Posts Tagged ‘Lectionary Year A’

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee

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After a Bible study about one of Jesus’ sea crossings, one of our members asked for a sermon about “the other side.”  This is what I came up with for our congregation’s homecoming service on September 25.  This sermon focuses on the call to go.  Something needing ongoing prayerful thought and creativity: what are some alternate routes to reach the other side?

A Rough Ride to the Other Side
A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 8:23-9:1 and Romans 10: 12-15

When Jesus insisted that his disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, they didn’t put up any argument.  They knew where he was coming from.  They knew the need that waited on the other side.  They didn’t know exactly what they would find, but it would be some form of what they had seen already: perhaps another hungry crowd like the one they had just left.  Definitely they would see lots of sick people, and they might even see a really fearful situation like what they had seen in Gerasa: demon-possessed people living in the place of the dead—the cemetery.

The disciples also didn’t argue about setting out because Jesus had sent them out before with a commission.  In Matthew 10 he told them:
• Go and proclaim the good news
• Cure the sick
• Raise the dead
• Cleanse the lepers
• Cast out demons.

They could hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, the same urgency that Paul expressed later in this way: How can people call on Jesus if they haven’t put their trust in him?  And how can they put their trust in him if they haven’t heard of him?  And how can they hear unless somebody goes and tells them?

No, the disciples didn’t put up an argument.

But deep in the night, far from the shore, I am sure they wished they had.  Because of the topography at the Sea of Galilee, windstorms can quickly come up with little or no warning.  It happens because the Sea itself is down in a bottom, 700 feet below sea level, while the hills around the sea soar up to 1200 feet above sea level.  Air cools off quickly at the top and rushes down to take the place of warmer air rising up off the sea.  The disciples didn’t have a barometer to detect the subtle changes in air pressure that might have warned them that a storm was forming.

They were hit without warning, and this was a bad one.  Even the most seasoned sailors among them didn’t have the stomach for this churning sea.  In the Greek Matthew says that the waves tortured the boat.

And being just as human as anyone else, the disciples probably “lost it” as they struggled to hang on.  I can imagine them shouting at each other over the noise of the storm.  We should have rested in port when the crowd dispersed!  Andrew, James and John, you’re the professionals in this bunch.  How come you didn’t notice that the wind was changing?  Peter, how come you didn’t speak up?  I knew I didn’t like the looks of those clouds I saw on the horizon!  But the wind carried their voices away. (more…)


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Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah Dante Gabrie...

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My heart always goes out to Leah, the wife Jacob didn’t want.  Here is the sermon I preached on this story from Genesis 29: Revised Common Lectionary, Ordinary Time 17A.

The Unwanted One
A Sermon on Genesis 29:15-35

You know there’s going to be trouble the minute Leah’s name comes up in the story.  The text sets up an unfavorable comparison between Leah and her sister Rachel.  The writer wants us to know there’s something wrong with Leah in comparison with Rachel.  There’s something delicate or odd about Leah’s eyes.  We’re not sure exactly what the Hebrew means there.  But the writer is loud and clear when he continues, “But Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”   The implication is that of course Jacob would prefer Rachel.  Of course he wouldn’t want to “settle” for Leah.  The text makes it seem like the only thing worth knowing about these two women is that Rachel was prettier.

There’s plenty here to make us uncomfortable, plenty that’s alien to our experience and even distasteful: polygamy—multiple wives, common in that day, women as property to be sold and bought, women primarily valued as baby bearers and in particular male baby bearers.  And then there’s the whole atmosphere of dirty tricks that surrounds the Jacob family in nearly every episode.

These may be remote from our experience.  But judging by appearances—and comparing—is not.  It’s here.  It’s now.

Standards of beauty in our day are such that few women feel they can measure up.  It is very, very rare to find a woman who feels totally okay about how she looks.  That’s why we laughed recently about having our women’s pool party “under cover of darkness.”

But male or female, you at least want to look normal, or not attract attention for not looking exactly normal.  Dating and marriage can be a very delicate issue for people with disabilities.

