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Advent Song Cycle, week 4 – Welcome!

The fourth week of Advent, December 18 – 24

This Week’s Song: “Enter, enter, holy pilgrims!”           Traditional

Enter, enter, holy pilgrims! Welcome to my humble home! 

Though ’tis little I can offer, all I have please call your own!

Entren, santo peregrinos, peregrinos! Reciban este rincón. 

Aunque es pobre la morada, la morada, os la doy de corazón. 

 Learn the tune here:

(Note that the English translation of the Spanish words is a little bit different than ours, in this video.) 

About the song

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

– Luke chapter 2, verses 4 – 7

The word posada means inn or lodging, and traditionally posadas are a celebration of the Christmas story. They take place on nine nights from December 16 to 24 and commemorate the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph’s search for a place to stay where Jesus could be born. At the beginning of a posada, people are divided in two groups, the ones “outside” representing Mary and Joseph, and the ones “inside” representing innkeepers.  Sometimes two people dress up to represent Mary and Joseph. Then everyone sings the posada litany/song together, re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search, going back and forth until they are finally “admitted” to an inn. After this tradition, the party proper starts. Posadas parties in Mexico feature hot food and drinks, sweets, music, and piñatas. Throughout Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, churches and communities celebrate these festivities with their traditional, religious elements. Today almost any party held around Christmas is called a posada. Schools often host posadas as end-of-the-year parties for students and teachers.


The Posadas song has verses that go back and forth between the pilgrims and the innkeepers. The first innkeepers are suspicious and don’t want to let in Mary and Joseph. But finally Joseph sings, “My wife, Mary, is the Queen of Heaven, and she is going to be the mother of the Divine Word.” The innkeepers sing back, “Are you Joseph? Your wife is Mary? Come in, pilgrims! I didn’t know who you were!” Then everyone sings a welcome song – the song above: “Enter, enter, holy pilgrims! Welcome to my humble home! Though ’tis little I can offer, all I have please call your own!” 

Watch a video of a wonderful storybook about Posadas here: 

(Or go to YouTube and search for “The Night of Las Posadas”.) 


How to say “Welcome” in American Sign Language… 

The sign “WELCOME” is done by holding one hand out from your body, flat with your palm up, off to the right a bit, and then bringing the hand in toward your torso/belly. 

(Note that this is different from “You’re welcome,” which is a sign some people might know. To say “You’re welcome,” hold your flat hand to your mouth and then drop it down.) 


PRAYER PRACTICE for this week…

Christmas and the days before Christmas can be very busy. We may be wrapping things up at work or school, preparing for travel, finishing buying or making gifts, preparing for guests or special events, and much more. Some of those things may be joyful, some may be stressful, some may be both! 

Christmas is a lot of things. It’s a secular holiday as well as a religious holiday. It’s a time when many people have a break from work or school. It’s a time when many folks travel to spend time with family, which may be joyful and/or hard; and when many people are missing loved ones who are not present. There are so many feelings and so many things to do. 

The good news of the Feast of the Nativity, the Feast of the Incarnation (God becoming embodied), is that God is with us in the messiness of our human lives. We are not alone. We are known, loved, held, and accompanied. 

As a prayer practice, take a little time this week to ask yourself or each other what would help you feel ready to receive and celebrate the good news that God is always with us. Maybe it’s a quiet walk around the block (even if there are things to do). Maybe it’s a conversation or reflective time around the Advent wreath one evening. Maybe it’s listening to some favorite music, or reading Scripture or Christmas poetry, to help you hold in your heart what this time means for us as Christians. 



When we welcome someone we let them know they are cared for and that they matter. Brainstorm one simple way you can show care to somebody, in the days leading up to Christmas – or in the days after it: remember that Christmas is 12 days long! Here are some ideas. 

  • Send a card, note or friendly email to someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while, just to let them know you’re thinking of them.
  • Look at the wish list for a local agency that serves those in need and buy some small items to help them with their mission. 
  • Make or buy a small gift or card for a coworker, classmate, teacher or school staff person, to express gratitude for their place in your life. 



Why is Advent four weeks long? 

Advent always has four Sundays in it. This year (2022) Advent as long as it can possibly be, since Christmas Day is on a Sunday! 

The Church developed special holy seasons during the first few centuries after the time of Jesus. When Advent (which is based on the Latin word for “Coming”, because Jesus is coming!) was first established, maybe about 1600 years ago, it was the same length as Lent, the season of preparation before Easter. Lent is forty days long, not counting Sundays, based on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness in the Bible. 

Advent and Lent were both observed as penitential seasons, meaning people would focus on simplifying their lives, repenting and making amends for their sins, and giving to those in need.

Eventually Advent was shortened from about seven weeks to four weeks, and began to become more different from Lent – just as Christmas is very different from Easter. But we still make sure to give to those in need, in this season, and we reflect on the ways the world continues to need God’s presence among us. 



These texts offers another perspective on welcome. 

Poem: O Sapienta    by Malcolm Guite


Poem: A Tale Begun      by Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 – 2012

This poem uses lots of strange allusions; you don’t have to understand them all to understand and enjoy the poem!


Poem: Advent Calendar (Rowan Williams, b. 1950)

Rowan Williams: Advent Calendar

Advent Song Cycle, Week 2 – REJOICE

The second week of Advent, December 4 – 10

This Week’s Song: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” verses 1 & 2    

This song is #56 in our church’s hymnal. 

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, 

That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily.

To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go. 

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!


EMMANUEL is a Hebrew name that means, “God with us.” 

This is an old song! The words are based on a poem that might be as much as 1500 years old. The tune is from the 15th century, about 600 years ago. We usually sing this song (and its many verses) spread out on the Sundays of Advent, as we light the Advent candles at church.

The verses of this song are based on the O Antiphons, which are an ancient Christian text, going back perhaps as far as the 500s. They are a series of verses for the days before Christmas, calling on Jesus to come and save us – and using different images from the Bible to describe Jesus, like Wisdom, Key, Dayspring, and so on. They are called the “O Antiphons” because each one starts with the exclamation, O!  There are some O Antiphons in our Advent prayer booklet. 


How to say “Rejoice” in American Sign Language… Hold your hands in front of your shoulders, palms towards you, fingers together and thumbs up. Then make a circle outward with your hands and bring them back to place, twice.

ASL is an expressive language! Show joy with your movement and your face. 

Note there are several versions of this sign; this one seems to be the most common. Here’s a video!

BONUS ACTIVITY: Celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas!

Santa Claus is based on a saint – a man named Nicholas who was a bishop, a church leader, in a city in Turkey, about 1700 years ago. December 6 is the feast day for Saint Nicholas. One custom is for children to leave out their shoes on the night of December 5 – and find them filled with candy the next morning. Chocolate coins are a good St. Nicholas Day gift – in memory of how St. Nicholas shared coins with those in need! 

Here is the beginning of a story about Nicholas, written by Rev. Miranda’s mother, Pamela Grenfell Smith:

Long before your grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents were born, back when years were counted in only three numbers, in the city of Myra there lived a fine and generous Bishop named Nicholas. He was in charge of every church in Myra – every single one. He lived in a fine house in the nicest part of town, and he never had to worry much about money. When he could not finish his dinner he would say to his cook, “Here, Cook, give these leftovers to some hungry family.” If he had old clothes he would say to his washerwoman, “Here, Washerwoman! I don’t need these things any more. Let them be given to some poor fellow!”

Every year on Easter Sunday a grand procession of deacons, acolytes and torch-bearers paraded out of the great church at the top of the hill and all around the streets of the city. Bishop Nicholas walked at the end of the procession, the position of greatest honor, wearing a splendid cloak of silk brocade and carrying a mighty silver-and-cedarwood staff. On these occasions, if he saw beggars in the streets he would tell his deacons, “Come, brothers, toss those poor souls a coin or two.”

Oh yes, Nicholas lived in comfort and ease, but it was his daily habit to turn his heart and mind towards the great mystery at the center of all things, the mystery that loves us and knows our names. This mystery was working a change in him. As Nicholas sat down to his meat and wine he found himself wondering if anyone in the city of Myra had only a crust of bread for dinner. As he went to sleep in his soft bed with its warm woolen blankets, he wondered if anyone in Myra had to sleep on the hard, cold ground…

To read the rest of the story and learn more about St. Nicholas, go to . 


