Bishop Michael Rinehart

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All Saints Sunday – November 5, 2017


Revelation 7:9-17 – John’s apocalyptic vision of white-robed martyrs standing before the throne and the Lamb, along with the angels, the elders and the four creatures. They hunger no more, nor thirst (Isaiah 49:10). The sun does not strike them nor heat (Psalm 121:6). God wipes away every tear (Isaiah 25:8). ELW 422, 423,

Psalm 34:1-10, 22 – I will bless the Lord at all times… I sought the Lord and he answered me… Taste and see that the Lord is good. ELW 493

1 John 3:1-3 – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. ELW 728

We also had the Beatitudes Epiphany 4A: January 30, 2011. The Beatitudes “placemat” can be found here: 01-24-11 Beatitudes Study Placemat

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. They are before the | throne of God, and the one who is seated on the throne will | shelter them. Alleluia. (Rev. 7:15)

Color: White

All Saints

Picture1The first Sunday in November in our congregations is All Saints Sunday. It is traditional to remember the saints of the congregation who have passed away in the last year. Often a pillar candle is lit on a retable, or on the altar as their names are read. Many congregations also invite members to come forward and light candle in remembrance of loved ones.

While many use the white votive candles in glass cups, as in the picture above from 2Grace, Conroe, even in the best of circumstances, paraffin wax finds its way on the table, floors and pews, as during Christmas. There is another option. A St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio makes beeswax candles. You can purchase a pack of 50 for $16.50. They can be lit and places in small boxes or jars of sand. The link is here:

If you’d prefer the former, Sacco’s in Houston sells ten-hour disposable votive candles in plastic cups $35 for a carton of 100. Beat the rush.

My post this week is a bit different. Rather than digging into the text, I’m offering a guided meditation that can be used. I don’t do this for sermons often, but All Saints seemed like a good time to offer a guided meditation. This meditation is simply a series of questions that invite worshippers to reflect on the saints in their lives. 


Who are Your Saints?

Who are your saints?

Who went before you?4

Who were the looming giants of your childhood?

Who held your hand?

Who taught you to walk?

Who cupped your cheeks in their hands and kissed your face?

Who picked you up when you fell down and bandaged your hurts?


Who are your saints?

Who taught you to pray?

Who taught you right from wrong?

Who brought you to the baptismal font?

Who placed a Bible in your hands?

Who first taught you the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Who first taught you, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?”

Who taught you to see flowers and trees not as things, but as beautiful mysteries?

Who taught you to see majesty in clouds, and sunsets and oceans?

Who taught you to soak up the rainy days?

Who taught you kindness to strangers?

Who taught you to love your enemies?

Who taught you not to judge others, or look down your nose at others?

Who taught you that it is better to give than to receive?

Who taught you to love your neighbor as yourself?

Who taught you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and in prison?

Who taught you to care for those who are hungry, broken, lonely?

Who taught you that Jesus was the reflection of the immortal God?

Who are your saints?

Who taught you to love?

Who taught you to give of yourself, in order to discover what life was about?

Who taught you the virtue of self-sacrifice?

Who introduced you to the God that lurks beneath the surface of life?

Who taught you that life is more than just a sequence of events?

Who taught you there was more to life than going to work, and accumulating wealth and things?

Who taught you it was okay to fail? That falling down is a part of life?

Who taught you to get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the horse?


Who are your saints? Light a candle.

Who taught you to do what you love?

Who helped you discover your true gifts in life, and develop them?

Who loved you when you could not love yourself?

Who showed you grace and forgiveness you did not deserve?

Who taught you to forgive, and let go of grudges?

Who believed in you when you did not believe in yourself?

Who are your saints?7

Who taught you to hope beyond this life?

Who taught you that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Who taught you to imagine what lies beyond the veil, around the bend where you cannot see?

Who waits for you beyond the grave?

Who whispers to you in your dreams, and in your prayers?

These are the ones we remember today.

These are the ones for whom we light our candles.

The communion of saints, who wait for us on a distant shore we cannot see over the horizon.

The multitude of apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints.

Even the flawed, deeply flawed saints.

So let us say our prayers and light our candles.

For the saints we remember.8

For the saints that we barely remember, from times that are only a misty memory.

And the saints that we cannot remember at all.

For those we knew, and those we never knew, countless generations before us.

For those who loved, before our parents were alive, whose love brought us into being.

For those who wait for us with joy.

Who from their labors rest.

And let us look once again with the eyes of a child.  

At a world of mystery that is larger than life.

Larger than we can imagine.

Higher than we can reach.

Deeper than we can see.

And let us live in the hope,

Of one day being reunited with those whom we love.

On that day when we awaken.

Like babies, being born again, opening our eyes for the first time.

Taking our first breath, in a world we cannot begin to understand.

Embraced and loved by those whom we can almost see, as through a mirror dimly.

But one day, face to face.

Alleluia. Alleluia.



Blessed are Those Who Mourn | All Saints

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart.

By JoAnn Miller from Mexico City, Mexico – DSC06314, CC BY 2.0,








November 1, 2020 is All Saints A


Revelation 7:9-17 – John’s apocalyptic vision of white-robed martyrs standing before the throne and the Lamb, along with the angels, the elders and the four creatures. They hunger no more, nor thirst (Isaiah 49:10). The sun does not strike them nor heat (Psalm 121:6). God wipes away every tear (Isaiah 25:8). ELW 422, 423,

Psalm 34:1-10, 22 – I will bless the Lord at all times… I sought the Lord and he answered me… Taste and see that the Lord is good. ELW 493

1 John 3:1-3 – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. ELW 728

We also had the Beatitudes Epiphany 4A. The Beatitudes “placemat” can be found here: 01-24-11 Beatitudes Study Placemat

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. They are before the | throne of God,
and the one who is seated on the throne will | shelter them. Alleluia. (Rev. 7:15)

Color: White

Note: Daylight Savings Time ends on this Sunday, November 1, 2020.

All Saints A

This is the first time in a long time that I recall All Saints Day falling on a Sunday. All Saints Day is November 1, but usually gets celebrated on the first Sunday in November.  

It is traditional to remember the saints of the congregation who have passed away in the last year, often with a pillar candle on a retable, or on the altar, with a bell rung as their names are read. It is a way to remember those we lost in the past year. Many congregations also invite members to come forward and light a smaller votive candle in remembrance of other loved ones.

