Called – Needed

A sermon for Lent 3; Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8


Harley was orphaned as a young child. He was fortunate to be placed with foster parents who were there for him. They were not alone. In Jr. High a football coach notices him and asks him to play football. Harley answers “I don’t know how.” The coach replies “That’s okay; I will be your coach.” In Sr. High, Harley is asked to move positions from guard to tight end. He answers “I don’t know how to catch.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.” Harley’s college playing time was limited but good. In his Junior year, the head coach tells him “We are shorthanded, I need you join the kickoff special team.” Harley answers “I don’t know how to tackle.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.” To most peoples’ surprise, Harley is invited to the NFL combines. There are some four or five hundred college players there, all of them very good. One team expresses an interest. Harley says “I don’t know how to be a pro.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.”

So yes you can tell I’ve been creative. But the story is not simply made up. It is crafted from multiple stories I’ve read over time and recently. And yea, I may have woven in a theme from today’s scripture reading.

It is hard to read this story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, without thinking of, Ben Kingsley in 1995, or Burt Lancaster in 1974, or Charlton Heston (1956). But when you think about the story, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house. He learns about his heritage as an adult and only then re-joins his people. He soon kills an abusive overseer and flees into the desert. Wandering around in Midian, Moses comes across a fine lady and joins her father’s tribe.

As today’s story opens Moses is keeping Jethro’s, his father in law, and a priest of Midian, flock. He has led the flock beyond the wilderness, on to Horeb. Moses is tending the sheep. He knows little if anything of God. How could he, for most of his life, he was Egyptian. And he had little time with the Israelites. For Moses Mount Horeb is just another high place. Nonetheless, in the form of a burning bush, God calls him. In scripture fire is a prominent characteristic of God appearing to humans. Moses not recognizing God in the fire shows that he does not know the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Harrelson). Apparently God knows Moses.

Having gotten his attention God lays out the situation. Israel is in trouble. God shares with Moses the divine plan to save them. The specifics hint at more than a mere rescue, there is the insinuation of a new creation (Fretheim). Then God tells Moses “I’m going to send you.” Now, Moses does not know God, but he does not lack in understanding. He realizes that he will be taking all the risks of God’s plan (Brueggmann). Moses also knows he is not prepared (Fretheim). Who could be prepared to take on the Egyptian dynasty and free the labor, that is the underpinning of their social fabric (Pankey). Moses is a nobody; he lacks any kind of authority. His question “Who am I? “is legitimate. (Brueggmann). God doesn’t really answer Moses; however, God does provide divine assurance “I will be with you.” And there are more affirmations in God’s sharing the divine name ‘I am’ that reveals God’s power, fidelity, and presence (Brueggmann).

A couple of observations about this story.

  • Saving Israel requires a human agent. It involves a specific and dangerous human responsibility (Gaventa & Petersen) (Fretheim).
  • We should understand that Moses’ work is socio-political, it is not church related or priestly (Fretheim).
  • In the Bible, a divine commission is always task oriented (Harrelson).
  • God’s name “I am,” which is more likely “I will be who I will be,” is unusual because it is a verb. The tense is imperfect, meaning it is ongoing (Harrelson, Pankey). It puts the focus on divine action not on being (Harrelson, 2003).
  • Although God’s reassurance “I will be there,” tells us Moses’ task is a shared risk it does not include a guarantee of success (Harrelson).

The leap from Moses to the tragedies and an unfruitful tree, in the reading from Luke’s Gospel account, isn’t intuitive; but stick with me.

Jesus shares two tales of tragedy. Pilate killed Galilean Jews offering their prescribed sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and allows their blood to mingle with the blood of the sacrifices (Ellingsen, 2016). It is as much sacrilege, as it is murderous. The other is the accident when the Tower at Shalom fell killing 18. As we do today, the people in the crowd think that people get what they deserve. It is generally believed there is some connection between peoples’ moral standing and the quality of their life, the good and bad things that happen to them. Jesus is saying that’s not how it works. John echoes Luke’s unique stories in his story of the man born blind when the disciples want to know who sinned, and Jesus says no one (Richter).

