A Reflection on Genesis 17:1-7,15-16: Abraham and Sarah

The first reading today is from Genesis 17:1-7,15-16.

Our first reading continues our look at God’s covenants. Last week, we saw the covenant God made with Noah and all creation. Today, we witness the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai. Plucked by God from their native land in what is now Iraq, Abram and Sarai made their home in the land around Israel. After faithfully living where God sent them, Abram and Sarai again meet with God. And here, God makes a covenant not only with Abram and Sarai but with their descendants. God’s promises aren’t limited in scope. They carry with them this timeless and eternal quality that transcends our very individual, and limited, experience of history.

The covenant we see today also expands on what I’m calling God’s invitation. The covenant God made after Noah’s Flood is a promise that God will never destroy the earth again. God, in a sense, limits God’s ability to respond to injustice. God will have to handle our acts of injustice and sin in a new way. And one way God does this is through expanding our part of that handling of injustice by expanding our sense of relationships. The covenant God establishes with Abram and Sarai is giant. Like an exponential explosion, each generation creates an ever-growing number of relationships. Not only are more and more people created but the sheer number of relationships formed by these people also grows. God’s covenant impacts not only people but the relationships people form through conversation, communication, and interaction. The wideness of God’s promise impacts even our most mundane interactions with each other.

Last Sunday, the students in Confirmation Class wanted to clarify who exactly do we mean when we say “neighbor?” Are we really only thinking about the people immediately next door to where we live or just the people sitting next to us in the pews? The scope of God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai shows that our neighbors are numerous. God doesn’t only care about a few of our relationships; God cares about all of them. It’s through relationships that God deals with the problem of our sin, including Jesus’ relationship with us through the Cross.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3/1/2015.

Reflection: Meet a Prophet

The first reading is Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

Have you ever met a prophet?

I’ll admit that in our tradition, prophet is a scary word. We tend to not see them or identify them as people living among us. Other Christian denominations and traditions embrace the prophet identity but we don’t. They can make Lutherans in Europe and the United States uneasy since prophets, by definition, are an odd bunch. We tend to “other” them, see them as outsiders that belong to the past. Even people we might identify as prophets, say The Rev. Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr., we hesitate to label them fully. There is something about prophets that make us uncomfortable.

In our Deuteronomy text today, the people of Israel are asking Moses a very serious question. They want to know who they should listen to once Moses dies. Moses, the prophet that all other prophets are based on, speaks for God. He has met God, talked to God, and even debated with God. When Moses dies, then, who should the people listen to? How can the community know that there is someone in their community who is truly connected with God? The people of Israel are concerned about what to do when guidance from God is needed. They want to know who they can turn to when they need help.

This text offers some advice but this isn’t an easy question. Even in our own personal lives, it can be difficult to hear when God is speaking to us. We might look around at the person who obviously seems to be speaking for God. But there’s no guarantee that they are serving God. In our everyday lives, when we’re seeking counsel, help, and hope, just who do we turn to?

We turn to Jesus. The prophets in our midst are always prodding us, poking us, and directing us to Jesus. They do not ask for rewards nor do they only speak comforting words that make us feel better about ourselves. The prophets are always bringing us to the foot of the Cross, to witness to our crucified savior, whose arms are open to all. Prophets bring people to Jesus and push them away from themselves. They are outsiders because God has called them to push others into the arms of God. That’s where God wants us. That’s where we belong. And prophets exist to steer us into God’s love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, 2/1/2015.

A Reflection on Jonah

If someone asked you what the book of Jonah was about, would you mention the whale?

The story of Jonah is an interesting one so knowing about the whale is a good start. The story is filled with details that are an odd fit for a biblical story. The main character, Jonah, does everything in his power to run away from God. When God first calls him to send him on a mission to Nineveh, to the capital city of the enemy of his people, Jonah runs to the sea. He hires a boat to take him to Tarshish, a mythical place far away from God, like El Dorado or Mordor. Jonah runs, thinking that God’s power is limited and that the sea would shield him. But it doesn’t. God sends a storm that stops the boat in its tracks and Jonah is tossed into the sea. The whale comes and eats Jonah but not to kill him. Instead, the whale is sent by God to save Jonah and bring him to the shore.

Jonah tries to run from God but God doesn’t give up on him.

God wants Jonah to visit Ninevah, tell them that God has seen their evil ways, and that God will destroy them. Now, there’s nothing in Jonah’s message that asks for the people to change. There is just the warning that something is about to happen. But, somehow, the people of Nineveh do change. They hear God’s voice in Jonah’s words and they ask for forgiveness. The capital city of the people against Jonah and Israel hears God’s words. They listen. And if even Jonah’s enemies can listen to God’s voice, then everyone is available to God.

The story of Jonah continues after our verses (Jonah 3:1-5,10) today. Jonah hears that God will no longer destroy Nineveh and Jonah gets angry. He continues his pattern of wanting God to do what Jonah wants to do. But God refuses. God isn’t in the business of just doing what we want. God is in the business of redeeming, savings, loving, and resurrecting others. And if God is willing to save Nineveh, then God is willing to save us too.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3rd Sunday After Epiphany, 1/25/2015.

