 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, 11so 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. 12For 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. 13Instead 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.

God is on the move. “My word will not return empty, but will accomplish what I purpose.” Our God is a God of life and renewal. Have faith. Trust.

The new return will be better than before. It will surpass the Exodus. You shall go out (of exile) with joy and be led back (home) in peace. Home can mean many things. What does “home” mean for you? No more thorns. Just cypress trees and crepe myrtles. Good news. Have joy, even in exile, for the best is yet to come.

Romans 8: Glorification in the Spirit

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Whenever I read a passage from Romans I first review Paul’s thesis, Romans 1:15-16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation of everyone who believes, the Jew first and also the Greek. For the righteousness of God has been revealed from faith unto faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith shall live.”

At its heart, Paul’s letter and his gospel, is about faith, God’s power and righteousness, even in the midst of a sinful world, and our sinful flesh. After reminding us that the wages of sin is death, and that we are, in the life, under the power of sin, Paul turns to life in the Holy Spirit. After covering justification, Paul moves to glorification in the Spirit.

James Tabor, in Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Tranformed Christianity, says Paul’s gospel is a revelation of a mystery that has been hidden from the foundation of the world (1 Cor. 2:7). God is remaking humanity into a new humanity. Christ is the firstborn of this new family. We become part of this family by uniting ourselves with Christ, who then sends the Spirit. We were predestined for this, then called, then justified, and now glorified. This likely sounds like gibberish to 21st century Americans, by here is what Paul says in Romans 8:29–30:

For those whom God foreknew he also predetermined to share the likeness of the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Those who are called respond to the gospel and are justified. Then the Spirit comes in and begins a transformation. This glorification begins now, but is not complete until we shed our mortal bodies. We shall all be changed.

The law of the Spirit of life in Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death. God has done what we could not. Now we walk by the Spirit, not the flesh. We set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. This is life. This is true peace. The body is dead, because of sin. The Spirit is life. If the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is in you, that Spirit will also give life to you in your mortal bodies.

For Paul, the resurrection is not just something ahead for us, on judgement day. It is a living reality now. So live in the Spirit is to find life and joy now, even though our bodies want to drag us into sinful, self-destructive behavior.

Paul’s religion is a religion of the Spirit. This infusion of the Christ-Spirit is the only way to find life.

Matthew 13: Path, Rocks, Thorns, Good Soil

Isaiah 55 reminds us that the Word of God has incredible power. It accomplishes what it sets out to do with or without our help. We are invited to get on board.

Psalm 119:110 says, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Thy Word by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant made this passage a household verse. It remains popular in many of our congregations.

Romans 8 is a powerhouse gospel message. Christ appeared in sinful flesh. The Spirit of life in Christ therefore sets us free from sin and death.

As has been pointed out previously, Matthew is divided into five sections like the Pentateuch. Each section has a narrative and a discourse. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7 was a discourse. Matthew 10 held the Missionary Discourse. The discourse of Matthew 13 would best be described as Parables of the Kingdom.

According to Stanley Hauerwas, in Matthew, (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Jesus redefines family in the text immediately preceding this. Who are my mother, sister, brother? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 12:47-50). One does not become part of Christ’s family by birth. The parables are teachings, ways Jesus instructs his followers to become disciples. We become part of the family by following Jesus.

Matthew is the church’s gospel. Written half a century after the crucifixion, the author of Matthew is likely addressing issues the church is facing in that time. We now wade into three consecutive Sundays of Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13, though in a jumbled fashion:

  • The Parable of the Sower ( 13:1-9, 18-23)
  • The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds ( 13:24-30, 36-43)
  • The Parables of the Mustard Seed, Leaven, Treasure, Pearl, Net ( 13:31-33, 44-52)

Unlike the Sermon on the Mount, here Jesus leaves the house, goes down by the sea, and sits down in a boat to teach these lessons. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going to teach the disciples, but a large crowd will listen in.

What house?

In Matthew 8:20 we get the clear sense that Jesus is not a home owner. Looking back through Matthew 12 the narrative doesn’t help us much. After a few other events, we end up with Jesus speaking to the crowds. His is mother and brothers are standing outside. Outside what? Probably the house. The narrative is vague. The only three references to a house before this in Matthew’s gospel, other than parables, are Matthew 2:11, 8:14 and 9:23.

