Category: Epiphany

That’s the Way of the World: Epiphany 5

That’s the Way of the World: Epiphany 5

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 17, 2019

Read Matthew 13:24-43 (CEB)

Reflection

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Over the last decade, I’ve planted a garden in front of my house.  Every year I am amazed to see the coneflowers and daylily bloom so brightly to provide a sense of color to the front lawn.  But among the flowers, there are always weeds.

The weeds can make it hard for the flowers I’ve planted to truly bloom. I don’t want my flowers to get choked off by the weeds.  So, I try to pull them up by the roots in a vain hope that the weeds will no longer threaten my flowers.  Every so often, I want to use some kind of weed killer like Roundup to get rid of the weeds.  But then I wonder, in trying to kill the weeds, would I also kill the flowers? 

In the parable of the wheat and tares, the servants are not wrong in wanting to get rid of the weeds. They were worried that the weeds could end up choking the wheat. That’s what things like weeds or invasive species do: they end up wiping out the native crop.  Throughout the Great Lakes Region, there is a fear that the Asian Carp, an invasive species will get into the Great Lakes, throwing the aquatic life of the Lakes into havoc. The Great Lake States are deciding what to do as the pesky fish makes its way closer and closer to the Great Lakes.  The carp, like weeds, can be devastating.

The way of the world is to fight back against the evil we see in our world.  The way of the world is to fight the weeds using whatever is possible. The goal is to rip out the weeds, spray as much weed killer as possible. Stop the carp.  But God seems to want to keep the weeds until the proper time comes. That seems rather counter to how we want God to act. But the ways of God seem to want to keep the weeds of the world in the gardens and fields until the harvest.  While the ways of the world want to punish and destroy, God seems to want to do something different at least until the harvest.

The Kingdom of God is not like any other kingdom in our world.  We are left more often than not, scratching our heads. God intends to keep the weeds of the world for now. While the weeds can be people who are threatening, the weeds can also be that which is in our own hearts.  Martin Luther has said we are saint and sinner at the same time. We are also wheat and weed. God is rushing to judgment, but God is patient giving all of us time to repent and change.  Even at the time of harvest when the fires come they are not fires meant to destroy.  God is graceful and uses the fires to burn off that which is not pure, until we become the people God wants us to be. God seems to want the fire to purify, to burn away the weed that is found in all of our lives, so that we maybe be finally free from the powers of sin.

This spring I will be planting more flowers and I will be weeding.  But I am glad that God has given grace to me, wheat and weed, and I await the day when the fires of wholeness will come.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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Trust in the Lord and Live Abundantly – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6C (Jeremiah 17)

Jeremiah 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
10 I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
**************
 
                Having encountered the calls of first Jeremiah and then Isaiah to their respective prophetic ministries, we now turn to the word of the Lord, given to us through the prophet Jeremiah. He calls on us to our trust in God and not in our own strength. Trust is the key word. In whom or in what do you put your trust? Is it God? Or is it someone or something else? By trust we do not mean belief but commitment. To whom will you commit yourself? There are consequences attached to our choices.
Jeremiah’s message was one the kings of Judah found difficult to hear and abide. The same was true of the general populace. As for the kings, perhaps it takes a bit of hubris to be a leader, especially a national leader. As such, there is a human tendency to trust in one’s own strength. However, this can prove disastrous, as the kings of Judah discovered. The invitation is to put our trust in God, but you don’t have to be a king to find this to be difficult. It can be difficult even for devout people of faith. I will admit this being true for me, as a pastor of a church. Don’t worry, I’ve got this!  But remember, choices have consequences.
Putting your trust in God sounds good, but is it practical?  In answer to that question, we raise armies and build walls. We do this, hoping to protect ourselves, because how can really trust a God whom you cannot see? As it turned out, when it came to Judah, Jeremiah was correct. Disaster would come Judah’s way. Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it the Temple. The leading citizens would be carted off to Babylon, where they would live in exile for a couple of generations. Yes, the heart is devious, but what takes place in the mind and the heart can’t be hidden from the Lord. Maybe we know this (I think we do), but we ignore the fact!
 So, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Their fate will be difficult. They will be like a shrub in the desert. I’ve watched enough nature programs to know that there is life in the desert, but it is not an easy life. You have to be hardy to survive. This past summer, my son and I drove across a couple of deserts in our trek west. This wasn’t my first desert crossing, but it’s the most recent. The vision of small shrubs and scrub brush covering the desert floor is fresh in my mind. These bushes hug the ground hoping to find sufficient moisture in the ground to survive. In Jeremiah’s vision those who trust in human strength are like that desert shrub, which holds for dear life.  
 