This may be particularly poignant this year for those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. It seems like this can easily be done with appropriate social distancing if you are holding in-person worship. Be sure to have a way to space people out and provide a hand sanitizing station before and/or after the table. This could also be done in the parking lot that morning. It might be powerful as a vigil, the night before, in the dark.

While many use the white votive candles in glass cups, as in the picture here from Grace, Conroe, even in the best of circumstances, paraffin wax finds its way on the table, floors and pews, as during Christmas. There is another option. A St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio makes beeswax candles. You can purchase a pack of 50 for $16.50. They can be lit and places in small boxes or jars of sand. The link is here:

If you’d prefer the former, Sacco’s in Houston sells ten-hour disposable votive candles in plastic cups $35 for a carton of 100. Beat the rush.

The texts for All Saints change each year in the Revised Common Lectionary. .

All Saints A

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints B

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 OR Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

All Saints C

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

This year (A), we have the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel, the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For those who would like to do a teaching-style sermon on the Beatitudes, I created a Beatitudes Study Placemat about ten years ago, that still provides a fun visual. You can find extensive treatment of the Beatitudes in my Epiphany 4A post.

A few years ago, I wrote a sermon for All Saints that consisted entirely of questions. No answers, just questions for people to ponder. It was a different, inductive way to preach. Feel free to beg, borrow and steal. Feel free to adapt this sermon to your purposes, without attribution: Who Are Your Saints?

Blessed are those who mourn

This year I’ve been pondering the way we hear the gospel and proclaim the gospel. What is the content of our gospel message to the world? For some, it is a turn-or-burn message. Others, proponents of the Prosperity Gospel tell us God wants to make us rich if we will only believe it. If you had faith you would not be poor. This is a seductive gospel if one happens to be rich. “See? I believed and it worked for me.” The Beatitudes cast a different vision.

This has led some liberation theologians to say a doctrine or message can’t be true if it doesn’t work in the most marginalized communities. If a message sounds ridiculous in a Central African Republic village living by laborious and time-consuming vocation of subsistence farming, it’s probably a gospel distorted by wealth. Even our more innocuous theological pronouncements, notable only for their virtual irrelevance to someone trying to survive on $2/day, like half the world, need to be jettisoned.

This means the gospel must be put through the pragmatic criteria of everyday life, lo cotidiano as Latin American theologians call it. If the gospel does not make sense to the groups of people mentioned in Jesus’ Beatitudes, it is not Gospel. It’s just our warped perspective, domesticated for a lifestyle devoid of the real problems of the world.

Those who are poor, poor in spirit, grieving, meek, humble, humiliated, those who are hungry, thirsty, hungry and thirsty for justice, they must teach us the gospel. They will help us discern what is missing from our gospel due our to cultural blindness. As mujerista theologian Ada Maria Asisi-Diaz says,

The point of view of the poor, . . . pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation, they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.

Liberation theologians remind us that we all, all of us, rich and poor alike, read the Bible through our cultural lenses. We cannot help but interpret what we hear from our social location. This is why the Bible must be read together, not just privately, but in community, a very diverse community. If not, it will be distorted. This requires humility when interpreting Scripture. None of our interpretations are the last word.

When women read the Bible, they hear things men don’t. They notice the treatment of women. They notice the constant male imagery. They notice the paucity female role models. In 1983 Rosemary Radford Ruether came out with her book, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. My 1983 copy from a former millennium has a pencil mark next to this statement on page 19: “Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or a work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.” Anything that diminishes women can’t be gospel, since gospel has as its focus “the flourishing of the human person.” (p. 19) If women had been part of theological deliberation all along, we would not have the level of women’s subordination that we have seen in the church historically, and still see today, often justified by religious doctrines and institutions.

When day laborers read stories about day laborers, they hear different things than their wealthy counterparts. An example can be drawn from the parable of the Prodigal Son. In a Bible study with middle class participants we read the story and I asked, “Why did the prodigal son go broke?” They all responded because of his immoral living, as if I had asked a stupid question. A Bible study group in Africa responded differently, “Because there was a famine in the land.” (Luke 15:14) The first group had missed this completely. In fact, the interpretation not only fell along lines of wealth, but also attitudes of wealth. Many upper income people believe the poor are poor because they are lazy or immoral. Those living in poverty see the many external forces outside their control (war, corruption, disaster, famine) that contribute to poverty among some of the hardest working people in the world.

A great resource is Robert McAfee Brown’s Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984). “Third World” is now passe. It should be called the “the two-thirds world” as Roman Catholic priest, Father Daniel Pilario, (2018) says.

Father Pilario describes (Pilario, 2018) discussions with his congregation that scour a garbage dump in Payatas, Philippines. Quezon City is the biggest garbage dump in Manila, where 45,000 live, scavenging food and items to sell for $5/day. The church’s insistence on obscure practices or abstract beliefs have little traction here. What aspects of our religious universe that we feel are so important, would melt away under scrutiny of the poor? You can watch Father Pilario’s lecture on YouTube.

But you don’t need to read these books. We need to interact with real people. There are plenty of people in need right here. How can we go to them and engage them in ways that don’t serve our membership needs, but rather bring us into their reality and illuminate us with their perspective? How can we gather with them, study with them and pray with them? All too often social ministry in our churches is sanitized charity, like dropping off canned beans at the church. We need a relationship that is mutually beneficial, not a faceless donation that salves our consciences and overlooks our blind spots. In my last parish, the game-changer was being in relationship the homeless. Once that happened, attitudes changed, myths dissolved and generosity increased.

Christianity at its heart is not a religious philosophy to be debated abstractly in the halls of academia. Christianity is a Way, as Pastor Don Carlson constantly reminds us. It was and is a way of life. Christian theology must constantly be in conversation with real life on the ground. They inform each other. Our theology is not truth. It is faith seeking understanding. As such, it is always emerging. Our way of understanding the truth, and speaking the truth is constantly growing. Theory, then practice, then theory, then practice, back and forth, over and over again. Anything else is scholastic theology. Pie in the sky. As Luther said in the 1518 Heidelberg Dissertation, “One deserves to be called a theologian… who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” (LW 31:52)

If we want to understand the Scriptures, if we want to understand the fullness of the Christian faith, if we want to understand the world, we will need to ponder both faith and life in diverse communities, of men and women, rich and poor, European, Asian, African, and American descent. This will take work. We will have to move beyond our homogeneous communities, building bridges, not for some top-down attempt to convert the other to our way of thinking, but to seek together a truth that holds true across in the real world of humanity. Often, the poor will not have access to the rich. The gates are too high. Those with wealth will have to move out of their comfort zone.