In short, we learn that life is capricious. We learn that we should not equate good luck or misfortune or another’s good luck or misfortune with either special blessing or sin (Skinner). One of my least favorite sayings is “There, but for the grace of God, go I. “Why do we assume the said person doesn’t have God’s grace? Why are we elevating our own spiritual status based on someone else’s worldly misfortune? Jesus is telling the crowd, and us, to be careful (Hoezee). Just as Moses has no guarantees, there no guarantees in life no matter our faith or our faith tradition (Epperly). Augustine wrote,

Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.”

“Our Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy” (Richter).

Now about that tree. We tend to read it as an allegory, with God as the land owner and Jesus as the gardener. But, it may just be a warning against false assurance. Just because you have not been cut down, do not presume that you don’t need to repent. It may be assurances, to those struggling to repent, that everything possible is being done to nurture you (Skinner). It may help to know that ‘leave it alone’ comes from the Greek word aphis which is the root for ‘forgiveness’ (Hoezee). The story of the tree does have its moral implications. Repentance is a theme. You know ‘repentance’ is grounded in the ideal of changing your ways. It can be expanded to include finding a new way of seeing the world. Yet the story of the tree does imply that it is more about being found than it is about finding (Skinner). And here we discover the link to Moses on the Mountain.

God finds Moses on Mount Horeb. God needs Moses for the divine plan to set his people free. Imagine for the moment that we are the gardener; imagine that God needs us for the divine plan for the tree to bear fruit. You know it is God’s desire to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP, p. 855). Imagine God needs you for that plan to work. You may wonder “Who am I? “so did Moses. You may know you are not prepared; so did Moses. You may ask for help, so did Moses. God’s “I am,” will be with you, like it was with Moses. And just how does God do? Which, by the way, is a fair question.


When Moses argues with Pharaoh – God is there.

When Israel is backed up against the Red Sea – God is there.

When they are wandering around in the wilderness -God is there.

As they approach the impenetrable wall at Jericho – God is there.

When Israel is in exile – God is there.

When they live under Roman occupation – God is there

As Jesus hangs on the cross -God is there (Pankey).

As were Moses’ people, as was Israel in the first century, today people, all around the world, are in trouble. There is a plan for a new creation. We may not know its details; nonetheless, we know, like everyone else, that we are called, that we are needed, and at this very moment in this very place, ‘I am’ is right here right now. Our challenge is to trust and follow our divine coach.


Brueggeman, W. (n.d.). New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus (Vol. 1).

Ellingsen, M. (2016, 2 28). Lent 3, Cycle C | Lectionary Scripture Notes. Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes:

Epperly, B. (2016, 2 28). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos:

Fretheim, T. E. (1991). INTERPRETATION Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press.

Gaventa, B. R., & Petersen, D. (n.d.). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville.

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2016, 2 28). Advent 3C | Luke. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching:

Lewis, K. (2016, 2 28). Longing for More. Retrieved from Working Preacher:

Lose, D. (2016, 2 28). Lent 3 C: Suffering, the Cross, and the Promise. Retrieved from In the Meantime.

Pankey, S. (2016, 2 25). The Power of “I Am”. Retrieved from WordPress: Draughting Theology.

Richter, A. (2016, 2 28). What Did They Do to Deserve That?, Lent 3 (C) – 2016. Retrieved from Sermons that Work.

Skinner, M. (2016, 2 28). Commentary on Luke 13:19. Retrieved from Working Preacher:

The Episcopal Church. (1979). Book of Common Prayer.

Journey From Doubt to Belief.

A sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent; Genesis 15:1-12,17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35


When this morning’s story from Genesis opens, it has been a long time since God promised Abram an heir and land. Actually, God has made the promise the second time (Gen 12:2 and Gen 13:16). It has been a long time, and there is still no heir. So, Abram has made arrangements to ensure that his belongings and his memory will be secure. So, when God shows ups again, making the same promise, only this time actually increasing it, Abram’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. It is reasonable for Abram to have a hard time believing God’s promise; after all this time of seeing nothing done (Bratt) (Yarchin). So when Abram asks “How am I to believe?” we understand, we get it.

Some commentators note that trust in God always comes through God’s self-revelation. This time, that revelation is in the midst of that strange sacrifice we read about. The fire pot and torch, which is in Abram’s dream, are opposite of darkness, reveal the presence of God (Sakenfeld) (Harrelson) (Gaventa and Petersen) (Ashley). We did not read a couple of verses, that detail the five-hundred-year journey of the Hebrews through Egypt (Walton). Perhaps the details provide some assurance to Abram. All this happens when Abram is asleep, making the covenant completely God’s responsibility. Another thing we know is that when he awakes, Abram believes. Now, just in case you are not completely familiar with the time sequences in Genesis, Abram’s trust does not last. Some years later, in the midst of year another long time of divine silence, Abram and Sarah scheme again. Doug Bratt notes that it may have been a thousand years for Abram’s descendants to number as the stars in the night sky (Bratt).