Jeremiah offers a contrasting vision to the desert shrub. This second simile speaks of a tree planted by the waters. The tree has a steady source of nourishment, so it doesn’t fear the possibility of drought. When a drought comes, it has the ability to draw moisture through its deep root structure. The result isn’t just survival, but the ability to continue producing fruit. Again, I’ve watched plenty of nature programs, so I know that when trees have access to water they flourish. Water is the essence of life. It is the key to abundant life.
Such is the case for us when we put our trust in God.  That is, when we put our roots down into soil that is able to draw from the waters. When I hear these words of Jeremiah concerning to tree planted by the water, I think of Jesus offering living water to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:10-16). If we draw upon this water, we will never thirst again. Now, we needn’t wait for Jesus to offer us living water. Jeremiah also speaks of living water. All we need to do is move down a few verses in chapter 17. Then we will hear Jeremiah declare on behalf of God: “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord” (Jer. 17:13). With that declaration concerning the fountain of living water, Jeremiah prays: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise” (Jer. 17:14).
This is the good news. Put your trust in God. Put down roots so you can tap into the living water. Then, as Jesus reminds the woman at the well, you will never thirst again. It is the reason why, people came to Jesus seeking healing (Luke 6:17-19). 
 
Unfortunately, the heart is devious, or as James Howell translates it, the heart is “fickle” [Feasting on the Word, p. 341]. Yes, we are a fickle lot, and so we find it difficult to stay true to the path set before us. We think we know the way to the water, and yet we find ourselves wandering in the desert, with no water in sight. If only we would put our trust in the Lord and sink our roots down by the riverside, so that we might find nourishment, then we will thrive. That is, we will bear fruit, even when drought comes our way. But we have to let go, and that’s not easy.  
 
The passage seems to hold out a vision of divine retribution – curses are pronounced – but perhaps it would better to understand this as a recognition that choices have consequences. When we put our trust in ourselves, we find ourselves in the desert, with no nourishment available to us. One of the consequences that emerges with this choice is fear. Yes, is given a chance to take hold of our lives. We see this in this time of our lives. As a result, we find ourselves putting up walls—some of which are literal in nature, but many more are metaphorical. It’s the latter that we need to recognize, and tear down, because there is no safety to be found in these walls. So, allow yourself to be planted by the waters, so you can flourish and bear fruit.
The question then is: in whom will we put our trust? Living as we do in an increasingly secular age, where traditional understandings of reality are set aside, this is not an easy question to answer. Yet, it is the one that Jeremiah poses to us. With the question posed, may we put our trust in the Lord, so that we might drink of the living water, and thus live abundantly and bear much fruit.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

More Than Words: Epiphany 4

More Than Words: Epiphany 4

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 3, 2019

Reflection

canstockphoto11680527

Would you like to close us with prayer?

Whenever a pastor utters those words to a crowd of people in a church meeting or a Sunday School, it is followed by total silence.  People start having a strange fascination with looking at their feet.  Many people don’t like to pray because they fear they don’t have the right words to say.  It doesn’t matter if they come from churches where there are written prayers or those where pastors pray extemporaneously; the average person hates to pray.

People feel that they need to have the right words to talk to God, it’s God after all.  I tend to think this is part of the reason Jesus talks about prayer in Matthew 6.  Maybe in Jesus’ day like in our day, people were afraid to pray.  “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites,” Jesus said. “They love to pray to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them.”  He knew that the religious leaders of his day were ones that loved to stand out in public and give incredibly flowery prayers, that was probably quite intimidating to others.

Prayer can be used by people like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day along with the Gentiles in order to show off or even doing this in order to get God’s attention.  Through all of this passage, Jesus tells the people that faith is not about us.  When people make a big noise praying or giving alms, they make the faith about themselves and not about God.  Jesus is calling people to see that the faith is about a relationship.  That leads to Jesus teaching people how to pray.  He previews the prayer by saying prayer is not as much about getting God to hear you. Jesus even says God knows what you need.  Instead, it is about establishing a relationship with God and with others.

If you step back for a moment, the prayer found in Matthew 6:10-13 is explained in the surrounding verses of 16-20.  Forgiving with abandon, not making a big deal of fasting and not to put faith in things show that faith and action are linked.  If one prays flowery prayers, but then goes and treat their sister or brother like crap, as Jesus says earlier in chapter 6, they have received their reward.