Now read the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

For Jesus, the poor really are blessed, and a blessing, not because it is good to be poor. It’s not. It’s an affront to the gospel. Jesus teaches his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Jesus is not elevating poverty as something to be desired. He’s recognizing that the reign of God means justice for all of us. That doesn’t happen without all of us coming together.

Until we bring together male and female, rich and poor, white and black (Gal. 3:28), the gospel will not make sense. Until we reach across those lines, our congregations will be culture clubs, united by a common set of blind spots. I know this because I’ve been there. I am there.

So, let us go find those who are mourning and pray with them. Go find those of a different race and study Scripture. Gather with those from other socio-economic levels. There is the reign of God. Listen to those of other genders. Welcome immigrants. Make a place for you and for your congregation to do this. Then, watch your eyes open, and the light dawn for all involved. You will be comforted and strengthened. You will see God. All will be filled.


Robert Mcafee Brown. 1984. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, Cop.

Harold Grimm, ed. and Helmut T Lehmann, gen. ed. 1953. Luther’s Works vol. 31, The Life of the Reformer: Heidelberg Disputation. Philadelphia, Fortress Press

KULeuvenTheologie. 2017. “Daniel Pilario – Theology and Reflexivity.” YouTube.

“Mujeristas: A Name of Our Own!! – Religion Online.” n.d. Accessed September 14, 2020.

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, Theology and Reflexivity, Louvain Studies 41 (2018): 107-124 doi: 10.2143/LS.41.2.3284882 © 2018

Rosemary Radford Ruether. 1983. Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology. London: Scm.

December 3, 2017 is Advent 1B

Isaiah 64:1-9 – O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Stir up your power O Lord and come to save us.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 – God will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mark 13:24-37 – But about that day… no one knows, neither the angels… nor the Son…

First, An Overview of The Gospel of Mark

This Sunday is Advent I, the first Sunday of the new church year. We say goodbye to a year of Matthew and move into a year of Mark, with a smattering of John. Click HERE for an Introduction to Mark’s Gospel.

Here’s bird’s eye view of the gospels for Year B in RCL:

Year B-at-a-Glance 

A very rough outline of the lectionary year

January 6-February 13, 2018 – Mark 1 And John 1
January 15, 2018 is MLK Day

January 23, 2018 we welcome Mark Allen Powell to address Lenten preaching

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9)

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday (Joel 2, Isaiah 58, Matthew 6)
February 18-March 18, 2018 – Five Sundays in Lent:

Baptism and Temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-15)
Peter’s Confession (Mark 8:31-38)
Cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-22)
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man (John 3:14-31)
Greeks: We want to see Jesus (John 12:20-33)

Three Days
March 25, 2018– Palm Passion Sunday (Mark 14 or 15)
March 29, 2018 – Maundy Thursday (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
March 30, 2018 – Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42)
March 31, 2018 – Easter Vigil

Easter through Pentecost
April 1, 2018 – Easter Sunday (Mark 16:1-8)
April 8-May 6, 2018 – Easter Season texts from John and Luke
May 20, 2018 – Pentecost (John 15: Advocate will bear witness to the truth)

Time After Pentecost
May 27, 2018 – Trinity Sunday (John 3: Nicodemus)
June 3-July 15, 2018 – Mark 4-6 (4: Parables. 5-6 More Healings)
July 22-August 19, 2018 – John 6 “Bread” texts for five weeks
August 26-October 21 – Mark 7-10 (End of Galilee ministry and Journey to Jerusalem)
October 28 – Reformation Sunday (John 8)
November 4 – All Saints
November 11 and 18 – Mark 12 (widow’s coins) and 13 (the end is coming)
November 25 – Christ the King (John 18: My kingdom is not of this world.)

A Short Outline of Mark’s Gospel

  • Introduction (1:1-13)
  • Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee (1:16-8:26)
  • Journey to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52)
  • Jesus in Jerusalem (11:1-13:37)
  • Passion and Resurrection (14-16:18)

The date of A.D. 70 is preferred because Mark mentions events of the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 66-70), most notably in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” in chapter 13, from which is this Sunday’s text.

Here is what to expect in this Advent season of expectation:

Advent B Summary

  • Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37: About that day or hour no one knows
  • Advent 2B Mark 1:1-8 The voice: Prepare the way of the lord
  • Advent 3B John 1:6-8, 19-28 John: The voice in the wilderness
  • Advent 4B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation

Mark’s Little Apocalypse

Chapter 13 is the Gospel of Mark‘s little apocalypse. Verses 1-8 will not be read for another year, on November 18, 2018. Verses 9–23 do not get read in the Lutheran lectionary. These verses are important to understand today’s text, which picks up in the middle of this discourse.

model-of-templeJesus and his disciples walk out of the temple. They are marveling at the magnificence of this building. Indeed, the temple probably took up 1/6 of the city of Jerusalem. Ben Witherington III says it would’ve looked like a mountain of white marble decorated with gold from the Mount of Olives. And yet Jesus predicts that one stone will not be left on another. Some of these huge stones are 25 x 50‘. Jesus is not the first prophet to predict the temple‘s destruction (Jer. 7:14; 26:6; Mic. 3:12).

Then Jesus says that his followers will suffer intense persecution. Next he says there will be suffering such as the world has never seen. This takes us to our text for today, Mark 13:24 to the end of the chapter:

24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The sun and the moon will be darkened, and the stars will fall from the sky (almost a direct quote from Isaiah 13:10). The Son of Man will come on the cloud. This would be a good Sunday to sing “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.” Read the signs of the times. When the fig tree puts forth new branches, you know that summer is near. But as to the exact day, no one knows, not even the Son of Man. So don’t focus on predicting the day or the time, focus on remaining vigilant and being prepared. Apparently they had their false prophets of doom then as we do today.

Mark 13 looks to the end of the world and the messianic return, which Mark says will happen a short time after this destruction (the temple). Josephus says the temple was on fire during the final assault. The messiah will come “on the clouds” in this interval between the destruction of the temple and the end of the world. Mark’s community is living in this short interval time. How long will this short interval be? When will the end come? Soon, is Mark’s response. Just like you know summer is just about here when the fig tree bears leaves, so you can know that since Jerusalem has been destroyed, it’s time for the second coming.

