Bishop Michael Rinehart



Bishop of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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.
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 – There is no god but you. You show your might. You condemn the proud.
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.
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…” (   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 Thrid 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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?

Good News Bad News: Breaking through the Normalizing Influence of the World

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

June 28, 2020 is Pentecost 4A, Proper 8A, Ordinary 13A

Genesis 22:1-14 – God tests Abraham, by calling him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Jeremiah 28:5-9 – Jeremiah’s response to the prophet Hananiah, who prophesied peace, and release of the captives from Babylon, and who took the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it as a sign of how God would break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar’s oppression. Later, God responds: Not for 70 years!” (29:10)

Psalm 13 – For the Director of Music: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? But I trust in your unfailing love… I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 – I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever. Blessed are those who rejoice in your name all day long… for you are their glory and strength.

Romans 6:12-23 – Do not be a slave to sin. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Matthew 10:40-42 – HOSPITALITY. Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.

Prayer of the Day
O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a | holy nation,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his | marvelous light. Alleluia. (1 Peter 2:9)

Exile, Pilgrimage and Liminal Space

This text won’t make any sense to the congregation without considerable explanation. The story covers several chapters.

The prophet Hananiah tickled the people’s ears, telling them what they wanted to hear: that their exile would be over soon. King Nebuchadrezzar would release them from captivity in Babylon.

Jeremiah delivered the hard news: He said it would be several generations before they would be released. Prophets prophesy. Some are true prophets; others are false prophets. Only time will tell.

When they met in person, Jeremiah listened to Hananiah’s prophecy and responded, basically, “Well, I hope so. That would be nice.”

And the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak.

In the reading appointed for today (Jeremiah 28:5-9), we hear neither Hananiah’s prophecy (28:1-4) nor Jeremiah’s (29:4-9), which was basically, Get comfortable, you’re in for a long wait:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This time of pandemic feels like a kind of exile. We have been exiled from our routines, our church buildings, our community gatherings and much more. We long to return to the familiar, and so we are susceptible to the prophets who tell us it will all soon be over, and even now we can start returning to the past. Jeremiah would say, “Build a house in this new reality. Plant a garden. Marry and have children. Make a home in this new reality. You’re going to be here for a while.

Pastor Don Carlson, who helped with the preparation for this post,  preached a sermon based on a similar text from Isaiah, quoting from Embracing the Exile by John Fortunato.

Fortunato believes times of exile are threatening to faith because they expose what he calls The Great Myth under which many people live out their faith. When the realities of life attack “great myth,” faith is attacked too!  Here’s what he says:

The uneasiness of our human condition presses upon us. The anxiety just sits down there in the pit of our stomachs. We want it to go away, but how? 

We try to make it go away by telling ourselves, “We are in control; we are not helpless.” Then we take the anxiety we have denied and project it out into the world where we create a myth for ourselves to shore up our self-deception; and an elaborate myth it is.

We create a world of systems that we can manipulate and control to hide from ourselves the fact that we really control nothing.

We spend our lives nurturing our systems and making them work for us: economic systems, social systems, government systems, family systems, communication systems, defense systems, and medical systems.

The systems are unfair. They benefit some more than others. Nevertheless, they give us promotions to grub for, benefits to grab, ladders to climb, power to be gotten, and security to be secured.  And then we take out insurance on the whole thing: health insurance, life insurance, and deposit insurance.  We have pacts, treaties, service policies, and guarantees. There are backup systems, second teams, and alternate plans.  All in an effort to nail down our security and reinforce our myth of being in control.

The great myth demands some basic beliefs: I must believe I am in control. I must believe I am the center of the universe. I will be happy and blessed if I live right. Life is rational and reasonable. Evil is always punished. And, with Jesus in my heart, everything will be hunky dorry.

The myth demands that we put on blinders.  We aren’t allowed to look at reality that life’s a mixed bag over which we have little or no control and that the universe can be a very indifferent place to live.  Justice does not always triumph and evil is not always punished. Life is not always fair and nor does it always make sense. God’s will is not always done on earth as it is in heaven.

With our myths are smashed and our selves exposed, what do we do?  Some angrily ask, “Why did this have to happen?”  To which there is no sure answer, and even if was an answer, it wouldn’t change things. Some people try to insist that they have no fears, pains, or frustrations; while others decide to suffer through their exile; resigned, angry, resentful, and fearful every step of the way.  Fortunato, however, suggests an alternative.

Since avoiding it, fighting it, or suffering through it don’t seem to be very helpful ways of dealing with one’s exile, there seems to be only one way left to go: deeper! 

Exile isn’t negotiable so it might as well be embraced. Affirm it with your whole heart and soul! It may not make sense.  It may not seem fair or just. But, if embraced, it may become a God-given invitation to growth.  It may be turned into a blessing in disguise. It might just be an opportunity.

There is no way out of our exiles; there is only the way through; embracing life as it is, forsaking our myths of power, and simply letting God guide us through the wilderness.

Hananiah was myth-spinning; telling people what they wanted to hear.  God – and Jeremiah – would have none of it. “Settle in,” he said. “Embrace your exile and see what God will make of you in the midst of it all.” There is profound spiritual truth and Godly hope in that!