So, to those that are studying their shoes when someone asks you to pray, remember that this is not about saying the right words or saying flowery words that impress people.  Instead, it is about a continuing relationship with God and with others around us.  God doesn’t need our fine words, but hearts attuned to God and neighbor.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Prophetic Callings — Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah 1)

Jeremiah (South Portal, Moiaasic Abbey, France)
Jeremiah 1:4-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me 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.”
 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
 
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.
 
********************
                The prophet Jeremiah was born into the priestly caste. That he would a priest was a given. On the other hand, nothing about his birth suggested God would call him to be a prophet. Yet, that would be his calling. When the moment came for him to receive his prophetic calling, like other prophets, Jeremiah asks of God “Who? Me? Are you sure you got the right person?” That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but I think it captures Jeremiah’s initial response. He had no problem with the priestly calling, he was born to it. But the prophetic one was very different. It wasn’t something he expected, and if we read this literally, he was rather young when the call came. I’m not given to theologies that assume God predestines our lives in unchangeable ways, though I do believe the Spirit gifts us for ministry, perhaps from the womb. I do believe that even prophets, like Jeremiah, have the freedom to say no to God. On the other hand, it’s not easy saying no to God, especially when God says to you, this is what I created you for.  In the end, Jeremiah says yes to the call, though as is revealed in the book of Jeremiah his message didn’t make him popular with the governing authorities or the people. His counsel challenged the arrogance of the leadership. Indeed, just a few verses following this statement of call, the word of the Lord came to him, and he declared that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”  God tells Jeremiah that the people will fight against him, but they will not prevail (Jeremiah 1:14-19).
                As we continue the journey through Epiphany, reflecting on the ways in which God is made manifest in the world, shedding light into darkness, it is appropriate to take notice of a prophetic call. According to what we read here Jeremiah the call came to Jeremiah when he was only a child. He would be called upon to speak words of judgment on his own people, though he would also offer them words of hope. While called to speak to own nation, his ministry would have a wider berth. He would speak to the nations as well as Judah. His calling comes at a time when reform was underway in the land of Judah. This was the time of Josiah’s reign. Josiah was one of the righteous kings of Judah. They were few in number, but they arose from time to time. Things were looking up, at least for a while (2 Kings 23:1-27). Unfortunately for Judah, Josiah died in battle, fighting against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:28-30). Things went from bad to worse after Josiah died. His son, Jehoahaz succeeded him, and as is often declared in these books of the Kings, the new king “did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (2 Kings 23:32). From there one son of Josiah took the throne until Nebuchadnezzar stepped in, leading to captivity.
The time frame for Jeremiah’s ministry is noted in the opening frame (verses 1-3), which tells us the Word of the Lord came to the prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) and would continue until the time of the exile that took place when Zedekiah was king (587 BCE). Jeremiah didn’t accompany the exiles to Babylon. Instead he was taken to Egypt, where we assume he died.  
 
                Taking just the text before us, what we have is a word concerning prophetic (and perhaps ministerial) callings. In light of the season of Epiphany, this calling would be a manifestation of God’s presence. Jeremiah is called and consecrated to this ministry from his conception—when God formed him in the womb. We often take note of the word concerning God forming Jeremiah and knowing him before birth, while neglecting the reference to his consecration. Prophets generally were not consecrated. They were called and empowered, but consecration was something that applied to priests (and kings). It has to do with anointing, and in Israel’s case heredity. Jeremiah didn’t choose to be a priest, he was born a priest. Apparently, he descended from the line that goes back to Abiathar, David’s priest, and from Abiathar back to Eli, mentor to Samuel who consecrated David as king. That Jeremiah comes from the town of Anathoth is important for understanding his prophetic ministry, which takes a rather anti-monarchical position. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that his priestly line was itself in exile. Abiathar, who had been priest during David’s reign was sent away by Solomon, who backed Zadok (who unlike Abiathar had backed Solomon’s claim over that of Adonijah – see 1 Kings 2:26).
                Even if Jeremiah’s family didn’t serve in the Temple, we can expect that he understood what it meant to be a priest. He was born to that. His father would have informed him early on. He might have heard stories of Samuel, who as a boy apprenticed in the Temple during the priesthood of their ancestor Eli. He would have also been taught the story of his people, going back to the Exodus. He understood the covenant God made with Israel. That background would have informed his ability to speak for God in times of crisis. Having that background informed his prophetic calling, but the prophetic call is different than the priestly one. You’re not generally born to it. It requires a separate, unique call. A priest can be a prophet, but you needn’t be a priest to be a prophet. I wonder how that reality might be understood today. What might it mean to be prophetic in our context? Nevertheless, as we move forward, it would seem that Jeremiah operates not as a priest, but as a prophet.
                God has a specific word for him to share with the world: 
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
(Jer. 1:9-10).
Jeremiah was appointed by God with authority over the nations. He will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. That is, he will pronounce God’s judgement on the nations. However, he will also build and plant. This is Jeremiah’s message, throughout the book, which is often universal in scope. Yes, he will speak to Judah—rather strongly—but the message is much broader than simply the fate of Judah. This gives us a reminder that the God who speaks to and through Jeremiah is not a parochial god. This God is not limited by borders. After all, Jeremiah will end up in Egypt, while much of Israel’s elite will find themselves living in Babylon. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, probably written from Egypt, he encourages them to settle down and make a life there, praying for the communities in which they find themselves. After all, they’re going to be there for a while (Jeremiah 29:1ff).
God may care a great deal about the covenant people, but God is also the God of the nations. God will deal with both as is appropriate. Jeremiah brings words of judgment, but also words of hope. After all there will be a new covenant, one written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this promise of a new covenant that Jesus takes up in his ministry. While Jeremiah likely has the aftermath of the exile in mind here, it found echoes in the ministry of Jesus, whose own calling is celebrated during this season of Epiphany. We see this calling of Jesus, one that spoke not only to Israel, but to the nations, in the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11) and in his baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). In the reading from the Gospel of Luke designated for this, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus speaks of his own calling in terms of an anointing of the Spirit. While Jesus draws from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah, there is a similarity in their visions.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19).
And the Word of the Lord goes forth!
                As we hear this word, we who live millennia later might ask the question: to what is God calling us? What message do we have to share? The reading from 1Corinthians 13 invites us to inhabit the love God. Is this not our calling, at this moment in time?  Jeremiah doesn’t mention the love of God often, but this word is worth hearing as we consider Jeremiah’s calling and that of our own:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24).

