With glad cries of deliverance

File:Esprit nomade.JPG


Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEsprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fire and Wind

File:Mildorfer, Josef Ignaz - Pentecost - 1750s.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 15, 2016

Year C

The Festival of Pentecost

Worship this coming Sunday is filled with powerful words and images: fire, stormy winds, life-giving Spirit, humanity’s rebellion from God and the collapse of the tower-building, empire-building, attempt by humanity to make a name for themselves. And behind the wind and fire stands the voice of God speaking at Sinai and the Israelites pleading for God to speak instead through Moses. And, ahead, the day when Babel is undone and all humanity gathered in perfect communion – a day that is dawned in Christ Jesus.

We begin on Sunday with the narrative from Acts 2 about Pentecost – the festival 50 days after Passover, at the end of the grain harvest, that remembered the revelation at Sinai when God gave the newly freed slaves the commandments that would guide them to be a just and merciful community. We hear how the Spirit fell upon Jesus followers, amidst the roar of wind and sight of flame, empowering them to proclaim God’s praise in every language. And in worship we will hear people reading Acts 2.38 (“Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”) in many languages evoking that great and powerful day in which began the mission of the believers to the world.

Fire and wind – signifying the holy presence of God – and the voice of God sounding forth through Jesus’ followers. And then we will read of Babel and how humanity’s rejection of God’s command lead to confusion. We will hear the psalm sing of God’s Spirit that renews all life. We will hear Paul remind us that we have received God’s Spirit, that we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters, that we may walk in freedom and fidelity. And then we are again in John 14 hearing the promise of the Spirit, a promise fulfilled by the risen Christ.

And though worship will be fun and dramatic, and unique from all others in the year, it will also bid us come and kneel and pray for the Spirit to be stirred up within us – that we may know its healing and its power, that we might be faithful witnesses to the world.

The Prayer for May 15, 2016

O God of every nation,
who by the breath of your Spirit gave life to the world
and anointed Jesus to bring new birth to all:
breathe anew upon us
and upon all who gather in your name,
that in every place and to all people
we may proclaim your wondrous work.

The Texts for May 15, 2016

Pentecost Reading: Acts 2:1-21
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” – With the sound of wind and the image of fire, evoking God’s appearance at Sinai and fulfilling the promise of Joel, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the first believers.

First Reading: Genesis 11:1-9
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” – Humanity’s rebellion against God’s command to fill the earth, in order to build a city and a name for themselves, leads to the multiplicity of languages and the confusion of human speech.

Psalmody: Psalm 104:24-31 (appointed: 24-34, 35b)
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
– The poet sings of God’s wondrous creation and life-giving and renewing Spirit.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17 (Appointed: 14-17)
“All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
Paul writes that we are heirs of God’s promise, adopted as God’s sons and daughters and sharing in the Spirit.

Gospel: John 14:8-17, 25-27
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” – Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to be our guide and defender.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMildorfer%2C_Josef_Ignaz_-_Pentecost_-_1750s.jpg  By Creator:Josef Ignaz Mildorfer (http://www.gnadenquelle.eu/meditation.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The end of stomping

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1216-524, Paris, Wachablösung.jpgThursday

Isaiah 9:2-7

File:CaligaSeptimiusSeverusBogen2.jpg5All the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Tanach translation of this passage begins:

Truly, all the boots put on to stamp with
And all the garments donned in infamy
Have been fed to the flames,

I love the way it subtly shifts the focus from the destruction of military gear to an end of the human propensity to stomp one another.

I find it ironic that on the night of peace that brought even the German and British armies to a temporary truce during World War I, CBS is advertising a football game as if it were some great contribution to your celebration of the holiday (remember ‘holiday’ means ‘holy day’).

The world continues to spin on its axis, the planet races around the sun, and the sun races around the galactic center – and even the galaxy itself is racing, someday to collide with its neighbor. Babies will be born (my mother is a Christmas baby and my daughter, Christmas eve). First responders will be on duty. Nurses will tend patients. And most of life will continue.

