Category: Genesis

Naked Before God – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 20B (Hebrews 4)

Hebrews 4:12-16  New Revised Standard Version

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


                Jesper Svartvik writes in a critical essay published in the Christian Century  that the Book of Hebrews is the most dangerous book in the New Testament for Jews. That danger is due to the way in which it has been used down through time to elevate Christianity at the expense of Judaism, whose covenant relationship is said to be obsolete. When read this way, Hebrews suggests that a superior covenant is now in place. That which is obsolete is of little or no value. Thus, Judaism has been placed on the dust heap of history. God has moved on to Christianity. This message of obsolescence and Christian superiority serves as the foundation for supersessionism and it has given rise to all manner of anti-Jewish efforts down through history, culminating in the Holocaust/Shoah. So if we do not wish to embrace supersessionism but wish to profitably read, teach, and preach from this book it does seem that we will need to tread carefully.

                This reading from Hebrews 4 that has been chosen for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost appears to be less susceptible to supersessionism, but we will need to keep a close eye on how we interpret and use this passage. What we do see here is an elevated view of Jesus’ personhood. He is the  “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” who can sympathize with our weaknesses since he too has been tested but without sinning. Therefore, we can go before the throne of grace with boldness so we can receive God’s grace and mercy. While the second part of the reading speaks directly to the ministry of Jesus, our high priest, the first part can be read in this way as well. Though it has often been read in reference to the Bible, I’m not sure that this is the most appropriate reading.

                In the first paragraph, we read that the “word of God is living and active,” and it judges our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Thus, we stand naked before this word, so that we are laid bare before the one who judges us. The message here is that we can’t hide from God. God sees us as we are, that can be a bit scary if you ask me. I like to pretend that I can hide from God’s eyes, though I know I can’t. That’s the first message, but the second one offers a bit of relief from the rather scary message present in the first paragraph. You see, Jesus is our high priest who understands our predicament. He’s been tested also even though he didn’t give in to the temptations we all face as human beings. Nevertheless, he understands!

                The passage that the lectionary offers us is relatively brief. It’s just five verses. Though it is brief it does pack a lot into these sentences. As I noted above, the reading begins with a statement concerning the word of God, which “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” While I have often seen this used to speak of the Bible—and it could speak of Scripture (at least the Old Testament)—I believe it might be better read in reference to Jesus, who according to John 1 is the word of God (Jn 1:1-14).

                Now, reading Scripture can open our hearts and minds to challenging messages that may have the feel of a sword piercing into our inner being, so that we are laid naked before God. We call that being convicted by the message of Scripture. However, when read in the larger context, it seems to me that the author of Hebrews has in mind something like what John speaks of in chapter one of the Gospel. When read this way, the reference to the word of God takes on life in the person of Jesus. It becomes not just words on a page but a living and active person. In his words and his actions, he becomes that two-edged sword that cuts to the quick. While Hebrews uses the word sword here, might a scalpel be an even better image? In either case, this sharp instrument divides soul and spirit and judges the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” No matter how hard you try, you cannot hide from him. In fact, we are all “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

                As we ponder this word, we might think back to the Garden. Although in the beginning Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25), once sin opened their eyes to their situation, they realized they were naked so when God came to the Garden they hid (Gen 3:8-10). Now in Genesis 3, when God entered the Garden, it appears that not only did they hide, but God couldn’t see them. That’s not the case here. No matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from the word of God (Jesus) who as our judge cuts to the quick.

                Yes, God sees. In fact, Hagar discovered that truth after she was exiled from the household of Abraham and Sarah. When God came looking for her after she cried out for help, she gave God the name “El-Roi,” which means “God sees” (Genesis16:7-13). Adam and Eve tried to hide from the eyes of God, but Hagar welcomed God’s eyes. That’s because God saw her predicament and responded. So, as Jennifer Kaalund writes, “Like Hagar, the audience of this homily is experiencing trials that are testing their faith. God sees and responds. Recognizing the God sees us should not be met solely with fear and trepidation. One should also have a sense of eager anticipation, knowing that the God who sees is also the God who reveals Godself and responds with mercy and grace” [Connections, p. 382].

                While judgment is the message of the first paragraph in this brief reading, grace and mercy is the message that comes through in the second paragraph. The word of God may be sharper than a two-edged sword cutting between joint and marrow so that everything is laid bare before God, but when Jesus acts as High Priest and intercedes on our behalf the result is grace and mercy. The author makes a comparison here to the Temple system in which priests offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. The difference, according to Hebrews (and where the danger of supersessionism lurks) is that Jesus both understands our situation because he was tested like us, but at the same time he did not sin. He understands but didn’t give in. The same can’t be said for us or the Temple priests. Nevertheless, an offering is made that allows us to go before the throne of God to seek God’s forgiveness. We can do this boldly because of Jesus’ priestly intercessions. The result is grace and mercy. In other words, God invites us to speak openly and honestly about whatever is on our minds and hearts. We don’t have to hold back. After all, God already can see us warts and all. As a result, we will receive mercy from God and the grace that we need in our time of need. For the original recipients, who appear to be struggling against stiff opposition this is good news. They are not alone. They have a priest who not only understands their situation but is ready to go to bat for them. The same can be true for us. We can go boldly before the throne of God because we have a high priest who is ready to stand with us, even as he lays us bare before God.         


Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 27, 2020

Read: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15- 21


Beginning with chapter 37 until the end of the book of Genesis, the story focuses mainly on one person, Joseph.  The great-grandson of Abraham, you might have heard the story of Joseph as a kid, and over the last few years, you might have even seen a production of the Broadway play, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Our story opens with Jacob and his sons.  Joseph is one of the “babies” of the family and tends to chores close to home instead of shepherding the flock with his older brothers.