Picture attribution: Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55363 [retrieved January 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moissac,_Jeremiah.JPG.

The Multiverse of Grace: Epiphany 3

The Multiverse of Grace: Epiphany 3

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 27, 2019

Read Matthew 5:1-20 (CEB)

Reflection

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I’ve always been a big fan of the multiverse, that trope in science fiction where we discover that there is not just one reality, but multiple realities.  You might be a mild-mannered librarian in one universe and a wild and crazy musician in another.  The best example of this is in the Original Series of Star Trek in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Captian Kirk, Scotty, Dr. McCoy and Uhura find themselves in an ultimate universe where the benevolent Federation is replaced with the Terran Empire.  The Enterprise in this universe is filled with the same people, but they are all brutal and sadistic.  Mr. Spock now sports a goatee (which I guess is the true sign of evil). The most recent example is the movie “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” where we learn there are several versions of Spiderman in different universes.

Alternate universes, mirror universes, the multiverse tell us something about life; there is more than one way of looking at things.  What we see isn’t always the last word.

One of the things that are always off-putting to me is when I hear fellow Christians talk in what I call “Jesus talk.” They talk in a certain way that is trying to show that are holy people following Jesus.  I’m not bothered about people talking openly about faith, but I am bothered because the language presents an image of someone that is perfect, someone that is better than anyone else.  I may be totally wrong in this feeling, but there is always a sense that “Jesus Talk” folk are always putting on a mask that hides who they are, and never reveals who they really are.

In Matthew 5:1-20, we are introduced to the Sermon on the Mount. The beginning verses are the Beatitudes or Blessings.  In some ways, the Beatitudes paint another universe, a universe where we aren’t successful, happy people, but rather people who are not perfect. When Jesus talks about those who are not happy or those who are hopeless, Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom is one for people who are messed up at times.  Jesus paints a world where the down and out, the losers, the imperfect are blessed by God. The last verse of today’s passage is the one the struck me today: Jesus tells the disciples that if their righteousness is not greater than that of the Pharisees, they won’t see the Kingdom of Heaven or God.  The Pharisees and scribes were the types that loved to put on a show to tell everyone around them how holy they were.  They were the original virtue signallers.

In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus calls out the Pharisees and scribes for their shoddy righteousness. He points out that their faith is all for show; and hide their true nature:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Jesus shows a different reality for people; one where we don’t have to pretend to be holy, but to know God accepts us in our lowly state and it is from there that we can change to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

Growing up in the African American church, I heard all the adults in the church being called “Brother so-and-so” and “Sister so-and-so.”  As a kid, I was confused. Why were they called brother and sister when they weren’t?  It wasn’t until college that I understood.  It was not until maybe 50 years ago, that African American adults were no longer called “boy” or by a woman’s first name.  As Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, these names were used to make sure African Americans knew their status in society.  The Black church was one of the few places in the world where they were given names of status, of personhood. The Black church created another universe where they were not second-class citizens but viewed as worthy in the eyes of God.