“This generation will not pass away before these things come to pass,” Jesus says. If we are talking about the destruction of the temple, Jesus is spot on. Generations are forty years in he Bible. Jesus would be speaking in 30 AD and the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. But if we are speaking about stars literally falling and the end of the world, then the interval turns out to be not as short as Mark thought. Nevertheless, Mark gave himself a loophole: No one really knows the time: not the angels, and not even the Son. From this, by the way, I read a lower Christology in Mark. Even Jesus doesn’t know. Support seems to be, if Jesus doesn’t now, what are the odds that you have it figured out?

The “little apocalypse” probably is a key to understanding Mark (and Peter’s? and Jesus’?) theology. He reflects the early church’s consensus that the end was coming within their lifetime. Mark thought so. So did Paul, by the way. Recall that Paul said, when Christ returns, the dead in Christ would rise first, and then “we who are still alive” would be second, meeting them in the air. Paul fully expects to be alive when Christ returns, at least early in his ministry.

Advent, at its heart, developed as a season to keep alive this messianic expectation. Stories abound about absentee landlords, who go away and are likely to return any moment. It was in time for the church to reminded itself to remain vigilant.

The parable is similar to the Parable of the Virgins that we had recently in Matthew 25. A landowner goes away, but will return soon. How will that landlord respond upon finding them goofing off, misbehaving, burying talents, and generally not being “alert.” Advent was not originally the time of preparation for celebrating Christ’s birthday. In fact, the startling thing in reading the Church Fathers’ Advent sermons is that there is little to no mention of Christmas in them. These early Advent sermons are about being ready for the second coming.

Whether preparing for Christmas or preparing for the second coming, the theme of “preparation” is clear. The preacher might reflect on how we prepare to meet Christ, whether at the end of the world or the end of your life. Let’s all draft our obituaries. Ponder what you might like the speaker to say at your funeral. How you live now, the choices you are making right this minute, will shape that eulogy. My son and I once watched a show in which Stephen Hawking assured us that the sun wasn’t scheduled to do the things Mark describes for a few more million years.  Not long after that program, I attended a funeral of someone who died too young. I was reminded that, regardless of the timing of the end of the world, we are, everyone one of us, only a short time from meeting our Maker. Maybe today. You don’t know what hour, like a thief in the night. Are you ready?

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation – October 29, 2017

Jeremiah 31:31-34The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36
– You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

dsc_2447-editAs it says in From Conflict to Communion, “Every commemoration has its context.” This commemoration of the Reformation is being held in an age of Ecumenism and in an age of Globalization. Consequently, Lutherans and Catholics, after fifty years of bilateral dialogs, committed to commemorating this 500th  anniversary together, with an eye toward the proclamation of the gospel.

Previous commemorations were characterized by Lutherans and Roman Catholics going to their separate corners, with festive attempts to justify their distinctive existence. Lutherans used the commemoration of the Reformation to criticize the Roman Catholic church. Catholics used it to criticize Luther and his movement for dividing the church. In 1917, at the 400th, Luther was portrayed as a German national hero.

Previous centennial commemorations of the Reformation took place in culturally homogenous lands, or at least in lands where there were a majority of Christians. Today’s pluralism presents a new challenge and a new opportunity for the church. If the goal is not to win the fight, or to promote our tribe, what is it? What if our ultimate goal is the proclamation of the gospel? What then? How do we recognize the truth of what happened in a way that proclaims Christ to the world?

What happened cannot be changed, but how we tell the story really matters. If my wife and I each recount an argument we had, you will hear two very different stories, even though we are describing the same events. We may even both be telling the truth. How you tell the story is shaped by what facts you choose to tell, and which facts you leave out. History notoriously left out the fact that Columbus pimped out young native girls to Spanish soldiers. It was an inconvenient truth. Lutherans might be prone to gloss over Luther’s anti-Semitism.

In chapter 3 of From Conflict to Communion, Lutheran and Catholic theologians together attempt to tell the story of the Reformation in a way that is true and honest, and in such a way that both Lutherans and Catholics can nod, and say, “Yeah, that’s what happened.” It is a sort of “no spin zone.” If you are going to preach the story of the Reformation, I would encourage you to read this carefully. Do not fall back on old vitriolic tropes. There has been an explosion of research on late Medieval society and context that merits a hard look before we channel Roland Bainton, or retell the story as our childhood pastors did.

Lutherans would do well to take a hard look at how very Roman Catholic Luther was, as regarded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, the Eucharist and so on. Another good read is Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper. This short book can be read in a couple of hours. It helps readers understand how the Roman Catholic view on Luther has evolved, and how A Mighty Fortress can be in the Catholic Hymnal.

There is nothing like a lot of good reading to dispel our simplistic ideas about Lutherans and Catholics today. This is not the 16th century. Bishops are no longer princes. The Eucharist is served in both kinds. Sermons and liturgy are done in the vernacular. The church has not burned anyone at the stake for some time. Lutheran and Catholic churches of today are not the church bodies of the Late Medieval Period.

Instead what we need to proclaim is the way of Jesus as the only hope for a world that seems bent on violence and self-destruction. The world needs the gospel today every bit as much as it did two thousand years ago. With politicians playing brinksmanship, with the largest global refugee crisis in world history, with our precious earth gasping for air, the cosmos is groaning for salvation. It is either the way of Jesus or it is lights out for the world. We can no longer afford to wage internecine ecclesiastical warfare. We must unite in faith, hope and love.

The mark of the true church will not be having the right dogma. Jesus said, “By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I am a firm believer in justification by grace through faith. One of the first verses I was made to memorize as a child was Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

I just wish they had also had me memorize the very next verse with it, Ephesians 2:10:

10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Of course we are saved by faith. And works are the natural byproduct of faith. We were created for good works. In other words, we are not saved by good works. We are saved for good works.

Luther understood this:

Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.  (LW 35:371)

The whole salvation by faith or by works thing is a straw dog. Asked and answered. To present this as the pressing issue between Lutherans and Catholics today misses the mark. This is also made clear by Lutherans and Roman Catholics together in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.

Our differences today are more around orders of ministry. Marriage of priests. Ordination of women. The authority of church hierarchy. This is not a time to harp on this. The world yawns. We have much more important work to do.