Lots of people know what it’s like to be the one not chosen, or the one always chosen last as when folks choose up sides for sports.  “I’ll take so-and-so”—and unspoken, occasionally spoken, is, “and I don’t want so-and-so!”  It’s tough to be a wallflower.

It’s tough to look around at others and feel like you don’t measure up.  This even happens in the church.  People look around at others, and they seem to have their act together.  They don’t seem to struggle.  They don’t seem wrestle with fear and doubt.  They don’t seem to have the problems I do.  Judging by appearances, that is.

I’m guessing that, for whatever reason, there were no other offers of marriage for Leah.  She was a wallflower.  But even if Laban was just using Leah to extract more labor out of Jacob, this plan of switching Leah for Rachel at the wedding would at least provide long-term economic security for her and give her the possibility of children.

Making the switch wasn’t that hard.  The bride was always completely veiled and carried into the bridal chamber.  Alcohol flowed freely at weddings.  Much of it probably flowed down Jacob’s throat.  With that in mind, and under cover of darkness, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine how the switch occurred.

The next morning was bad.  The look on Jacob’s face, disappointment and even disgust.  The sound of Jacob’s angry voice echoing all over the compound.  We got the sanitized version of what he said to Laban.  The thought of what other people were whispering to one another.  Everybody knew Jacob didn’t want Leah.  It’s even tempting for us to laugh: Jacob sure got his comeuppance!  He had met his match in Laban.  But it was at Leah’s expense, and it hurt. (more…)

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When I began this blog last October, I published a sermon on this week’s Gospel text (RCL 17A), Matthew 13:31-33.  Here’s a link to that sermon.  Hint: mustard weeds (yes, I said weeds) and heaven leaven are unstoppable.

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Lolium temulentum, Poaceae, Darnel, Cockle, ha...

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Here is a sermon on the gospel lesson for Ordinary 16A, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  We need to beware when we find ourselves wanting to take spiritual and ecclesiastical weedeaters to one another.  Take a look at the photograph on the right.  What is this?  Wheat or weeds?

Weed Control
A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Everybody within earshot of Jesus could instantly imagine the weed-infested field.  What a vivid way to picture the way life is!  Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have been asking, “How did these weeds get in here?  How did decay and death get in here?  How did sin sneak its way in and sorrow twine itself around our joy?”  Weeds: they’re what ought not to be there.

But there’s another truth about weeds: one person’s weed may be another person’s flower.  The experts in God’s sacred law concluded that Jesus, his teachings, and his followers were weeds.  And as Jesus told this parable and others about seeds and growing and fruit, these experts—the leaders of the faith—were escalating their campaign of weed control against him.

They looked for every opportunity to question, to criticize, to nip Jesus’ teachings in the bud.  Why?  They sincerely believed that Jesus was offending against God’s holy laws and condoning sin.  Mixing with the impure made you impure, they believed.  Breaking the Sabbath was an insult to God.  Jesus was leading people astray, the leaders believed.  He was a weed, and by chapter 12 of Matthew they had already decided that he needed to be eradicated.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples had their own ideas about who the weeds were.  Those who rejected Jesus were the weeds in their eyes.  They themselves recommended getting out the weedeaters.  Once, for example, when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus because he was headed for Jerusalem, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54).  That’s one way to deal with weeds: burn them like poison ivy. (more…)

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Rebekah and Eliezer, as in Genesis 24, illustr...

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God provides in another way in Genesis 24, one of the Hebrew Bible readings for Ordinary Time 14 A, this coming Sunday, July 3, 2011.  Here is a sermon on this text:

God Goes Before Us
A Sermon on Genesis 24, with allusions to Psalm 139 and Romans 8:28

Nothing ever came quickly and easily as far as Isaac was concerned.  After God first promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendents would number as many as the stars, and that they would become a great nation in the land of Canaan, it was twenty-five years before they finally had their longed-for baby. God certainly took his time in working this plan out.