Joy is a special feeling. The American Psychological Association defines joy as “a feeling of extreme gladness, delight, or exaltation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.” It’s different from happiness, although they are related. The author J.D. Salinger wrote, “The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid.” One of the things that is special about joy is that we can feel joy at the same time as we feel more negative emotions, like grief or pain. 

The author Ingrid Fetell Lee has spent several years investigating joy and where people find joy. Here are some of the kinds of experiences that many people find joyful. Read over the list; does it bring any joyful moments to mind? 

  • Abundance – lushness, multiplicity and variety
  • Freedom – nature, wildness, and open space
  • Harmony – balance, symmetry, and flow 
  • Play – color, bubbles, whimsy
  • Surprise – contrast and novelty
  • Transcendence – elevation and lightness
  • Renewal – blossoming and expansion 


PRAYER PRACTICE for this week…

Naming Joys. 

Joy is holy; it’s something that God wants for us. Noticing where there is joy in our lives can help us feel gratitude – and be more alert to opportunities for joy.  You can reflect on these questions quietly, discuss them with a friend or family member, or write or draw your responses. 

  • What’s a recent joyful moment that comes to mind for you? (Maybe the list above made you think of one!) 
  • Who are the most joyful people in your life? 
  • What activities bring you the most joy?
  • Are there places – in your daily life or in the wider world – that you connect with feelings of joy? 
  • Can you name a big, special joy?
  • How about a little, everyday joy? 

HANDS-ON PROJECT: Plan and do something that gives you joy!

Think of something you would really like to do, either on your own or with your household or a loved one or friend. It could be an outing – or a special treat – or a small project that would feel good to do. Here are some ideas: 

  • Go for a walk in a new neighborhood and look for Christmas lights. Take a canine or human friend with you! 
  • Look for an exhibit in a local museum that catches your attention, or seek out some wonderful art online, and spend time taking it in.
  • Cue up some music that you really enjoy listening to. (Maybe you could share a few favorite songs with a friend, and ask for theirs!) 
  • Make plans with a friend or loved one to play a game, meet for a treat, or do a simple art or craft project together. 
  • Dive into a really good book, TV show, or movie. It’s OK if it’s one you’ve already seen or read, as long as it’s something that gives you joy. 

Make a concrete plan to do something, even if it’s not this week, and try to follow through. 


These texts offers another perspective on Advent/Christmas joy. 

Poem: The Glory, by Madeline L’Engle

Poem: Mary’s Dream, by Lucille Clifton

An Orthodox prayer to St. Nicholas

Let us all say: Rejoice, O guardian of the people of Myra,
Their head and honored counsellor, 
The pillar of the church which cannot be shaken.

Rejoice, O light full of brightness, 
That makes the ends of the world shine with brightness. 

Rejoice, O divine delight of the afflicted, 
The fervent advocate of those who suffer from injustice.

And now, O all-blessed Nicholas, 
Never cease praying to Christ our God 
For those who honor the festival of your memory with faith and with love. 

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

– Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968

Sermon, Nov. 20

Today is Christ the King Sunday. I like to remind people that this is the youngest of our holy days – just a few years short of its hundredth birthday. It was instituted by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925, in the Roman Catholic Church, and spread to other churches from there. It was a direct response to World War I and the horror of seeing Christian citizens of majority Christian nations take up arms and slaughter one another. The holy day was intended as a reminder that for Christians, our primary citizenship is not that of any particular earthly nation, but of the kingdom of God. And as we heard last week, God’s holy realm is a place of peace: they shall not hurt or destroy on all My holy mountain! 

The Gospel lessons for Christ the King Sunday are all chosen to highlight the paradoxical kingship of Christ, so different from the ways we usually see power and dominion exercised in this world. This year’s Christ the King Gospel brings us Jesus hanging on the cross, crucified as a criminal. 

It’s so much the opposite of where a king should be that people are mocking him for it. Because what kind of king gets the death penalty, to die in shame and agony? 

And what kind of Messiah – the long-promised Anointed One whom God will send to execute justice and righteousness in the land, in Jeremiah’s words – what kind of Messiah dies at the hand of the Roman occupying forces, instead of throwing them out and liberating his people? 

It’s always a little startling to read this passage out of context. The Church usually reads about the Crucifixion in the context of Holy Week – on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. But I’ve come to welcome the opportunity to reflect on the scene on its own terms. 

I’m able to notice different things about it when I’m not caught up in the trajectory of the Great Story of Holy Week, and to tune in to details that might bring new understandings, or new questions.

One of the things I think is really important to remind ourselves about, now and then, is that following this King – this one, the one hanging from a cross – should give a certain skepticism, a kind of critical distance, to our views of any human king, or president, principal, mayor, bishop, et cetera. Really, ANY leader – the ones we like as well as the ones we fear. 

On Good Friday afternoon, every year, I invite kids here to walk the Stations of the Cross with me. And when we come to the eleventh Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, I tell the kids a really important truth: Sometimes the people in charge are wrong. 

Maybe they’re wrong because of a mistake or a failure. Maybe because their priorities or intentions are not good. Maybe they’re just exhausted or distracted or don’t have all the information they need. 

But one way or another, sometimes, the people in authority – our leaders, teachers, principals, moms and dads, policemen, presidents – can be wrong. 

We all know this is true; it’s just hard to admit to our kids. But it should be easy for us to remember, as Christians. Our God was executed as a criminal. We must be prepared to question our leaders and the structures of power in our time, holding them up to God’s standards of justice and mercy. 

And let it be noted, please, that the leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t just wrong because they condemned and executed Jesus, the Son of God. They were wrong because they perpetuated a system that punished minor crimes with brutal public execution. 

It’s not clear from the text whether the criminals crucified with Jesus were simple burglars or violent bandits. But it is clear in ancient sources that crucifixion was routinely used as the punishment for theft, fraud, and other non-violent crimes, especially when committed by those of low status, the socially and economically vulnerable. 

The criminal justice system in Judea under Roman rule was wrong because it murdered people for minor crimes. The leaders of that time and place were unjust, because they created and reinforced a political and economic status quo that drove people into poverty and desperation, and then punished them harshly when they did the things that poor and desperate people sometimes do. 

If that sounds familiar, it probably should. We execute a lot fewer people than the Romans did, but our criminal justice system routinely destroys lives for trivial reasons.  And our system is most certainly weighted against those with fewer resources and opportunities – as well as against people of color. If you’d like to learn more about all that, Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy is a great place to start. 

Reading this so-familiar story this year, I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before. There are two criminals crucified with Jesus, right? The first one joins in mocking Jesus because everybody says he’s a King and a Messiah, but look at him now! “Come on, Messiah, save us!” 

The second criminal rebukes the first – “We have been condemned justly, and we are getting what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 

I’ve always heard it preached and taught that the first criminal is wrong and the second criminal is right. But you know what? They’re both wrong. 

The second criminal – no: the second person, who has been found guilty of a crime and condemned to death – the second person is wrong about what he deserves. Whatever he did that landed him on a cross at the Place of the Skull, he thinks he’s getting what he has coming to him. That he’s been condemned justly. 

Look: Whether the death penalty is ever justified is something on which people of good conscience can disagree. Though I personally think it’s tough to make the case for it as a Christian, whose God was literally executed by the state. 

But regardless: the second man here is almost certainly not some remorseless brutal killer. Maybe he’s a thief. Maybe he’s a political dissident. Maybe he committed fraud. Maybe he hurt somebody. Maybe he even killed somebody. 

It does not follow that he deserves death. 

And it’s a sign of his bondage to the regime of death that he believes this. And it’s a sign of our imprisonment to that same cruel master that we continue to accept this logic so readily. 

I hope that when this man awakens in Christ’s presence in Paradise, he knows that he did not deserve to die. That his life and worth are so much more than the worst thing he’s ever done.

Did you notice that the word save occurs over and over again in this Gospel passage? Four times – uttered in mockery, each time.  “He saved others; let him save himself is he is the Messiah of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 

That word “save” – sozo in Greek – it’s the root of the word that the church translates as salvation. This is core vocabulary for the  New Testament. Save: rescue, deliver, free, help, heal, sustain, restore – all of that wrapped up in one word. 

It’s the right word for this moment. But the people taunting him are pointing it in the wrong direction. Jesus will not save himself. The people mocking him think he’s powerless. “Save yourself!” is a joke because how could he? Look at him. 