This might be a word for the many of us who struggle through chronic problems that won’t simply melt away. Those facing addiction. Those facing cancer. Those life changes that won’t magically improve. While God wishes no evil on us, we nevertheless find ourselves in the wilderness. It can be a learning experience.

Romans 6:12-23

Paul’s letter to the Romans deals with conflicts going on in the house churches of Rome.  (Picture is of Santa Marie Church, oldest titular church in the Trastevere section of Rome.)

Last week I laid out Ben Witherington III’s organization of Romans. John Dominic Crossan breaks the letter a bit differently:

  • Chapters 1-8 = unity of Gentiles and Jews
  • Chapters 9-11 = unity of Jews and Christians
  • Chapters 12-16 = unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians

Crossan defines some words:

  • Sin (not sins) = The sway of the empire and the normalizing influence of the world to bend and shape life according to power, privilege, and segregation.
  • Righteousness (justice) = Distribution, not retribution.
  • Justification (being made just) = Real-life transformation, not imputation.
  • Life in Christ (life together) = Participation with Christ, not substitution.

There are at least two places in Romans where Paul’s understanding and intent comes full bloom:

Do not be conformed [2nd person plural] to this world [age], but be transformed by the renewing of your minds [understanding, your way of thinking about things], so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect [τέλειον; complete – when things to reach their intended goal]. (12:2)

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (15:5-7)

The second lesson will be from Romans for quite a number of weeks. (See my post from two weeks ago for the summer lessons-at-a-glance.) If you preach Romans this summer,  it will be helpful to dig into this letter and – setting Luther’s spiritual and existential crisis aside for the moment – get back into the world of Paul.

Matthew 10:40-42 

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The gospel is a continuation from last week’s reading – 10:24-39.  Concerning that reading, Gulf Coast Synod Pastor Jim Giannantonio lifted up some comments from Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins.  Carter writes,

…Jesus’ words are a call to choose a way of life of marginalization, to identify with the nobodies like slaves, and with those some understood to be cursed by God. It is to identify with those who resist the empire’s control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals. It is to identify with a sign of the empire’s violent and humiliating attempt to dispose of those who threatened or challenged its interests. To so identify is not to endorse the symbol but to reframe its violence. As the end of the gospel indicates, it is to identify with a sign that ironically indicates the empire’s limits. The empire will do its worst in crucifying Jesus. But God raises Jesus from death, thwarting the empire’s efforts. And Jesus will return to establish God’s empire over all, including Rome (24:27-31 ). To not respond positively to such a call is to not be a disciple (not worthy of me; see 10:37).

Carter, Warren (2013-11-20). Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation) (Kindle Locations 7534-7541). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

If, following the call of Jesus, we try to overturn or live contrary to the “normalizing influence of the world” (see above) we will run into a sword, not peace.  And so, we are back to the justice/righteousness and participation/transformation dynamic that we had in Romans.

A first thought: Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Instead of thinking about that in personal or individual terms, it’s helpful for congregations to consider what it might mean for their life together. How might a congregation find life by losing itself? Many congregations are struggling to save themselves. It is a fool’s quest. Jesus’ invitation is to give ourselves away for the life of the world.

A second thought: Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In Thom and Joni Schultz’ book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, the authors lift up four excuses people give, and how the church can counter them. It’s not quite that simple of course, but spoiler alert, here are the four acts of love they suggest:

Schultz, Thom; Schultz, Joani (2013-10-01). Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And How 4 Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible (Kindle Location 1126). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

As congregations: Can we practice radical hospitality? Can we offer a cup of water in the name of Christ? Can we have fearless conversation?  Can we demonstrate genuine humility?  Can we live with divine anticipation; not knowing what God will do with our exile or anyone else’s, but trusting that God will bring life out of death?

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes Him who sent me.” Jesus identifies “welcome” as a value of the reign of God. Is it a value for our faith communities?

One way to think about hospitality is creating safe communities. Is our neighborhood safe for newcomers? Immigrants? Is our congregation safe for newcomers? Immigrants? By “safe” we mean not just physically safe, but places where people are free to be who they are and live out their faith without being verbally attacked or pummeled by a host of verbal and non-verbal microaggressions. Creating truly safe communities is going to take a lot of work, but it emanates from the gospel itself: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”

One way to know is simply to look around. In these days of pandemic, that might mean scanning a screen filled with Zoom faces. Who is there? Who is not there? What segments of the community are conspicuously absent? Why are they not there? What might be going on?

Let us contemplate the welcome we ourselves have received in Christ, to understand the depth of love to which we ourselves are invited. Justice is love lived out in public. We are embraced with this love that will not let us go, and invited to extend that love to the world:

…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

Beware: You May Be Called to Be A Prophet

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Pentecost 3A – June 21, 2020

Jeremiah 20:7-13 – O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
Genesis 21:8-21 – Abraham and Sarah cast off Hagar, the slave woman and her child.

Psalm 86:1-10 – Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. In the day of trouble I call upon you, for you answer me.
Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18 – Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress-make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.

Romans 6:1b-11 – Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Matthew 10:24-39 – Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. …and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

June 14, 2015 is the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine. Resources here.

June 19, 1865 is Junteenth, Emancipation Day in Texas. More information here.

