Category: Epiphany

There’s Always Next Year: Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

There’s Always Next Year: Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 31, 2019

Read Matthew 25:1-13 (CEB)

Reflection

coors-field-4045017_1280My partner in crime at the blog, Bob Cornwall has a blog post from 2014 where he reflects on this very text.  In it, he talks about the Chicago Cubs and how most Cubs fans always say at the end of the season, “there’s always next year.”  For well over century, the Cub fans believed that someday and someday soon, the Cubs would make it back to the World Series and win, which they last did in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was President. They had not even been to the World Series since 1945. Bob said in his commentary, “After all, most Cub fans have never seen a World Series played at Wrigley Field.  Perhaps they never will.”

Oh, ye of little faith. 

What Bob didn’t know writing in 2014 is that two years later, the Cubs would do the impossible: winning the World Series in 7 games.  What fans had been waiting for finally happened, but as Bob’s post shows, we didn’t know when.

Think about it this: there were generations of people who never saw the Cubs win the world series.  You have to believe that each person until their dying day believed that the next year would be the year for the Cubs. “There’s always next year.”

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is one of those stories that leaves both scared and mad.  Jesus is in the middle of telling several tales about the coming judgment when God returns. Next week we will hear about the Sheep and the Goats, but this week we hear the story of ten virgins. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven (which usually means God) is like ten virgins waiting at a wedding, waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. When he arrived at the house, the bridesmaids would greet him and escort the gentleman to the house of the bride where there would be feasting. We hear this story about the ten virgins and learn that five brought extra oil for their lamps and five didn’t do that.  Why didn’t the wise virgins share their oil with the foolish ones?  Why did the groom not welcome let the foolish virgins in after they purchased extra oil?

The temptation here is to get lost in the weeds and make this a story about the selfish virgins that didn’t share.  But that’s not the point of the parable.  The point of the parable is readiness, a kind of alert waiting for something, even when we don’t know when it will happen.

I remember as a kid that we had to go through fire drills.  The thing is, you never knew when the drill would take place. It could happen when we are studying math or taking a quiz.  Whenever it happened, we had to stop what we were doing and quietly leave the room and head out of the building.

But in the meantime, you had to learn arithmetic.  You need to read Shakespeare.  You have to do all the things you had to do at school.

As Christians, we await when Christ returns. We believe as the Apostles Creed says that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Until that day comes, we wait and you know what it means to wait? It means to live our lives.  It means we gather with other Christ followers at church and where we take part in the Lord’s Supper.  It means caring for the least of these around us.  We wait, by living, aware that God is present and that God will return.

It took a long time for the Cubs to win a world series.  But people just kept going to ballgames at Wrigley Field telling themselves at the end of every season, “there’s always next year.” Hopefully, the Cubs will win before 2124, but even if that is the case, there will be people waiting until next year. May it be with us as followers of Jesus.  We live and we wait, because who knows what will happen “next year.”

 

Notes:

 

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

Dressed for the Occasion: Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Dressed for the Occasion: Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 24, 2019

Read Matthew 22:1-14 (CEB)

Reflection

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Photo by Ibrahim Asad from Pexels

In 1978 when I was around 8 years old, I participated in my first wedding.  Well, it wasn’t a real wedding, it was a Tom Thumb wedding. If you are familiar with the practice this is a play wedding where are the participants, the pastor, the bride, the groom, the best man, the bridesmaid, everyone is a child.  I was part of the groom’s party and I remember having to dress in a tux. I remember having to go to a tuxedo rental place to find a tux that would fit me.

The day came for the wedding.  We had the event and then got in cars and drove around the neighborhood in our pretend procession for our pretend wedding.

What I remember from that occasion was that all of the kids were dressed to the nines.  Of course, we had to be, it was a wedding. Well, that and our parents kind of made us dress up for the event.

It’s funny that even though we had to have the proper attire for the event, adults don’t always dress up for the occasion.  I know that we are a more casual culture these days, but I think at times we’ve gone overboard.  I’m always looking at how people dress when they go to weddings and there is always someone that looks like they literally came off the street.  I’ll be honest, I’m not always a fan of dressing to the nines, but I know there are certain events, weddings, and funerals, where it just makes sense to dress up- not to look good, but to show that this event means something, that it isn’t every day.

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is one that is confusing and disturbing.  It’s disturbing that people didn’t want to go to a wedding and they didn’t want to do it so badly that they were willing to kill for it, which is what the king did when some servants were killed by ungrateful subjects.

The king then asks his servants to go and find people on the streets and invite them to the banquet.  This should be where the parable ends, with the king or God inviting the poor to take part in the banquet. Kind of a nice picture isn’t it?

But the tale doesn’t end there. There is still part two.

The banquet is taking place, people are enjoying themselves and the king then notices there is one person that is not wearing wedding clothes.  The king asks, “Friend, where are your wedding clothes?”  The man is speechless. The king angrily demands his servants cast the man out of the banquet and into the darkness.