But in a world where violence is widespread and ritually enacted in combat sports, including football, some of us will gather to celebrate the child of peace and to join the angels’ song announcing “Peace on earth.”

The Christmas Eve service may bring a moment’s peace, but its true importance is in pointing towards peace, pointing towards the harmony that should be but is so seldom, pointing towards the peace that is far more than an end to the gunfire but the sharing of a table. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that peace is God’s purpose in the world, but it seems we do.

I watch football, but I am aware that it is ritual combat. Its underlying metaphor is that life is about conquest and victory. Tonight, in churches across the world, we will be reminded that life is about the ties that bind us to one another, to the creation, and to Him who is the heart of the universe. The Christ child comes to restore those ties.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1216-524 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Rabax63 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Faithful waiting, faithful expectation

Watching for the Morning of May 17, 2015

Year B

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

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Saint Matthias

When we gather on Sunday, Pentecost lies ahead of us and the Ascension (this Thursday) will lie behind us. In this space between the resurrection appearances and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the community waits in prayer and preparation. The followers of Jesus consult the scriptures and reach the judgment that one of them should take the place of Judas among the twelve. They propose Matthias and Barsabbas as qualified candidates and, trusting God to work through the casting of lots, Matthias is chosen.

This image of the faithful community, rooted in scripture and prayer, weaves through all the readings this Sunday. The psalm speaks of the faithful as those who are rooted in God’s word/teaching like a tree planted by streams of water. The author of First John reminds us that “eternal life” (the present possession of that imperishable life of God that is our inheritance in the age to come) is in Jesus the Son to whom God himself gave witness. And the Gospel reading takes us to John 17 where Jesus prays for his followers, “that they may be one,” united in one spirit and mission.

There is a link between faithful waiting and life together. What is born on Pentecost is born of the Spirit, but it is born in a community of hope, a community nourished on God’s word and abiding in God’s promise together. Likewise the renewal of faith, worship, mission and service we would see in our congregations doesn’t spring from getting the right pastor, the right program, or a miraculous awakening in the people. It springs from a community rooted in scripture, abiding in faith, hope and love, looking forward with anticipation to what God shall work in and through them.

The Prayer for May 17, 2015

Almighty God, author of all joy and source of all truth,
guard and protect your people from every danger within and without,
that with one heart and mind
they may bear witness to your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 17, 2015

First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
“One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” – As the community waits in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, they seek God’s guidance to choose another of their number to take the place of Judas and bring the number of apostles back to twelve.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” – This opening psalm of the collection of Israel’s prayers and hymns contrasts those who are rooted in God’s word with those who turn from it.

Second Reading: 1 John 5:9-13
“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
– the author of First John reminds the community that God himself has testified on behalf of Jesus and it is in him that have life.

Gospel: John 17:6-19
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” – On the night of his arrest, Jesus prays for his followers, asking God to protect and preserve the community.


Image: By Workshop of Simone Martini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Matthias.PNG

A new world in the making

Watching for the Morning of March 1, 2015

File:Three Crosses monument at sunset (8178234419).jpgThe Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday the texts point us towards Jerusalem. That is where we are headed this Lenten season, to that hill outside Jerusalem where three crosses await, and the open tomb containing none but angels. Jesus has troubling words for us about taking up the cross, about finding life in laying it down, that fidelity to the kingdom of God means we cannot avoid the hostility of the kings of this world. But they are not dark words, unless you stop listening before you hear Jesus say “and be raised.” A new world is about to be born.

It is a world where a homeless, childless couple receive the promise that they shall be the parents of many nations. It is a world where the psalmist crying out in despair at death’s door now stands and calls all people to praise God. It is a world where people of every nation are gathered to God by trust in his promise, not by birth or merit.

It is to such a world made new that we are called to show fidelity, to endure the mockery and hate of the powers that be, to take up the shame of the cross, for a new day is dawning. The tomb will be opened.