People live in a universe where they are told they need to be successful or right-thinking or show off all the right virtuous signals. May God give us all eyes to see and ears to hear the alternate universe of the Kingdom of God where we are loved no matter what.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Celebrating the Word of the Lord – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3C (Nehemiah 8)

Nehemiah 8:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
**************

                The Nineteenth Psalm declares: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7). On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, the first reading from Scripture comes to us from the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah describes life in post-exilic Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a child of those members of the Jewish community who chose not to return to Jerusalem after Cyrus ended the exile in the sixth century BCE. Now, years later, we lean that Nehemiah was serving as a cup-bearer in the court of Artaxerxes (r. 465-525). While in this capacity, he learned of the situation of Jews living in Jerusalem and Judah. Things were looking bad, and Nehemiah grieved over this situation. Then, he asked his patron if he could go to Jerusalem and address the difficulties facing the people (Nehemiah 1-2). In other words, he was asking permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, including restoring its walls and gates. The exile had ended nearly a century earlier. A Temple had already been rebuilt, but the city was still largely in ruins. Nehemiah believed he could do something about the situation, and he received permission from the king. In fact, he was sent home with the title of governor.

                The first reading for this third Sunday of Epiphany speaks of a ceremony in which the people gather to renew the covenant between the people and God. It occurs after the walls have been rebuilt. As the people gathered at the Water Gate, the people asked that Ezra, the priest, who according to the Book of Ezra had also received permission from Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7), read from the Book of the Law of Moses. So, the gathered people— “men and women and all who could hear with understanding”—listened intently as Ezra read from the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.” It is this law of the Lord that the Psalmist declares to be perfect. Therefore, on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra read from the book of the law. He began reading early in the morning and continued until midday. According to the story before us, “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” For hours upon hours, the people listened attentively to the reading of the Word of the LORD.

                The lectionary leaves out verse 4, which includes a listing of all those who stood with Ezra as he read the Word of the LORD to the people. This group of people served as witnesses to the message. For continuity sake, I have included the omitted verses, but have italicized them.

                In verse 5 we have what looks like a repeat of what has already come to pass. Ezra is standing on the platform when he opens the book in front of the people. When he opens the Book of the Law, which is probably in the form of scrolls, everyone rises to their feet. There is a tradition in some churches to rise for the reading of Scripture. It is deemed to be a sign of respect and honor to the Word of God. I believe that at least some faith communities with this practice point to this event in the life of the people of Judah as precedent. This is again a reminder that what is taking place at the gate of the city is an act of worship, even as the people are engaged in renewing the covenant God had made with Moses. We’re told that when Ezra blessed the Lord, the people answered him by declaring “Amen, Amen” as they lifted their hands, bowed their heads, and worshipped God with their faces toward the ground. Yes, hearing the Word of the Lord read in community is an act of worship. It involved their voices and their bodies. As we hear this word, we might turn again to Psalm 19 where the Psalmist, declares that “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps. 19:8).

                Following this section of the story we encounter an omitted verse. Verse 7 of Nehemiah 8, like verse 4, includes a list of names. For readers of the Scripture these omissions are likely helpful. However, this omitted verse provides important information. We’re told that this group of people assisted Ezra in explaining the meaning of the Law. This is a good reminder that Scripture is not always self-interpreting nor is it so clear that anyone using common sense can read and understand what is being said. No, this verse reminds us of the importance of teachers of Scripture. This is reinforced by verse 8, which tells us that this group of assistants “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” We might want to use our imagination here to envision the assistants going out into the crowd and gathering smaller groups so that interpretation can be given. With this word, the section beginning in verse 5 comes to a close.

                The final section of the reading begins in verse 9. To this point, Ezra is the lead actor. He’s the own who reads the Law and offers initial instruction. Here in verse 9, Nehemiah, the governor, appears in the story for the first time. He joins Ezra and the Levites on the platform and adds his blessing to the event. Reading between the lines, it appears that as the people had begun to weep as the listened to the reading from the Law. Maybe they had begun to realize that they may have forgotten the core foundations of their faith. Now, perhaps for the first time, they are learning what the covenant entails. You might say that they felt convicted by the message.

It’s at this point that Nehemiah stepped up and began to speak. He told the people: “This day is holy to the LORD your God, do not mourn or weep.” This is not a time for sack cloth and ashes. This isn’t Ash Wednesday. This is Easter Sunday! So instead of weeping and mourning, go home and celebrate. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine. Have a party. If you have more than enough for yourself, share with your neighbor who is lacking in resources so they too can celebrate.