If you did not observe the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine last week and wish to this week, there are some reflections in my post from last week: Remembering the Emanuel Nine. That post also has a summary of the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary for this summer. They can also be found on my blog under Lectionary A.

We are into the time after Pentecost that has traditionally been called Ordinary Time. These times, however, are far from ordinary.

Beware: You May Be Called to Be A Prophet

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” 11But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. 12Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. 13Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

 This seems like a good time to reflect on the prophetic voice. The prophets speak up for the poor and marginalized: for the orphan, the widow and the alien. This doesn’t make them popular. As someone once said, “If you aspire to be a prophet, first make sure you look good on wood.”

Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, is a reluctant prophet. The Word of the Lord had come to him, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah tried everything to get out of it. “I’m not a very good speaker… I’m too young…” (1:5)

Jeremiah is a pre-exilic, Southern Kingdom prophet. Called at age 20 (626 BC) to prophecy the fall of the southern kingdom, his book in the Bible is written by his secretary Baruch (36:4-32). The events of Jeremiah cover 20 years (626-585 BC), under kings Josiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, until the fall of Jerusalem to King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (chapter 52). This is a political book. Judah is being squeezed by Egypt to the Southwest, Assyria in the North, and Babylon to the East. It is an anxious time.

Jeremiah denounced the king, political leaders and the clergy.

  • He denounced extramarital affairs.
  • He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor.
  • He denounced the people’s love for chasing after the newest god, and newest religion.
  • He denounced the religion of the Temple, saying that if they thought all that mumbo jumbo would get them closer to God, they had another thing coming.
  • When some of them started indulging in human sacrifice, he took a clay pot and smashed it to smithereens, telling them that was what God was going to do to them if they kept it up.
  • He told them that the Babylonians were going to come and rip them to shreds, which they did in 586 B.C.
  • He told them if they were so crazy about circumcision, they ought to think above their navels, and try circumcising their hearts.
  • The only hope he saw for them is that someday God would put the Law in their hearts instead of in books.

By chapter 20, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is threatening to overrun the country. Jeremiah is issuing warnings, and for this he is taking heat. What we hear in this text is Jeremiah’s lament. No one is listening. I am a laughingstock. You got me into this. I didn’t ask for this. You enticed me. You overpowered me.


Being a prophet is no easy business. Just ask those who were stoned to death. Ask Jesus. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr. You don’t get into this business because it seems like a fun line of work. It could lead to a vocational crisis, as it has for Jeremiah, according to Luther Seminary prof Terence Fretheim. Pastors and deacons often find themselves in this bind. God has placed a word on your heart that your people don’t want to hear, but they pay your salary. If you sense that you are called to be a prophet you might check to see if it comes with dental.

Tired of his own message of “violence and destruction,” the Word of the Lord has become a vexing burden for him. He would rather preach a sermon on the “Four steps to a joyful life,” but these are not the times, and that is not the message he has been given.

Jeremiah considers abandoning his prophetic vocation, but when he tries, there is something like a burning fire in his bones. He tries to hold it in but cannot. Have you ever felt that way? The message within you cannot be contained? One recalls similar words from the apostle Paul: “An obligation has been placed upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:16)

What message has God placed on your heart? What is the word that is so compelling it must be spoken, even if you’d frankly rather not? How can that word be spoken in a way that it can be heard? How can we speak the truth in love? Will we preach sermons about things that matter?

Romans 6:1b-11

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Paul may have written Romans during the winter of 56-57 AD, during his third missionary journey, while staying at the home of Gaius. We know Romans was written after he had taken his collection for Jerusalem, but before he had delivered it. (Romans 15:25-29). This means it was written after the Corinthian correspondence. In 16:1 Paul commends to the Romans Deacon Phoebe of Cenchreae (a seaport of Corinth), so it seems he could very well be writing Romans from Corinth, where he stayed the winter before his Spring trip to Jerusalem.

Rome is a city of 400,000 people. Around 10% are Jewish. Paul is writing to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 AD, but then died in 54. When Nero took over, he probably rescinded the order. Still, the Jewish population of Rome had probably been hampered by the long-lasting effects of Claudius’ racist policies.

Luther said Romans was the most important book in the New Testament. Paul is not writing a systematic theology. All his letters are occasional, written for a purpose. The Letter to the Romans, however, reflects a substantial amount of Paul’s theology, which has evolved in the two decades since his conversion. Like many of his letters, Paul focuses on law and gospel, a sticking point between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

In Romans 1:15-16 Paul gives what Ben Witherington III says is his propositio (theme statement if you will):

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.”

The gospel is the power of God, for Jews (first) and Greeks (second). The righteousness of God has been disclosed through faith. In chapters 1-4 Paul focuses on Jewish Christians, criticizing religious hypocrisy and presenting Abraham as the father of a universal religion. In chapters 5-8 Paul focuses on Gentile Christians, presenting Adam as the father of universal sin, Christ as the source of salvation, and the Christian’s life in the Spirit.

This passage from Romans, from the second section, is often read as a part of the funeral liturgy. Through baptism, humanity makes its transition from sin to grace, according to Israel Kamudzandu, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology
in Kansas City, Mo.