Then there were many other adventures, any of which could have totally derailed this plan, so there was more waiting: According to Genesis 24, Isaac was nearly forty years old before he was ready to get married.  It was high time he got to work on the next generation.  High time!  And if Isaac was going to be a patriarch, he needed a matriarch.  Who would make a suitable partner for him, and how would he find her?

Arranged marriages have little or no appeal to us, but it was the norm back then, and still is the norm in some parts of the world.  Given the fact that that’s how things were done then, I can see Abraham’s wisdom.  He thought that the logical place to look for a good match was back home among his kinfolk in Haran, among people who served God, the same God Abraham served.  Isaac needed a wife who shared his faith, someone willing and able to follow the dream of the Promised Land that God had first articulated nearly sixty-five years before.

But why not let Isaac make the journey to Haran to find the match himself? (more…)

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The stoning of St. Stephen by Gabriel-Jules Th...

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This past Sunday the first lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary was the murder of Stephen.  The killers thought they were doing God a favor.  This is a timely lesson as battles of various kinds rage within the Christian family.  Here is my first attempt to preach on this story.  This photo shows an image of the story that sits atop the main gate to the church of Saint-Etienne du Mont (“St. Stephen in the Mountain”), in Paris.

Where Our Eyes Need to Be  A Sermon on Acts 6:8-7:1, 7:39-8:3


The Apostle Paul suffered from some kind of ailment that he called his “thorn in the flesh.”  We don’t know what it was, whether it was physical or emotional.  But whatever it was, it was never completely relieved.  If you ask me, the memory of what happened the day that Stephen died could count as a thorn, if not the thorn.  It was a memory that carried a sting.  Paul never forgot what he saw that day when he was still known as Saul, how he had guarded the coats, and how he had approved of the murder, and how he had then gone out and ravaged the church in like manner.

The murder of Stephen was the result of a family fight, a fight within the family of faith.  At that time Christians were still a group within the Jewish faith, and Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew just like the people he disagreed with in the synagogue.

People being people, jealousy was no doubt one factor that was at work.  Stephen’s opponents tried to out-argue and out-speak him, but Stephen was a gifted speaker.  They couldn’t match the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke.

The far-deeper issue was that they could not accept what Stephen said about Jesus.  As far as they were concerned, as far as Saul was concerned, people like Stephen who followed the Jesus Way were wrong, dead wrong.  These people of Jesus were dishonoring God and disrespecting and misinterpreting God’s good law.  They were condoning sin and leading others to do the same.  For the sake of the true faith and true belief, Stephen had to be stopped. (more…)

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Dortmund, Propsteikirche, door handle on glas door

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If Jesus is the door, then the church is called to be the doorway to the door.

The Open Door
 A Sermon on John 10:1-10, Acts 2:42-47, and Psalm 23

Thank goodness Jesus found him.  In John 9, as soon as Jesus heard what had happened to the man he had healed, Jesus went to find him.  Instead of rejoicing that he was healed, the religious authorities had kicked the man out of the fold.  They slammed the door behind him.  That’s like being kicked out of your home church.  Where should he turn now?  Jesus found him and answered that question.  Jesus, the good shepherd, welcomed this sheep into his own fold.

Those who had appointed themselves to be God’s gatekeepers were more interested in keeping the wrong people out—namely the unworthy, the sinful, people who didn’t keep God’s law the way the Pharisees decreed they should be kept—these gatekeepers were more interested in keeping people out than they were in welcoming people into God’s fold.

The human heart longs for a sheepfold, a safe place.  No wonder Psalm 23 is read at so many bedsides and gravesides.  Images of rich green pastures and still water, images of a cup running over and a table piled high, promise safety and sustenance.  The fearful long for safety.  The hungry long for the table.  Alone and isolated, people long for a community, a place to belong, where the people know your name, and they’re always glad you came.  Thank goodness Jesus found the man wandering outside the synagogue, and welcomed him home.