So I leave you with the challenge to use Reformation to proclaim the love of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Tell the story of his love for the world, his healing ministry and battle with the demonic forces of death and hell. And I will also leave you with two other areas for consideration: The Reformation and Justice, and a Trinitarian reflection on a hymn by Luther.

The Reformation and Justice

What does the Reformation have to do with justice? Everything. The Reformation began with an act of justice.

On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian brother, parish priest, professor of Scripture and chair of the department of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted 95 theses for debate. These theses focused on the issue of Indulgences. By making a donation to the church, one could receive one of these indulgences, a piece of paper signed by the pope granting pardon from the earthly penalties for one’s sins.

50-60% of the population of Saxony was living in destitute poverty. Luther was concerned when he saw peasants who were barely able to feed their families, spending money on indulgences, because they believed they were rescuing their dead relatives from purgatory.

Listen to just a few of Luther’s 95 Theses:

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

39. Christians are to be taught that whoever gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than one who buys indulgences. 

44. Christians are to be taught that whoever sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath. 

45. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

If one can, with earthly wealth, purchase spiritual benefits, then where does this leave the poor? Samuel Torvend, a member of the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a former Luther Leaguer in our former bishop, Paul Blom’s first parish, wrote a phenomenal book called Luther and the Hungry Poor. Torvend digs deep to help us understand the socio-economic realities of late Medieval Europe. Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences, which spurred the 95 Theses and eventually the Reformation, was not just theological. Who but the wealthy could afford to purchase the paper indulgences that the Church said were necessary for eternal life, when 50-60% of the people were living on the edge of subsistence? Where did this leave the huge population of working poor, landless, destitute, and homeless who could never afford to endow churches, commission religious artwork, or even purchase an indulgence?  That one’s place in heaven was determined by one’s wealth on earth was more than Luther could bear. It was unfair. Unjust.. “Now,” he wrote, “the church fishes for the wealth of men.”  Widows, orphans and the hungry poor could not participate in the spiritual economy of the late Medieval Christianity.

The poor would spend money they didn’t have, buying themselves and their dead relatives out of purgatory. Furthermore, Luther was concerned that this spiritual economy actually perpetuated poverty, Torvend argues, by taking resources that could otherwise alleviate hunger and homelessness and funnelling it to finance the Church, which already had more wealth than ancient Rome. Some say the church owned 2/3 of the land in Europe.

The Church lifted up poverty as a virtue; Luther saw poverty as a something to be eliminated, not emulated. We must be concerned, even today, any time the church uses superstition to gain wealth. Luther felt poor Christians should not be using their meager financial resources to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The wealthy should redirect their resources to alleviate poverty as opposed to building mansions in heaven. Christians should be taught that it is better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence. Those who ignore the poor, he says, and spend their money on church parchment, purchase nothing but the wrath of God.

Perhaps Luther, responding to his intense biblical studies, his conscience and his Anfechtung could not have foreseen that challenging the spiritual economy was also challenging market economy of his day and all who benefitted from it. Within a very short time, his ideas would be condemned by those in power. You don’t sock people in the wallet and get away with it.

Luther called for the sale of monastic, mendicant and ecclesial properties, so that the money could be kept in a common chest to be used for the poor. The chest was to be administered by a board of directors that consisted of two people from the parish congregation, two from city council, three town citizens and three peasant farmers. These orders were put in place in Wittenberg and Leisnig within six years of the 95 Theses.

Luther’s theology of the cross meant that God is revealed in the suffering Christ on the cross. God is present where least expected, in humility, shame, weakness, suffering and death.  In Luther’s commentary on Matthew 25, Luther says Christ invites his followers to encounter him in the hungry, the stranger, the homeless. A church that wants to encounter God must be willing to encounter the suffering in their community.

Luther understood sin as people and communities encurvatus in se (turned in upon themselves). Self-centeredness was inbred, so we should not be surprised that greed usually wins the day, even in the church, since we’re all simul Justus et peccator.

 Grace, however, at work in the life of the Christian has the power to turn people and communities outward (curvatus ad extram). Communities not outwardly focused are simply not Christian. Luther critiqued the fraternities of his day as being self-serving. I wonder how our congregations would fare under his scrutiny.

The Sacraments for Luther had socio-economic implications. Sharing one bread and one cup in the Eucharist meant being one body: becoming part of a community that has all things in common so that no one has need.  He grieved that many gladly share in the benefits of the sacraments, but were not willing to share in the costs, like serving the poor, working for justice, especially at personal risk. “They are self-seeking persons, whom this sacrament does not benefit.” Luther linked sacramental practice and social welfare. “Learn that this is a sacrament of love.”

While Luther’s early theological writings have had much play (The Freedom of the Christian, Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) during this same period Luther also published works on trade, international commerce, banking practices, state regulation of business and so on. Luther critiqued predatory lending, what he calls usury, loaning money at high interest rates, and asking payments that only cover only interest, not principle, so the poor are kept in perpetual poverty.

So, the Reformation was not about some abstract, hypothetical, theological controversy. It was a pastoral concern about real people living in real poverty. It was about economics and justice. It was about encountering Christ through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and in prison. It was then and it is today.

Today indulgences still exist, as a graceful proclamation of forgiveness, but they are not used in the same way that they were 500 years ago. Instead of harping on indulgences, we might look inward and ask: How are we addressing injustice today? How might we be guilty of using superstition to create a false economy, that perpetuates poverty? How might we overturn those schemes that promote predatory lending, and redirection of resources away from those who need them most?

We All Believe In One True God, ELW 411: A Hymn by Martin Luther

We All Believe1 We all believe in one true God,

 who created earth and heaven,

 the Father, who to us in love

 has the right of children given.

 He in soul and body feeds us;

 all we need his hand provides us;

 through all snares and perils leads us,

 watching that no harm betide us.

 He cares for us day and night;

 all things are governed by his might.


2 We all believe in Jesus Christ,

 his own Son, our Lord, possessing

 an equal Godhead, throne, and might,

 source of ev’ry grace and blessing;

 born of Mary, virgin mother,

 by the power of the Spirit,

 Word made flesh, our elder brother;

 that the lost might life inherit,

 was put to death on the cross,

 and raised by God victorious.