Some seventeen hundred years later Jesus is headed to Jerusalem (Walton 25). On his way, he is revealing the presence of the divine kingdom through exorcising demons and healing the sick. We are so used to thinking of the Pharisees as opponents, even the enemies, of Jesus, that we might be a little taken aback when they warn Jesus Herod is out to kill. Some commentators note that Luke has a different view of Pharisees, and they may actually be allies, at least at this point (Harrelson) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Other think this is a ruse, the Pharisees want to get rid of Jesus; because they see that he is a threat to their power and privilege, and what better way, that to blame it on Herod. But trying to scare Jesus off shows us that they have already decided they are not interested in the Kingdom Jesus is offering (Bratt). Jesus is headed straight for the seat of Jewish and Roman power, which has always been a dangerous place for prophets. Jesus doesn’t care; he knows the power of God’s promise and presence. And remember from last week, that knowledge is not from his divine nature, he knows about divine power because he grew up knowing the story of God and Israel.

The Pharisees’ warning does give Jesus an opening to expose Herod for what he is, a fox, a sly, cunning, calculating, brutal hunter.

Even though the picture on the cover of this morning’s order appears all warm and cuddly, when a fox is present, the hen broods her chicks and then bears her breast to the fox who must kill her to get to the chicks (Ashley). Jesus knows what he is walking into.

The bit about today, tomorrow and the third day, does have resurrection implications. It also tells the Pharisees, Luke’s audience and us, that Jesus controls timeline of his ministry. Together with the image of the hen, we know Jesus ministry will not be stopped, even by death (Reese).

Jesus’ proclamation that a prophet cannot be killed except in Jerusalem does not pass scriptural muster; there are several accounts of just that. There are some books, from the time between Micah and the Gospels, that are not in the canon, that tend to give credence to what Jesus is saying; but, they are more subtle and complex than what we want to get into here. Suffice it to say, Jesus is referring to himself. (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Jesus’ journey to the capital of the powers and principalities, his refusal to be cowed by Herod, his longing for the people of God, and identification with a brooding hen, is Jesus projecting strength in vulnerability (Ashley).

So, now it has been right a two thousand years, way longer than Abram waited to see Isaac, twice as long as it took for Abram’s descendants to be as numerous as the stars and we are still waiting. God hasn’t been totally silent; but, in whatever form you may believe it is coming, the rapture is not here yet. I don’t think it is when we will, so much as it is how we will share Abram’s doubt. The Lenten question is how can we share in Abram’s journey from doubt to belief, from doubt to faith (Bratt). For Abram, the journey involved a really strange sacrifice. Jesus’ belief, in part, emerges from the story of God’s self-revelation, that he learned from his family and community. We have the same story, plus Jesus’ story. They are both old, very old. And it is currently waning in its influence. In spite of the opining of Steven Pinker, Leif Wenar and others about our increasing humanity toward each other it is easy for us to get seduced by the harshness of the world. Abram asks “How do I know?” We may ask “How are we to know our religious faith has any meaning?” (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). We may want to know “How do we overcome the fear response the principalities and powers intentionally cannily evoke?”

I do not have any answers. But, what I passionately, believe discerning what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God, and how we can suffer rejection, and face death as we provide healing even to our enemies is a worthy Lenten discipline (Reese) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Ten days ago in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy invites us to the observance of a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word (BCP). Fasting is my least favorite option, which likely has something to do with my face first encounter with the sanctuary floor, as an acolyte. Nonetheless, there is value in fasting; it does invite us into silence and into contemplation of the divine. Fasting reminds us our real hunger, whether we know it or not, is for God (Winner 102). It turns out fasting has far greater implications than the ability to go without bread and water. It is one way, as are all those disciplines we can learn to trust God.