With the Gospel writers, we know better. We know he has chosen this. Could he have used divine power to step down off the cross? To cast himself into the arms of angels, as Satan tempted him to do, way back at the beginning? Maybe; or maybe he had laid down divine power and protection, as he turned his face towards this moment. 

Regardless, it’s very clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus chose not to resist this death. Chose, even, to walk towards it. Praying in the Garden, submitting his fears to God’s purposes. Rebuking his disciples for resisting his arrest. Silent when asked to speak in his own defense. As human, and as God, he gave himself over to this. Saving himself was never the point. 

I don’t claim to understand the meaning, the power, of Jesus’ death on the cross. But I accept the mystery that something salvific, something saving, happens here. 

There’s another important word in our Colossians text, in verse 19: Fulness. “In Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s easy to read right past it, but it turns out there’s a lot of theology packed into that word. 

Fulness, pleroma in Greek, is used a number of times in the Epistles, the letters of the first Christians. So is its opposite, Kenoo, which means emptiness, inadequacy, incompleteness. Those words, dancing around each other, trace the outline of a theology of the cross: In this moment, the human part of Jesus empties himself (Phil 2:7), to make room for the fulness of God. His weakness makes room for God’s strength, his brokenness opens the way for God to restore and heal. 

And early Christian leaders and teachers see in this a path of discipleship. They urge one another, especially in times of struggle and fear, to empty themselves. To let God’s fulness work in them. To trust, in the words of Paul, that whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10) 

We heard a hint of this in Jesus’ advice to the disciples in last week’s Gospel: “When you are arrested for your faith, make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21)

This idea of self-emptying is mystery and a challenge for me. When something is difficult, I tend to respond by trying to put more of myself into it. But I do believe – despite myself – that sometimes the wiser response would be to put less of myself in. To let my inadequacy, my weakness, my uncertainty drive me to a more profound openness to God. To serving God less like an independent contractor – and more like a musical instrument, or one of the tools I use in my jewelry workshop. 

This is the paradoxical kingship of Jesus, of God on the cross. Following this Christ, serving this King, calls us to carry lightly any earthly loyalties or deferences which may mislead or distort. It calls us to freedom from our bondage to the logic of death and retributive justice. It calls us not to settle for saving ourselves, when others are suffering and struggling. 

And it challenges us to find grace and possibility even in the moments when we feel like we have nothing to offer. For in this Kingdom, emptiness is fulfilled, brokenness can reconcile, and dying can lead to eternal life. 

Advent Song Cycle, Week 1 – WAIT


The first week of Advent, November 27 – December 3

This Week’s Song: “Wait for the Lord”     The Taizé Community

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near; wait for the Lord: keep watch, take heart! 

Learn it and sing it here!


About Taizé

The Taizé Community (pronounced tah-zay) is an order of monks based in eastern France, with a strong devotion to peace and justice through prayer and meditation. The monks come from many different Christian traditions, including both Roman Catholics and Protestants, and from 30 countries around the world. The Taize Community was founded in 1940 by its leader Brother Roger, who died in 2005. 

Today Taizé is one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Each year tens of thousands of pilgrims, many of them youth and young adults, flock to the small village of Taizé to share in the community’s worship and way of life. Young people from every corner of the globe are encouraged to live out the Christian gospel in a spirit of joy, simplicity and reconciliation.

Taizé has spawned a unique style of worship that has become popular in churches and other settings around the world. Taizé music highlights simple phrases, usually lines from the Psalms or other pieces of scripture, repeated over and over again. The repetition is designed to help meditation and prayer. Songs often have text in many different languages, including French, Latin, Spanish, and English. We have sung other several Taizé songs in worship at St. Dunstan’s, such as “Within our darkest night,” “Jesus, remember me,” and “Ubi caritas.” 



How to say “Wait” in American Sign Language… 

The sign for “wait” holds the hands up and off to the side a bit, with palms up; then wiggle the fingers.

You can see the sign by Googling “ASL Wait”, or click this link. 


PRAYER PRACTICE for this week…

Practice quiet. You can do this by yourself or together with a family member or friend. 

Sit somewhere comfortable. 

Ask God to help you rest in holy silence. 

Set a timer and try just being quiet for one minute.  (If you feel like you can do more, try two minutes, or three, or five!)

Pay attention to your breath. In… out.

It’s OK if your mind wanders, but when you notice it wandering, try to gently bring your attention back to your breath. In… out. 

When the timer goes off, don’t rush back into normal speed and activity. 

Notice: how did that feel? Would you like to do it again? 


HANDS-ON PROJECT: Do a project that involves waiting!

There are so many possibilities!

Paint a picture with watercolors and wait for it to dry. 

Bake cookies and wait for them to cook – and then to cool!

Put vinegar in your teakettle… and wait for it to dissolve the lime. 

Wash your sneakers in the washing machine… then put them near a heating vent to dry out. 

Order a perfect gift for a loved one, then wait for it to arrive.

Some things just take as long as they take! 


SOMETHING TO LEARN… Practicing Patience. 

Did you know that patience is a skill that people can practice and build? 

Some ideas to help kids practice patience… 

  • Name the situation and set expectations. It helps to acknowledge that waiting is necessary and, sometimes, hard. Give a concrete sense of how long the wait will be, whether that’s a timer or a calendar page – and if it’s uncertain, talk about why it’s uncertain. 
  • Do something else. Draw a picture, build with Legos, fix a snack.
  • Pretend. Research has shown that kids can handle a difficult task better when they’re pretending to be a favorite character. (Maybe it works with grownups too!) 
  • Brainstorm ways to pass the time. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, could you look for things that are green, or start finding letters of the alphabet? Coming up with ideas for handling the situation is itself a tool for handling the situation. 
  • Work on skills for quieting your body. I love this idea: Lie on your back on the floor or your bed. Put a stuffed animal on your stomach and rock it to sleep with your breaths. Start with 30 seconds of quiet breathing; if that goes well, you can try more next time.


And there are some great tips about practicing patience for grownups here at this link.



These texts offer some other ways to think about holy waiting. 

Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny. And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity. All time runs forward. All time, both history and in personal life, is expectation. Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal. – Theologian Paul Tillich

With inward pain my heartstrings sound,  My soul dissolves away – Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round, And bring the promised day. – Early American hymn

Poem: Black Rook in Rainy Weather, Sylvia Plath – click to read

Poem: This is the Dream, Olav Hauge – click to read

Poem: I sing to use the Waiting, Emily Dickinson – click to read


Advent Song Cycle, Week 2 – Rejoice

This Week’s Song: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” verses 1 & 2    

This song is #56 in our church’s hymnal. 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel, 

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, 

Who orderest all things mightily.

To us the path of knowledge show,

And teach us in her ways to go. 

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!


Sermon, October 16

This parable of Jesus – one of these little stories he tells to get people thinking – this is one that can seem superficially straightforward. It’s about prayer! Or maybe, it’s about justice! 

But if you look at it more closely, it starts to get messy fast. 

I want to share three things that I notice about this story, today.

The first thing I notice is that the judge in this story does not represent God.  There are parables of Jesus in which someone DOES stand for God, or at least the story is clearly meant to tell us something about God – like the Lost and Found parables we heard recently. And there are parables that point us to the kingdom of Heaven – to how God’s ways are different from human ways. 

And then are parables of Jesus that are more meant to call our attention to how things work here, in this world. How people treat each other. We’ve had some of those recently too; Luke’s Gospel contains quite a few. 

This parable is pretty clearly about the way things sometimes are in this world, rather than the way God means for things to be. A judge can’t be bothered to grant justice, until he is literally pestered into it.And then Jesus says, Listen, if even a judge like that can be badgered into doing the right thing, do you think you have to convince God to respond to the cries of God’s beloved ones? 

This judge is a contrast with God – not a likeness. I love the description of the judge as having “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” He’s like the rich man in the Lazarus story that we heard a few weeks ago. He’s an extreme type, almost a caricature. He’s a judge who genuinely does not care about justice. Literally the ONLY way anyone can get through to him is by disrupting his presumably comfortable life. 

So that’s what this woman does. We don’t know her situation. Somebody is taking advantage of her. It’s significant that she’s named as a widow, one of the core categories of social vulnerability in the Bible, along with orphans and immigrants. In a society where men held all property and legal authority, being a widow could mean she had nobody to protect her or advocate for her. She was at real risk of becoming totally destitute. She’s pestering this judge not out of strategy, but out of desperation. It’s the only thing she can do – for herself, perhaps for her children. 