  • In 2:11 the magi come into the house where Jesus, Mary and Joseph are.
  • 8:14 is Peter’s house, in Capernaum, where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.
  • 9:23 is the synagogue leader’s house.

We read that Jesus’ family appears outside. So we can presume this is not Jesus’ house. I vote for Peter’s house. Perhaps Peter’s house is their home base. (By the way, what do those who hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, and thus the proposition that Jesus had no siblings, do with this text that so clearly indicates otherwise?)

The Word

Jesus has to get in a boat; as usual, he has attracted a large number of people, because the Word is powerful, it always accomplishes what it sets out to do. Again, Paul’s theme verse (propositio in rhetoric), Romans 1:16-17. Paul uses the word dunamis, from which we get our word dynamite. The Word has explosive power:

Οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν
παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ελληνι: 
δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, 
 δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. 

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,
“The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Inclusio Sandwich

Matthew 13:1-23 is an inclusio, that is, it has a lesson within the lesson. Jesus tells the parable, then he teaches a little bit about the purpose of parables, and then he explains the parable to the disciples. There are three parts, like an Oreo cookie sandwich. The top part of the cookie is the parable. The bottom part is the explanation of the parable. In between we get the cream filling: a change of subject that often lends meaning to the parable. Writers of books and screen plays do this all the time of course. One character drops a shocking surprise on another character, and then suddenly the scene changes. You have to wait to see what happens. It builds suspense. Matthew will do the same thing with the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Unfortunately, the lectionary leaves out the second section, as if Matthew’s purpose in structuring it like this is irrelevant:

  1. Matthew 13:1-9 — The Parable of the Sower
  2. Matthew 13:10-17 — The Purpose of Parables
  3. Matthew 13:18-23 — The Parable of the Sower explained

Whether you consider these parables, similes or metaphors, Jesus has employed this method earlier in the gospel. In Matthew 7, those who hear the Word, and act on it are like (simile) a wise man who built his house upon the rock. The message in this parable will travel along the same lines.

The Parable

So, let’s get into the parable. A sower went out to sow. The seeds fell in four places:

  1. Path – eaten by birds
  2. Rocky ground – sprang up quickly, shallow roots, withered by the sun
  3. Thorns – choked
  4. Good soil – great harvest

Coming soon after the Matthew 10 Missionary Discourse, it seems likely that the story might have been used to process the experience of some churches growing/others not, some people growing/others not, some hearers responding to the gospel/others not.

Quantitatively, Jesus teaches them to expect a 25% ROI, return on investment. The Word accomplishes what it sets out to do, but there are external factors that impact how that Word will be received at any given time. Expect one out of four people to respond, or one out of four churches, or one our of four towns? Ah, but when they do respond, expect amazing results, like the crowds Jesus attracted! One hundredfold, sixty, thirty.

The Filling

Fortunately, Matthew includes an explanation of this parable, but first, the cream filling of the cookie – a suspense-building foray into the purpose of parables. Not so fortunately, this explanation is more confusing than the parables themselves. Apparently most will hear but not understand, see but not perceive. As he so often does, Matthew has borrowed once again from Isaiah (6):

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Both Isaiah and Jesus are being prophetically paradoxical and enigmatic.  Louisville Presbyterian Seminary Professor Patricia Tull says Isaiah aims at “punchy irony.” Straightforward communication has not worked, so the pithy prophetic voice tries the back door: “The Lord has told me to tell you this, but you’re not gonna get it, probably because you don’t want to get it.”

Like the parable itself: most won’t get it. Spiritual things are by nature nebulous, non-linear, not easy to grasp. If I may mix gospels, the Spirit is like the wind, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3. You don’t know which way it’s going to blow next. The things of the Spirit are difficult to perceive. Parables help bring it down to earth a bit. Listen, if you have ears to hear.