These are hard questions. And I don’t ask them to cast doubt anyone’s faith. We should not be afraid to explore serious questions by fasting or any discipline listed in the Ash Wednesday invitation. And I ask them because it is okay if we do not get it quite right. Remember Abram didn’t; as of today’s Genesis story Ishmael has yet to be conceived. It is okay if we don’t get it quite right, God has it covered. In addition, to Abram’s story we heard today, we have today’s story of Jesus encounter with the Pharisees. Through that story we know Jesus is in charge; and that no one, not even as brutal as Herod, will get in his way, that tells is that our salvation is in good hands. We also have the image of brooding Jesus’ desire to safeguard us, from the world, and from ourselves. Moreover, it matters that you are here, which demonstrates that you are willing, to at least start.

And now, as you continue your Lenten discipline:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done (Ashley).



Ashley, Dannae. “Loving Like a Mother Hen, Lent 2(C) – 2016.” 21 2 2016. Sermons that Work.

Bratt, Doug. Lent 2C Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. 21 2 2016. <>.

Ellingsen, Mark. 21 2 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 21 2 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 2 C Luke 13:31-15. 21 2 2016. <;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 21 2 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Love and Belonging. 21 2 2016. <>.

Pinker, Steven. Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking, 2011.

Reese, Ruth Anne. Commentary on Luke 13:31-35. 21 2 2016. <;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. 1979.

Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1978.

Wenar, Leif. “Is Humanity Getting Better?” New York Times (2016). <;.

Winner, Lauren. Mudhouse Sabbath. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2003.

Yarchin, William. Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. 21 2 2016. <;.

Lead Us Not To Temptation

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent; Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13, Psalm 91:12, 9-16

GS’s family has had a very hard time lately. Some three weeks ago, a grandmother had by-pass surgery. The surgery went well; the by-passes are fine; her heart is fine. However, her lungs have almost quit working, she is still incubated, was recently moved to special bed that flips over so the patient is suspended, which may take some stress off the lungs. And this past week ~ an adult child was killed in an ATV accident.

The specifics are unique; however, the circumstances are not. I know families of St. Stephen’s who face significant challenges, sometimes from multiple sources. I expect it may feel as if they have been led into the wilderness. In my experience, I know there is a temptation. In my experience, I know people ask “Why?” I believe that Jesus’ encounter with the devil has something to share with all of us as we find ourselves in the wilderness, or tempted from a time to time. So off we go into the wilderness.

It has been 40 days, and Jesus is famished from fasting. He has already faced the devil twice. From the top of the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, in the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish political and economic life, the devil taunts Jesus (Jones). He says:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you, up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

I’m certain the taunt sounds familiar; after all, we just heard it; the devil is citing Psalm 91 verses 11 and 12. It is possible to get into a debate about using scripture to fight scripture or how important knowing scripture is to face temptation (Rice, Jones). But, I want us to take a look at verse 2 of Psalm 91:

 “You are my refuge and my stronghold,
my God in whom I put my trust.”

How interesting it is to see, that the same Psalm the devil uses to tempt Jesus is one source of Jesus’ defense; which is Jesus’ trust in God. This is one of those places where we ought to be careful. We know Jesus is fully human, and also fully divine. It is tempting to think there is some sort of divine fail-safe that prevents Jesus from human frailty. Historically the church says no. Jesus’ humanity does not influence his divinity, and importantly for our story this morning, his divinity does not influence his humanity. What Jesus has, and so do we, is the presence of the Holy Spirit (Hoezee). What Jesus has, that we can develop, with the help of the Holy Spirit and each other, is trust in God. The Spirit does not give trust to Jesus though she may whisper reminders from time to time. Jesus’ trust grows from his life’s experience, how he witnesses his family’s and community’s worship discipline. Jesus trust is affirmed in his baptism, which comes just before this morning’s story.

We now see Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations because he trusts God. We also know his trust grows from his knowing the story of God, which is nurtured by his family and faith community and the presence of the Holy Spirit. So now let’s take a look at temptation.

We tend to think that temptation is the enticement of something to do, or to have, that is morally offensive, or those things the world loves and values, that the world defines as power, as opposed to a behavior or position that is morally righteous (Lewis). Temptation can be things that are normally good for us but become the singular focus of our lives (Expertly). Richard Rohr writes that temptations are those things that fling us away from the center of ourselves luring us into chasing stuff on the circumference of being (Rohr). And while this is what temptation is often made of, it is not what temptation is. What temptation is, is a diversion of whose we are and what we are. Temptation seeks to tell us:

 we are not God’s,
we are not made in God’s image,
that God does not really love us,
that we can be like God,
and that we can be independent of God (Jones).