Now, it’s quite common for a child to ask their parents if they love them or their sister/brother more.  The parent will say that they love each child equally.  You won’t find that story in today’s text.  Jacob played favorites with his children, and Joseph was his number one son.  Because he was the number one son, he got a special garment- a “long robe with sleeves,” the Bible says. It was a very fancy coat, one that set someone apart from manual labor.  In popular culture, the coat is described as one of  “many colors.”  In reality, some translations note the coat was an ornamental coat and others talk about a multi-colored coat.  Either way, it was a really nice coat that signified Joseph was special- which is something that really bothered his brothers. The text never said if Joseph knew that he was the favorite, but one could guess that he did and made sure his brothers did too. None of this endeared Joseph to his brothers.  They couldn’t stand him.  Now in most families, it quite normal to have some sibling rivalries.  But as we saw with Cain and Abel, when brother feud in the Bible, it can sometimes get a little out of hand.

We learn that Joseph has a special talent: deciphering dreams.  His parlor trick will come in handy later in our story, but right now all it does is annoy his brothers as we see in this snippet: 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ 8His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.Genesis 37:5-8 (NRSV)

For his brothers, this was the last straw.  It was time to do something.  It was time to get Joseph out of the way.  Permanently.

Joseph’s brothers were looking forward to getting rid (ie: kill) of this dreamer who was an annoying pest.  His brothers were ready to kill him, but Ruben stopped his brothers from committing fratricide.  Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, and Jacob is told that his precious son, his favorite son,  is dead. Between chapters 37 and 50, we follow Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  He gets to work in the house of a government official, and later falsely accused of raping the official’s wife, who wanted to sleep with him. Joseph winds up in prison, but it released when people learn he can interpret dreams.  He is called by the Pharoah to interpret his dream and he is able to discern a famine is coming and the nation must prepare.  Egypt is saved from a devastating famine and in turn, helps other nations that are affected by a drought.  Joseph is made what would basically be the Prime Minister of the nation. Joseph’s brothers return to the scene again as they travel to Egypt to get food during the famine.  In the end, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and his father. His family is welcome to come and live with Joseph in Egypt.

Genesis 50 opens up with Jacob dying. But Joseph’s brothers were afraid of him and for good reason. Now that Jacob is dead, will Joseph make life hard for them?  They come to Joseph and tell him that before Jacob died he told them that Joseph must forgive his brothers.  His brothers really hadn’t changed- they were motivated by self-interest.  Jacob never said this.  Instead of asking for forgiveness for how they treated Joseph, they instead invoke their dead father telling Joseph that he had to forgive his brothers because it was what dear old dad wanted.

In spite of their lying, Joseph forgives his brothers responding that God was able to use an evil experience and make it into something good. There is an important lesson to be learned here about suffering and the work of God.Joseph could see how God was working within his suffering and so he could see that something good came of the years of captivity and estrangement. However, it is bad taste for someone other than the sufferer to impose a meaning on them. What we see in chapter 50 is how God’s will works even in the midst of evil.

It was wrong for the brothers to seek to kill Joseph and then decide to see him into slavery.But God used this situation to help save the Egyptians from famine.We can’t and shouldn’t say that such evils are God’s will, we can see how God’s justice can work through human sin, just as it did later on in Scripture in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


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

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 20, 2020

Read: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7



In the fall of 2001, I was a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  I made rounds, visiting people and I stopped  by a room where a number of people were gathered.  On the bed, was man who seemed asleep.  His wife explained he had a brain tumor.  From what I knew it didn’t look good; he didn’t have long in this world.  But the wife told me with hope that he would get better.  They were hoping he would be able to go a facility to rehabilitate. She wanted me to lead a prayer.  I was nervous, because I didn’t want to pray a prayer that would give them false hope.  I didn’t think that God was going to magically heal this man’s tumor.  And in some way I was right, a little later I heard that the man was going to hospice.

Was I right to believe that it was foolish to believe this man would be healed?  Should I have told the family that God would heal this man?

In our passage, Abraham welcomes three guests.  It was common in desert cultures to offer strangers hospitality.  Since there were no McDonalds in the desert; it made sense that people would offer travelers something to eat and drink.  Abraham welcomed these guests and went above and beyond in hospitality.  He asked Sarah to make bread with the finest flour.  He told a servant to kill a calf and then offered a refreshing drink.  We learn one of the visitors is the Lord himself.  As they ate their food, God tells Abraham that in the space of a year, he and Sarah would have a child.

Now a few things here:  Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was 90.  God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation when he was 75.  So, the couple had been told for several decades that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.  Sarah was already way, way past her childbearing years so there seemed to be no possible way that Sarah was going to have a baby.

Sarah was eavesdropping nearby and when she heard all of this, she let out a laugh.  She laughed because she had heard for decades that she would have a child and nothing ever changed.  She was already barren when Abraham first told her of what God told him.  She knew it wasn’t going to happen. She even suggested that Abraham get with her servant Hagar to have a child.  Ishmael was the result of this pairing, but even Sarah wasn’t pleased with that solution. Sarah had received heartache on heartache.  She was old, Ishmael wasn’t working out.  She knew how life worked and she and Abraham had come to accept they would never be parents. Her laugh was a laugh of anger, frustration and hurt. I’m going to have a child?  Now? At my age? Not bloody likely.

Sarah heard for years something would happen and it never did.  She was used to things being what they were and couldn’t believe that things would be different.