In baptism we die the only death that matters. We are buried with Christ in our baptism. If we are united with Christ in his death, then we are united with him in his resurrection. Our old self is crucified, and therefore has died to sin. So, we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ. This doesn’t mean Christians are magically free from sin. Paul will expound on this problem at length in Romans 7. For Paul, death and sin are no longer a concern, because they have been taken care of in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our attempts to obey the law and keep sin at bay always have failed and always will. Instead, the Christian focuses on faith in Christ, and trusts that the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us.

Given the events of recent months, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I begin to wonder if one way to see beyond the racism that is embedded in our culture is to focus on faith in Christ, and seeing Christ in every person. How might we teach our people to daily practice seeing the image of God in every person they encounter?

Matthew 10:24-39

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 

No doubt, people will hear “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” They will also hear, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…” We need to hear these sentences in the context of the larger paragraph, and message that Jesus is presenting in Matthew.

Matthew is composed of five sections, like the five books of the Torah. Each section has a narrative (stories) and discourse (speech). Matthew 10 is the discourse from the second section of Matthew. It is a missionary discourse. Jesus is sending out the 12 to extend his ministry. He coaches them on what to expect. Some will welcome you. Others will not. Some will persecute you. Tie this to Jeremiah’s struggle at the beginning of this post. Jesus is preparing them to understand that not everyone will just love what they have to say.

If they have called Jesus “Beelzebul,” a Philistine god considered a major demon by Jesus’ detractors, they will certainly treat Jesus’ disciples the same. Do not fear those who kill the body. They cannot steal your soul. God loves you like the sparrows. The hairs on your head are numbered. This passage is clearly drawn from the same material in Matthew 6: Do not worry about your life…

And the persecution you encounter may even come from your own family. Don’t be surprised by this. Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, but not all who hear this message will respond peacefully. In fact, they will crucify Jesus himself. Isn’t it ironic that those who proclaim peace, those who preach a message of non-violence, are often killed? Think Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Something about their message is terrifying to some.

Following Christ may lead to persecution as it did for Jeremiah, for Paul, and for the apostles. Your family might object. There will be a point of decision. We are not promised it will be easy.

We are promised some things though. There is good news: God calls. For reasons we cannot fully understand, God, through the Holy Spirit, places the Word on our hearts. This word, as Jeremiah promised, is not written on stone tablets, or in books of the law, but on our hearts. It is compelling. We are enticed. Blessings to all who are caught in the powerful wind of God’s Spirit, so strong that we cannot not proclaim the Word.

Second, we are promised that in baptism, we die the only death that matters. If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. This baptism into Christ, and our faith in Christ, invites us to let go of our fear of others, our fear of sin, and our fear of death.

Finally, we are promised that God loves us with an everlasting love. The God of the sparrows, holds you in the palm of his hand. Even the hairs on your head are numbered. This God knew you before you were in your mother’s womb. You are of inestimable value in God’s eyes. Therefore, listen carefully to your calling, and follow it fearlessly.


If you are using the narrative lectionary, in July you will be in 2 Corinthians. Consider using A Heart for Reconciliation with your congregation, which has 40 days of devotions.

  •  7/12/2020: 2 Cor 1:1-11 – Consolation
  •  7/19/2020: 2 Cor 2:1-10 – Forgiveness
  •  7/26/2020: 2 Cor 4:1-18 – Treasure in Clay Jars
  •  8/2/2020: 2 Cor 5:1-21 – Walk by Faith not Sight
  •  8/9/2020: 2 Cor 8:1-15 – Generosity

 Hebrew Lessons-at-a-Glance

A sprint through the second half of Genesis.

  • June 14 – Genesis 18:1-15
  • June 21 – Genesis 21:8-21
  • June 28 – Genesis 22:1-14 Abraham tested by God.
  • July 5 – Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 Isaac and Rebekah. “So he put a ring in her nose, and bracelets on her arm… Then Isaac took her into his mother’s tent… and she became his wife… And he loved her.”
  • July 12 – Genesis 25:19-34 Jacob swindles Esau’s birthright, with red stew.
  • July 19 – Genesis 28:10-19a Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, at Bethel
  • July 26 – Genesis 29:15-28 Jacob, Laban, Leah and Rachel.
  • August 2 – Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob wrestles with God/the angel
  • August 9 – Genesis 37 Joseph’s dreams and his brothers’ plot. “Here comes this dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him into a pit… and see what will become of his dreams.”
  • August 16 – Genesis 45:1-15 Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Summer-Epistles-at-a-Glance, Romans 6-14