Temptation entices us to change our identity. Jesus resist the temptation to give up his identity for an illusion or false promise, by trusting in God’s eternal love, by remembering that he is God’s and God’s alone (Rice, Jones, Rohr).

So, now we have some inkling of what temptation really is. We have some idea that Jesus’ trust enables him to resist temptation. We have a notion of how that trust develops, and we know that everything that Jesus had is available to us. There is one more concern, and it also arises from Psalm 91; verse 10 begins “There shall no evil happen to you.”

What about GS? What about all the tragedy that has befallen families in St. Stephen’s, and around the world? I know, you know that they are people of faith, even if it different from how we express ours, they are people of faith. So WHY? What have they done to bring such wretched calamity into their lives? Matthew writes that Jesus says for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). In John’s story of the man born blind the disciples ask him “Who sinned?” Jesus answers “No one.” (John 9). In Luke Jesus says the folks, who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, were no less righteous than those not killed (Luke 13:4). This reminds us that the events of life are not a measure of righteousness. There are no guarantees in life. When we pray our external reality may not change as we ask (Expertly). Somewhere along the line, Angie and I realized that life happens. The question is: will you let the vagaries of life define who you are, or will you reach back to eternal power to garner the strength to respond to the vagaries of life? In the language of today’s lessons: Will you let the vagaries of life tempt you away from God or will you trust God to help you discern and empower your response to the vagaries of life?

Luke’s wilderness temptation tale ends with the devil waiting for “an opportune time.” So, when the illusions, false promises or the vagaries of life are threating to fling you off into circumferential existence, trust the remembrance that you are created by God, in God’s image, who always has and always will love you. Know that you have everything Jesus had in the wilderness, you are marked as God’s own in your Baptism, and you are full of the Holy Spirit. And when temptation persists, seek out the faithful who will journey with you as you rediscover meaning, wholeness, and the shalom of life God wishes you to live.




Ellingsen, Mark. Lent 1, Cycle C (2016). 14 2 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 2 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 1. 14 2 2016. <;.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 4:113. 14 2 2016. <;.

Lewis, Karoline. Filled With the Holy Spirit. 14 2 2016. <>.

Rice, Whitney. “Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016.” 14 2 2016. Sermons that Work.

Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York: The Crosssbook Publishing Company, 1999.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.




Emmanuel Grace

A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Epiphany: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a], Psalm 99

For my last quarter as a senior in college, I went with a group to England. While there, I took a side trip to Stonehenge. At the time, the public could still walk among the stones. You could feel them, not just their tactile sense, but their mystical sense. Stonehenge feels different. Even though I cannot describe it, I will remember it forever. Fast forward to sometime in the future, when Angie and I take a longed for trip to Scotland, and Italy, the lands of our respective heritages. While there we want to see the art. I’d like to see Michelangelo’s Moses with its horns. Look at the next to last page of your orders, and you will find a picture. It’s not bad, you get a sense of the statue’s grandeur; maybe even its size. But I want to be there. I wonder if being in its presence evokes a similar sense of mystery as Stonehenge did. I wonder what those horns evoke.


And no, Michelangelo did not make a mistake. The Hebrew verb ‘shone’ is derived from the noun ‘horn.’ Ancient eastern icons often show gods with horns. Pharaohs of some Egyptian dynasties are regularly shown wearing a ram’s horn on their face. At the same time, the translators are right, ancient eastern gods were believed to have glowing faces (Gavenat and Petersen). Maybe it is just possible to carve a horn and not so much to carve radiance. However, what has my attention this morning is not so much why Moses’ face glows, or Jesus’ for that matter, but the response of those around them.

Moses comes down the mountain for the second time, yep, this is after the whole golden calf debacle, and his face is glowing. The people are afraid, and they work out a deal; when Moses isn’t doing his prophet thing, he will cover his face. It is a little strange because it is possible that Moses’ radiant face just may be the reflection of grace extended by God for Israel’s idolatrous ramp with a calf (Hoezee, Exodus). Then again grace can be scary because it is also a reminder of your sinful and evil behaviors (Hoezee, Luke). Some think that by having Moses veil his face the Israelites are trying to prevent another profane act. I wonder if they are trying to keep it from being too close. We all know that Emmanuel, God is with us, is fine, but just not too close.