Nehemiah’s word to the people is a good reminder that holy days needn’t be somber. Some holy days might be somber—consider Ash Wednesday—but not all holy days require such an attitude. Some holy days require celebration. That is because “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”  As we face difficult times—as did the people of Jerusalem living in the 5th century—may we find our joy in the LORD, who is our strength! Amen!


Picture Attribution: Nehemiah in the Liturgy from a book of hours, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55356 [retrieved January 20, 2019]. Original source:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boise_State_MSS_122_2_crop.jpeg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Into Temptation: Epiphany 2

Into Temptation: Epiphany 2

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 20, 2019

Read Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB)

Reflection

canstockphoto7977811

In the 1980 movie Superman II, Superman disguised as Clark Kent, finally reveals to his colleague Lois Lane his love for her and when he does that, he also reveals that he is Superman.  They go to the Fortress of Solitude where Superman exposes himself to red kryptonite which took away his powers and made him mortal.

At the same time, three Kryptonians led by General Zod break out of the Phantom Zone prison and come to wreak havoc on the earth. When Zod is able to take control of the United States and threatens the world, the President cries out for Superman.  Clark is watching on TV and he knows that Superman can’t respond because of his choice.

The temptation of Jesus is interesting because it shows Jesus facing something we face all of the time: temptation.  For Jesus to be the Savior, to save us from damnation, he had to be able to face all that we face.  The temptation of Jesus shows two things: first, that the devil wants to separate God from the created order and two, that Jesus was in solidarity with us.  He was not some superhero that comes out of time and history to save humanity, but is with us, even in our temptations.

But the message here today is not how we can resist temptation in three easy steps.  The message is not that all you have to do is just say some Bible passages and the devil will flee.  The message here is that following Christ means entering into a life of the cross, a life where you will face challenges to leave a hard life behind and trade it for peace and security.

Jesus’ temptation is a repeat of the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In that story, the devil comes in the form of a snake using God’s words to get Eve to eat from the tree (though the first clue should be don’t ever trust talking animals). “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” says the devil. He is able to sow some words of doubt and twist God’s words in order to get Eve to pick the apple from the tree. Jesus’ temptation shows Jesus is in solidarity with all of humanity. God understands what we go through.

The craftiness of Satan is that he is able to take scripture out of context and use it for his own purposes. The devil loves to proof-text.

The temptation of Jesus shows how human Jesus was and it also tells us where Jesus is headed: the cross.

The ministry of Jesus was shaped by the cross.  The instrument of death was the shape of his work on earth.  It was a life living for others, a life of sacrifice, a life of challenges. What the devil wanted to do is to have Jesus give in to the creature comforts of life to trade the life of the cross for a place of easy and secure.

The work of the church is to live a life of the cross.  This is summed up in a passage from Acts that talks about life in the early church.  This is what Acts 2:42-47 says:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Some people have thought that this passage is somehow justifying socialism or support for government programs.  That is not what this passage is about.  It is about life in the early church and gives an example of the cross-shaped life we are to live within our church: a life where we care for each other: to the point that we share our possessions with each other, especially those in need.  Yes, we should do that outside the walls of this church, but it starts in how we treat those in our midst.

The church has and will always be tempted by the devil.  Some say that Emperor Constantine becoming a Christian and elevating Christianity to the state religion of the Roman Empire is the church falling for the devil’s final temptation. We are to say no to the devil’s wiles, but we say “no” knowing that God through Jesus was tempted too. God understands and God is with us as we also live a cross-shaped life where temptations are real.

This time of Epiphany is one where we look for the revelation of Christ in the world.  We see Christ when we see cross-shaped living in the lives of Christ followers.  That doesn’t mean we are all going to end up being crucified, but it does mean that we live a life that is not bound up in self, but in living for others to the point that if it is called for we will put our own lives on the line.  

We all want to escape the parts of life that are uncomfortable.  But God calls us to a sacrificial life, one that starts with the local faith community and branches out into the wider world.