Jesus says, “I am the door.  I am the way.  This way to life, and life abundant.  This way into the sheepfold.  This way to the table.”

But there is no shortage of other voices calling, “Come this way—this way to the good life.  This way to fulfillment.  This way out of loneliness.” (more…)

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Tilted Sunrisephoto © 2009 Yogendra Joshi | more info (via: Wylio)

Once you start looking through the lens of Easter, everything looks tilted God-ward.  Blessings to you all as we approach Easter again.

A Seismic Shift
A Sermon on Matthew 27:50-28:20
Easter—The Resurrection of the Lord

“Okay,” Pilate agreed with the chief priests and Pharisees.  “Take a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  Something had stirred up their fears.  They realized that Jesus might be even more dangerous to them dead than alive!  Was this an afterthought, or did the Good Friday earthquake shake them up as it had the executioners?

Something certainly had shaken them up.  On Saturday the religious leaders hurried to see Pontius Pilate.  Notice: it was the Sabbath, and it was unlawful to visit Pilate on the Sabbath, and unlawful at any time to go into his house.  Their anxiety was so great that they were willing to break the very Sabbath law that they condemned Jesus for breaking.  “Jesus may be dead,” they told Pilate, “but he said he would be raised to life three days later.  His disciples might go steal his body, then spread a rumor that he has been raised.  This lie would be even worse than the first one.  That tomb’s got to stay shut,” they insisted.  “You’ve got to make sure that nobody and no thing opens it!”  In other words, they needed that tomb to be earthquake proof.

I recently learned that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, one of the New Testament era books that didn’t make it into the Bible, pictures the sealing of the tomb.  It says that the religious authorities all joined the guards in keeping watch over the tomb, and that they put not just one, but seven seals on it.  Seven—the perfect number—and it was like multiple locks on a door: deadbolts, chains, sliding bars, like multiple barriers to keep somebody out, or else keep somebody else in.  All eyes were on that tomb.

As Sunday dawned there was nothing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could do but look.  They were helpless.  Matthew highlights their helplessness because he says not a word about them bringing spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body.  He says they just came to look.  Look.  Remember.  Cry.  Maybe start finding a way to move on.

It had been beautiful while it lasted: the dream of the kingdom of heaven.  Healing. Hope.  Life as God intended.  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why did he have to be crushed?  Seems like the world is always tilted in favor of the powerful.  The ones with the money win.  The ones with the weapons win.  They always seem to get what they want.  Dreamers like Jesus are a threat to people’s empires.  The lowly don’t want to stay in their place when a dreamer like Jesus catches their imaginations.  Dreamers threaten stability.  Dreamers are troublemakers.  They must die.  This world seems inevitably slanted, skewed, shifted towards darkness, towards pain, sickness, death.  Sometimes it seems that only the darkness is really real.  Light is a temporary illusion.  Death always wins.

Nobody was going to open that grave that Sunday morning, and especially not these empty-handed women.  But they could look and remember.  Suddenly the ground started rocking and shifting beneath their feet.  Another earthquake, a big one on the Richter scale!  And at that moment, God’s shining angel descended, rolled back the stone, and sat on it like a conqueror.  The guards trembled with terror, fainted dead away.  The shocked women were also frightened, but they kept their wits about them, and heard the angel say what angels always say when they bring God’s message:  “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He’s not here.  He has been raised just as he said.  Come see where he lay.  Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you.  There you will see him.’”  Afraid and joyful at the same time, they hurried off.

Matthew wants us to understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an earthquaking, earthshaking event.  It was a seismic shift.  The very ground those women stood on tilted in the other direction.  (more…)

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Jesus heals the Man born Blind

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Entrenching oneself in absolute certainty is a sure-fire way to fend off fresh encounters with the living God…Here’s a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A:

An Eye-Opening Experience
A Sermon on John 9

We are born into this world equipped with adjustable lenses in our eyes.  Depending on what we look at, our lenses thin out or get thicker so that the eye can focus more clearly.  What often happens, or even what usually happens is that as our eyes get some age on them, the lenses start losing their flexibility, and they can’t adjust as well any more.  So folks start holding the newspaper out farther and farther trying to see it clearly, or they do what I’m doing which is adjust the position of their glasses according to the task at hand.  No question about it: it’s time to go to the eye doctor.