Reflection: How To Hear God’s Calling

The first reading is 1 Samuel 3:1-20.

I’m a big fan of the kid with her hand raised who really, really, really wants to answer the question. Her hand is raised high, shaking, and quivering, with the desk the only thing keeping her from launching into the stratosphere. There’s oohs and ahhs, the chant of “me me me me” leaving their lips, and the utter collapse into a pool of sadness and despair when someone else is called to the answer the question. I love seeing what happens when the answers wants to burst out of them.

Samuel, to me, feels like the overeager student. When he hears a voice, he runs to a voice he knowns and who has called his name before – Eli. He doesn’t recognize the voice, only its content. His brain fills in the rest, assuming that the one who called him in the past is speaking to him now. Samuel responds but doesn’t listen. He hears but he doesn’t understand. God is calling but he doesn’t quite get it.

For Samuel to hear God calling his name, he needs help. He needs the years of being in the Temple’s faith community to point to the One who calls. He needs to hear the story of God over and over again so that he understands his role as being God’s servant. And he needs leaders, mentors, teachers, and friends like Eli to help him see God’s work in the world. Samuel doesn’t hear God’s voice in a vacuum. He is surrounded by a life of faith and worship that brings him to this personal encounter with God. Even in an environment that Scripture tells us is not perfect, Samuel is molded so that he is ready to hear God speaking. And he’s able to respond and to ask God to keep speaking.

God not only reaches out to call us by name. God also gives us a community to live and be formed in. Both are essential to our faith journey. Without God’s encounter, we’re left without a connection to our creator and source of life. Without community, we’re left without the people God uses to form and shape us. And once we are called, we are invited to be a community for someone else.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 1/18/2015.

A Reflection on Genesis 1

The first reading today is Genesis 1:1-5.

The opening words of our Genesis reading today are memorable, aren’t they? These words, “In the beginning when God created,” announce the start of it all. Before this, there was nothing. After these words, everything comes. This feels like the nexus of history’s beginning.

Yet these opening words are not the best translation of the Hebrew. There is a general sense of status, of standing still, in our English translation of Genesis 1:1. But the essence and the emotion underpinning these Hebrew words is more than just an announcement of the start of time. These words contain feelings of freedom and activity that is centered less on time and the start but rather on who starts this all: God. A better translation that gets to this essence is: “At the beginning of God’s creating…”

“At the beginning” is a much more potent expression of God’s creative acts. Rather than focusing on the “when” of God’s action, we are instead turned to see what God does. We’re not just looking at time or seeing the start of a linear profession of history that brings us to today. Instead, the focus is on God and what God does: God creates. God generates. God activates. 

God is active in an ongoing and creative relationship with Creation. God’s story is a story of activity in the past, future, and present. Without such an active engagement with Creation, our gathering together today would just be a remembrance of what God’s done in the past. We would be telling stories of history that would always feel partially distant from us. But we’re here because God is still active in the world and active in our lives. That’s our proclamation, and God’s promise to us. God doesn’t act only in history. God acts today. And, for that, we can say, “Thanks be to God.” 

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 1/11/2015.

A Reflection on 2 Samuel 7

Do you remember your first house?

When I was born, my family lived in apartments. Every year, when the lease was over, my folks would pack up and we’d all move to a new place nearby. I was too young to really form lasting memories of these apartments. Only foggy images of living rooms, alleyways, and bedrooms linger in my mind.

But I do remember our first house.

When I was five, we packed a moving truck full of our belongings, jumped on an airplane, and flew to the magical land of Colorado. We stayed in a hotel for awhile while my parents shopped for a house. It took a few weeks but then they found it. I remember when I first walked up the driveway, past the small new tree and the sod-less lawn, and walked through the front door. We were home.

Our reading from 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 today is rooted in the concept of homes. In Hebrew, the word for home can mean many things. It refers to palaces, houses, and dynasties for kings. The word is centered on the permanence such structures have in our lives. When we own or live in our home, we have ownership over it, a commitment to it, and, above all, we have apresence in the home and the home has a presence in us. A home makes us feel incredibly rooted and connected to what’s around us.

This passage is about God’s continual commitment to the people of Israel. Like the homes in our lives, God promises to establish permanence for Israel and to be a permanent presence in Israel’s life. The verses not included in today’s reading (verses 12-15) continues the shower of promises. And these promises are unconditional. God leaves space for judgement of course. If David or his descendants fail to follow God’s commandments (especially placing their trust only in God), they will be disciplined. But the scope of God’s promise is epic. Promise, instead of judgement, is the center piece of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Christmas is almost here. The baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are about to make their home in a stable for a night. God’s presence and permanence is manifested in this temporary place. Let’s welcome God as God makes a home in us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday of Advent, 12/21/2014.