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Called by a New Name – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2C (Isaiah 62)

Gerard David, Miracle at Cana (16th century)
Isaiah 62:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
*******************
                In a word spoken to a post-exilic community seeking to rebuild and create a new identity, the prophet, whom scholars identify as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 55-66), relays God’s message to the city of Zion-Jerusalem. The message is this: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”  In this message that is written using parallelisms we hear of God’s intense interest in the welfare of the covenant people of God who dwell in Jerusalem. The language is that of covenant, and the passage as a whole speaks of this covenant relationship in terms of the intimacy of a marriage relationship (even if it is couched in patriarchal terms).
In this scenario, God is the bridegroom, while Zion-Jerusalem is the bride. As the divine bridegroom, God has made a claim on Zion (and we might, perhaps, the whole people of Israel). It is clear that difficult times had preceded this announcement. Perhaps we could speak in terms of a prior divorce (exile) that involved a city laid waste and its Temple destroyed, while the leading citizens were taken away into exile to the faraway land of Babylon. The exile is now in the past, but it is still part of the people’s memory.  Memories of exile and displacement doesn’t dissipate quickly or easily. Congregations that have moved know this to be true. We might even think of the current age, where religious institutions struggle for survival as being a time of exile. We may wonder if there is hope of restoration. In this passage, Zion has emerged from exile, and has seen the covenant relationship restored. We can imagine hear the people who receive this word celebrating their vindication as seen in the rebuilding of the city (and perhaps the Temple as well).  Not only do the people of Zion witness this reality, but so do the kings of the nations, who bear witness to this vindication. As I pondered this message, I thought of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. While this passage is not one of the lectionary readings for the day, what the prophet describes is a day of new beginnings. The old is passed away, and the new has begun. It’s time to rejoice and be glad. Indeed, it’s time for a wedding feast.
                 This change of status is represented here by a name change, which is in keeping with biblical precedent. Throughout Scripture names get changed to reflect new realities. Such is the case here. Whereas once Jerusalem was known as “Forsaken” and “Desolate,” now the city shall be called “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” We know that some things get lost in translation, and that is in a sense true here. The meaning comes through with the translations, but we lose some of the poetics of the passage in this translation. When we look at the names in Hebrew, we see their rhythmic qualities. Thus, Azubah and Hephzibah become Shemamah and Beulah. Although things have been changing in recent years, when two people get married, it has been tradition for the wife to take the husband’s name. [See discussion by Julie Faith Parker in Connections, p. 181].And, when we name our children, those names often have some significance for us as well. They represent something about who we are. The name might be that of a friend or a relative, or a player of one’s favorite baseball team. I am named after my father. Sometimes we look at baby name books and pick out one that sounds good to the ear. Or, we might just want to break with conformity and choose something out of the ordinary. Whatever we choose reflects on our identity, and unless we change our names, we’re stuck (for good or ill).
Jerusalem got a name change due to the marriage covenant God made with the city. It went from “Forsaken” and “Desolate” to “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” If we understand the context of this word, we understand the power of this name change. It represents the move from exile to return. In marriage terms we could see this as a move from divorce to remarriage. It is a rekindling of a broken relationship. This is represented by the move from the city being abandoned and destroyed to be repopulated and rebuilt after the exile.  With this name change God affirms the reestablishment of a relationship with the people that had been broken, and thus a reaffirmation of the covenant God had made long ago.  
 
When we read passages like this, we will need to address the patriarchal background of the biblical imagery. At least in my circles, there has long been a move from patriarchalism, where the husband rules and the wife submits, to one of equal partnership. The move to mutuality in our interpretation of this passage will need to be done with great care so as not to either reinforce patriarchalism or miss important points of the passage. It is important to recognize the covenant language present here. It’s not the language of an equal partnership. God is the claimant, the protector, and the city is the recipient of this care, for God is like the bridegroom who rejoices over his bride. In this, the city is vindicated. The nations affirm God’s act of vindication.      
   
       
                As we ponder these words, we must acknowledge the patriarchal realities that stand behind these words, even as we seek to hear a word concerning our own relationship with God. We might, for instance, read this through the lens of liberation theology. God is the one who has stepped in and liberated the people from their oppressors. In this case it would have been the Babylonians. This is a hopeful word to those who struggle against injustice and oppression in our day. The covenant language that is present here also reminds us of the intimacy with which we relate to the God who will not remain silent, but who will vindicate God’s people. The word we hear is that we are called by a new name. We have gone from Forsaken to Marriage (Beulah). With that promise of a restored relationship with God our vindicator, we can join the festivities. After all, didn’t Jesus himself bless a wedding party? That is the message of John 2, where Jesus makes wine at the wedding in Cana! With that promise, may we rejoice in God’s protective presence, even as we refrain from embracing the patriarchal vision of marriage that is present in the passage.   


Picture Attribution: David, Gérard, ca. 1460-1523. Miracle at Cana, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46657 [retrieved January 14, 2019].

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Goin’ Old School: Baptism of Jesus

Goin’ Old School: Baptism of Jesus

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 13, 2019

Reflection

baptismal-font-116878_1280

Today’s passage reminds us that baptism isn’t all sweetness and light.  God wants people to live changed lives and when John baptizes these people, they are saying they will live a changed life. Baptism is a wonderful experience, but it’s also asking God to come into our lives and God wants it all.