And so we are not far from the core of Lent, the season of spiritual renewal, the season when we are called to let God renew faith, renew relationships, renew families, renew communities, renew the world.

(For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran Church, and for sermons and other information on Lent, see our Lent site.)

The Prayer for March 1, 2015

In steadfast love, O God,
you bound yourself to Abraham by your promise,
and came among us bearing the cross.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and the ties that bind us to others
that, following in your footsteps,
we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for March 1, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”


Photo: By Guillaume Speurt from Vilnius, Lithuania [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Watching for the Morning of February 22, 2015

File:Ilya Repin Tempation of Christ.jpg

Ilya Repin, Tempation of Christ.

Our theme for the season of Lent this year is Renewal: renewing faith, renewing friendships, renewing families, renewing the earth. We will still read the texts in our Sunday service; they will still infuse our worship, but our hearing of them will be shaped by the theme of renewal.

It makes me nervous, of course. I don’t like preaching on themes.   I remember reading a little book on preaching my senior year in seminary where Gerhard Von Rad (I think) said that every young preacher has about six sermons in him – and after that, he or she has to start preaching the text. There is nothing eternal in my words. But there is life in the words that come to us as scripture.

Still, every text is shaped by the time and place in which it is read, by the health or weariness of the community, by the cries and joys that surround us. The text is shaped by the day. It speaks to a moment in time. And our moments in this Lenten season will be shaped by our hope for renewal.

The readings this coming Sunday are rich and wonderful, starting with God’s promise to Noah and all the creatures aboard the ark that God will never again war against humanity. God binds himself with a promise, and sets a sign of that promise in the sky.

1 Peter will use the story of those eight saved in the ark as an image for baptism and God’s promise to carry us safely to a world washed and renewed.

And Mark will tell us of Jesus in the wilderness, tested by Satan, and attended by angels. He is the faithful Son. He is the new Adam – dwelling in peace with the “wild animals”.

The psalmist rightly sings of God’s faithfulness. So it will be proper to speak about renewing our trust in God, and praying with the psalm “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

The Prayer for February 22, 2015

In the wilderness, O God, you watched over Jesus
and he kept faith with you.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, rooted in your Spirit and in your Word,
our trust in you may be deepened,
and we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 22, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”


Image: By Ilya Repin (Bukowskis) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The form of this world is passing away.”


1 Corinthians 7

Wyoming escarpment29Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

“The present form of this world is passing away.”

I don’t want to let go of the world. I don’t want to let go of Yosemite Valley. I don’t want to let go of the vast dry emptiness of the Great Basin. I don’t want to let go of the brilliant striated rocks of Wyoming’s high desert. I don’t want to let go of the soaring redwoods, the lap of water along the side of a kayak, the exquisite crunch of the first potato chip, the aroma of good coffee, the smooth silk of chocolate melting in your mouth. I don’t want to let go of laughter with friends, triumph in play, the warmth of a partner on the couch beside you.

I don’t want to let go of lying snug beneath the covers on a cold winter morning. I don’t want to let go of the crunch of fresh snow, the savor of good soup, the tactile delight of a good book, the crackle of a fire.

I don’t want to let go of the memory of the scent of my infant daughters, or the delight of peek-a-boo or even the gummy cheerios they offered to share.

“The present form of this world is passing away,” says Paul, and I am in no hurry. I am not one of those who thrills with excitement at the prospect of the catastrophic end of all things. Not anymore. Not for a long time.

But I am ready to let go of sorrow, of loneliness, of the violence that afflicts our world, of the drivers who run red lights – or drink and drive – never considering the cost in grief to those who lose loved ones to such impatience. I am ready to let go of the deceitfulness of Washington, the bigotry of some, the hate of others. I am ready to let go of spilled oil and barrel bombs and haunting threat of the unexpected and unforeseen. I am ready to let go of stiff joints, lost memory, encrusted minds and calcified hearts. I am willing to let go of the brokenness around me and the brokenness within me.

It is the fallen form of the world I’d like to see pass away.