3 We all confess the Holy Ghost

 who, in highest heaven dwelling

 with God the Father and the Son,

 comforts us beyond all telling;

 who the church, his own creation,

 keeps in unity of spirit.

 Here forgiveness and salvation

 daily come through Jesus’ merit.

 All flesh shall rise; we shall be

 in bliss with God eternally. Amen.

Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. composite

Text © 1941 Concordia Publishing House

Tune: WIR GLAUBEN ALL (see LBW #374)


We All Believe in One True God, WIr glauben all an einen Gott, is a paraphrase of the creed by Martin Luther, first published, as far as we know, in Johann Walther’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn.

The original text is the Creed of course. This is a Late Medieval paraphrase dated around 1524, set to a tune by Martin Luther that is an adaptation of a 14th century Latin Credo melody.

Think Luther the rapper. Would it surprise you to know that Luther wrote rhyming versions of the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer? He set the major parts of the catechism to meter and rhyme.

(Sing a stanza of Luther’s Ten Commandments Hymn, but not the sixth commandment.)

Sing a phrase of “Out of the Depths.” Written in 1523 and based on Psalm 130, this hymn was sung ON May 9, 1525, at the funeral of Luther’s friend and patron, Frederick the Wise, in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Luther believes the Christian motto, Lex orandi, lex credendi. What you pray you believe. What you sing leads to faith. Liturgy begets theology.

For years confirmation students would tell me they just couldn’t memorize the catechism, or the Scriptures. And yet I would listen to them highly complex lyrics of popular rap or hip hop tunes. There’s something about singing that taps into the brain’s memory capacity. (I wrote a song to teach kids the books of the Old Testament. Yeah, I’ll spare you that one.)

This was consistent with Luther’s desire for worship and theology to be in the language of the people. He wanted to teach the faith by singing the faith. He wanted to help people learn their faith through didactic songs.

Luther wrote his Small Catechism to teach the basics of the faith. Yogi Berra once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” For Luther, the main things were:

  1. Commandments
  2. Creed
  3. LP
  4. Baptism
  5. Confession
  6. Sacrament of the Altar

Let’s sing stanza one of “We All Believe in One True God.”

music luther

1 We all believe in one true God, who created earth and heaven,

 the Father, who to us in love has the right of children given.

 He in soul and body feeds us; all we need his hand provides us;

 through all snares and perils leads us, watching that no harm betide us.

 He cares for us day and night; all things are governed by his might.  


Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the entire creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with sections of the Catechism. This we sing that God feeds body and soul. God guides and protects us.

And Moving away from the standard liturgical plainchant of his day, Luther writes this hymn in four parts, so that people can sing the part and enjoy a new style of music that will catch on. So he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:

These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young – who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts – something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.

Luther thought about hymns as a way of instilling the Word of God in people. What do you sing in your quiet moments? When you’re driving down the road? What melodies and texts are committed to your heart?  Are the words holy? Do they reinforce a joyful, transformational, sacramental view of life?

The first stanza was on God the creator. The second is on Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried and raised from the dead. Luther doesn’t have time in this stanza to hit every part of this longest article of the creed, but he hits the main points. He keeps the main thing the main thing, but still gets in some commentary, that Christ is our elder brother, and a source of every grace and blessing.

For Luther Our faith and Our hope is in Christ, and Christ alone. This is what we proclaim 500 years later. In this violent world hell-bent on self destruction, it is the way of Christ, or it is curtains for the world. Let us sing together stanza two.

2 We all believe in Jesus Christ, his own Son, our Lord, possessing

 an equal Godhead, throne, and might, source of ev’ry grace and blessing;

 born of Mary, virgin mother, by the power of the Spirit,

 Word made flesh, our elder brother; that the lost might life inherit,

 was put to death on the cross, and raised by God victorious.


The final stanza of the hymn is on the article of the Creed: God the Holy Spirit. The earliest versions of the Symbolum Apostolicum included these parts of the third article: The Spirit, the Church, forgiveness and the resurrection. Luther hits all four points in his third stanza.

The Spirit, the comforter, dwells with the Father and the Son. That spirit keeps the church, the Spirit’s creation, in the one true faith. In that church forgiveness is spoken and resurrection is proclaimed.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not about reviving any ancient conflict. It is about proclaiming the one true faith of the apostles in the language of the people, in the purity of the Gospel. That is who we are. It is about announcing the unimaginable, God’s free grace, love and forgiveness for all, with the hope of salvation and the gift of eternal life.

Let us stand and sing together the final stanza of “We All Believe in One True God.”

3 We all confess the Holy Ghost who, in highest heaven dwelling

 with God the Father and the Son, comforts us beyond all telling;

 who the church, his own creation, keeps in unity of spirit.

 Here forgiveness and salvation daily come through Jesus’ merit.

 All flesh shall rise; we shall be in bliss with God eternally. Amen.


September 17, 2017 is Pentecost 15A, Proper 19A

Exodus 14:19-31 – The Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea.
Genesis 50:15-21 – Joseph forgives his brothers. “Even though you intended it for evil,, God intended it for good…”

Psalm 114 – When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 – Moses’ song. “I will sing unto The Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea…”
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

Romans 14:1-12 – Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Peter: How many times must I forgive? The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. We have an advocate, Jesus | Christ the righteous; your sins are forgiven on account | of his name. Alleluia. (1 John 2:1, 12)

How Can We Help

In the wake of the flooding in Houston last week, August 25-31, 2017, this is the question I’ve been asked a lot. Thank you for asking. Here’s my stock response.

Pray. Give. Serve.

PRAY for the families of those who lost their lives, and for those who lost their homes. Pray for all who were displaced and all who serve them. Pray for congregations struggling to get back on their feet so they can serve, especially at Faith in Dickinson, Salem in Houston, Messiah in Cypress, and Christ the King in Houston.

GIVE to the Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund, which helps congregations and their leaders recover and serve. Or pick a congregation and partner up. Or give to LDR (Lutheran Disaster Response), which does case management among the most needy homes.

SERVING now means mucking out houses and buildings. The water has subsided in most places, but will take weeks in others. Mold grows immediately. Now is the time that unskilled volunteers can serve; carrying out soaked belongings, cutting and hauling dry wall, prying up carpet and other flooring. The trick is getting here and finding a place to stay. Because so many hotels are full, many volunteers tend to be local. If you come from out of town, right now there are some options for you, and these options will grow:

  1. Our Galveston retreat center has space. It’s near Dickinson flooding.
  2. Our camp in LaGrange has space. LaGrange had flooding.
  3. Tree of Life Conroe is set up to house workers at the church. They’re north of Houston.