The Explanation

1. Then we get the explanation of the parable. The first seeds represent those who hear the word of the kingdom, but don’t understand it. The “word of the kingdom” (λόγον ʏῆς βασιλείας) is a curious phrase. This is the only place I could find it in the New Testament. Given the fact that Jesus trained his disciples (Matthew 10) to go heal and then tell people the kingdom of God had come near, it may very well be that Jesus is referring to the content of his preaching, and that of his disciples. The word of the kingdom (or maybe more accurately translated, the news of the kingdom) is that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world, and we witness is in the selfless acts of kindness, healing and casting out of spirits that the disciples themselves are doing. This passage (and a few others in Matthew) give us some more hints about the nature of the Word, which we’ll summarize in a minute.

Jesus explains, when people hear the word and don’t understand it, the evil one snatches it away, like birds snatch away seeds on a path. The word for “understand” is συνιέντος, (sunientos), which means “understand” or “perceive.” Why wouldn’t they understand the Word, or be able to perceive its meaning? Jesus has just explained this in the cream filling. Spiritual things are by nature hard to grasp, especially if you have your head in materialistic things, and are seeking them, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s sad really. Some people will hear the good news and simply not get it. Anyone who has ever been a church leader has seen this.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word in verse 19: The Word is heard. It is audible. And it is sown in the heart. In antiquity, the heart is the center of consciousness, your thoughts, your motives, your feelings, your will. The Word can be understood or not understood. Perceived or not perceived.

2. The seed sown on rocky ground are those who hear the word, and receive it with joy, but they have no roots, so when persecution comes, they wither and fall away. All church leaders have seen this phenomenon as well.

How often have church leaders seen someone have a kind of conversion experience and respond with the unbridled enthusiasm of a convert, only to lose steam a year or two later when difficulties set in? We need to help people set roots through relationships, Bible study, prayer, worship and serving the poor. Zion Houston Pastor Mindy Roll and a team in our synod created a curriculum to do just that. Deepening Faith invites people to explore, in a 12-session group, the ways that they experience the Divine. There is also a guide for small group leaders. This could be done online in this time of pandemic.

It’s not good to rush new people into leadership positions too quickly. I’ve seen them come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are enthusiastic, sparked by a new-found faith connection. They sprout up quickly, then run headlong into the dark underbelly of church politics, which sucks the life out of everyone. Or a spouse dissents. An addiction interrupts. Or they discover what they are called to do isn’t easy, and might take a lifetime, rather than a weekend.

Protect new people from all of that, and help them set spiritual roots. I’m not saying to keep them from ministry. Just don’t throw them into the deep end of leadership, where they will be over their head, to mix metaphors. Tend to faith formation, which includes serving, but also praying, and studying and so on…

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word of the kingdom in verses 20-21: It is powerful. It can cause great joy. But a person can lose it. Life’s trouble (such as persecution) can drive it away if we don’t set deep roots.

3. The seed that falls among the thorns, Jesus says, are like those who hear the word, and presumably even understand it, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke it, and the word bears no fruit.

Have you seen this in your context, or in previous parishes? Can you give unidentifiable examples without naming names? Have you seen wealthy people abandon the world-changing ministry to which they were uniquely gifted in order to pursue more wealth? It’s heart-breaking. Jesus is preparing his disciples (including us) for this eventuality.

This is so consistent with what Jesus says in other places. Wealth, materialism, stuff, riches, are the greatest threat to our spiritual life. Jesus says it is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. 1 Timothy 6:10 states it even more pointedly, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

After visiting five countries in Africa, I am again astounded at how happy people with very little material possessions can be. And here we are in the U.S, choking on our stuff, and people seem trapped in unhappiness. Perhaps the key to the things of the spirit, is becoming a little less obsessed with stuff, and a little more focused on faith, on God, and on the things God cares about.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word of the kingdom in verse 22: Things choke the word.

4. Finally, the seed that falls on good soil, says Jesus, are those who hear the word, and they understand the word, and it bears much fruit in their lives.

Pay attention to what we learn about the Word in verse 23: The word, when planted in the good soil of a heart that is ready, can bear much fruit.

What kind of fruit? You need to seek this out in your own community. The Word is alive and working in your neck of the woods, somewhere. Can you identify it and point it out?