We also know Jesus’ transfiguration is connected to Moses shining face. Jesus, Peter, James and John go up the mountain. Jesus is praying, his face changes, his clothes glow and suddenly he is talking with Moses and Elijah about his departure. We all know ever impetuous Peter wants to build a three booths, for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. It sounds like a fine idea; it is a great way to honor all three. However, eight days ago, Peter acknowledged Jesus is God’s Messiah. Eight days ago, Jesus shared with his disciples about his future: suffering, betrayal, and death. And as Scott Hoezee points out, since then nothing! Not one word (Hoezee, Luke). I kind of get the feeling this whole messiah thing is not what Peter or any of the disciples was thinking. Jesus speaking about his future carries a pall of sin and evil; it is dark. I think that the whole booths thing, while impetuous, is a pretty clever way of getting Emmanuel back in the box. We all know that Emmanuel, God is with us, is fine, but suffering, betrayal, and death is not exactly what anyone expects, or what they want.

A common theme to these stories is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” In Exodus, the people want to cover it up. In Luke, the disciples want to box it in. I got to wondering. When we come across Emmanuel, are we as welcoming, as we are to everyone else? Or are we more like our biblical forbearers and try to find a way to be welcoming, at a safe distance?

But here is the thing about Emmanuel and grace, they are not safe. They always remind us of our complicity in sin and evil. Because, only then, can they always remind us that we, and everyone else, are forgiven and that all creation is being healed.

It has been my experience that Emmanuel grace is generally not so much in your face (Hoezee, Luke). You know you’ve encountered Emmanuel grace by NSP, non-sensory perception; you feel it, you see it, not in a tactile or sensory way; you just know it’s presence. And, in faith, as we risk a closer encounter, we begin to glean how as each of us is made in the image of God, each of us reflects Emmanuel grace to the other, and in doing so, each strengthens the other. And the more we share, the more we trust that we can venture into the shadows of the world; because we all know, each of us have our own shadows, that are forgiven in the light of Christ (Carvalhaes).

Emmanuel grace, the grace of God, who is with us, is very much the Kingdom of God. Right here, right now, is where ever, whenever any of us happen to be. From highest mountain top to broadest plain, Emmanuel grace is ours to share anywhere anytime; from highest mountain top to broadest plain Emmanuel grace is ours to receive anywhere anytime. May we all be strengthened from glory to glory.




Carvalhaes, Cláudio. Commentary on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43). 7 2 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 7 2 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Exodus 34:29-35. 7 2 2016.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 9:28-36. 7 2 2016.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Yarchin, William. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 34:2935.” 7 2 2016. Working Preacher.


To pluck up and to pull down.

A sermon for Epiphany 4; Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30


I was surprised that the phrase today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down. It is not the missional or love based thought Christians associate with the Bible. It is not about justice and reconciliation you often hear preached. It doesn’t sound like it meshes with the Jesus movement and the preaching of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, I find so powerful. Perhaps the context of the reading will help.

Jeremiah lives in tumultuous times. The Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Israel splits, some seek to associate with the rising power, others seek to stay loyal to Egypt. In 597 BC Israel revolts against Babylon, triggering three invasions, that result in the deportation and exile of most of her people. The book of Jeremiah is a conversation between communal voices seeking to come to terms with the tragedy that destroyed so much of their life. It is intensely political. It is very focused on rejecting the thought that God abandoned Israel. It is biased towards exiles over those loyal to Egypt and those who were left behind. The first half of the book explains why Israel fell; the second half reveals how Israel can survive, indeed how they can prosper. The verses we heard this morning reveal that Jeremiah is not a self-proclaimed prophet, he is called by God, over his objections, just as Moses was. We hear how he will be a destroyer and a rebuilder (Harrelson).

At some point in my ponderings, I wondered how Jesus would go about pulling down and building up. You are familiar enough with the Gospel story to know he challenges many of the existing Jewish traditions. You know about his tirade in the Temple. You know he predicts that the Temple, the center of Jewish life, will be destroyed. You know this prediction includes it’s being rebuilt in three days. But how does Jesus actually go about tearing down and building up?

Today’s Gospel story and its first half from last week are an example. One trick is to see that the order is reversed, first Jesus builds up first, and then tears down. Last week Jesus read from Isaiah, how he is bringing: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee. It’s all heard with welcome ears, at last, God is acting to restore Israel. As one commentator notes, if only Jesus had stopped talking. His didn’t.