So if the judge isn’t God, where is God in this story?  I think God is the courage and dogged determination that keeps this woman showing up and demanding justice, against all odds. God helps her get up every morning and try again. Nevertheless. And God is the force that makes the judge relent and do the right thing, if only to get some peace and quiet. 

God is in the capacity of people and systems to change, to be transformed. God is the Source of holy persistence, of faithful courage. God is in the nudge that reminds us of our need to turn, to change, to make amends and set things right. Even if sometimes we do it for the wrong reasons. 

The second thing I notice about this story is that this widow is demanding justice FOR HERSELF. Presumably because nobody else cares; there’s no one to stand with her, to join her in her daily visits to the unjust judge. So she shows up and pleads her own case.  Saying – probably SHOUTING: I’ve been treated unfairly! Give me what I need, what I deserve! 

That kind of behavior can be a cultural stretch for those of us who are middle-class white Midwesterners. It can be hard for us to do that for ourselves. It can make us feel uncomfortable or disapproving when we see others doing it. We’re all in on advocating for others, that’s great! But to speak up for YOURSELF… for your own needs… that’s a little unseemly. It’s not part of “Midwest nice.” 

A commentary on this Gospel pointed me to a speech by Frederick Douglass, given in 1857. Douglass escaped from slavery as a young man and became a famous speaker and writer against slavery. He is one of the great voices of our nation’s history. In this speech, he is responding in part to arguments that protests and insurrections on the part of enslaved people in the American South, were “prejudicial to their cause” – in other words, were turning public opinion against the plight of enslaved people. (Those familiar with Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, a century later, may note some resonances.) 

He talks about so-called white allies who want to take the lead and call the shots in the abolitionist movement, instead of African-American leaders like Douglass: “This class of Abolitionists don’t like [Black] celebrations, they don’t like [Black] conventions, they don’t like [Black] antislavery fairs for the support of [Black] newspapers…They don’t like any demonstrations whatever in which [Black] men take a leading part. They talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races… I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats.”

He continues to an often-quoted passage about the necessity of responding to injustice and bondage with struggle: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning…

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Douglass talks about the case of the British government ending slavery in the West Indies. He says it took both William Wilberforce’s moral pleas AND the agitation of the enslaved people – showing the British government that slavery is wrong AND costly AND dangerous. Because knowing something’s wrong might not be enough to lead to change, on its own.

And he argues likewise that no one should expect the enslaved peoples of the American South to just wait for others to advocate or fight for them: “In the great struggle now progressing for the freedom and elevation of our people, we should be found at work with all our might, resolved that no man or set of men shall be more abundant in labors… than ourselves.”

Douglass doesn’t mention this Gospel text, but this speech almost feels like a commentary on this parable. When a judge, a government, an institution, a system, is unmoved by knowing what is right, then those who are wronged are called to struggle – moral, physical, or both. To pushing back against their own oppression, and demanding better. 

We all have opportunities for allyship – for listening to those who are crying out for justice today – especially in the lead up to a significant election! – and choosing to stand with them or respond to their calls. This parable might invite us to notice what we feel when we see people and groups speaking up for their needs, naming their demands. If that makes us uncomfortable, if that makes us pull back a little – maybe that reaction is something to sit with, and examine. 

And I think this parable could invite us to wonder whether there’s anyplace where we could dare to speak up for ourselves. Is there someplace you could be more bold advocate for yourself, or for a group to which you belong?cBecause that can feel very frightening. Very counter-cultural, depending on your culture! But it can be important to find your voice and name your needs. 

The third thing I want to notice about this parable is that it may or may not actually be about prayer. Luke, our Gospel writer, says it’s about prayer: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” But that’s, like, just his opinion. This is one of the parables that’s only in Luke’s Gospel, so we can’t compare how it’s told or framed elsewhere.

It seems to me that a plain sense reading of the parable and the teaching that follows – without Luke’s gloss – would be something like this: Look, even the worst possible human authority figure will eventually cave and do the right thing if the demands of justice are sufficiently persistent and annoying. So, even when you feel lost and unheard, know that God, who is loving and just, hears you and will help you. 

I don’t think what we should take from this parable is that we have to annoy God into responding to our prayers! But the question about the relationship between prayer and justice does come up pretty often.

I found a short piece written by Abdullah Shihipar of Brown University’s People, Place, and Health Collective. He observes the “exhausting routine” that follows mass shootings and other tragedies: politicians offer “thoughts and prayers,” and frustrated activists and members of the public demand ACTION. 

Shihipar writes, “When people—especially those in power—call for thoughts and prayers without doing anything more, it’s meaningless. But prayer can be more than just a figure of speech; in its best form, it combines reflection with intent to act.”

He talks about how in both Islam and Christianity, prayer must be partnered with action. He tells a story about the Prophet Mohammed meeting a man who was leaving his camel without tying it up. The man explained that he was putting his trust in God. The prophet told him that he should trust God AND tie up his camel. Likewise in our Bible, the letter of James says that if you see someone in need, cold and hungry, and you say to them, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” what good is that? Faith without action is as good as dead. 

Shihipar says that prayer without action is “asking God to take care of something we won’t.” 

So what is the role of prayer, for people of faith, in the face of tragedy or injustice? Shihipar writes, “All humans will falter at times—but that’s why prayer is a starting point, at which we clarify our goals and values and ask for God’s help along the way. And then, in tandem, we try.”

God is in the capacity of people and systems to be transformed; the Source of holy persistence and faithful courage; the One who calls us to repentance and renewal of life. And prayer, in its many forms, is how we open our hearts and our minds and our lives to that Source, that One, the Almighty and Merciful. 

Prayer is a starting point, a pause in which we clarify our goals and values and ask for God’s help along the way. 

And then, in tandem, with God’s help, we try.



Frederick Douglass:

Abdullah Shihipar’s piece:

Sermon, Oct. 2

Read my sermon on today’s Gospel, from 2019, here.