The comment about joy in verse 20 may also give us a clue. Personally, I resonate with Paul’s comment in Galatians 5:22. The harvest, the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in us are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Keep in mind as we march through Matthew’s gospel this year, that when Matthew uses the words, “word,” “word of the kingdom,” or “word of heaven,” he is not talking about the Bible. The Bible hadn’t been compiled yet. And he doesn’t mean Jesus as the Word of God, like John does when John says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Matthew’s talking about the content of Jesus’ preaching: that the kingdom (all God’s hopes and dreams for the world) are breaking into this world, right now, in quite tangible and visible ways. At the same time, the Greek word for word, Logos, has power for meaning in Greek language, culture mythology. It also has significance in Hebrew culture, as the word that God spoke at creation, and the word mentioned in Isaiah 55. For this reason I have been capitalizing it. It may not yet be theological shorthand for Jesus in Matthew’s theology, but it means more than a few letters on the page. The word has power.          .

So what?

So what’s the good news in all of this? It depends on your context. The beautiful thing about parables is they have multiple layers of meaning. The story of the Prodigal Son meant one thing to me as the oldest son in my family. It has completely new shades of meaning now that I am a father. What does your congregation need to hear right now in your place and context?

Here are some things that jump out at me:

  1. God is at work in the world transforming lives and planting seeds in those whose hearts are prepared to receive it. One of the things that jazzes many church leaders I know, is seeing lives transformed. It’s an incredible rush when someone who is lost in life, find meaning and purpose. It is a joy when someone who is materialistic and self-centered discover the joy of giving, and becoming other-centered. The angels in heaven rejoice when someone who is slumped over finds joy and hope, and life in Christ.
  2. It is good news that the work of evangelism, conversion, transformation is not dependent only on us. It doesn’t depend on this conversation I have with someone, or that one. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We can plant seeds, but God gives the growth. Because evangelism is a team sport, it doesn’t all rest on my abilities alone. Thank God.
  3. It is good news that the gospel still has power in people’s lives. Seeds want to grow. It’s in their DNA to grow, and with the right soil, they will grow, even in an imperfect church, with imperfect leaders. And even though maybe ¾ of the seeds we plant will fall on inhospitable soil, ¼ of them are likely to bear fruit. Some people get discouraged because ¾ attempts at planting seeds bear no fruit. And they stop trying. But I can find hope that ¼ of my seeds will bear fruit! It encourages me to plant all the more. If you dream of a 30-fold harvest, plant 120 seeds.
  4. The preacher might ask the congregation to pray about a few things:
    • What seeds are you planting right now with those relationships you have?
    • What seeds are being planted by your congregation?
    • Who is planting seeds in you, and what kind of soil would you say your heart is?

On this day in 1974, Martin Luther King’s mother was assasinated

Many people are aware of Martin Luther King’s assassination, but did you know they also killed his mother?

Alberta Christine Williams King (September 13, 1904 – June 30, 1974) was shot and killed as she sat at the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church, by Marcus Wayne Chenault, a 23-year-old Black Hebrew Israelite, six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was 69 years old.

Prisoners of Hope

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Isaac’s servant tying the bracelet on Rebecca’s arm by Benjamin West c. 1775

July 5, 2020 is Pentecost 5A, Proper 9A, Ordinary 14A

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 – Isaac’s servant meets Rebekah at the well/spring, and takes her back to meet, and marry Isaac.
OR
Zechariah 9:9-12 – Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Psalm 45:10-17 – For the Director of Music, a wedding song. Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord… In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her—those brought to be with her. Led in with joy and gladness, they enter the palace of the king.
OR
Song of Solomon 2:8-13  – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
OR 

Psalm 145:8-14 – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 7:15-25a – I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 – REPENTANCE AND COMFORT. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 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.’

Prayer of the Day
You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Blessed are you, Lord of | heav’n and earth;
you have revealed these | things to infants. Alleluia. (Matt. 11:25)


Zechariah – Prisoners of Hope

I simply can’t resist these exilic texts these days. So much of the pandemic feels like a kind of exile. So this first part of the post is dedicated to the Zechariah reading. And yet I also am drawn to the Rebekah passage from Genesis 24. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in our church, I have been reading about women of the Bible, and working on intentionally lifting up their voices in my sermons. Then in Romans 7 Paul struggles with the battle going on inside of him. The good I want to do, I cannot seem to do. And the evil I don’t want to do I find myself doing… And finally there is the Matthew text where Jesus is taking heat from the religious leaders. So let us dive in…

The last two weeks, one of our options for the Old Testament reading has been Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a Southern Kingdom (Judah) prophet who announced the coming invasion of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the Babylonian Exile. Later, he announced that after several generations, Jerusalem’s people would be freed from slavery in Babylon and allow to return home and rebuild the city. His life may have spanned 650-570- BC and his ministry from 626 (the thirteenth year of King Josiah) to shortly after the fall of Jerusalem (587 BC).