It’s that odd act of casting out the man who didn’t wear wedding clothes.  It seems mean.

But let’s look at this from another viewpoint. It’s important to remember that this is talking about the end of the time. Salvation is offered to all. Some hear and accept and others don’t.  Some see their salvation and live in wonder. But others take their salvation for granted. Living in wonder and thankfulness is like wearing your fancy duds.  If you take it for granted, it’s like wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Not wearing the clothes of grace is not accepted at the banquet.  It was an offense, so the man was cast out. One note, nothing says the man wasn’t allowed back in if he got the proper clothes.

There is such a thing as cheap grace which means understanding you are forgiven, but not really making any changes in your life because of what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

I can imagine 8-year-old me was happy to get out of that tux at the Tom Thumb wedding.  I was eight years old after all. But I never did forget to make sure I dressed for the occasion.  And may we not forget that as well.

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.

Notes:

 

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

Transmogrify!: Transfiguration

Transmogrify!: Transfiguration

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 3, 2019

Reflection

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The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rumored to have said that when Jesus calls us to follow him, bids us to come and die.  To be a disciple is to be a person that makes decisions that cause people to die.  It is about denying ourselves, living just for us and being willing to take up our crosses. Most of the time the dying or the cross is figurative; sometimes it is literal.  Indeed, Bonhoeffer stood against Hitler and Fascism.  Because he stood up to evil, he was imprisoned and later executed- all in the name of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and countless others are Christians who felt called to follow Jesus, even when the road was uncomfortable, even when it meant their lives.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we are all going to die.  But being a disciple does change us, or at least it should.  Like Jesus on the mountain, we are going to be changed.  It means that daily we will deny ourselves and take up the crosses in our lives. The reason we go to church is to gather as a community of disciples, to be reminded who we are and whose we are.  Peter is like most of us, we want to follow Jesus, but we don’t want to change-we want to stay on the mountain.

But to be a Christ follower means being changed.  

 Based on the events that took place in Selma, Alabama in February and March of 1965, the 2015 movie Selma is not just a story about civil rights, it is an example of discipleship.  The base of operations for the protest was an African Methodist Episcopal congregation.  A white Unitarian minister, James Reeb, came down to participate in the protests. He was beaten by white supremacists and later died from his injuries.  Then there is Amelia Boyton Robinson.  She was a civil rights activist who died in 2015 at the age of 103. . She was involved in the protests especially during “Bloody Sunday” a day when the police beat the protestors who were crossing the bridge. She was among those injured.  She believed in nonviolent protests and the call to love the enemy.  She even went to the funeral of the sheriff in Selma, the one who led the charge against the protestors.  That’s discipleship: to follow Jesus even to the point of loving someone who really hurt you.

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.

Notes:

 

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

Loaves Abound!: Epiphany 6

Loaves Abound!: Epiphany 6

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 24, 2019

Reflection

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A modern interpretation of the feeding of the 5000 as a parable about sharing.  That take says that when Jesus uses the bread and fish that the disciples found, others who had brought food, felt safe to bring their it out and share it with others.  The reasons behind seeing this story as one about sharing is that it doesn’t put it all in God’s hands.  We are also called to feed the poor among us. An example of this comes from Episcopal author Barbara Brown Taylor who explains that she has a problem with miracles:

“Miracles,” she writes, “ let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all. But in this story,” she writes, “God tells us, out of God’s own deep pain and sadness for the world, ‘Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.” 1

On the other hand, theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that we have lost the language to explain miracles.  He writes:

“Those of us who dwell in the time called modernity do not easily recognize miracles because we have lost any sense of the miracle of life. Wendell Berry suggests that we cannot recognize the miracle of life because we use the wrong language to speak of the world and its creatures. We use the analytic language that gives power to experts and fails to designate what is being described. As a result, the world has been reclassified from creature to machine, making us strangers to our own lives.” 2

Which one makes sense?  The focus on sharing seems plausible and reasonable.  But looking at Barbara Brown Taylor’s quote, it seems to tell us that God doesn’t intervene into our lives, but tells us to figure it out ourselves. When God does seem to get involved, it seems like it focuses on morals than it is focused on God. A pastor responds that for him the greater miracle was Jesus getting people to share than it is having Jesus feeding 5000 with the loaves and fish.  The pastor’s belief is that the point of this story is for us to learn to share, to be moral people. Jesus does want the disciples to feed the crowd, but he has to show them how that happens.

If you see this story alone then, you could see this as a moral tale, but this story is linked to how God feeds the Israelites as they traveled in the desert. The people had to rely on God to feed them daily.  It also looks towards the church where bread and wine remind us of Christ’s work on the cross.

Some have a hard time coming to terms with Jesus performing a miracle.  The sharing story just makes more sense than taking a little food and feeding it to 5000 people.  At the end of the day, how we look at the story depends on who is the focus of the story, the disciples or us or God? The answer will lead us down one path or another.