  1. This Sunday’s Texts
    1. Powerful, emotional Old Testament text; demanding, strange Gospel. But I like what I’ve preached about them in the past. Didn’t have something new to say. 
      1. So I found myself looking at the 2 Timothy reading. 
    2. A few weeks ago I admitted: clergy don’t know all Scriptures equally well. 
      1. There are parts we rushed by in our seminary classes
      2. Parts we tend to ignore in favor of other texts, when preaching. 
      3. Moving towards a decade and a half as a preacher – I’m feeling a pull to spent time with the ones I’ve avoided? 
      4. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on 2 Tim or its siblings at all. So, here we go. 
  1. The Pastoral Epistles
    1. Referring to my Harper-Collins Study Bible – not taking it as my authority, but it summarizes well what I have read and learned elsewhere. 
      1. 1 and 2nd letters to Timothy & letter to Titus – have been seen for a long time as a set. 
      2. Called the Pastoral Epistles because of their concern with leadership roles and church order. 
      3. It’s also been recognized for at least a couple of hundred years that although all three begin by introducing the author of the letter as the apostle Paul, they very likely were not really written by Paul. 
        1. Why? Lots of reasons. First, vocabulary and style notably similar across these three, and notably different from the letters we are pretty sure are really Paul’s voice. 
        2. References to aspects of church order that almost certainly didn’t emerge till long after Paul’s death. 
        3. Key theological and social questions handled very differently from Paul’s thinking and writing. 
    2. Who are Timothy and Titus, the supposed recipients of these letters? 
      1. Timothy – first mentioned in Acts 16 – Paul meets him & takes him on as a helper & fellow traveler. 
        1. In Pauline letters, Paul describes him as a beloved child in the Lord, and brother and co-worker in proclaiming the Gospel. 
      2. We know less about Titus but he is likewise a sometimes companion to Paul, mentioned in the letters to the church in Corinth.
      3. It’s clear that these were real people. Not impossible that there could be letters Paul wrote directly to Timothy, or Titus. But… is that what these are? 
  1. Pseudepigrapha
    1. There’s a word for letters that pretend to be written by someone they were’t really written by: Pseudepigrapha. A known thing in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. 
    2. I had picked up the idea that in the ancient world, people didn’t really mind this. That their ideas of authorship and history and authenticity were more flexible than ours. 
      1. It is true that in the centuries surrounding the time of Jesus, there was a lot of this kind of thing being written. 
      2. For example: Just last week we heard a reference to Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived about 600 years before the time of Jesus. 
        1. There is a Book of Baruch in the Apocrypha, probably written about a hundred years before Jesus, give or take, and reflecting on the experience of exile. 
        2. Study Bible intro to Baruch: “It was a common practice during the late Second Temple period” – which encompasses both Jesus’ and Paul’s lifetimes – “to compose edifying works that expanded the biblical tradition.” 
        3. So: Edifying fan fiction. Using existing characters – like Baruch, Daniel, Moses –  to tell a new story, or offer a new perspective on an existing story. 
        4. It seems that this was an accepted literary practice; no actual intention to deceive. 
    3. BUT. But, but, but. Writing a short story about how the exile felt to Baruch, five hundred years after his death, is actually pretty different from writing a letter in Paul’s name, maybe ten or twenty years after Paul’s death. 
      1. Bible scholar Bruce Metzger – difference between a literary pseudepigrapha, and a forgery, with intent to deceive and to borrow someone else’s authority. 
      2. And people in the decades of the early church WERE concerned with authorship and authenticity. 
        1. 2 Thess 3:17 – end of one of the true Paul letters: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”
          1. He doesn’t quite say, “If the letter doesn’t have my handwriting, don’t trust it,” but it seems close! 
          2. Of course letters would have been copied and shared; and Paul seems to have dictated most of his letters, and just written a short message at the end and signed them. That little bit of Paul’s handwriting would not have been much protection against forgery. But the point is: It was a concern.
          3. Likewise the Didache, one of the earliest Christian texts, talks about the need for churches to check out visiting preachers & try to suss out whether they are the real thing or just grifters. 
          4. Early Christians were aware – as we are aware – that there are folks who will try to get in on anything, for their own benefit or to promote their own agendas; and they tried to guard against it. 
      1. It’s possible that some of the stylistic differences between the Pastoral Epistles and the other Pauline letters could be explained by the secretary thing… 
        1. Some folks hold that, as a way to believe this author when he names himself as Paul while also acknowledging the big differences of style. 
        2. But that runs us up against the differences of content, not just vocabulary. 
      2. Neil Elliott book, “Liberating Paul”
        1. Canonical betrayal of Paul: When the Church, over a couple of centuries a long time ago, decided what would be included in the NT, it *betrayed* Paul by including the Pastoral Epistles – because the Pastorals are not just different but diametrically opposed. 
          1. Especially 1 Tim and Titus, there is a lot of emphasis on social order and respectability. Women should be quiet in church. Church leaders should be well regarded in the wider community, and make sure their children behave. Widows who want to be supported by the church should have only been married once, not be gossips, and so on. (Probably pass a drug test…) Older women should avoid getting drunk. Slaves should not talk back to their masters. And oh, by the way, slaves, if your master is a Christian too, that shouldn’t make you think you can talk to them as equals; rather, you should serve them all the more, since by doing so you’re helping a fellow believer! 
        2. Elliott – this is conventional morality, defining Christian living in terms of norms of respectability and proper behavior in the surrounding culture. Sharp contrast with “real” Paul, who favored the “leadership of charismatic women, egalitarian communities, and resistance to Roman coercion.” 
        3. Overall, he says, reading the Pastoral Epistles as if they are actually Paul’s voice turns Paul from an “apostle of freedom” into a “priest of social convention.”
      3. Elliott notes that some people have an understandable feeling that since these letters did become part of the Bible, we should trust the Holy Spirit working through the church and accept their authority. To that, he says: Yes, but: what if they were accepted into the Bible under false pretenses? If we now believe them to be deliberate forgeries… how are we bound to read and regard these texts, as Christians?
  1. BUT. If you’re listening very closely indeed, you may have noticed that all that applies to 1 Tim and Titus. 
    1. 2 Tim is at least a little less clear. 
      1. It has a lot of similarities to the other two letters.
      2. It also has significant differences. 
        1. There is less of the social order stuff and, frankly, the misogyny – though there is a passage in chapter 3 about how people have to be careful about false teachers ensnaring “silly women” who are “overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires.” Don’t love that! 
        2. Instead, more focus on advising Timothy – or “Timothy” – to stay strong and keep proclaiming the Gospel, no matter what happens. 
          1. Understanding of the letter that Paul is imprisoned in Rome – his final imprisonment – and that Christians are facing a wave of persecution. 
        3. Is 2 Tim different because it’s a different voice – or just because it’s a different kind of letter? Some scholars think the Pastorals were written together and intended to be read together. 
          1. A little symphony with three movements – second one strikes a different tone, third one reprises themes from the first.  
          2. Scholars of ancient texts would describe 2 Tim as falling into the genre of “testament” – someone offering final advice before their anticipated death. This was a kind of text that people wrote and read. 
    2. Differences between 2 Tim & 1 Tim just in the short passage we have today. Let me point out one. 
      1. “I remind you to fan the flame of the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”
        1. 1 Tim 4.14: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” 
          1. “Council of elders” is one of the bits that sounds like it’s talking about the church in the second century. Not a known form of church organization in Paul’s time. (And this sounds like ordination.) 
          2. OTOH, for Paul to lay hands on Timothy as a way to pass on the Holy Spirit is totally consistent with Acts & Paul’s known letters. 
    3. It is possible that 2 Tim preserves fragments of actual letters of Paul. It’s also possible that this is just a pretty skilled forgery. 
      1. After all, the stakes were fairly high, if this author was motivated by wanting their opinions about how everybody should be acting at church to bear the weight of Paul’s authority.  
      2. The author here – if not Paul – had clearly studied at least some of Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts. Knew Paul’s writing pretty well. 
        1. These letters are petty; Paul could be petty.
        2. These letters have poetic moments; Paul could be poetic.
        3. These letters use some weird sports and military metaphors; Paul sometimes did that too. 
      3. These letters lay it on thick with specific names and details; does that point to their authenticity, or were they, as my study bible puts it, “crafted to lend pathos and concreteness to the Letter’s warnings and exhortations”? 
  1. How do we read and receive this text? 
    1. It comes to us as Scripture, for better or worse – though we’re free to find it more or less spiritually helpful. 
      1. I feel bound to at least ask, with a text like this: Is there a word or a witness here for me, for us, today? Accepting that sometimes the answer might be No. 
    2. When I first read this passage, this line seized my attention: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
    3. Is this small-s spirit or capital-S Spirit? I’m not sure it matters. I think the understanding of the early church was that in baptism, the Holy Spirit activates something that keeps working inside us, especially if we tend to it – fan its flames, as this author advises. 
    4. Let’s take these gifts of the Spirit in order. First comes Power – dunamis in Greek, the root of our words dynamite and dynamic. It can mean magical or holy power, but more commonly it means ability, strength, capacity to do stuff. 
      1. I sometimes talk about agency – our ability to act. Having a sense of agency is important; feeling helpless eats away at our souls. 
      2. That’s one reason even small actions in the face of big problems do matter.  We need to feel our ability to push our lives and world closer to our hopes and intentions. And sometimes small steps give us courage to take bigger steps. 
      3. Our text here says that’s one of the things the spirit does in us: gives us power. Strengthens our capacity to act. 
    1. Love. The Greek of the New Testament has several words for love; the word here is Agape. Agape is the word used for God’s love for humanity, and the ideal for the kind of love Christians should have towards one another and our neighbors: an unselfish love that always seeks the good of the other. 
      1. So that’s another thing the Holy Spirit kindles in us: our capacity to love and bear with one another.
    2. And then there’s the last word, self-discipline. I spent a long time on this word!
      1. It’s part of the distinctive vocabulary of the Pastoral Epistles – used in all three, and not really elsewhere. 
      2. It’s been translated lots of different ways: sobriety, self-control, moderation, sound-mindedness. 
      3. Since it isn’t used elsewhere in the New Testament, we can’t look at it in other contexts to help understand it.
      4. I looked and looked for more information about this word – and finally I hit Greek ethics, that whole big body of ancient literature about what it means to be a good person and what our purpose in life should be. 
      5. It turns out the root of this word – sophron – was a pretty core idea in Greek ethics. Jewish scholars in the first century were studying that stuff, so I think it’s probably what this text has in mind. 
      6. Sophron is related to a word I talk about a lot: Sozo, meaning rescued, saved, restored. Sophron combines that word with a word for mind or understanding. So, “sound mind” really is maybe the simplest translation – “sound” as in “safe and sound.” 
      7. There are literal entire books about the concept of sophron in Greek ethics. But from what I could find easily, it refers to being a person who knows what the right thing to do is – and is able to do it, without inner struggle. 
        1. It’s a state of harmony, of being in alignment within yourself and with the world, of being attuned to truth, in a way that leads towards right action. 
      8. The word here in our text is a becoming-word. It’s sophron plus a suffix that indicates being called towards something. So: the spirit within us draws us towards that kind of clarity and alignment and capacity to know and do what is good and right. 
    3. Next Sunday, God willing, we’re doing a baptism at our 10AM service. The family is new to the church, seeking a faith home. We’ll bless baby S and name her as Christ’s own forever. 
      1. It’s the Church’s understanding that the Holy Spirit does something within a person at baptism. And maybe the author of 2 Tim here – whoever he may be – has given us a way to think about those gifts of the Spirit within us. 
      2. The gift of power – the capacity to act in the world, to make a difference. I want that for S, and for all of us.
      3. The gift of love – the capacity to connect, to share, to give and receive care, to build community. I want that for S, and for all of us.
      4. And the gift of sophron – of something deep inside that shapes us, over a lifetime, towards knowing and choosing the good. I want that for S, and for all of us. 
      5. May we fan the flames of the gifts that are within us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, friends. Amen. 