Today we hear that at first everyone is excited. We also hear him talk about Elijah being sent to the widow of Zarephath in a time of a great drought. He goes on to say that in Elisha’s day, of all the lepers in Israel, only Naaman is cured. Suddenly the crowd ruthlessly turns against Jesus. It reminds me of the shift in Holy Week from the jubilant welcome on Palm Sunday to the brutal “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. What we may miss, is the divine blessings Jesus names explicitly go to outsiders, by God’s direct action, tearing down Jesus’ hometown expectation of divinely selected privilege, right along with the ruling classes expectation for divine privilege.  So now we see, specifically, how Jesus tears down and builds up, in a particular instance. However, it is important for us to understand the principles Jesus stands on from which his action emerges. It is not motivation nor justification I’m pondering; it is his state of being from which Jesus acts that has my attention. Every now and again you look to the future to understand the past. So it is this morning.

The first remembrance is a training conference. I don’t recall where, or what the training was for. I’m not even sure I was there or if this is a story I heard. It doesn’t matter; it makes it the point. The trainer walks out onto the stage. There is no superlative greeting. There is no introduction of who he is. There is no announcing what the training is all about. The very first words spoken are: “If you not here because you love these people, leave!” There was an uncomfortable profound silence. I don’t recall anyone leaving. And the trainer did have our everyone’s attention.

And the trainer raises a good point. When we go, into the world, to minister to the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, the blind, or the prisoners, why are we there? Are we there to punch our good deed card? Are we there to help someone?  or to meet a need? Are we there to be in a mutual relationship with another of God’s children? Are we there because we love them, as God loves us, a gift unearned and unmerited?

You can hear how all this emerges from Paul’s letter to the quibbling church in Corinth. Last week we heard him argue that all gifts are from the Spirit, that all gifts are intended for the common good, that all gifts are equally important. This morning we heard him proclaim that all gifts are useless ~ unless we use them in love. Paul is not referring to the romantic relationship between spouses, or the paternal love for children, nor the friendship love of fraternity, sorority members, or between fishing, hunting, gaming or other friendships. No, Paul is referring to love written in the scripture as ‘agape.’ It’s Old Testament roots are: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself (Deut. 6:5 & Lev. 19:18) (Sakenfeld). It’s New Testament roots are:  love of neighbor (Matt. 22:40), love of enemy (Matt 5:44), loving each other as Jesus loves his disciples (John 14:23) and love of God (Sakenfeld). As a familiar hymn says, love how deep, how broad, how high …  that the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortals’ sake (Hymnal 1982, 448). [pause]

Today our challenge is not so much who we welcome. After his visit Bishop Benfield remarked that we are the most diverse congregation in the Diocese. We are welcoming to people of all sorts and in all conditions. I’ve seen rich and poor, folks of all political stripe, folks in varying states of mental and physical health, you name the variation and I expect they have been welcomed by St. Stephen’s. The challenge we face is. How many of you know what I’m going to say? [pause] You are right. The challenge we face is: how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? That is a building up question. The hard bit is the addition of a preface:  As our financial resources are playing out, how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? In the context of today’s reading, how do we go about this discerning in love?

Way later in Jeremiah’s story, in the middle of a siege, that will lead to the conquering hoards once again ravaging Jerusalem, Jeremiah has a vision to purchase a piece of property from his cousin. He makes the purchase. And he does so because he knows God sees what he cannot see (Epperly). He does so because he loves God and his love engenders trust. The Greek word translated ‘belief’ also means ‘faith’ and also implies ‘trust.’ To love God is to trust God, especially when we cannot, for the life us, see the future.

In our annual meeting, you will be invited into a conversation the vestry, and I have just begun. For the moment know it will involve some tearing down, and it will include some building up. We may well experience an emotional surge similar to Jesus’ neighbors. My prayer is that what is spoken is spoken in love; that what is heard is heard in love; and that over the time to come, and it will be a fair length of time, our love for God engenders trust of God, that enables us to hear God’s call. It is my prayer that as we have lived through our baptism in our hospitality, that we will live through our baptism in our discernment (Bates). My prayer is we do not fear plucking down and building up, rather that we trust God to lead us into the life to come.





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