September and October our gospel texts are from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community.

Here’s an overview of our upcoming RCL gospel texts:

  • September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)


Forgiveness is clearly the theme that weaves most prominently through our readings for this Sunday. That may or may not be what your congregation needs to hear if you have been through the flood. That’s a pastoral decision. There are other possibilities. But forgiveness is an absolute necessity for any relationship or community to work, so it is always en vogue.

The first option for the Hebrew Bible reading (Exodus 14) stumbles across a different, but poignant theme: the Israelites deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea. The Psalm picks up this theme, either by using the Song of Moses in Exodus 15. The theme is God’s deliverance from oppression. This is not a story of revolution – people rising up and overthrowing an evil empire by their own might. It is a story of escape. God delivers them and they walk away.

For those of us who have come through the raging waters, this reading might strike a chord. The Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 psalm does as well:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. 4“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 5The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. 6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. 7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ 10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? 

20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

But take care here. Celebrating deliverance from the raging waters will fall flat for those who lost friends or loved ones, and for those who lost house and home. For many, this does not seem like a victory. It is good to celebrate that we are here, but consider how we celebrate. Our good fortune should spur us on to serve those who were most affected.

The other option for the Hebrew Bible reading might be a better choice if you are going to use the theme of forgiveness from the Gospel reading. Joseph forgives his brothers. Then Psalm 113 emphasizes this forgiveness: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.”

This coming Sunday’s epistle brings to an end our marching through portions of Romans. Though Romans has 16 chapters, we end this run in chapter 14. A portion of chapter 15 appears in Advent 2A, when Paul quotes Isaiah saying a root of Jesse will come. A portion of chapter 16 (the last three verses of Romans) appears in Advent 4B: Paul says the mystery hidden for the ages is now disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophets. Next week we begin four weeks in Philippians:

  • September 24, 2017: Philippians 1:21-30
  • October 1, 2017: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 8, 2017: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 15, 2017: Philippians 4:1-9

Since rejoicing is a major theme of Philippians, this may be a good time to give thanks for the gifts of life, love and faith.

Romans 14 is one of Paul’s treatises on bound conscience. It gives us insight into his thinking, ethics and ecclesiology. “Welcome the weak, but not just to quarrel.” Some eat only meat, while others are vegetarians. The vegetarians believe it inappropriate to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Since this comprises most of the meat in the Roman markets, some believe it is more appropriate and faithful (kosher?) to abstain from meat altogether. Paul’s take is that idols are nonexistent anyway, so eat up. He also clearly believes human religious traditions to be ineffective for justification. They can, in fact, work against one’s salvation by puffing one up. Nevertheless, the vegetarians and the carnivores should respect one another and stay together in community.

Clearly Paul considers those who abstain from eating meat to be weaker in faith, and the omnivorous stronger. He is not without an opinion on the matter. And yet, his admonishment to them is to accept one another’s differences. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Shades of Matthew 7:1-5, Sermon on the Mount.

Paul also hints at a disagreement about the loosening of the Sabbath laws, what day to take the Sabbath, or have worship. “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord…” This may also be an argument about which days should be fasting days. For many Christians this became Wednesday, and Friday, in honor of the crucifixion.

Paul then says, whatever you do, wherever you fall on this issue, make up your mind and be confident, while respectful of others. The point he emphasizes toward the end of this passage is that we’re all going to stand before God on judgment day. People are accountable to God, not to you, so don’t worry about it. Let God be God. Jesus would add, work on the log in your own eye. You’ve got more than you can handle dealing with your own stuff.

Mark Reasoner tells an amusing story to make the point:

A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970’s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany.

These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 is a classic text on forgiveness. Jesus has just taught about how to resolve conflict to maintain cohesiveness in the community. Now he will talk about forgiveness.

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Then, to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story about a king who forgave an enormous sum owed by a slave. The slave then goes out, and fails to forgive a fellow slave a much smaller sum, throwing him in prison. When the king finds out, he scolds the slave for not “paying it forward,” and orders him to be tortured, ironically, for lack of mercy. Then Jesus hits them with a punch in the gut: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Jesus’ shocking hyperbole drives the point home with power. Jesus makes it clear: We are to forgive. Especially when preaching close to 9/11, we should be very clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

A parishioner once told me this passage made her stay in an abusive marriage too long. Another said his childhood abuser wanted to “friend” him on Facebook. Forgiveness does not mean we allow destructive things to happen or continue. It does not mean discarding healthy boundaries. Forgiveness does not mean we are going to be best friends. Forgiving an abusive ex doesn’t mean you have to marry him or her again. Forgiving an abusive person does not mean you keep putting yourself in the dysfunctional arena in which the abuse takes place.

Stanley Hauerwas, in Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, says, p. 166,

As the parable makes clear, the forgiveness that makes peace possible is not without judgment. The question is not whether we are to hold one another accountable, but what is the basis for doing so and how is that to be done.

Forgiveness does not mean restoration to a position of trust. An example: your treasurer embezzles $50,000. Do you forgive him? Yes. Do you make him treasurer again? No. Restoration to a position of trust would be unkind to the community, and to former treasurer, who clearly has a weakness. The preacher needs to take care not to proclaim too shallow a vision of forgiveness.

If forgiveness doesn’t mean these things, what does it mean? I believe this kind of forgiveness means I choose not to hold hatred in my heart. I may be so wounded I have trouble letting go, but I will not work relentlessly and harboring anger. Forgiveness means I am not going to let the wrong or abuse define me. I am not going to let it keep me from living into a hopeful and joy-filled future. I choose not to carry around the heavy anchors of anger, bitterness, resentment or hate. I choose to live into the future, in spite of the scars of the past. I forgive because Christ has forgiven me. Ephesians 4:32.

Lewis Smedes says forgiveness is relinquishing my right to get even. It is not eliminating all the consequences of the evil that has been committed. It is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. Frederick Buechner reminds us that forgiveness is an act of radical self-interest. We punish ourselves by carrying around our grief and anger when we do not forgive others.

Forgiveness is not easy, but is something the Bible talks about a lot. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies, those who have hurt us, or seek to hurt us most. Paul says if your enemy is hungry, give them food. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Learning to love the enemy is a lifelong pursuit.