A few sources… 

John Stott, though he ultimately believes 2 Tim at least is Pauline, has some helpful blog posts working through the pseudepigrapha idea:

Excerpt of Neil Elliott’s book:

Regarding sophron, I read lots of stuff. This is dense but fascinating –

Homily, Sept. 25

Okay. When we hear this story, I think there’s something in the story that can really distract us and make it hard for us to hear what Jesus means us to hear. 

The thing that is distracting is the idea that the rich man is sent to a place of suffering after he dies. That because of how he acted when he was alive, now he’s somewhere surrounded by flames, desperately thirsty, and without any help or relief. 

I understand why that’s a distracting idea. It’s an upsetting idea!

Some of you might have grown up in churches that talked a lot about how our beliefs and actions in life might mean we go to Heaven – or Hell – when we die. (You may have noticed that’s NOT stuff we talk about a lot here…)

The places where the rich man and Lazarus end up when they die, in the story, are not Heaven and Hell. Those ideas really come along later, though there are similarities. 

Instead Jesus is using an idea about the afterlife, about the place people go when they die, that was common at the time.

People thought the afterlife was like a countryside. And some parts of it were really lovely and lush and comfortable – like the valleys of Abraham, where Lazarus is. And some parts of it were terrible and dry and scorched – like where the rich man is. 

And maybe there’s a literal chasm – like, a great big split in the ground – between those two places. 

Listen, this is important: Jesus is using this idea to help him tell a story, to make a point. He is not trying to tell people what actually happens after we die.

There are a couple of other places where he seems to try to gesture in that direction – when he says things like, Even if you die, you live; and In my Father’s house are many mansions. 

But it seems like it’s one of the things that’s pretty hard to explain. 

And he’s not trying to explain it, here.

He’s just telling a story. 

And notice that the characters in the story are extreme characters.

The rich man is very rich – he’s like a stereotype of the worst kind of rich person: he has a feast of fancy food every day, and he literally steps over this poor man at his gate, when he goes out shopping for more fine linen clothing. 

And the poor man is very poor – lying in the street with no one to feed or help him. 

Maybe we could imagine this happening in real life, unfortunately – but these aren’t real-life characters. 

This is a story told to make a point. 

So what is the point? 

The point of this story, I think, is about knowing better. 

The last part of the story is the important part; the rest is just setting things up for this conversation between Abraham and the rich man. 

And the point of that conversation is that the rich man – and his brothers! – had every reason to know how they should act towards the poor at their doorstep. 

Look, the rich man even knows Lazarus’s name; it’s not like he’s just never noticed him. 

The point of this story is not that the rich man should have been kind to Lazarus TO AVOID PUNISHMENT IN THE AFTERLIFE.

That is not the reason he should have been kind!

God does not want us to do kind and right and just things because we are afraid. That was the church’s idea, I think. 

Fear is not a healthy heart-reason to do good things. 

Not what God wants from us or for us. 

The point is that the rich man should have been kind to Lazarus because it was the right thing to do.

It was what all the teachings and traditions of his faith told him.

Moses and the prophets, the sacred texts of the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Jesus’ people, are super clear about the responsibility to care for the poor and the sick, to share our resources and respond with kindness to those in need. 

And he should have helped Lazarus because it was a human need right in front of him that he could have easily met.

I think what we should carry away from this story is just a reminder that we know how we should act in this world, how we should treat people … and we don’t always do it.

When we have a chance to be kind, we should be kind. 

Now, sometimes we’re the ones who need kindness, right? Sometimes we’re the ones who need that helping hand. 

Sometimes it flip flops on a daily basis whether we need the kindness, or are in a position to offer kindness.

But when there’s a need right in front of us, a chance to just make somebody’s life a little better or easier – we should TAKE IT. 

Not because we’re afraid of eternal torment, but because that’s the kind of people God asks us to be. 

There’s one more thing I want us to notice about this story…

We have two characters: a very rich person and a very poor person.

Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about who people think is important… 

Who would most people think is more important, of those two people? …

But which one does Jesus give a name, in the story? … 



About the vales of Abraham…

Sermon, Sept. 18

Read today’s lessons here. We use the Track 1 readings.