So what does Paul mean? Is the world coming to a spectacular and catastrophic end where we will pass from the realm of matter to a realm of spirit? Or is it something else we await?

We misunderstand him in 1 Thessalonians when he speaks about meeting the Lord in the air. We are not staying in the air. The metaphor is of an ancient city where the population leaves their city to greet the arriving emperor/king as he draws near. They welcome him with joy and escort him through the city gates into their midst.

This I am ready to do. Ready to greet the Lord and welcome him back to this wondrous creation of God. Ready to greet the earth’s true Lord, and turn it to his life-giving hands. Ready to let go our stranglehold on this priceless planet and let him bring it to the fullness of life. And let him bring me to the fullness of life.

More than ready.

So “let even those who have wives be as though they had none,” doesn’t mean that I detach myself from the bonds of life. It means I detach myself from the notion that the-world-as-it-is is all there is. Detach myself from the notion that the-world-as-it-is is the world in its fullness. Detach myself from the notion that the preoccupations of this life – food, water, shelter, sex, money, honor, pride – are the ultimate realities. For it is the world restored, the world made whole, the world free from its bondage to sin and death, that is the purpose of God. God wants his creation back, not torn and broken but whole and complete. A world where innocence and love prevail.

I am ready. Come, Lord Jesus.

…Except this is a journey God would begin with me now – for the old to pass away and the new be born – and for that I am not so ready.

Nevertheless, I pray: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Photocredit: dkbonde

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”


Acts 19

File:Peristeria elata Orchi 11.jpg

Peristeria elata, “Flower of the Holy Spirit”

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

It is a question that divided congregations when the charismatic movement swept though mainline denominations some years ago. This narrative from Acts 19 seems to suggest that there is a difference between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. Several Christian traditions depend upon that distinction. Personally, I think the text shows the exact opposite. Baptism and the Spirit belong together, and whenever they seem separated, it is a situation immediately remedied.

But the right use of the text is not first of all as data for a theological conversation on the doctrine of Baptism and the Holy Spirit. The right use of the text is to let the text speak to us – in this case, to question us.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

We are the Ephesians. We are those who, at least in name, are following Christ. So, as we come to stand before the text, the voice of God asks: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

Paul may be asking the believers in Ephesus a question of fact, but the question comes to us as a probing of the heart: Did you receive the Holy Spirit? What has become of it? Is it working in us and around us? Is it shaping our lives? Is it drawing us into a deeper faithfulness to God and to love of our neighbor? Do we see in ourselves the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Do we know how to recognize the promptings of the Spirit? Do we know how to discern its presence? Do we know how to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit?

If the Spirit is not alive and kicking within us, then it is time to seek the Spirit, then it is time to fan into flame the gift of God(NIV). And if the Spirit is alive and kicking, then it is time to trust it, to depend on it, to let it burn brightly. The only other choice, I suppose, is to renounce the faith and go home, for there is no in-between way, no adopting the name of Christ without engaging the Spirit of Christ.

So here we are, standing before the text, standing in the presence of God, who asks a simple but crucial question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”

And whether we are spiritually alive or spiritually moribund, it is important to wrestle with the answer.


Photo: By TommyCrash (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Not a tame lion

Watching for the morning of October 26

Year A

Reformation Sunday
The Ninteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 25 / Lectionary 30

File:Cranach Martin Luther.JPG

Portrait of the young Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Reformation Day is October 31st, the eve of All Saints when, in 1517, Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed the 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg. There is some doubt about the historicity of that event – though no doubt about the 95 theses themselves. What seems in legend as a defiant act of protest was in fact something less. The theses, written in Latin and proposing a debate on the sacrament of penance, would have belonged on the doors of the castle church since that was the sanctuary used by the University of Wittenberg and constituted the university bulletin board where such notices were posted – and Latin was the language of scholarly debate. But there is apparently no evidence the debate occurred beyond the uproar that arose from the radical challenge to the marketing of papal indulgences and the daring proclamation (among others) that

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  2. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  3. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  4. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  5. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

For a religious system that was constructed around the fear of judgment and hell and a sacramental system to remove the penalties of sin, Luther had brought an axe to the root of the tree. What began as an effort to reform the excesses of the marketing of indulgences became one of those moments when the liberating power of the message of God’s grace escaped our natural human efforts to contain it.