The preacher must be able to tell a concrete, true story of forgiveness that makes a difference, either from the saints or from his or her personal life, to connect with the congregation. Without this, we risk spouting shallow, pious platitudes.

Mere ChristianityI will close with some thoughts from C.S. Lewis:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ 

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 7

Pentecost 13A, Proper 17A – September 3, 2017

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.

Psalm 26:1-8
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.

Romans 12:9-21
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Matthew 16:21-28
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“I ate your words, and they were a joy,” Jeremiah says. Shades of Ezekiel 3:3, where Ezekiel ate the scroll, and the words tasted like honey. The vivid imagery is that of taking the Word of God and internalizing it. This also evokes Jesus’ story earlier in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said the wise are those who hear my words and put them to work in their lives.

If we are going to be honest, however, the Word doesn’t always taste like honey. It doesn’t always go down easily. Sometimes the Word challenges us, and our way of life. The Word can cause some indigestion; unsettling our innards. It would do the preacher well to acknowledge this. However, in the end, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

In the empire, Christianity was classed as a mystery religion. When Paul talked about being “in Christ” and having Christ “in him” he was trying to express the mysterious indwelling presence of the Word – the risen Lord. For him it was to be possessed by Christ. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Yes, belief and faith involve assent; but it goes far deeper than that.

Paul is beginning his summation. Those who believe preachers should never offer advice, or suggest to people what they should do to respond to the word, should read Paul’s letters more carefully. As Wally Taylor, Mark Allen Powell and my other New Testament teachers said, Paul always begins with the indicative and then moves to the imperative. Indicative: This is what God has done in Christ. Imperative: Therefore… husbands, love your wives… outdo one another in showing honor… Show hospitality to strangers.

That last one seems particularly apropos, given our current debate over immigration.

PaulPaul has been addressing the unity that Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Jews, and Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians all have in Christ. They are to love one another with mutual affection. They are to outdo one another in honoring the other.

These are words to be heeded at a time when various sects in various religious traditions – Christianity included – paint one another with a broad brush of misunderstanding and caricature. Interfaith relationships, ecumenical relationships, and relationships with agnostic and atheistic groups ought to be tempered by these words; as should congregational relationships.

 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Matthew 16:21-28
This week we begin a new section of the Matthew’s gospel. Matthew separates these sections with our first few words, “From this time on…”

JesusLast week Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus praised him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God in heaven…” This week the worm turns. Jesus orders Peter to fall into line, and even calls him Satan. I almost wish both of these were read on the same Sunday. Peter is saint and sinner all wrapped up into one. He will confess and also deny Jesus.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in 16:23 – Πέτρῳ, Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου – could be paraphrased, “Peter, get back in line! I’m leading; you’re following!” This fits with 16:23, “…take up their cross and follow me…” And, I suppose that is what Jesus says to us all, “Get back in line!” As congregational leaders it always behooves us in the midst of our leading to make sure that we are also following.

Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block” – σκάνδαλον; skandalon; scandal. Jesus also uses this term again in 18:6  – “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” Woe to those that trip up people endeavoring to follow Jesus.

He also critiques Peter for setting his mind on earthly things, not heavenly things. Jesus’ followers are encouraged not to set their mind on earthly possessions, what you will eat, drink or wear, but rather to seek first the reign of God.

Then comes Matthew’s “theology of the cross” – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In recent days, the clash between white supremacists and counter protesters at Charlottesville have been highly politicized. The self-branded alt-right[1] wants us to imagine a false equivalency between these folks. Preachers are sometimes afraid to touch these hot potatoes. While we never want to push our own political agendas, there are some matters that touch the moral bedrock of who we are as Christians. We must speak. As Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the midst of evil, is evil.” Being afraid to speak because we might lose members, or because we are afraid of losing our salaries, is hardly worthy of Bonhoeffer, who died in a concentration camp. And it’s hardly denying ourselves and taking our cross into the world. If you have ever wondered how we would have behaved as pastors in Nazi Germany, how we respond now might give us a clue. Who are we if we remain silent before the most critical moral issues of our day?

As Luther said, a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. We pull back the curtain on both the law (the human condition) and the gospel (God’s response in Christ, and claim on the future).

A “Theology of glory” is also sometimes a philosophy about the cross. The cross becomes an idea about theology – perhaps substitutionary atonement or a vicarious satisfaction transaction – in which one “believes” to be true. But it doesn’t really involve or affect the “believer.” We don’t have to put our lives on the line. Following Christ is unnecessary. One can sit in an easy chair and believe theologies or creeds or facts about God.

What this leads to, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, is “cheap grace” – grace that costs us nothing. However, the text (and I would argue even all Pauline theology) suggests that following Jesus – active faithfulness, fidelity, and allegiance – will indeed cost us something. It will cost us our very lives and way of living.

The cross is laid on every Christian…

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time-death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.

Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

And the death of the old man – the old Adam – is a continual death; a death that affects us and causes us to continually realign our lives; to get back in line. This is what Luther meant in his Small Catechism:

What does Baptism mean for daily living?

It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.

St. Paul writes in Romans 6:

We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

What does this “newness of life” look like? This is what Matthew is describing; it is where Matthew’s gospel heeds…

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…

It’s about discipleship: faithfulness, allegiance, and following. It is about a way of thinking – as Paul says in Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – but it is a way of thinking that cannot be separated from a way of doing and being. As Paul says in Acts 24:14, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors…” Discipleship is an active way of thinking and being.

The pericope concludes, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The more we cling desperately to life, the more it slips through our fingers. The ship may be safer in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

This applies to both individuals and congregations; for, as did Peter, we always follow Jesus with others, never alone. As we journey together through, in this post-modern death of Christendom era, many congregations are trying to “save their lives.” Our Lord tells us that such an effort is a fool’s quest. It’s only as congregations lose their lives for Jesus’ sake that they will find life. The paradox of faith, belief, and following is that resurrection and newness only come through death.

In Search of Paul trip
I’m deeply grateful to Don Carlson for his work researching our texts these last few months. If you would like to learn more about the context of Paul’s letters, consider participating in our of our trips In Search of Paul.

[1] The Associated Press announced that it will avoid the term “alt-right,” preferring instead using more specific terms such as racist, anti-Semitic, white nationalist, white supremracist, neo-Nazi, etc., depending on the context.

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