14 Sundays, June 14 to September 13, 2020

  • June 14 – Rom. 5:1-8 Justified. Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.
  • June 21 – Rom. 6:1b-11 Baptized. Baptized into Christ’s death, we rise with him.
  • June 28 – Rom. 6:12-23 Freedom. Shall we sin now that we are not under the law?
  • July 5 – Rom. 7:15-25a Sin. Paul’s dilemma: The good I want to do, I don’t do.
  • July 12 – Rom. 8:1-11 Spirit. To set the mind on the Spirit is life.
  • July 19 – Rom. 8:12-25 Glory. cannot be compared to suffering now.
  • July 26 – Rom. 8:26-39 Confidence: Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
  • August 2 – Rom. 9:1-5 The Jews: Paul grieves his people have rejected Christ. But theirs are adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promises, patriarchs and Messiah.
  • August 9 – Rom. 10:5-15 The Jews: Justified by Faith just like the Greeks. But who can believe without hearing? So blessed is the proclaimer.
  • August 16 – Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32 The Jews: God has not rejected his people. God has imprisoned all in disobedience, in order that all might have mercy.
  • August 23 – Rom. 12:1-8 Gifts: One body; many members. Conform not. Be transformed.
  • August 30 – Rom.12:9-21 Life in the Body. Love one another. Live in harmony. Never seek vengeance.
  • Sept 6 – Rom. 13:8-14 Love in the Body. The whole law is summed up in a single word: Love one another.
  • Sept 13 – Rom. 14:1-12 Conflict in the Body. Don’t quarrel. Welcome one another. Don’t pass judgment on one another. Tolerate differences in piety.

2020 Summer-Gospels-at-a-Glance, Matthew 10-18

13 Sundays, June 14 to September 6, 2020

  • June 14 – Matthew 9:35-10:8. Mission. Jesus sends the 12. Harvest plentiful. Laborers few.
  • June 21 – Matthew 10:24-39. Commitment. Not peace. Sword. Find life by losing it.
  • June 30 – Mt. 10:40-42 Hospitality. Whoever gives a cup of water in my name…
  • July 5 – Mt. 11:16-19, 25-30 Repentance and Comfort. Come to me all weary…
  • July 12 – Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23 Parable of the Sower. Birds, rocks, thorns, good soil.
  • July 19 – Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43 Parable of Wheat and Tares. Let them grow together.
  • July 26 – Mt. 13:31-33, 44-52 Parables: Mustard Seed, Yeast, Treasure, Pearls, Net.
  • August 2 – Mt. 14:13-21 Jesus Feeds the 5,000. Send the crowds away…
  • August 9 – Mt. 14:22-33 Jesus Walks on the Sea. Command me to come to you…
  • August 16 – Mt. 15:[10-20] 21-28 (Blind Guides.) Jesus heals the Canaanite Woman.
  • August 23 – Mt. 16:13-20 Peter Confesses Jesus. On this rock I will build my church.
  • August 30 – Mt. 16:21-28 Jesus rebukes Peter. If you follow me, take up your cross.
  • Sept 6 – Mt. 18:15-20 Jesus teaches on Conflict. If a member sins against you…

Remembering the Emanuel 9

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Pentecost 2A – June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) – The Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks at Mamre. Sarah laughed.
Exodus 19:2-8a –  If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – I love the Lord because he heard my voice. The nares of death encompassed me. I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
Psalm 100 – Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.

Romans 5:1-8 – Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…

Matthew 9:35 – 10:8, (9-23) – Jesus sends the 12. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

June 14, 2015 is the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine. Resources here.

June 19, 1865 is Junteenth, Emancipation Day in Texas. More information here.


Remembering the Emanuel Nine

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

– W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

― James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

 The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.

― James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. Now I’ve been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.”

― Harriet Tubman

Scroll to the bottom for a complete list of the Summer 2020 Lessons-at-a-glance

Including Hebrew Lessons (Genesis), Epistles, and the Gospels

Remember the Emanuel 9

Next Sunday we mark five years since a young man who was raised in an ELCA congregation walked into a Bible Study in an African American church known as Mother Emanuel and executed nine people. He said he wanted to spark a “race war.” As a church we adopted June 17 as a commemoration of the nine who were martyred on that day. I’m asking our congregations to honor this on Sunday, June 14. This is not the time to shy away from this important conversation.

This last two months have been marked not only by pandemic fatigue, but also by a deep frustration over racial inequality in America following the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the death of George Floyd, who grew up in Houston. This is a 400-year-old frustration. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said this week, “Racism is alive and well in America. Those who deny this are fooling themselves.” This is the perfect time for us to talk about things that matter.

Talking about race and racism in predominately white communities is challenging. The responses are so formulaic, that it often seems that people are reading from some kind of script:

  • I’m not racist.
  • I have black friends, or coworkers.
  • I am fond of people of color, and therefore cannot be racist.
  • I have nothing against black people.
  • I don’t dislike anyone because of their skin color.
  • Are you saying I’m racist?
  • I’m the least racist person.
  • Are you saying I’m a bad person?
  • Are you calling me prejudiced, bigoted, ignorant…?
  • Are you questioning my moral character?
  • I was taught to treat everyone the same.
  • I don’t see color. I’m colorblind.
  • I don’t care if you are red, yellow, black or white.
  • You’re making me uncomfortable. (Tears may follow.)
  • You are the one who is being racist.
  • You’re playing the race card.
  • Focusing on race is what divides us.

People have reduced racism to meanness. Being racist means you’re a mean person. I am not a “mean” person, therefore I could not be racist. Racism is immoral, so if you call me racist, you’re are saying I’m immoral. I am deeply offended that you would insinuate that I’m “a racist.”

Discussing racism, or calling it out, is breaking the white code. You will be punished for this. If you point out racism, if you name, it you will be called racist. This is much like the kindergarten playground. You will then be penalized for making people feel uncomfortable.