Reformation Day is not a celebration of the Protestant Reformation; it is a humble remembrance of God’s repeated triumphs over every effort to domesticate him. In the wonderful words of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan is not a tame lion.

Sunday we will read the great and wonderful lessons that are associated with Reformation Day, since few families would come to worship on Halloween. But we will also read the appointed Gospel for the Sunday that falls from October 23 to 29, since everything else we say about the 16th century reformation is meaningless if we do not hear Jesus say that the chief command is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind – and then hear him add that the obscure commandment from Leviticus 19 is equal to it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The Assigned Texts for Reformation Sunday

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel when God’s law was given at Sinai lies broken, God will create a new covenant relationship, where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the reforming movement.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

The assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” – The Pharisees bring one final challenge to discredit Jesus by asking him which is the chief commandment taking precedence over all others. Jesus rightly begins with the familiar text to love the LORD, but then adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

(The text of the 95 Theses is from Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 25-33.)



Matthew 10

File:Musée Cinquantenaire Roman dagger.jpg

Roman Dagger, photocredit: Michel wal

34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Everything depends upon hearing a text in its right context. Cut this verse away from its place in Matthew’s Gospel, cut it away from the life and ministry of Jesus, cut it away from the Biblical witness as a whole, and we have justification for violence. Or, if not violence, justification for whatever commotion causing things we want to do. Place this word of Jesus on their march up to Jerusalem, with Jesus astride a donkey and the people waving palm fronds (symbols of kingship) and you have a very different message than its place here in the missionary discourse. We have to be careful about the way we use scripture. Indeed, the central question is always, “Are we using scripture or is scripture using us?” It’s not an easy question to answer. It takes a continual listening. There is a reason Jesus talks about abiding in his word.

So Jesus brings a sword, but this cannot be a sword of armed struggle; after all, Jesus rebukes his followers saying, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” And how should we love our enemies and take up the sword at the same time? This is not the sword born by gladiators; this is the knife that divides. It is not the long sword used by troops in combat; it is the short sword, the dagger, used for everything from personal protection to cooking. It is the boning knife used in Hebrews for the Word of God that “divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” It is the priestly knife used in sacrifice.

How differently we would hear this verse if we translated it, “I have not come to bring peace, but a scalpel.” Jesus is, after all, in the business of heart surgery. Only his surgery is not just on the individual human heart; he comes to operate on the whole human community. There is surgery to be done. The warlords and drug lords and patrons of young victims of human trafficking. The abusive parents and abusive governments. The active and passive participants is communal violence. There is surgery to be done. And we should not imagine than when power is challenged, when individuals and “businesses” that profit from evils are confronted, there will not be resistance. Fierce resistance. Many miners were beaten and killed in their attempt to stand up to the coal companies. Many young men and women were assaulted, slandered and murdered for their resistance to Jim Crow – even some children. There is heart surgery to be done. There is truth to be spoken. There is compassion to be waged. Neighbors oppose the building of churches and soup kitchens. It is illegal to baptize in many countries. Congregation’s themselves resent the changes new people bring. Our hearts, too, need the surgeon’s scalpel.

And what if we translate the text, “I have not come to bring peace, but a knife of sacrifice”? What will such words say to us as we listen to Jesus declare that the fields are waiting for harvest? When he sends us out to cast out demons and heal and declare the reign of God?

Jesus doesn’t bring a quiet and peaceable life. He brings the peaceable kingdom. He brings the dawning of that day when swords are beaten into plowshares – a day that won’t come easily, given our great faith in the power of violence.

There is surgery to be done, so don’t be surprised when Jesus says, “I have come with knives.”