One of the options for this coming Sunday’s Old Testament reading is Zechariah 9:9-12. Zechariah’s prophecies took place during the reign of the Persian King Darius (522-486 BC). Babylon (Iraq) had conquered Judah in 587 BC, but in 539 BC Persia (Iran), under the leadership of King Cyrus, conquered Babylon. There’s always a bigger fish.

Cyrus the Great ruled Persia from 559-530 BCE. The Hebrew Bible calls him “King of Kings” and God’s messiah (Isaiah 45:1) because he allowed those captive in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. This Edict of Cyrus is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6; and Isaiah 44:28, 45:1, 13) . The only physical evidence of this is the Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879, that dates to 539 BC. In Akkadian cuneiform script, it praises and gives the genealogy of Cyrus, King of Kings, who reigns over the first massive empire in history. The cylinder announces the repatriation of deported peoples and the restoration of cult sanctuaries. There is no mention of Judah or Jerusalem, however. Only Mesopotamian people.

Pastor Don Carlson, who researched some of this post, fills in some information for us: Cyrus died a few years after conquering Babylon and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who ruled for 8 years. Cambyses II was succeeded by his brother, Bardia, who only ruled for several months, and then was succeeded by Darius I, who ruled from 522-486 BCE. Darius was on the throne of Persia during the time of Zechariah. (1:1)

If Zechariah’s prophecies begin in 520 BC, during the second year of King Darius, this is 100 years after Jeremiah, and close to 20 years after Cyrus told the people they could return to Jerusalem.  Many of the people have yet to leave Babylon.

After much apocalyptic visioning in Zechariah 1-8 (apocalyptic literature may be of Babylonian influence), there is encouragement in 9-14 to “Return to your stronghold (Jerusalem) you prisoners of hope.”

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

After years of kings that fell short of the mark, there is a post-exilic yearning for a new kind of king. This king will not show up on a war horse, but on a humble donkey, a sign of peace. He will draw back the military machinery of the day, chariots and bows, and “command peace to all nations.” There is a clear yearning for peace and stability. Perhaps Cyrus gave them a taste for this.

It is natural that Christian interpreters saw in Jesus the fulfillment of this messianic hope. In fact, it’s hard to find Christian interpretations of this text without reference to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey Palm Sunday. For followers of Christ, Jesus is that Prince of Peace foretold by the prophets, even if the church has been negligent in living fully into Jesus’ way of the cross.

Today if we consider this pandemic our exile, we are not yet ready to return to life as it was, as if nothing happened. In fact, when we do return, we are likely to find our “stronghold” somewhat changed. Life after the exile will be different than before. Many would yearn for this to be so. Life before exile was less than perfect. What have we learned in exile?

We are, in many ways, imprisoned by this virus. We are also imprisoned by our history of racism which is alive and well in our culture, our society and its laws. We are inconvenienced by having to wear masks to protect others, and by having to avoid crowds where the virus can spread to hundreds rather than a few. Even more, those who are on the lower end of the economic ladder are suffering the most. Wage earners must work, or they don’t get paid. In July the eviction moratorium comes to an end as well as many federal unemployment benefits. The poor are heading toward a cliff.

Zechariah would encourage us, who are still in many ways imprisoned by this, to have hope. We are prisoners of hope. The difficulties of this time will give way to a future with hope, to borrow from Jeremiah. Let us pray for an awakening that leads to new horizons, new awareness and new policies by the Cyruses of our day.

Genesis 24: Rebekah

About half way through Genesis we learn about Rebekah. This year I have been reading books on women of the Bible. Emerging from patriarchal cultures, the Bible focuses on the stories of men, as the politicians, religious leaders and principal actors in written history. According to Alice Connor, author of Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation, 170 of 3000 names that appear in the Bible, about 5.6% are women. Calculating duplication, 137 of 1700 distinct personal names are women. Around 8%. 93 of these women have spoken words recorded, of which 49 are named. All women were under the authority of a man, except the zonah, usually a prostitute, dangerous and threatening for her freedom, and yet alluring.