If we were in Sarah’s place, would we laugh?  I think if it was me, I probably would.  I would like to believe that I would believe that God could do anything, but like Sarah, I know too much.  I know that people with brain tumors seldom recover.  I know that some couples face miscarriages. I know people die from cancer.  I know that evil exists and that the impossible is just that; impossible. 

Theologian David Watson notes that mainline Protestant theologians in the 20th and early 21st centuries have grappled with the problem of evil.  The horrors of two major global wars and the Holocaust have made us think that divine action is not possible.  

Watson continues saying that the result is that because liberal theologians had this view, it trickled down to the churches.  We had whole communities of faith that no longer believed that God would show up.  Watson puts it plainly:

“For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.”

None of this means we should not take evil seriously.  But we shouldn’t let that limit God.  Instead in the midst of this world where there is heartache, we still hope and pray that God will do the impossible in our impossible world.

God answers Sarah’s doubt.  “Is anything to difficult for the Lord?”  Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that this is really a question God is expecting Sarah (and Abraham) to answer.  The story ends with us never knowing what Sarah said in response other than that she didn’t laugh.  I’m guessing she didn’t immediately believe.  God was really asking; do you believe in me or not?  Do you trust me or not? 

In chapter 21, we see a different kind of laughter.  As God said, Abraham and Sarah did have a baby and named him Isaac which meant laughter.  God had the last laugh.  “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,”  Sarah says with a heart full of joy.  Indeed, how could they not?  This was so fanciful and unbelievable that you had to laugh.  You had to laugh for joy.

Faith in God means believing in the impossible.  It doesn’t mean taking leave of our sense and to start jumping off buildings thinking God will save us.  We believe in the impossible, not the ridiculous.  But we have to believe that our God is real, and powerful and can make a difference in our lives and in our world.  There will still be evil in the world.  There will be heartache.  But because we believe God will do the impossible, we end up having something that in and of itself seems weird: joy.  We begin to see God in the hidden corners of our lives, places where we thought God could never be present.


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

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 13, 2020

Read: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8


If you grew up hearing Bible stories, you know the first words in the book of Genesis.  Those words, “In the beginning” is the start of the Creation Story. We might think we know the story inside and out. But did you know there are two creation stories with two distinct emphases?

Think of it this way: Genesis 1 is like a big blockbuster motion picture. Do you remember the opening of Star Wars with the orchestra and that scrolling text? That is what Genesis 1 can feel like.  Genesis 2 tells the story again, but this time it is more intimate, more focused. If Genesis 1 is the big summer movie, then Genesis 2 is like a documentary focusing on the most minute of aspects.  Genesis 1 shows God’s power through the creation of the world. Genesis 2 shows God being more in relationship with creation, especially one particular part of creation: humans. Today we learn about the start of a sometimes beautiful friendship with humanity.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that the creation stories reflect stories about how the world began that were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia (where modern-day Iraq is located). Bureggeman notes that the texts were probably written in the Sixth Century B.C.E. and to the people of Israel. At the time of writing, the Israelites were not in a good shape. Foreign invaders called the Babylonians came and conquered the people. Many were taken away from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon (again, located in what is today Iraq). If you were a Jew who had been taken away from their homeland and were told that your people are weak and even your God is weak, how would you feel? Pretty rotten. The Babylonians were acting like any invader would and trying to tell their new conquest that mighty Babylon was in charge. They told their newest conquests that their god was dead. The God of Israel was dead. Long live the Babylonian gods.

It was in this context that these texts were written. The goal of the text wasn’t scientific, but spiritual. The text reminded the people of Israel that the God they worshipped created the world and was the Lord of all life- even Lord over the mighty Babylonians. The creation stories were a message of hope to the Israelites. Even though it looked like God had abandoned them, the God who created the mountains and the seas, was in control. In God we Trust, indeed.

In Genesis 2:5-7, God creates the form of a human. It is when God breathes into the human that the being has life. The Bible talks a lot about breathing. God breathes into Adam and springs to life. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 2 on Pentecost, the wind that comes can also be described as a breath. Breathing is important for our physical life, what does it mean for our spiritual life?

Adam is busy naming the animals, but God notices something. “It’s not good that man should be alone,” God says. God knows Adam needs a helper or companion. It is important to note that the first thing that was not good was not the Tree of Knowledge or even eating of the tree; it was the fact that man was alone. God creates this new being called woman for companionship, reminding us we are not made to be alone but created for each other. Just as humans enter into a covenant with God, humans enter into covenants with each other.

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

Confused Talk — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Genesis 11)