John talks about the coming of Jesus as the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That’s important to remember because too often, people see John as an old fashioned prophet who instilled fear while Jesus was all about love.  Nope.  Look at Matthew chapter 23 sometime.  Jesus calls the religious leaders…a brood of vipers. 

Matthew 4:17 has Jesus beginning his ministry by saying “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Common English Bible) Matthew 11:21 issues woes for the towns that refused to repent:

How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin! How terrible it will be for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives and put on funeral clothes and ashes a long time ago.

-Common English Bible

So Jesus and John were not saying different things, they were preaching the same message; asking people to change their lives.

Our baptism is a reminder that we are loved by God and there is nothing we can do about that. In gratitude, we go from these walls to serve others: our neighbors and strangers in need.

It was Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ, summed up what baptism is. He said, “baptism is sort of an embodiment of the gospel and solemn expression of it all in a single act. In baptism, we are passive in everything but giving our consent. We are buried and raised by another. Hence, in no view of baptism can it be called a good work.”

Many traditions including Lutherans, Catholic and Anglican have Easter Vigil. People gather on the Saturday before Easter and hear the salvation story from the Creation to Jesus’ resurrection. At some point during the service, the pastor takes a tree branch and puts in the baptismal font. He or she then will throw the water into the congregation, telling them: “remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Now, it’s a little hard for the traditions to remember their baptisms since they practice infant baptism, but that’s not what the pastor means. What it means is to remember that it was at these waters that a person became part of God’s family and that God loves cares.  Remember that baptism and repentance means your world has changed.

Peter Morgan, the past head of the Disciples Historical society said this about baptism: “We rose from the water to manifest the presence of Christ. We are the laos, the people of God born from the water of baptism into a sacramental ministry, manifesting the presence of Christ.”

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Drawn Towards the Light: Epiphany

Drawn Towards the Light: Epiphany

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 6, 2019

Read Matthew 2:1-23 (CEB)

Reflection

threekingsIn the summer of 1984, I was fourteen. I was part of the cross-country team in high school, and the coach thought it would be a good idea to go up to a state park in northern Michigan to train before school started. I should state that I am NOT the world’s best runner. I wasn’t then, and as I am not now. During the evenings, we would walk from the campground to the lodge, which was probably a good mile or two away. We would hang out and play pool and listen to the radio. When we were done and headed back, we made our way down a very, very dark road. It was scary, but I knew I wasn’t alone, so I could deal with it.

Well, one evening, we were at the lodge and I stepped away for a bit. When I came back, my fellow teammates were gone. They had met some local girls and decided to head down to the lake. I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. I could try to follow them down the tricky path to the lake, or I could just walk back to the campground. Neither option was that pleasant, but I went for door number two and started walking back to the campground.

Did I say walking? I meant running for dear life. The road was pitch black and I could not see in front of me. I probably did my best mile ever. Here I was running alone in the darkness. I was incredibly scared. 

At some point, I saw a light. I felt a sense of relief. I went to the door and knocked. A woman came to the door and I frantically explained my situation and asked for a ride to the campground. I didn’t want to continue on this dark road. For whatever reason, the woman did not offer much help except to say that I was not far from the campground. So proceeded on the dark road. I saw a small glimmer of light ahead that broke through the darkness. I kept running and the light grew and multiplied. I started to give thanks to God as I realized I was nearing the campground. I was finally home and the complete darkness was replaced by the warm glow of a campfire.

In our world today, there are many like the Wise Men who are looking for Christ, looking for the light. They are our loved ones, our friends and our workmates. Sometimes they come to our churches wanting to seek Christ. What will they find here? Will they find Christ or will it be a Herod and the priests, who seemed to be more interested in worldly things than in the things of God?

Christ is present in the world. The way most people know of Jesus is not simply the words found in the Bible but in the lives of Christians. When we publicly live as Christ would have us to live, people are drawn to the presence of God.

The light of Christ is in the world, but it can only be known when those who dare to call themselves Christians are living in the light.

When the Wise Men finally found Jesus, they gave gifts and worshiped him. So it is when today’s Magi find Christ, they will give worship to Christ when they see it happening. And they should see that happening in the gathered community of believers called the church.

When I was 14, that light shining in the distance have me hope. When the Magi finally found the baby Jesus they were filled with joy. So should it be when people encounter God’s followers. When the encounter a place where they are welcomed and loved; a place where they are fed when hungry, clothed when naked, befriended when lonely.

Arise and shine, for your light has come.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.