We have been raised to view racism individualistically. Racism, however, is a system into which we have all been socialized. It is a system of laws, mores and social views from which some people benefit. It views people of color as perpetrators of crime. If Blacks or Latinos move into a community, people think crime will go up, all evidence to the contrary. This set of views is inescapable. It views people of color as lazy. It views them as dangerous. These views result in actions that are often deadly for people of color. Racism kills.

Race, a social construct with no basis in science, determines where you will live, the kind of house and neighborhood you will grow up in, the friends you will have, the people you will date, the kind of education you will receive, what kind of job you will have, how much money you will earn, how high you will rise in your profession, how healthy you will be, and how long you will live.

All of these things are reinforced by the jokes that white people tell and the myths they perpetuate. They are undergirded by the centering of white culture and perspectives. History is told from the white perspective. Black, Native American and Latino histories are deprioritized.

We like to tell ourselves that all people are equal, but we know this to be untrue. Everyone knows that it is better to grow up in wealth than in poverty. It is better to have food on the table and a roof over the head than not. A good education has generational consequences.

We cannot bury our heads in the sand. We cannot pretend that this is not the case. We want to view America as the land of liberty from sea to shining sea and ignore the history of deadly racism. We view the past as being a kinder, gentler time, which is of course ridiculous. My Old Testament professor Ron Hals used to call this “the good-old-days motif,” longing for the days of King David. We long for the days of the “founding fathers.”Robin Diangelo invites us to consider the “good old days” from the perspective of people of color:

  • 246 years of brutal enslavement (that began even before the Pilgrims arrived)
  • The rape of black women for the pleasure of white masters, and to produce more slaves
  • Selling off of black children
  • Attempted genocide of the Native American populations
  • Indian Removal Acts
  • Reservations
  • Indentured servitude
  • Lynching and mob violence
  • Sharecropping
  • Chinese exclusion laws
  • Japanese-American internment
  • Jim Crow laws
  • Black codes
  • Barring blacks from serving on juries
  • Whites only drinking fountains and lunch counters
  • Bans on voting
  • Imprisonment on flimsy evidence by all-white juries
  • Employment discrimination
  • Educational discrimination
  • Inferior schools
  • Biased law enforcement and policing policies
  • Redlining and subprime mortgages
  • Payday lending at exorbitant interest rates

The list goes on, but this feels like enough for now. I have friends that have been arrested or detained. I’ve had coworkers who have been pulled over, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car numerous times on account of things for which I would have been given a ticket, or a polite warning.

If you are white and are accused of being racist, the best thing is to own it. Yes, I have undoubtably benefitted from an unjust system. Denial is self-delusion. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

Confession is good for the soul. Repentance is even better. Repentance, contrary to popular opinion, is not feeling sorry for your sins. Repentance, μετάνοια, means to change course, literally, to change one’s mind. How do we “turn” from our sins, not just individually, but as a society? Certainly, the first step is to acknowledge it, but we cannot stop there. We must be willing to work for change. Without this our words are empty. How can we shed light on the darkness? How can we focus a spotlight when we see injustice? How can we actively promote change in public policy and law?

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,
we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In my experience, nothing dispels the myths of the other than being in relationship. We must preach, but preaching alone will not change everyone’s mind. (It will not μετά everyone’s νοια.) We must create platforms that bring people into relationship. Where is the closest AME church? Send them a letter this week lamenting with them, and committing yourself and your congregation to racial justice.

Do something, anything, for starters, with a congregation of a different ethnicity. Bible study, softball, barbecue, fellowship. Go slow. They will be understandably suspicious of your motives. Invite. Ask their leaders if they would be willing. Ask them what assurances they might need. Ask them how they might suggest beginning. Once people begin to talk, they learn. Slowly, walls begin to come down. Bridges can form.

It seems to me that, of the texts appointed for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, the epistle reading, from Romans 5:1-8 may be a place to begin:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Ben Witherington III in his book Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 131, says,

The language of peace, reconciliation, and the pacification of the enemies would be familiar to those in Rome used to hearing the honorific propaganda about the emperor and his accomplishments, vis à vis the Pax Romana.

In other words, Paul juxtaposes the Pax Romana, a forced peace through subjugating one’s enemies (a peace with which is listeners are no doubt familiar), with an alternative vision for peace through the death of Christ on the cross for the unrighteous. Cynthia Briggs Kittridge, (Dean, Professor and President of New Testament at the Seminary of the Southwest, in Austin, Texas). Christ’s death on the cross brings us peace with God, and also with one another. Those who were once enemies are reconciled. Suffering leads to endurance, then character and hope. God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This is the post-baptismal life in Paul’s view.

Justification by grace through faith in Christ means a new life, in which earthly distinctions fade to the background. “…this new life as founded in the justification by faith through Christ, revealed to all humanity, is available for all who puts their trust in the crucified Christ.” (Rev. Fredrick Amolo | Lecturer, Africa Nazarene University)

Paul’s conclusion in Galatians (chapter 3) is that the life, death and resurrection of Christ means that there can no longer be any meaningful distinctions between these six groups: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are all one in Christ. The cross confronts racism, classism and sexism.