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

                It is truly annoying when people just babble on. That phrase or concept of speech that is confused and irrelevant takes its origins from this biblical story. Whether one knows the context or not, the story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical story people seem able to envision. It is an image that has been part of our cultural landscape for centuries. Now, it appears in the lectionary in connection with Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is concerned with the birthing of the Christian movement as the Spirit empowers this fledgling community to spread the good news across the world (I’m tempted to say globe but that might be somewhat anachronistic). If Babel has to do with the confusion languages, Pentecost might have something to do with its reversal. Or does it? The story of Babel suggests that the confusion of languages is rooted in human hubris. In some way, Pentecost is seen as a means of undoing the damage done at Babel, but perhaps not be creating a monoculture, but providing an opportunity for understanding. What is scattered is now brought back together, without the diversity being removed.
                The reading from Genesis 11 is designated as a reading from the Hebrew Bible for Pentecost Sunday. To flesh out a bit more the Pentecost setting, we must turn to Acts 2, where we find the followers of Jesus gathered in a room in Jerusalem. They’ve heard their commission to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They’ve also heard the call to wait until the Spirit comes upon them. It’s during the festival of Pentecost, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest, that the Spirit decides to descend. The gathered disciples, some 150 strong, break out in praise, each speaking a different language, a language they had not learned prior to this experience. There was a crowd of people standing outside who heard the message—each in his or her own language—and it got their attention. This led to Peter’s sermon and an altar call that led to some 3000 baptisms (or so Luke reports).
                This passage from Genesis 11 is, in the Genesis context, a self-contained story situated between genealogical listings. For our purposes, in the context of Pentecost, it provides a background to the Spirit’s provision of the gift of languages in Acts 2. What was confused becomes understandable to the glory of God. Genesis 1-11 is understood to be primeval history. It is a saga that reveals important elements of the faith but shouldn’t be understood to provide historical information. This Kairos (sacred) time, not Chronos time. If we can agree on this matter, then we’ll be able to hear the message present in the passage. We begin with the revelation that once everyone spoke the same language. The preceding chapter (chapter 10) gives us a genealogical listing of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Thus, we would assume that the world that is migrating to the land of Shinar, as noted in this reading, are descendants of Noah and his sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Interestingly, the story of Babel is situated between the genealogical listings in chapter 10 and the restatement of Shem’s descendants in verse 10 of chapter11, taking us up to Abram, son of Terah. 
So where is the land of Shinar? The name of the city—Babel—gives us a clue that this would be a city located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Now, the idea that the entire world would make this journey is assuming that the human population is rather small. In fact, the founder of Babel is named in chapter 10 as Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham. To the original readers of this passage, this story would speak of the origins of Israel’s enemy Babylon. Of course, Babylon’s origins would be rooted in human hubris. What else would you expect? 
According to our story, when the migrants from the east made their way to the land of Shinar they decided to make bricks and build a city. Not only did they build a city, but they built a tower in the middle of the city so they could reach the heavens, for, of course, that’s where God (the gods) live. We know something of these towers that were prominent in the cities of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. They were known as ziggurats, towers with stairs on all sides. At the top of the tower was an altar. This was understood to be a “Stairway to Heaven” (to borrow from Led Zeppelin).  The tower had the purpose of being a place of worship. That’s understood. What’s interesting here is that they chose to build the tower to the heavens, according to this account, not for worship but so they could make a name for themselves. This was considered an evil act, one that the LORD (Yahweh) did not appreciate. Even as the denizens of Babel built their way to the heavens, the LORD came down to check things out. When it came to the contrast between the temples of Mesopotamia and those built in Israel, Peter Enns and Jared Byas note: “By contrast, Israel’s worship structures (the tabernacle and later the temple) don’t have steps going up to heaven. Instead, Israel waits for God to come down.” [Peter Enns & Jared Byas,  Genesis for Normal People, Patheos Press. Kindle loc 984].
With the tower built so that the people of Babel could make a name for themselves, lest they find themselves scattered across the land, the LORD decided to confound their plans by confusing their languages. There is a bit of fear on the part of Yahweh and the divine council. Yahweh admits that since they are one people with one language, then if something isn’t done, nothing will be impossible for them. Action is required. Now the question here is whether Yahweh is afraid of them or for them. Remember in Genesis 3, God exiles Adam and Eve so they will no longer have access to the tree of life, effectively making them immortal. Putting a barrier up kept them from engaging in actions that might ultimately be detrimental to them (or so it seems). Could the same be true here?
The view of the people of Babel seems to be that if they don’t take care of themselves, no one will. In other words, they’re not considering how God fits into the situation. Nevertheless, despite the fear that they will be scattered, the LORD, in the end, confuses their languages and scatters them across the land. And thus the nations are born (in primeval fashion). Soon Abram will appear from one of these scattered tribes, and the process of scattering will slowly be unwound (perhaps).
So, how do we hear this story at Pentecost? I noted above that Pentecost is often understood to be an unwinding of Babel, but perhaps not.  Perhaps the response of Pentecost is not a return to a mono-lingual reality, but a binding together of peoples in their diversity. Thus, Cameron B. R. Howard writes: “In the Babel account, fear is the binding agent that drives the building projects: fear of dispersal, of loss, of living with otherness. Both the Babel and the Pentecost accounts emphasize the power of human unity, without expecting human sameness, sending people out into the world to forge connections with those who are different from themselves.” [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 9932-9934).].
So maybe difference isn’t punishment, it’s simply reality. If this is true, and I think it is, then unity is not found in uniformity but in the way in which the Spirit, who is the binding agent, removes the fear that drove the people of Babel to build the tower and drives us to build barriers to keep each other at bay. Is this not a good message for our times when fear and hubris conspire to undermine true unity in the Spirit?  

Picture Attribution: Bruegel, Pieter, approximately 1525-1569. Tower of Babel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 3, 2019]. Original source:


Standing On the Promises – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2C (Genesis 15)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night
Genesis 15:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.


                A popular hymn of the church, at least in days gone by, invites to sing boldly:

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my savior; standing, standing. I’m standing on the promises of God.  [R. Kelso Carter, 1891].

Scripture declares that Abraham stood on the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or the author of Hebrews 11, Abraham is lifted up as an example of a person who stood strong in his faith despite the lack of evidence to support that trust. Abraham simply stands on the promises of God, and in time his faith, his trust, bears fruit.