A Reflection on Isaiah 61

Does this reading for Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 sound familiar to you? Do you know which gospel book references it? If you guessed Luke, pat yourself on the back. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and reads this bit from Isaiah 61. After he reads, he announces “today, this scripture is fulfilled.” For Luke, Isaiah 61 is Jesus’s mission statement and why Jesus is in the world. Good news will be delivered to the oppressed, prisoners will be freed, those who mourn will be comforted, and the gloom from the past will be repaired and resurrected. The world will be changed!

This change is at the core of what Advent and Christmas is about. Gatherings with friends and family, mountains of presences, yummy foods and drink, and bright colored lights, while joy-filled, are not the source of joy of this season. And for those of us who experience loneliness, fear, and regret during this holiday season, joy might be impossible to see or feel. But this word from Isaiah 61 is centered in Jesus coming to live a human life. There is joy here.

This joy is not something we can create on our own. No bright lights, gingerbread houses, or fantastic toys will make us find that ultimate peace that only God’s joy can bring. Isaiah assures us that when we shout with joy and thanksgiving to God, we do it not because we are perfect, never doubted, and are always faithful. No, the joy and thanksgiving we share comes from God for God “has clothed me with garments of salvation and has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Faith and grace are both gifts from God. God gives those to us because that’s just what God does.

Today we’ll light 3 candles on the Advent wreath including the pink (or rose) candle. This candle is different from the others because it represents joy. Even in this season of expectation, hustle, bustle, and stress, we are reminded that we gather because of God’s sense of joy. God is in the business of getting involved with us. God is in the business of changing the world and changing us. That is something to celebrate this season and every season to come.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3rd Sunday of Advent 12/14/2014.

A Reflection on Isaiah 40

Our first reading is Isaiah 40:1-11.

Growing up in Colorado, I lived near the county line. Along this border was a road that was called (surprisingly) County Line Road. What an awesome road. Driving on it was like being on a roller coaster. We went up one hill, down the other side, and immediately up another hill for what felt like miles.But what was fun during warm days was terrifying during the winter. Snow storms and icy conditions made County Line Road terrifying.

When I returned home for a visit after college, I noticed that the road was different. Construction crews came and leveled the hills. The route was straighter, faster, and less exhilarating. Some of the joy was lost but the winter terror was gone.

This passage from Isaiah was probably composed after the exiles from Babylon had returned to Jerusalem. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were returning to a city they didn’t know but one that they heard about from stories of their parents, grandparents, and teachers. When they finally returned, the city must have appeared to be a ruin compared to what they had heard. The city was rough, the temple still in ruins, the walls broken, and its vibrancy and size only a fraction of what it was before. Not everyone had been sent into exile but enough to render the city an alien place to those who returned. I imagine the city looked rough, broken, and probably felt like it was abandoned by God. God’s city symbolized God’s people being at the bottom of the valley and in a land that no longer seemed to be a place of milk and honey. I imagine it felt like being caught on a roller coaster road, in the middle of a snow storm, with no end in sight. How could they hope to survive and thrive?

But in the middle of the terror, we hear words of comfort and hope. We hear about God’s relationship with God’s people. And we hear that God has not abandoned the world or us. Rather, God will feed the flock, gather the lambs, carry and nourish us in the midst of our snowstorms on icy streets. This passage tells us to rest in God’s promises, that we are caught up in God’s end, that we have been brought into God’s acts of restoration and resurrection and that our hope does not rest on what we do but on who we belong to. Our hope is in the one who comes to us today, yesterday, and who we will celebrate on Christmas Day.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 12/07/2014.

A Reflection on Ezekiel 34

This text from Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 is God’s reminder that we are always at the front of God’s mind even if God isn’t on the front of ours.

The former bishop of the New Jersey Synod said something like this recently at a preaching workshop on Advent but I believe our Old Testament reading from today says something very similar. This is the last Sunday of the church year. Not long ago, it gain its own name: Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Scripture lessons were picked to lift up the presence of Christ in our lives and to challenge us by asking who (or what) really structures how we live our life.

In this piece from Ezekiel, God takes the initiative to search for God’s own people. This can easily be seen as a radical act on God’s part. So much of our approach to spirituality and faith can appear to be centered on ourselves. We ask questions about what we believe, what we stand for, and what feeds our souls. These questions are powerful and necessary to sustain our faith journey. But God turns this around. No longer is God asking for the people to turn towards God, God is now actively going to God’s people. God isn’t asking God’s people to be perfect before God reaches down to them. God comes to God’s people after calamity and during suffering. God comes to care for God’s people. And God does this because that is just what God does.

The language of covenant and promise are all over this piece of Ezekiel because God is a God of promise. These promises are not made because we are wonderful but because God is love. God comes to meet us in baptism, in the words of scripture, in our prayers, and in holy communion to share with us that God’s promises are true promises that we cannot make broken. God cares for us. God comes to break injustice. God comes to renew, restore, and resurrect. God’s story is that we are always on God’s mind even if, during our busy lives, God isn’t always on ours.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Christ the King Sunday, 11/23/2014.