The conclusion in Ephesians is that the cross of Christ means nothing less than the tearing down of the walls of racial hostility between Jew and Greek. Can this also be a uniting point for us today? Could it be that the lynching of Christ, seen in the lynching of Black lives in North America, becomes the place where we can counterintuitively find reconciliation? When the innocent suffer, a transforming power is released.

Once we recognize that Christ died for us, the unrighteous, we are free to acknowledge our shortcomings. Reconciliation does not come by sweeping our sins under the rug, but acknowledging them. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive… This is the only way to move forward.

This Sunday, I urge you to remember the Emanuel Nine. Say their names aloud in your prayers:

The Emanuel Nine
Clementa C. Pinckney
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lee Lance
DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Lee Simmons
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Myra Thompson

This Sunday, let us confess together:

A Confessional Litany and Lament Commemorating
Nine Who Were Slain at Mother Emanuel AME Church

They were doing
what we are called to
as they engaged in bible study.

It was Wednesday night—
a stranger walked in,
and these people welcomed him and prayed together:
the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel
Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders,
the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, the Rev. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson, and the
honorable state senator and pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney.
This stranger wanted to ignite a “race war,”
he said, after he shot and killed them,
denying them the very humanity he claimed for himself,
claiming rights and privileges associated with “whiteness.”
Now we are grieved, once again in pain,
burning and anguished, lamenting the horror of evil unleashed.
And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
Sorrow and heartache have come to us.
Death and mourning have visited us.
We feel far from you, O God, and distant from one another. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
Evil besets us in our land.
We acknowledge that our nation is socialized in ways that promote and normalize colonialization.
We cry out against the horrors and agonies of racism. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
The privileged of our nation have benefited from practices that dehumanize indigenous peoples. We have claimed as “discovery” lands that were not ours. These lands have been stolen and the nations, that were the original occupants of these lands, slain. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
Tribalism has led to the denial of your presence, O God.
Present generations,
the children whose ancestors were kidnapped and sold into slavery,
those forced to labor not on their own behalf,
still suffer and struggle to live in freedom
while the children of colonizers,
live out of “white privilege,”
denying the fullness of your presence in all people. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
Assaults born of greed and murder continue propping up
white privilege that is institutionalized in our church and nation,
preventing us from recognizing
the twin evils of racism and nationalism
still perpetuated among us. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
Open our eyes, O God, open our hearts.
Open our ears, O God, open our minds.
Help us to behold one another as you behold us.
Help us to be more firmly rooted
in the practices of the gospel—so that, when we pray,
the way we live will make real the dream of your beloved community
within and among us. And so we cry out,
Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.
With the help of your mercy and grace,
lead us to think, believe, and change.
May your gospel’s transforming power
by the working of the Holy Spirit
be present in us, in our churches,
in our nation and all the nations of the earth.
May it be so. And the people said, “Amen.”

This Sunday, let us tell the story of the Emanuel Nine. It speaks for itself. Let it sink in. Let us commit to a better future:

On June 17, 2015, Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Lee Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were murdered by a self-professed white supremacist while they were gathered for Bible study and prayer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (often referred to as Mother Emanuel) in Charleston, South Carolina. Pastors Pinckney and Simmons were both graduates of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. A resolution to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance for the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine was adopted by the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on August 8, 2019. Congregations of the ELCA are encouraged reaffirm their commitment to repenting of the sins of racism and white supremacy which continue to plague this church, to venerate the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine, and to mark this day of penitence with study and prayer.

This Sunday, let us pray together. Here is a prayer penned by one of my beloved colleagues in the Conference of Bishops:

Bishop Ann Svennungsen’s Prayer for Minneapolis: 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.”

We join Jesus’ lament, keening at the brokenness – broken bodies, broken lives, broken systems. We plead for God to gather all people and all systems under her wings, empowering us in the hard work of justice and transformation.

By your Holy Wings, Mothering God…
– Enfold and comfort all who grieve the murder of George Floyd
– Tenderly care for those who’ve been traumatized once again by this death
– Spread your protection over all who tirelessly give themselves to provide care and comfort
– Prod the county attorney to swiftly prosecute the officers involved
– Sweep out the racism in our criminal justice system
– Uncover the sin of white supremacy that has plagued our city, state, country, and our individual lives
– Move us all to repentance, to radical change – joining hands with all to rebuild our communities in the way of justice
– Hover continuously over our city, inspire us with vision to imagine a new way of being community; and a new resolve to work toward that vision.

 “Minneapolis, Minneapolis, O how Jesus longs for us to wake up, to name our sin, to see our complicity, to recognize every single person as a beloved sibling. The time is now.”

You can find more resources for this commemoration HERE.

Blessed are you who enter the difficult conversation. Be sure to share stories of your own missteps so that you don’t come at the this from an imaginary moral high horse. Know that you will make some people uncomfortable, but to avoid the conversation could cost lives. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Other Resources for the Conversation

Our synod Anti-Racism Team has been working on finding someone to help us have a healthy conversation about race and address racism in our context. One of our deans suggested that it might be helpful to have some resources for dealing with racism. Here are some resources to help with conversations:

 Hebrew Lessons-at-a-Glance

A sprint through the second half of Genesis.