                The reading from Genesis 15 marks another conversation about covenant. At this point in the story, Abram’s name has yet to be changed. The promise is made, again, that Abram will have many descendants, beyond the ability to count. This is a challenging proposition, as to this point Abram’s only heir is a slave. He has no children of his own, and God makes it clear that the promise will go through Abram’s descendants. God is intending to work through Abram’s biological descendants, who will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. Despite everything, we’re told that Abram believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.


Abram will stand on the promises of God, but not without a word of lament. In fact, the chapter begins with God telling Abram not to be afraid, because God has his back. Abram responds, well that’s great, but what have you done for me lately? (my paraphrase). Abram is, after all, still childless and has as his heir a slave (regarding slavery, we should always remember that while widespread in the ancient world and not racially rooted, references to slaves in the Bible were used to defend modern slavery). He’d followed God’s lead from his homeland and still nothing.


I appreciated what Rolf Jacobson writes concerning the power of lament that’s present in this passage and in the rest of Scripture.

In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.  And after all, the Lord has promised.  

Abram will stand on this promise, but not before making clear that God understood what is involved in a truly covenant relationship.


                Having heard Abram’s lament, God says to Abram: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” In response to Abram’s question as to how he will know this to be true, God proposes a ritual to seal the deal. The directions are simple. Abram is told by God: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram does as he’s told, cutting each of the sacrifices in half, with the exception of the two birds. He lays them out as instructed and waits for God to act.


                The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 13 to 16, though it retains verse 12, which seems to introduce verses 13 to 16. In verses 12 to 16, Abram falls asleep and has a bad dream. Though he is told he will die peacefully and have many descendants, he’s also told that his descendants will be forced to live in exile and experience slavery for four hundred years, though in the end, they will be blessed with an abundance of gifts. If verses 13-16 are omitted, it would be probably be best to omit verse 12, as there is some discontinuity between verses 12 and 17. On the other hand, there is a message here that is worth remembering—the covenant will be fulfilled, but not without times of trouble.

               If we choose to omit verses 12-16, we can move from the ritual in verse 11 to the culmination of the conversation about covenant in verse 17, we watch as the sun sets and a torch passes between the sacrificed animals, as a sign of divine acceptance of this offering of Abram. With that God makes the covenant with Abram, promising: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is worth noting that God requires nothing of Abram at this point. Normally, covenants involve mutual declarations and actions, but nothing is required of Abram. Abram does do anything to obligate himself. It is YHWH who self-obligates. It’s YHWH who makes the promises.

               Of course, this is not the end of the story. The author of Genesis will revisit this issue. As the story continues, Abram and Sarai will try to fulfill this promise through a surrogate. An heir is produced—Ishmael—and then rejected. Finally, Sarai will give birth in old age to a son, Isaac, who will be the accepted heir (at least in the biblical story, the Quran will hold on to Ishmael). While the promise of an expansive realm is made, Israel’s boundaries never reached the extent promised. Nonetheless, the descendants of Abram can claim that they are the fruit of God’s promise to Abram. They are the covenant people, though the promise isn’t repeated here, Abram’s descendants are to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). What this covenant promise means will be a subject of ongoing interpretation, as we see in the way in which the New Testament writers make use of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant made in Jesus is clearly rooted in the covenant made with Abraham.


              The question for us has to do with the nature of our faith. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our faith journey. In what ways do we resist the promises of God, and in what ways do we cooperate. As the Psalmist implies, there is the possibility of living in fear, especially when enemies assail us. As with the promise made to Abram, we can take comfort in the presence of the Lord. After all, as the Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). With that old hymn, which I took note of at the beginning, we can stand with Abram on the promises of God. 


Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 11, 2019]. Original source:


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


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.


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. [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source:

Indulge?- Pentecost 21


Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 29, 2017




The football stadium sits at the edge of downtown and is ready for the upcoming Superbowl in a few months.  Tens of thousands will cheer for their team, while nearly a billion people worldwide will tune in from their television and computer screens.

The building is impressive. You can’t miss it because it’s a huge edifice and because of it’s advant-garde design. The building is a jewel in the city’s crown, paid for in part by the citizens of the state. Will the people who come to enjoy the game realize who helped pay for the stadium, let alone the people who worked through the cold winters to make the stadium a reality?

Today we talk about Solomon, David’s son who becomes king after David.  David wanted to build a temple to God, but it never happened while he was king.  Solomon is able to do so, but it comes with a cost.

Today we talk about Solomon and the Temple.

Engaging the Text

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. (1 Samuel 3:3)

  A little background here.  Last week we talked about the annointing of David. Between then and this week, there was a civil war between Saul and David, David becoming officially king, his scandal with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband, David’s death and his son Solomon becoming king.

The building of the Temple for God is usually presented as a good thing and in many ways it was.  But Solomon’s leadership, while exemplary, also contained a lot of ambiguities.  The building of the temple and his rule in general had weak spots and we see it here in very stark detail.

When we start with today’s text, the nation of Israel is at the height of its powers.  Solomon controls a small empire with lands from the Euphrates River (modern day Iraq) to Egypt.

Solomon was also a rich man. He had many chariots and many horses and a lot of other stuff.  All of his subjects had to pay tribute (read tax) to him.