That’s what was wrong with the synagogue leaders in our scripture today.  That’s what was going on with their spiritual lenses.  They had gotten so stuck on seeing God and God’s will one particular way that they resisted Jesus’ new message from God.  Their spiritual lenses were hard and rigid.  They either couldn’t adjust, or didn’t want to adjust, or maybe both.  Jesus diagnosed the problem as blindness.

That diagnosis seems obvious to us.  When Jesus gave the gift of physical sight to a man who had been born blind, you would think that the whole town would rejoice and give thanks to God.  You’d think they’d be eager to know Jesus and listen to everything he had to say.

But no!  Instead of erupting in joy and thanksgiving, the whole town erupted in arguments.  The man’s neighbors doubted what they saw.  This man must be an imposter, some said.  He can’t be the same man who was born blind.  As we heard in the lesson, the man had to insist again and again to people who had known him all his life, “Look!  It is me!  This man Jesus made mud packs, put them on my eyes, sent me to wash in the pool of Siloam, and I did.  And now I can see!”

Instead of recognizing the presence and power of God, the religious leaders argued with the man about Jesus.  “Jesus isn’t from God,” they insisted.  “He can’t be!  He broke the law!  He worked on the Sabbath.  That makes him a sinner.  If he really were from God, he would keep the law.  Now don’t you go following him.  If you do, we are going to kick you out of the congregation.” (more…)

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People birdwatching on the Barrier Island area...

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The heavens declare the glory of God, but so do the birds and the lilies.  Jesus urges us to look closely. They also declare the care and compassion of God.

Bird Watching
A Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Matthew 6:25-34

There’s a difference between a healthy concern and a worry that eats at you.  Healthy concern leads to intelligent, prudent action, like retirement planning.  It is both wise and loving to plan ahead for retirement.  It’s also good stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to us.   Healthy concern prompts us to use our heads.  Healthy concern prompts us to look into things and to check on people to see if we can help.  Healthy concern helps us put head and heart together as we love God and love each other.

But unhealthy worry looks like this: dithering and hand-wringing. Sweating small stuff such as whether or not the spice bottles in the kitchen are in alphabetical order, and fear that somebody might notice.  In severe form, unhealthy worry grabs hold of our minds, and strangles our thinking.  We can’t think straight.   This kind of worry will make a talented student believe that a B is the equivalent of an F.  It makes small mistakes seem like huge catastrophes.  It makes us say things we regret.  This kind of worry makes it hard to see anything positive in a situation.   You’re stuck wearing a pair of dark glass you can’t take off.  Worry makes people feel guilty about things they are in no ways responsible for.  Worry stresses people out and wears them out, with the end result being that they believe “I can’t cope now,” or “I won’t be able to cope in the future.”  Unhealthy worry is itself a source of great suffering.

When worry incapacitates people, the problem is obvious.  But in less severe forms worry doesn’t incapacitate.  It just has a hindering effect.  It holds people back.  What about good people who decide that they can’t afford to be generous until they save up just a little more for themselves, just to be a little more secure.  What about churchgoing people who profess to trust God, but in their heart of hearts what they really believe and what they act on is the belief that the only person I can really depend on is me, myself and I.  Security is what I put away for myself.

Big or small, when worry has the upper hand, a person’s eyes are focused mainly inward, on him-or-herself, and it’s hard to think of anything else.  Sometimes we get desperate to protect ourselves.  The heart of the worry is often something like this: I’m going to lose out.  I’m going to get hurt.  I’m going to be exposed.  I’m going to be criticized.  I’m going to look bad in somebody’s eyes.  And I can’t handle that.

When we get in that state, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” is just a pretty song.  (more…)

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