  1. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager 
    1. Oddly delightful contrast with last week.  
      1. Last week: Lost and found parables – sheep, coin; talked about the prodigal son – feel familiar to many of us, and relatively easy to understand, though there are depths and nuances to explore.
      2. This parable leaves us thinking, What??…. Confused and uncomfortable. 
    2. This story directly follows the lost & found parables in Luke’s Gospel. But that doesn’t mean it belongs there. 
      1. Luke’s self-appointed task, from the beginning of chapter 1: to investigate everything he could find out about Jesus, and write an orderly account. 
        1. He is pulling together material from different sources and sometimes he just … sticks something somewhere. 
    3. What is a parable, anyway? …  A story that’s meant to open something up, to point beyond itself. 
      1. This is an odd little fact that I love: It’s basically the same word as “parabola,” which describes the line something travels when you toss it up into the air. A parable is something you throw out there… & see where it lands. 
      2. Parables are meant to make you see things in a new way, or leave you thinking; some more than others. 
        1. This isn’t even the most complex or ambiguous one, not by a long shot.
    1. In the preceding parables, Jesus makes it clear that the Shepherd, the Seeking Woman, the loving Father are meant to help us understand God. Does it follow that the authority figure in this story – the Rich Man – is also a God-figure? 
      1. No, not necessarily. Jesus tells parables about the ways of the world as it is, as well as parables about God’s kingdom and the ways the world could be. 
      2. The way Jesus wraps up this parable – “The children of this age are shrewd in dealing with their own generation” – seems to suggest this is a this-worldly story. 
      3. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a message for the children of light, for those who seek to follow Jesus.
    2. So what’s the message? Well: Either Luke’s source, or Luke himself, has put this parable together with some sayings about wealth and money. 
      1. Call to integrity in financial dealings, and in life in general – “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” 
      2. And a call to not letting money or wealth be a dominating concern in your life – “No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
      3. Let’s talk about Mammon for a moment. Who’s heard that word before, either in this saying, or elsewhere? … 
        1. Word is slowly disappearing from Bible translations, being replaced by “wealth” or “dishonest wealth.” 
        2. “You cannot serve God and wealth” is easier to understand; I see why translators are making that choice. But it is losing something. 
        3. Mammon is an Aramaic word – the language Jesus spoke. There are other words Jesus could have used, and did use elsewhere, for wealth and money. 
        4. There are a few times in the Gospels where Jesus’ Aramaic is kept, even as the rest of the narrative is told in Greek. I think Luke keeps “Mammon” in Aramaic because he sees that Jesus is treating Mammon as a character here. 
          1. Reading it through the lens of the Old Testament’s long struggle with idolatry, worship of false gods: it’s pretty clear that Mammon here isn’t just “wealth,” but is “wealth” personified as a godlike being.
        5. Commentary on this text – Barbara Rossing: “Perhaps we need to retain the personified idol named Mammon, as a reminder of how a financial system itself can function as an idol or ‘religion.’” 
          1. A hallmark of the false gods of the Old Testament is that they often demand extreme sacrifices, even human sacrifice, which is anathema to followers of Israel’s God. We might well ponder the human sacrifices demanded by our financial system and economy today. 
      4. So: This parable offers a teaching on keeping money or wealth in perspective – as a tool, not a goal; as a thing, not a god. That is a valuable and important teaching for God’s people and God’s church, in any time and place. 
      5. But: I don’t think that exhausts the meaning of this parable. There’s something provocative and interesting here that resists being boiled down. 
  1. The story itself… 
    1. Let’s look at the story itself, translating it into a modern situation that might help us understand it.
      1. Say there’s a payday lending company that specializes in high-interest loans to poor people. 
        1. High interest means that if you take out a loan, borrow money from that company, you’ll have to pay a lot more than the money you originally borrowed to pay it off and settle things again. 
        2. This company can afford to do this because it makes loans to people who don’t have good credit. That means that they have struggled financially in the past, and so regular banks might not want to lend them money. And they really need the money fast, because of some difficult situation – rent, car repair, funeral expenses. 
        3. Can people who are already poor and struggling financially, afford to pay really high interest? No! This is predatory and awful and deepens people’s suffering. And it happens all the time. 
        4. Now, say there’s a manager at a branch office of this company. When he signs off on loans to their customers, he adds in some extra fees, or a couple of percentage points of extra interest, above what the company asks for. When that part of the money comes in, he puts it in his own pocket.
          1. How do you think people feel about this manager? Maybe they realize he’s taking extra, maybe they don’t. But regardless: they know that this company only pretends to help them, while actually dragging them deeper into poverty and bondage. 
      2. But then this manager gets in trouble with the head of the company. He finds out that he’s going to be fired. But he’s got a couple of days before they escort him out and change the locks. 
        1. And he thinks, This is terrible. This is the only job I know how to do. I’m not strong enough for physical work, and I’m ashamed to depend on charity. But I can’t count on anyone to help me; because of my work, all I have are enemies. 
        2. So he gets on the phone and calls in as many customers as he can – people who owe money to his branch of the company. When they come in, he pulls out their paperwork. They look at how much they still owe – and he says, Let’s just bring this number down a little. 
          1. Maybe he alters the initial loan amount. Maybe he writes in some payments that were never actually made.
          2. Maybe all he cuts out is the extra that he put in to benefit himself; or maybe he cuts deeper, erasing some of the profit the company would have made. 
            1. How much do you owe? A hundred dollars. Quick, let’s make it fifty.  
            2. And how much do you owe? A thousand dollars. Here, let’s just adjust that down to eight hundred. 
          3. When the head of the company hears about it, he chuckles to himself. Maybe he says, “It’s a good thing I fired that guy, but man, he is one shrewd SOB.” 
      3. It’s easy to move this parable into the modern day; the dynamics of the situation translate well. But it doesn’t clear up any of its moral ambiguity. 
    2. A few chapters later, in Luke 19, we meet a tax collector – Zacchaeus – whose heart is changed by meeting Jesus, and who swears that if he has defrauded anyone by taking a little extra from them – “IF” that’s happened, mind you – then he will pay it back fourfold. 
        1. Zacchaeus does that as part of his repentance, getting right with God. The manager in the story does it for pragmatic reasons. He needs to have some people who’ll maybe help him out a little, instead of spitting in his face.
        2. But maybe those are both conversions, thought of different kinds. Zacchaeus’ heart, mind and life are changed for the good. The manager in the story just realizes that he can’t keep taking forever. That money and position can only protect you so much, for so long. 
  2. We’ve developed a habit here in our in-person worship of having a place on the way into the nave where you can pause and light a candle, if you like. Many Sundays we have an image of one of the saints or holy ones there, Someone who might inspire our prayers. 
    1. I discovered recently that Dag Hammarskjold is honored in Lutheran churches on the date of his death – today, September 18 – as a Renewer of Society. 
    2. I’ve had a prayer by Hammarskjold on the bulletin board by my desk for years: “For all that has been – Thanks! For all that will be – Yes!” 
      1. It’s from the book of spiritual reflections that was discovered and published after his death. 
    3. Hammarskjold was born in 1905 to an upper-class, educated family in Sweden. Dag studied poetry in college, then economics and law. He taught economics and served in the Swedish government, dealing with unemployment, banking, and foreign relations, including working on the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Western Europe after World War II. 
    4. In 1949 he became a Swedish delegate to the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization formed after World War II, with the stated purpose of maintaining international peace and preventing future wars. 
    5. And then, in 1953, out of the blue, Hammarskjold was elected as the second Secretary General of the United Nations. 
      1. Sarah Wilson writes, “He was chosen, in a sense, by accident. Dag appeared to be a pale, complaisant nobody; a good compromise candidate for the great powers ramping up for a full-blown Cold War.”
      2. Another biography states, “The UN Security Council believed they had chosen a competent administrator who would not challenge the existing world order. Before long, they would learn just how thoroughly mistaken they had been. Hammarskjöld … stood up against the superpowers in the Security Council and with unshakeable integrity defended the interests of small nations.”
    6. Unsurprisingly, the fact that their boring compromise candidate turned out to have some strong convictions was not entirely well-received. Wilson writes, “[Hammarskjold] declared the need for balancing… loyalty to one’s own nation with the best interests of the whole human family—and thus got declared a traitor to his own, a pretender accountable to nobody. He practiced a self-effacing patience to bring leaders to a conciliatory posture—and got blamed for not acting faster. He held to a fundamental humanism, a willingness to believe the best even of a humanity that repeatedly lived up to its worst—and suffered bitter disappointments.”
    7. Despite opposition and struggle, Hammarskjold served as Secretary-General from 1953 until his death in 1961. During his tenure, he strengthened its peacekeeping and diplomatic work. One of his greatest triumphs was smoothing over the Suez Canal crisis by helping Israel and Egypt find their way to a compromise. 
    8. He also played a very important role by, in Wilson’s words, acting as “midwife to the new nations in Africa emerging from the yoke of colonialism.” 
      1. The Western nations who had been, and in many cases still were, the colonizing powers were not in a hurry to give these new nations a full voice on the world stage. But Hammarskjold  believed in the possibility of a true world community, and pushed the UN towards welcoming, supporting and uplifting these young nations. 
      2. He did not get everything right – and it may have cost him his life. In the brutal mess of Congo’s independence struggle, Hammarskjold failed to throw the UN’s weight behind the democratically-elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba when he faced a military uprising – perhaps out of concern that Lumumba held secret Communist sympathies. Remember the Cold War? … 
      3. Lumumba was overthrown and executed. Six months later, while traveling for UN cease-fire negotiations between Congo’s warring factions, Hammarskjold died in a plane crash, along with fifteen others. It’s still unclear whether it was accident or assassination. 
      1. Let me back up and say a little about who Hammarskjöld was, as a human being. He was a person of deep spirituality and indeed mysticism – something few people knew about during his lifetime. He wrote in his spiritual memoir, Markings, “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” 
      2. Wilson suggests his Christian faith grounded him for his difficult role: “In his heart was forged a tremendous patience and long-suffering charity that would serve him supremely well as the leader of a still-new, always-fragile experiment in keeping world peace.”
      3. Hammarskjold may also have been a deeply closeted gay man. Wilson writes, “Loneliness was an essential companion in his ability to give himself to the great and risky dream of world community; it made him vigilant and nonpartisan.” 
  1. What does Dag Hammarskjold have to do with the dishonest manager? Well. Remember the people who elevated him into leadership thought he would go along with the global status quo, dominated by a few Western powers. Instead, Hammarskjold spent his tenure – in a very real sense, spent himself – working to support the poor, young nations of the developing world. 
    1. Perhaps, like the manager knowing he’s about to be fired, Hammarskjold shrewdly recognized that the world order of the mid-20th century could not last. Better to befriend the small and many, than to count on safety among the powerful few. 
    2. When we light a prayer candle at our little saint altar at church – or at home – it might be for whatever is on our hearts and minds. There’s also some tradition of lighting candles in the presence of a saint, for the kinds of things that saint in particular might be able to help us with. 
    3. When we light a candle on this day of remembrance for Dag Hammarskjold, we might ask for his prayers to use whatever influence, resources, and opportunities we have, within the imperfect and often unjust systems and institutions of this world, to build human connection and better the circumstances of those with less… that we, too, may someday be welcomed into the eternal homes. Amen. 

Read Sarah Wilson’s beautifully-written reflection on Hammarskjold here:


Sermon, Aug. 21

This sermon is an outline rather than a full text – apologies for somewhat less ease of reading! Here is the annotated page I prepared of this text, which you can open or print. 