Why are we talking about the size of Israel and tax policy and what does this have to do with the opening of the Temple? For one, it is important to note that while Solomon is considered someone that follows God, he had flaws.  He lived high on the hog and most of his wealth was supported by taxes and it was something that was ultimately frowned upon. Deuteronomy 17 lays down the law for kings:

14 Once you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you and you have taken possession of it and settled down in it, you might say: “Let’s appoint a king over us, as all our neighboring nations have done.” 15 You can indeed appoint over you a king that the Lord your God selects. You can appoint over you a king who is one of your fellow Israelites. You are not allowed to appoint over you a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 That granted, the king must not acquire too many horses, and he must not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, because the Lord told you: “You will never go back by that road again.” 17 The king must not take numerous wives so that his heart doesn’t go astray. Nor can the king acquire too much silver and gold. 18 Instead, when he sits on his royal throne, he himself must write a copy of this Instruction on a scroll in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 That Instruction must remain with him, and he must read in it every day of his life so that he learns to revere the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this Instruction and these regulations, by doing them, 20 by not being overbearing toward his fellow Israelites, and by not deviating even a bit from the commandment. If the king does all that, he will ensure lasting rule in Israel for himself and for his successors.

Common English Bible. (2011). (Dt 17:14–20). Nashville, TN: Common English Bible.

(Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

Take for example the differences between building the Temple for God and Solomon’s own temple.  It took seven years to build the Temple, but it took thirteen years to build his own house.  Does that show that he cared more about his own house, than about God’s house?  A house was also built for his Egyptian wife. Deuteronomy and other laws warned against taking foreign wives because it meant that foreign gods find their way into Israelite life, which is what happened.

It’s also important to know that the people building the temple weren’t always doing it as part of a job. Brent Strawn notes that the temple was built in a way that should have given Solomon pause:

The first is that Solomon instates an immense “work gang” (CEB) to carry out the labor in Lebanon (5:15). The term that is used for this workforce in Hebrew (mas) occurs elsewhere of Israelite workers only in Exodus 1:11, where the Israelites are subject to a brutal and tyrannical pharaoh and his taskmasters (see also Exodus 5:10-14). It is thus very hard to not see in the use of this particular term an extremely negative judgment on the labor in question as well as on how Solomon’s has gone about his temple building project. This suspicion is confirmed later, when the nation divides immediately after Solomon’s death: clearly, the Israelites were not pleased with this forced labor and with their “supervisors” (1 Kings 12:18; 2 Chronicles 10:18). It all seemed a bit too Egyptian, if you asked them.1

There are some good things to focus on when it comes to the temple. A word about the temple itself and a sign of God.  There are two pillars in the temple that are superfluous, they don’t hold anything up. It was a symbol; that God holds the world up, which means the world is secure.

Looking from the pillars, there was a large basin filled with water. Practically, this is where ceremonial cleansing took place.  But it had another purpose.  For the ancient Middle East, the sea held threatening power.  The water in the basin was a way of saying that the power of the sea is under God’s power; in essence another sign of the goodness of God.

Towards the end of the passage in chapter 8, we are told that a cloud fills the temple.  A cloud was a way of acknowledging God’s presence.  It was a cloud that led the people of Israel as they traveled to the Promised Land.  The cloud shows God is present among the people.

Is the temple a place where God lives?  No, because God is everywhere.  But the temple is a reminder that God is present. John Goldingjay explains why:

So why is Solomon building one? He speaks of building a house for God’s name. It is a way the Old Testament often seeks to square the circle of affirming that God was really present in the midst of Israel while recognizing that this was an unsophisticated idea. The name of a person stands for the person.


Solomon’s temple is considered a great achievement. It comes when the nation is at the height of its powers and it is part of the unfinished dream of David.  But this splendor comes at a cost, not only to Solomon, but to the whole nation.  What did it mean that people were taxed for the temple?  What about the fact that the temple was probably built with slave labor?

The final point to remember is this: God never asked for a temple.  What does it mean that a temple is built for God, that God never asked for?  Is the temple more for Solomon than it is for God?


  1. Strawn, Brett., October 29, 2017.
  2. Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone (p. 25). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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

Bad News Samuel- Pentecost 18


Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 15, 2017




We like to use the word prophet enough that we might have lost its true meaning.  We love hearing someone who spouts judgements against your political opponents and the first thing someone will say is that this person is prophetic.

But the problem with that definition of prophetic is that it is hearing things that the listeners agree with.  If you read the Bible, you get a very different impression of a prophet.  Most of the time we learn that prophets say things that people don’t like, sometimes even among the prophets themselves.  Prophets say hard words that can be difficult to hear. No one likes hearing words that tell you how bad you are.  No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.

In today’s text, we see young Samuel hearing the voice of God and Samuel ready to take on his first assignment as a prophet.  It is a message he didn’t want to talk about with his mentor, Eli.

What does it mean to be called by God?  What does it mean to act in a prophetic way?

Today, we look at the call of Samuel.

Engaging the Text

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. (1 Samuel 3:3)

  A little background here.  Samuel is the son of Hannah.  Hannah was a woman who was barren and wasn’t able to give her husband Elkanah, a son.  She prays to God and God answers, giving her and Elkanah a son named Samuel.  (You can read about Samuel in the October 16, 2016 edition of the Story of God.)

Samuel is now a teen or young adults working as an apprentice for the chief priest, Eli.  Eli is an interesting character that is both sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. Eli is described in verse 2 as being blind or with impaired vision, but it can also describe the state of his soul as well.  He was blind to the problems around him, problems that would lead to his downfall. Eli has a problem with his sons, who were also priests.  The story of the sons of Eli is found in chapter 2 and when they are first described, they viewed as “despicable” men.  What made them so despicable? It was simple greed.  Priests were not paid in money, because there was no money.  They couldn’t work in the fields, but the law made it possible for the priest and his family to live: they were allowed to take a part of the sacrificial animals.  After God’s portion was burnt up, then what was left over could be given to the priest.