  • June 14 – Genesis 18:1-15
  • June 21 – Genesis 21:8-21
  • June 28 – Genesis 22:1-14 Abraham tested by God.
  • July 5 – Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 Isaac and Rebekah. “So he put a ring in her nose, and bracelets on her arm… Then Isaac took her into his mother’s tent… and she became his wife… And he loved her.”
  • July 12 – Genesis 25:19-34 Jacob swindles Esau’s birthright, with red stew.
  • July 19 – Genesis 28:10-19a Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, at Bethel
  • July 26 – Genesis 29:15-28 Jacob, Laban, Leah and Rachel.
  • August 2 – Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob wrestles with God/the angel
  • August 9 – Genesis 37 Joseph’s dreams and his brothers’ plot. “Here comes this dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him into a pit… and see what will become of his dreams.”
  • August 16 – Genesis 45:1-15 Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Summer-Epistles-at-a-Glance, Romans 6-14

14 Sundays, June 14 to September 13, 2020

  • June 14 – Rom. 5:1-8 Justified. Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.
  • June 21 – Rom. 6:1b-11 Baptized. Baptized into Christ’s death, we rise with him.
  • June 28 – Rom. 6:12-23 Freedom. Shall we sin now that we are not under the law?
  • July 5 – Rom. 7:15-25a Sin. Paul’s dilemma: The good I want to do, I don’t do.
  • July 12 – Rom. 8:1-11 Spirit. To set the mind on the Spirit is life.
  • July 19 – Rom. 8:12-25 Glory. cannot be compared to suffering now.
  • July 26 – Rom. 8:26-39 Confidence: Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
  • August 2 – Rom. 9:1-5 The Jews: Paul grieves his people have rejected Christ. But theirs are adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promises, patriarchs and Messiah.
  • August 9 – Rom. 10:5-15 The Jews: Justified by Faith just like the Greeks. But who can believe without hearing? So blessed is the proclaimer.
  • August 16 – Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32 The Jews: God has not rejected his people. God has imprisoned all in disobedience, in order that all might have mercy.
  • August 23 – Rom. 12:1-8 Gifts: One body; many members. Conform not. Be transformed.
  • August 30 – Rom.12:9-21 Life in the Body. Love one another. Live in harmony. Never seek vengeance.
  • Sept 6 – Rom. 13:8-14 Love in the Body. The whole law is summed up in a single word: Love one another.
  • Sept 13 – Rom. 14:1-12 Conflict in the Body. Don’t quarrel. Welcome one another. Don’t pass judgment on one another. Tolerate differences in piety.

2020 Summer-Gospels-at-a-Glance, Matthew 10-18

13 Sundays, June 14 to September 6, 2020

  • June 14 – Matthew 9:35-10:8. Mission. Jesus sends the 12. Harvest plentiful. Laborers few.
  • June 21 – Matthew 10:24-39. Commitment. Not peace. Sword. Find life by losing it.
  • June 30 – Mt. 10:40-42 Hospitality. Whoever gives a cup of water in my name…
  • July 5 – Mt. 11:16-19, 25-30 Repentance and Comfort. Come to me all weary…
  • July 12 – Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23 Parable of the Sower. Birds, rocks, thorns, good soil.
  • July 19 – Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43 Parable of Wheat and Tares. Let them grow together.
  • July 26 – Mt. 13:31-33, 44-52 Parables: Mustard Seed, Yeast, Treasure, Pearls, Net.
  • August 2 – Mt. 14:13-21 Jesus Feeds the 5,000. Send the crowds away…
  • August 9 – Mt. 14:22-33 Jesus Walks on the Sea. Command me to come to you…
  • August 16 – Mt. 15:[10-20] 21-28 (Blind Guides.) Jesus heals the Canaanite Woman.
  • August 23 – Mt. 16:13-20 Peter Confesses Jesus. On this rock I will build my church.
  • August 30 – Mt. 16:21-28 Jesus rebukes Peter. If you follow me, take up your cross.
  • Sept 6 – Mt. 18:15-20 Jesus teaches on Conflict. If a member sins against you…

George Floyd March in Houston June 2, 2020 loop

Today was a remarkable and emotional day in Houston. At 1:00 George Floyd’s body arrived in Houston. By 1:30, around 100 Houston-area clergy of every race and creed (including around a dozen Gulf Coast Synod pastors) gathered to pray prior to the march. At 2:30 we walked over to Discovery Green together.

Thousands gathered at Discovery Green. George Floyd’s family spoke, encouraging a peaceful and respectful march to honor George Floyd.

Organizers asked us all to watch out for instigators, and point them out if we saw them. “We are here to honor George Floyd. Let’s not dishonor his name. Let’s do this right.” Then a pastor led the group in prayer, and the crowd began the march to City Hall.

The presence of clergy throughout the crowd has an important effect. Faith communities bring a sacred focus to an event like this. The presence of the Mayor and Chief of Police is important too. They grieved along with the community, rather than being against the community.

Houston rapper Trae The Truth, served as emcee at Discovery Green:

At City Hall the Mayor spoke, along with Rep. Shiela Jackson Lee and Rep. Green.

The march went without any major incidents. I saw no vandalism or violence. Houston has no curfew. The police do not use rubber bullets. I commend the city for handling things so well.

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