Notes:

  1. http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2014/080314.html
  2.  Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew (p. 140). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

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

God Provides, Reconciles, and Redeems – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 7C (Genesis 45)

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Genesis 45:3-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

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If you grew up learning the stories of the Bible you will have heard the stories of Joseph and his brothers. You would know that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, for he was the first-born child of Jacob’s favorite wife (Rachel). You may know that Joseph was a bit arrogant, especially after his father gave him a coat of many colors. In his arrogance he told his brothers that they would bow down to him and serve him. This arrogance on Joseph’s part so angered his older brothers, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once in Egypt he made his mark and rose in stature, but then ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him, and subsequently crying attempted rape. Joseph was arrogant, but not a rapist. His ability to interpret dreams got him freed from prison and eventually brought to the attention of Pharaoh, who had a dream he couldn’t understand. Joseph interpreted the dream, telling Pharaoh that a famine was coming, and that Pharaoh should plan for that eventuality. Pharaoh decided that it would be wise to give responsibility for this project to the one who interpreted the dream. Thus, Joseph moved from slavery to prison to chief minister. Not bad for an arrogant brat! Then again, his father was something of a trickster who always seemed to come out on top!

Joseph fulfilled his responsibilities, and provision was made for the time when famine arrived, not only in Egypt but as far away as Canaan, the land of his father and mother. When Jacob heard that there was food to be had in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase supplies. This they did, not knowing that the one who would provide for them was their long-lost brother. They may not have recognized him, but he recognized them. So he played a trick on them, to test them. He had a silver cup he used for divination (yes Joseph practiced divination) placed in Benjamin’s belongings, and then sent his guards after them. That episode, leads to the reading for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany. It’s rare to make it seven Sundays in Epiphany, but here we are with this encounter between estranged brothers, which serves as another manifestation of God’s presence.

In the chapter prior, Joseph sets up a test (trap) to see, apparently, where the heart of their brothers was? Had they changed over the many years of separation. And, what would they do about their brother Benjamin? Would they ransom him or not? Judah does so. He pleads for his brother’s life. This leads to the moment of revelation.

When Joseph could no longer keep up the act, having been satisfied that his brothers had changed, and wanting to provide for his long-lost father, he identifies himself as their brother. Now, you can just imagine the first thoughts of his older brothers. Here was the brother they first tried to kill, then sold into slavery. They figured he was dead by now. Instead, he had risen to be the second most important person in the land. He could easily have them killed. So, what would he do to them?

Joseph, who desired to be reconciled, quickly let them know they had nothing to fear. They may have meant him harm many years before, but things sometimes have a way of working out for the benefit of all, even when they are entered into with the wrong motives. There is a bit of a theological challenge here. Joseph, in trying to allay their fears, tells them that while they meant him harm, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” This episode raises a question that is worth exploring. Does God cause bad things to happen, so good can come of it? Or, does God work with us to bring good out of bad situations? In other words, did God orchestrate all of this, or did God partner with Joseph to bring a blessing out of a difficult situation? As for me, I affirm the second position.

Tom Oord takes up this episode in his book God Can’t. He suggests that “God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed.” God did this in Joseph’s situation. The brothers may have intended harm for Joseph, but God didn’t. Nevertheless, God did bring good out of bad. [God’ Can’t, p. 115].

Having revealed himself to his brothers and suggesting that God had brought good out of bad, he invited his brothers to bring their father to Egypt so they could settle in Goshen and enjoy the bounty that was God’s provision. They do so. They gather their father and settle in Goshen. And all is good, or so it seems.

It’s interesting that the brothers remain suspicious of Joseph’s motives. Once their father has passed from the scene, they begin to worry. Maybe Joseph hasn’t really forgiven but didn’t want to his father. Now that the father is dead, well Joseph might decide to exact revenge. Joseph, who was good at reading things, realized his brothers were worried, so he reassured them. He told them, “Do not be afraid!” He assured them that “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:15-21).

What we see in this final episode of Genesis is a reminder that God is committed to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. God will continue to be with them, even when a time will come when there will arise in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8). This new Pharaoh grew frightened of this “foreign presence” in the land. But that’s another story, except that it too is part of the covenant story. God will not forget God’s people. God is always on the lookout for partners, whether Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, or Moses.

As for the relationship of estranged brothers, Joseph’s actions presaged the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke regarding loving one’ enemies:

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).

And the covenant people kissed, wept, and made up—though it took more than once before everyone was truly convinced! This is a good reminder that forgiveness is not easy. Sure, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. Forgive, and we’ll be forgiven. Yet, we know the difficulties involved. Joseph learned some important lessons during his sojourn in Egypt. It took some time for him to come to the point of forgiveness. It took longer for his brothers to believe him. Reconciliation is not easy. But it is possible, when we join with God in the act of redemption. This act of reconciliation that took place here is one small part of a larger story or redemption, which we are invited to share in. Thanks be to God!

Picture Attribution: Bourgeois, Leon Pierre Urbain. Joseph recognized by his brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55355 [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers.jpg.

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.

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.
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                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

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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.