The problem with Eli’s sons is that they took more of the meat than was allowed. Here is is how the Bible depicts their theft:


12 Now Eli’s sons were despicable men who didn’t know the Lord. 13 This was how the priest was supposed to act with the people: Whenever anyone made a sacrifice, while the meat was boiling, the priest’s assistant would come with a three-pronged fork in hand. 14 He would thrust it into the cauldron or the pot.[c] Whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take for himself. This is how it was done for all the Israelites who came to Shiloh.

15 But with Eli’s sons,[d] even before the fat was burned, the priest’s assistant would come and say to the person offering the sacrifice, “Give the priest some meat to roast. He won’t accept boiled meat from you.”[e] 16 If anyone said, “Let the fat be burned off first, as usual, then take whatever you like for yourself,” the assistant would reply, “No, hand it over now. If not, I’ll take it by force.” 17 The sin of these priestly assistants was very serious in the Lord’s sight because they were disrespecting the Lord’s own offering.

(1 Samuel 2:12-17)

The sons weren’t just guilty of gluttony. They had sex with the women who worked at the temple.  The two men were drunk with power and used it in ways that hurt others and robbed God.

Eli is aware of his son’s dealings and pleads for them to stop, which they  do not.  In the end, Eli and his sons will be punished.  So, why was Eli punished?  It doesn’t seem that Eli was turning a blind eye or didn’t care. He did urge his sons to stop their abuses, but it seems that simply saying something wasn’t enough.  It could be that Eli was passive in his life and not open to listening to God.  Eli’s weakness allowed his sons to continue their corruption and the end is that they will be judged harshly by God.

When we start chapter 3, Samuel is sleeping in the temple, with Eli nearby. He is basically an intern, learning the ropes.  As he is trying to sleep, he hears a voice calling him.  Each time he comes to Eli thinking this is who was calling him. 

Eli didn’t realize at first that this might be God.  Maybe this is why we learn in verse one that the Lord’s words were rare.  Was this for a reason? Was it because of Eli and his sons?  We don’t know. What we do know is that God’s word was not familiar to the people, including Samuel. This explains why Samuel didn’t recognized God’s voice.  When God calls again, Samuel then is able to say that he is open to receive God’s word.

It’s then that Samuel hears the word of God and what a word it is. He gets the message of Eli and his sons’ sin and their upcoming downfall.  After hearing God, he wasn’t able to sleep.  He got up the next morning and attended to his morning duties in order to avoid Eli.  How could he tell his boss that he was going to be punished by God which meant his death?

Finally, Eli asks that Samuel tell him what God said to Samuel and he obliged.  Eli understood what God was saying and accepted it. It is at this moment that the center of gravity shifts.  Eli and his sons still are in power on paper.  But God had chosen Samuel and people would now pay attention to him.


What does it mean to be called? There is a temptation to see it only in the context of the church; being asked to serve as as an usher or something within the walls of the church (this is confusing “call” with “gifts”).  The other misunderstanding is to see it as something that gives you meaning and fulfillment, but call is about something deeper:

there is something odd that has happened over the years to the way we talk in terms of calling and vocation in connection with ministry. Speaking with students often suggests to me that we think of ministry as something that enables us to find fulfillment, as it makes it possible for us to give expression to the gifts God has given us. Discernment thus begins as our seeking to perceive what our gifts are and how we may express them. There’s none of this way of thinking in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Samuel is not called because this will be the way he finds fulfillment (neither is Paul). Given that the connotations of the word “call” have changed, we might do better to use the word “summons” rather than “call” to describe what happens to Samuel or Paul.1

The summoning of Samuel is not about what will give Samuel meaning, it is about God. Does that mean our own desires never filter in?  Probably not.  But God’s call is not conducive to what we desire, but what will fulfill God’s will in the world. 

Another thought is about listening for God.  Today, we can hear folk saying God spoke to them about something as if it were a best friend.  But how are we sure that God is calling?  When can we realize when God is speaking? Eli comes into this by helping Samuel realize that it was God calling.  We listen to God’s voice through a community of faith.  Samuel needed help in discerning God’s voice and Eli stepped in an helped him.

How do we listen to God’s voice today?  How do our churches help us to hear God today?



  1. Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 31). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

2. Kruse, Michael. Economic Fallacies: “No Scarcity”,, February 26, 2008.

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

Our Daily Bread- Pentecost 17


Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 8, 2017




When I was a child, I loved fairy tales.  One that held my attention was the Ant and the Grasshopper.  The Ant was a hard worker and he made sure that when the weather was still good, to store up food for the coming winter.  The Grasshopper was kind of lazy and would much rather play than prepare for winter.  Most of us know how this ends.  When the snow comes, the Ant is warm and cozy, with a kitchen filled with food, while the Grasshopper was literally left out in the cold.

I can remember looking in our kitchen pantry to make sure that we had enough food for the winter.  I can remember my mom trying to button my coat and me telling her we should make sure we are ready for the winter, which left her with a quizical look on her face.

In our world, we are told to prepare. Prepare for retirement. Prepare for old age. Prepare for death.

In today’s text, the Israelites are free from Egyptian oppression, but they are not happy.  They are thirsty and hungry.  God is able to provide but it is with a provision to not prepare for lean times.  What does it mean to trust that what God gives is enough?

Let’s look at the Israelites and the sending of quail and manna.

Engaging the Text

The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

  A little background here.  Last week, God meets Moses at the burning bush.  After this, there was the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh with the ten plagues culminating in the Passover.  Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, but after a while Pharaoh changes his minds and sends his army after the Israelites. The newly freed are at the Red Sea (or Reed Sea) worried about the advancing army.  God parts the sea and they cross to the other side, while destroying Pharaoh and his army.