  1. INTRO
    1. Clergy don’t know all of Scripture well, or equally…
    2. Hebrews is one of the parts I don’t know well.
    3. When it comes around in lectionary …., I tend to wait it out. 
    4. But last time it came around, I noticed a sentence I liked & kept it to use as a Scripture to lead us from the Peace & announcements, towards the Eucharist…. 
      1. A place in Anglican worship where it is traditional for the priest to read some short piece of Scripture. 
    5. Hebrews 12:28-29 – “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
      1. Printed it out, taped it to the ambo! I say it, many weeks.
    6. THIS year, when this part of Hebrews comes around – What does this mean?… 
  1. Hebrews
    1. One of the letters of the Early Church
    2. Very finely written – literary
    3. Author unknown – Pauline but not Paul
      1. Priscilla? – named leader in the early church 
    4. Thinking and writing at the interface between Judaism and emergent Christianity – describing Jesus in terms of the ritual practices of the great Temple. 
    5. Hebrews is hard to teach and preach today because of its supercessionism. That big word means the belief that the Church replaces Israel and the Jews as God’s people. 
      1. Not a new branch grafted onto God’s holy tree – Paul – but a whole new tree that has taken over the old tree’s roots. 
    6. When this was written: Christians were a minority, not much power. When Christians become the politically powerful majority, a couple of centuries later, this idea starts to become very dangerous. 
      1. Gospel story – Let’s be clear that everyone here is Jewish. And Jesus’ response here is also very Jewish. 
      2. This leader is uptight because he’s uptight, not because he’s Jewish. 
        1. Friend – kids helping in worship – “sucked all the holiness right out of the room”. 
        2. Episcopalians can get a little anxious about disrupting orderly worship, even if the disruption is life-giving. 
      3. But stories like this eventually become part of Christian thinking about Judaism as superficial and legalistic, vs. Christianity as religion of the heart. 
        1. Let me be clear: that is not a distinction that holds up to scrutiny! 
    7. We have to be careful with texts like this. What do they actually say? How have they been used? 
  1. Today’s passage… 
    1. Towards the end of the letter – 13 chapters – this is the “how to live” part, after the big theological argument. 
    2. I was starting somewhat from scratch 
    3. Discovered a really densely allusive text – Page!
  1. Working through the page… 
    1. This passage: Contrasting two mountains. First, Sinai – where Moses received the covenant, on the wilderness journey from the book of Exodus
      1. God’s presence – fire, earthquake, storm – other places in OT, too – signs of power. 
    2. Stay away from the mountain!! Exodus 19… 
      1. Sense of terror and danger in God’s presence. 
      2. Could kill you just to see God directly! 
    3. The second mountain – Zion. 
      1. Jerusalem – City of David – 1000 years ago now – becomes an idealized image of the holy City – “the heavenly Jerusalem.” (The heavenly New York…) 
    4. The gathering at/on the mountain… Sinai: people filled with dread. Here: at my first reading, a party! “Festal gathering.”
      1. WorkingPreacher – actually this is Greek political terminology – assembly, enrollment, festal gathering – this is an alternative body politic, a renewed civil society, a divine democracy. 
        1. Different from party image – but also appealing! 
        2. God the judge – could sound scary, we’ve heard a lot about God’s judgment. But maybe positive here? 
        3. Contrast to the fear and trembling of Sinai. 
    5. “Sprinkling blood” – what? 
      1. Abel – Adam and Eve’s son killed by his brother – reference to human tendency to kill each other? 
      2. Based on practices from the wilderness Tabernacle that became part of Temple worship
        1. Animal sacrifice – blood as holy, represented life force. 
        2. Sprinkling blood as act of symbolic cleansing –  
          1. Exod 24 – Moses sprinkles the people to affirm the covenant with God.
      3. Earlier in Hebrews – ch 9 – explicit contrast of these practices and Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Blood of goats & bulls can clean people superficially, but  “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our consciences…, so that we may serve the living God!”
      4. I hope you are starting to notice how well this author knows the OT & how skillfully they are weaving it into their writing here! 
      5. Re: supercessionism: The text wants to say that Jesus has replaced those old ritual practices. 
        1. Thing is, Judaism ALSO emphasizes that rituals aren’t enough in themselves & need to have the right heart towards God!
    1. Okay, new paragraph, and a new aspect to the contrast. God’s people at Sinai struggled to listen, obey, and trust. Wilderness stories…. Call for the Christian community to do better! 
      1. Quotation – “Yet once more  I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This is from the prophetic book of Haggai. (How did I find that out? Google.)
      2. Haggai – prophet during the building of the Second Temple. Minor Prophet – means we didn’t learn very much about them in seminary. 
        1. Telling the people to have confidence and trust that God will help them rebuild. 
        2. People who have been through great “shaking” – conquest, exile – next “shake” will be to your benefit! 
      3. This author’s interp – not much to do with Haggai. — “Yet once more” as pointing towards end times – everything shake-able, that is, everything earthly and tangible, will be gone, soon. 
        1. But what cannot be shaken will remain, endure. 
    2. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken… What kingdom? 
      1. This is basically the only time Hebrews uses this word. But it’s pretty clearly alluding to Jesus’s kingdom language. Examples on page – two out of MANY. 
      2. Hard to unpack briefly! An alternative reality we can choose to step into now, and also, something beyond this world that we are promised… 
    3. One more quotation – “For indeed our God is a consuming fire.” 
      1. This is the ONLY TIME this particular Gk word appears in the NT! (How do I know THAT? Google. Well: an online concordance, which is a kind of index to all the words used in the Bible.) 
      2. BUT it is used a couple of times in the Septuagint, which is a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It’s the version of the Old Testament that this writer would have known. 
      3. I’m almost certain this line is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 4. 
        1. Deut – one of those parts I do know relatively well – at least the gist – because I wrote a paper on it in seminary!  
          1. Moses’ last words to the people before entering the Promised Land.  
          2. Strong theme: Choose faithfulness, choose to follow God’s ways & stick with God, as you enter this new chapter, and things will go well for you. 
          3. This passage consistent with that – a reminder that faithfulness includes not messing around wiht other gods, because our God does not like that! 
      4. So while this passage begins by saying we – as Christians – aren’t like God’s people huddled in terror below Mount Sinai, it ends on this note: we should rightly feel some awe before God.
  1. So – having gone through all that – better sense of meaning – still a text I want to use liturgically? Appropriate? 
      1. “Since, then…” (or, “Therefore…”) 
        1. Here, wrapping up this argument.
        2. In worship: Everything before – readings, hymns, sermon, prayers, confession – should point us towards this realization/affirmation.
      2. Since, then, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken… 
        1. We have to bear with the mystery of the kingdom & let those layers of meaning add up over time. 
        2. “That cannot be shaken” – don’t need context – The idea of something unshakable – appealing. 
      3. Let us give thanks – Or, Let us have grace. 
        1. Charin – which is the “char” in Eucharist. 
        2. Translated as grace and as gratitude or thanks. Scope for a whole word study there!
      1. “Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe. 
        1. “Acceptable” –  Gk: “well-pleasing.” Translator DB Hart – worship that delights God. 
        2. LOTS of examples in the Bible (Isaiah, recently) of worship that doesn’t please God because it’s not offered with the right state of heart or mind. 
        3. So: A call to worship with gratitude and reverence. 
      2. For indeed our God is a consuming fire! This part isn’t on the paper on the ambo… but sometimes I say it anyway!
        1. God’s generosity towards us, our response of gratitude and wonder – sometimes adding that final note of God’s powerful otherness also feels important. 
        2. Worshipping at synagogue recently – how much their worship emphasizes God’s holiness. 
          1. Kabod in Hebrew – heaviness, weight. Approaching the living God is a serious matter. 
          2. We “God is love”-type Protestants can sometimes need a little reminder of that. 


Since, then, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,

Let us give thanks… let us have grace… 

By which we offer God well-pleasing worship, with reverence and awe… for indeed our God is a consuming fire. 

  1. Conclusion
    1. Doing this work helped me appreciate this author, their voice, their craft.  I hope for you too.
    2. Doing this work helped me go deeper into the meaning of something I say often. I hope you found some meaning too.
    3. And doing this work stirred up some of my awe, my gratitude, at being called into the presence of the Living One. At being, indeed, promised a kingdom that cannot be shaken. I hope for you too.