Rebekah appears in Genesis chapters 24-27. The Revised Common Lectionary only gives us two readings from this section of Genesis: This Sunday Pentecost 5A and the following Sunday, Pentecost 6A (Genesis 25:19-34). We will not hear about Rebekah in the RCL again until three years from now.

Rebekah appears as a wife for Isaac, a 40-year-old bachelor. Abraham sent a servant to his hometown of Haran to find him a good hometown wife, because that’s how you did it back in the day. Here is our text. To avoid a long reading, we get selections from Genesis 24, still an exceptionally long reading. Since we don’t have canon law, the preacher may choose an even further redacted portion, but if preaching this text, it would be wise to prepare by reading all of chapters 24-27. Here is this coming Sunday’s text:

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. 36And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son…’

  42I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44and who will say to me, Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.45Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms.48Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left…”

58And they called Rebekah, and said to her, Will you go with this man?” She said, I will.” 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming.64And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

In Preaching Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter, Lynn Japinga summarizes what we learn about Rebekah in Genesis 24-27: She is Isaac’s wife. She is barren. She has a difficult pregnancy. She engineers the sale of Esau’s birthright and Jacob’s blessing from his blind father.

The bulk of today’s text is about a servant named Eliezer of Damascus, going to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer decides the right person will be the one at the well (where so many matches are made in the Bible) who, when he asks for water, also offers to water his camels. Along comes Rebekah, who indeed offers to water the camels. Eliezer gives her expensive bracelets and a nose ring, which she shows to her mother. The family invites Eliezer over for dinner and it is decided that Rebekah will go with him and marry Isaac. Does she have any agency in this decision? We don’t know.

What we do know is that Rebekah travelled 500 miles to marry a stranger. Isaac “took her into his tent and loved her.” Japinga points out the text does not tell us if she loved him. He was comforted in the death of his mother. She had trouble conceiving, but after Isaac prayed, she conceived. She then had a difficult pregnancy. She complained to God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The two children in her, God explained, were two nations that would be at enmity with each other. When the twins were born, they vied for first place. Esau won, emerging from the womb first, but Isaac had Esau by the heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb, and into second place.

Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. In later chapters we will see how this plays out.

Preaching this text, one might ask how people decide to marry the person they marry? Are camels involved? Wells? How are big life decisions made? Do we listen to trusted voices? Is prayer involved?

Whether she chose to travel 500 miles to marry a stranger, or whether the men in her family made this decision, she was clearly a strong woman, who endured a difficult pregnancy and difficult decisions with her sons.

The Tomb of Rebekah 1

Genesis 49:29-33 tells us she was buried in a cave at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, a plot of land Abraham bought as a burial site. I visited this grave in Hebron, West Bank, now known as the Cave of the Patriarchs (or the Sanctuary of Abraham among Muslims). There is a mosque over the cave. There Rebekah rests from her labors, along with Sarah and Abraham, Isaac her husband and Jacob and Leah.

Romans 7 – I don’t understand myself

At camp we used to call this “the do-do passage.”

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul uses the word “do” sixteen times in this short passage (though in his Greek prose he alternates between three different words which we translate “do:” κατεργάζομαι, πράσσω and ποιέω.)

Paul has evaluated Roman religion and Jewish religion and found them wanting. He has made it clear that the minimal standards of the law will not get humanity where it needs to go. There are simply too many loopholes. He encourages his listeners to be bound by what he calls “the law of Christ,” and be led by the Spirit, not by the flesh. These two are at war with each other. Those who are led by the Spirit are no longer under Torah (Galatians 6:2). James Tabor in Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, says only those led by the Spirit are no longer under the law. Those led by the flesh probably still need it. He says the law of Christ is not a set of rules, but rather for Paul may be synonymous with walking with the Spirit.

The flesh and spirit contend daily. Herein lies the dilemma. You may be living in the spirit, but life in the body continues. This is our existential situation. We may want to do good, but for some reason we cannot get there. Paul finds this exasperating. “I do not understand myself!” he cries. In fact, when he tries to do good, evil lies particularly close at hand. One is reminded of God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:7:  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.