It’s important to note that when a challenge is faced and passed, there is a temptation to think that things will be easy for that point onward. When God defeats the Egyptians, there might have been a temptation that there would be no more challenges facing them.  But as we all know, life usually gives us more challenges not less.

The Israelites have been in traveling now for about a month and they begin complaining.  In chapter 15, they complain of thirst and God through Moses is able to find water that they can drink.

22 Then Moses had Israel leave the Reed Sea[c] and go out into the Shur desert. They traveled for three days in the desert and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they couldn’t drink Marah’s water because it was bitter. That’s why it was called Marah.[d] 24 The people complained against Moses, “What will we drink?”25 Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord pointed out a tree to him. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:22-25)

Now we come to the main text. At some point, they start to complain about food. They have been out in the wilderness for a month and they are free from slavery.  When they become hungry, the complaint is shocking: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3) The past has already become nostalgic and the Israelites are remembering just the “good” parts and not the bad parts.

When the Israelites complained of thirst, Moses went to God.  This time, we hear God talking (we don’t know if Moses went to God). God tells the Israelites that they will receive bread from heaven.  In addition, quail will be available in the evening.  In both situations, God tells Moses that this is a test to see if the Israelites will follow the instructions.  God feeds the Israelites for two main reasons: first to show God’s power and second to see if they would rely and trust in God and not themselves.

They are specific instructions with the food.  They are to gather enough food for their family each day and they are allowed to gather twice as much on Friday to have enough food for the Sabbath.  Moses warned the people to not gather more than was needed, but some of the Israelites did try to gather more than what was needed for their daily sustanence. But when that happened, the manna would spoil.  Again a stark reminder that they were to trust God for their daily bread and not themselves. e covenant, but he wasn’t as committed to it in the way his grandfather Abraham did. This was a guy that wanted to go hunting, not sit and understand this relationship with God.

A quick note about manna.  In Hebrew manna means “what is it?”  Is was a flaky and granular substance that could be milled into bread.

The Israelites were fed with manna throughout their 40 year journey.  When they eat the first produce grown in the Promised Land of Cannan, the mana stopped. God supplied the manna only when it was needed.



It is human nature to prepare for things to not have to worry about the need for something when it is too late.  If you were traveling through the desert, you wouldn’t go without any water and a full tank of gas.  It is easy to look at the Israelites as they try to gather as much manna as possible as foolish.  But think about it: you are in the desert where water and food are scarce.  It is hard to trust in God when your senses tell you there is nothing there to help you- except their trust from God.

What does this mean in our everyday lives?  Should we not worry about where food will come from or how we will take care of ourselves in our retirement?  In the field of economics, there is a concept called scarcity.  Scarcity is about limitations, meaning that there are limited resources available to meet unlimited wants.  This means find ways to best allocated these limited resources.  Some theologians tend to dismiss the concept of scarcity, believing that God provides abundance.

Listen to what theologian Juliana Claassens says about scarcity quoting Walter Bruggeman:


In his provocative contribution, “The Truth of Abundance: Relearning Dayenu,” Walter Brueggemann takes on the “myth of scarcity” that one sees in the greed and the hoarding practices of the imperial policies of the Pharaoh of Egypt that is reminiscent of the economic monopoly of contemporary superpowers that one is seeing play out in, for example, “greedy CEO salaries,” in “so-called welfare reform,” and one may add tax reform, which all speak of “the drive to privatize wealth away from care for the public good.”3

In contrast, Brueggemann challenges us to relearn the “lyric of abundance” that believes that there is more than enough food to go around in God’s good creation. However, vitally important for this vision of dayenu — translated as “there is enough in God’s goodness” — is that each and every one of us must make sure that all members of the community take just what they need.4 No more, no less. The manna story in Exodus 16 warns against hoarding, against greed that capitalizes on this “myth of scarcity.” Instead it encourages sharing that is exemplified also in the stories that tell of Jesus taking five loaves and two fishes, and after he had blessed the food, he broke it and gave it to feed a multitude of hungry people (Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-9; John 6:1-14).1

Economist and lay Presbyterian Michael Kruse has written that while we live in a resource rich planet made by God, it isn’t enough to say that there is just abundance and no such thing as scarcity:

It is true that God created and placed us in a world of abundant resources. But very few resources exist in a state usable by human beings. Energy, technology, and intelligence must be applied to resources to transform them from less useful states into more useful states. Houses, appliances, clothes, cars, and nearly everything else we use do not exist in such a way we can just go pick them off trees. Most of our food production requires careful management of soil and the application of farming techniques in order to produce an abundance of food. This is part and parcel of the biblical notion of stewardship as God placed Adam in the garden to work it so that if might produce abundance.

At the core of the “no scarcity” fallacy is blindness to issue of production. It views economics purely in terms of distribution of goods and just assumes material goods exist. If material goods just hung from trees for our picking, then maybe the case could be made for communal ownership and sharing with each other (but even then it won’t work as we will see below.) But the reality is that there are a set number of human beings, energy resources, and technological tools to be used on any given day for any given society. How should these scarce resources be employed at this moment?2

What does this text mean?  It makes more sense to say that we live in a world of scarcity and it makes sense to plan.  That said, we rely on God daily, for the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the homes we live in.  We trust that God will do all of this even if it happens through the sweat of our brow or from others.  God acts to provide, the Israelites and us today, within and without or economic systems.

1. Caassens, Juliana. Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18,, October 8, 2017.

2. Kruse, Michael. Economic Fallacies: “No Scarcity”,, February 26, 2008.

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