Paul admits he is a slave to sin in his flesh, even if his mind is a slave to God. There is no solution to this, except for shedding this mortal flesh at the resurrection. Meanwhile, we are left to resist sin.

Sin is defined, as we said above, as being turned in upon ourselves. Self-centeredness, as opposed to being centered on God and neighbor, is our malady. In Romans 7, Paul describes his humanity in a way that people really hang onto: I want to do good, but I can’t. And the bad stuff I don’t want to do, I find myself doing.

…I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Paul describes what we all experience. I want to be generous, but somewhere within me, greed rises up. I want to say “no” to sin, but urges arise within my flesh that I cannot seem to quell. It is as if there is spiritual warfare going on inside of me. The law is of no use in dealing with this problem. It is powerless. The only thing that seems to have any effect is faith in Christ, being bound up in the love of Christ.

Putting our faith in Christ, following in the footsteps of the one who lived in love of God and neighbor, stranger and enemy – this is my only hope. Paul addresses the self-centeredness of nationalism, militarism, greed and corporate sin with the antidotes of faith, hope and love. If we think a religion of laws will get us where we need to go, we are sorely mistaken. Who will deliver us from this body of death? Only faith in Christ and the faith of Christ.

Matthew – What do you people want?

Jesus said,

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ’We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 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.”

What do we hear in Jesus’ words? Maybe something akin to this,

You people are liking whining children. The Baptist came and his bed was too hard for you. The Son of Man comes and his bed’s too soft. John fasted and you didn’t like him. I don’t, and you’re giving me grief. Now tell me, in your fairy tale religious world, what vision of the kingdom will be just right for you? What are you looking for, anyway? What exactly do you want from God?

We piped for you, but you would not dance.

John came as an ascetic, and he was rejected by the religious leaders. Then, along came Jesus, who bent the rules, ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. Him, they called a glutton and a drunkard. You can’t win.

The Fourth of July weekend, there will be – whether spoken or not – the hope that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “God Bless America” will somehow work their way into the service. Rather than avoid it, I think the texts are an opportunity to address those latent apocalyptic hopes and dreams head on.

Without getting into the “under God,” pledge debate, or the, “Should we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency?” debate, consider that almost everyone – nations included – trusts in God. The real question is, “In what kind of god do you trust?”

The Taliban believes they live life “under God.” The Sunnis and the Shiites – the Israelis and the Palestinians – everyone intones the name of God. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the leaders in Iran, both Cortez and Montezuma, the Christian crusaders that “killed Turks for Jesus,” Reverend Phelps who proclaimed that “God Hates Fags”, both George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, the anti-abortionist who murdered a doctor because life is sacred – the list could go on and on, but all trusted or trust in their god.

No matter what the currency says, everyone says “In God We Trust.” Almost every person believes that they are “under God” and every nation believes that they are the “one nation under God”.  But the real issue is: In what god do you put your trust? And: What do you trust God to do? It’s not necessarily even about which god; it’s about what kind of god. Different views of the same God have different kinds of agendas – different kinds of “royal agendas”.  The question for us is, “Is the God we have in mind in sync with the mind of Christ?” In Jesus we meet a humble and compassionate king on a donkey who challenges the royal ways of the world.

The possibility of compassion is basic to the heart of God. But the possibility of compassion is precisely what the royal wants to eradicate. Compassion is the ability and willingness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel. It is the enemy of the royal life. Royal economics is designed to keep people satisfied so that they do not notice. Royal politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Royal religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns the misery that is alive in the heart of God. ~ [Quote source unknown.]

These are weighty words to consider as we struggle with this pandemic and with the racial disparities in the US, especially as it impacts the poorest among us.

Personal, ecclesiastical, and nationalistic incurvatus in se (being turned in upon ourselves) is what these texts address. It is “the kingdom of heaven” against the “royal agendas” of the world; agendas in which we are all entangled and complicit. What’s our agenda? Ought we be the center of the world?

Humanity used to believe that our world was the center of the universe; that everything revolved around us.  Maybe, despite all our scientific knowledge, we have not come all that far. What is our hope? Who is our hope?

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