Moabites and You

sermon on Isaiah 16:1-5; Ephesians 3:1-6; Luke 3:21-23, 31-38

You may not have much association with or affinity for the Moabites.

If anything, Moab may make you think of eastern Utah and the gateway to Arches National Park, one of my favorites. Beer and Bible group noted that there’s a brewery in town.

That’s not the Moab referenced in our 1st reading, and I kinda doubt they had stark slickrock landscape and strange arch formations, much less a brewery.

So let’s get a concept of Moab and these Moabites, and then we’ll jump to the other readings.

The Bible’s origin story of the Moabite people isn’t very favorable, and is probably intentionally disparaging (Genesis 19). Moab was the great great nephew of Abraham and Sarah. We won’t go through all the details, but Abraham’s nephew Lot and family escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah …almost. Lot’s wife turned back to scope out the cataclysmic display even though God said not to. So she turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot was fearful after that—perhaps reasonably—and moved into a cave with his two daughters. In this isolation, it says the daughters conceived strangely of the future. They decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him. Moab was a resulting child. Whatever it is, it’s not a pretty story, and not supposed to cast Moabites very positively, although they were still relatives and had been through a lot (whether or not you take that as a pun on Lot’s name).

Rushing ahead through generations of people multiplying, after the Exodus for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants waiting to enter the Promised Land, the Moabites weren’t very helpful. (Those confrontations may have produced the shameful origin story.)

A Moabite king feared the Israelites lingering in his land, saying “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numb22:4). So he asked a prophet to curse them. It was all stopped by a talking donkey. A great Bible story you can find in Numbers 22.

Also in that time period, it says the Moabite women kept seducing allegedly faithful innocent Israelite men, tempting them with sex and further tempting them to worship idols. I don’t know if we fairly trust descriptions of the power and agency of these ancient women which were written by the men. Whatever it was, it all went on to have lasting impact. Moses declared that no Moabites would be admitted to the worshipping assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 22:3), and hundreds of years later a prohibition of intermarriage was still being reinforced as the final word of order on what it meant to be insiders (Nehemiah 13:1-3).

We should pause for the counterpoint to all those restrictions and shaming. The book of Ruth tells of a Moabite woman who came into the Promised Land, to Bethlehem, and did marry an Israelite and went on to become the great-grandmother of King David. That may remind us of gracious reversals that await from God and that it doesn’t benefit to be too harsh or exclusive.

All this is the background for our 1st reading’s brief reference that the daughters of Moab are like “a wandering bird pushed from the nest.” The Israelites are told to grant justice, shelter the outcasts, the fugitive, don’t let them be exposed to the destroyer.

These verses are surrounded by bad news for the men, maybe the sons of Moab, the soldiers, the leaders. They’ll expect to know the repercussions of their actions (and even go bald! Isaiah 15:2).

But the daughters! Protection is encouraged for them, sheltering from the effects of warfare, among situations where women suffer the worst though are least part of the cause. Even more than accepting refugees, this is a total reversal of how the women of Moab had been depicted before. They were the bad girls, perpetrators, known as sluts. Instead this saw then as having suffered trauma, vulnerable to injustice, even called daughters, worthy of love and needing care.

Let’s jump from that to our 2nd reading, which says that God’s goodness has been made know in Jesus, not only for the typical insiders, but also for the Gentiles. That original word is simply “the nations” and basically meant “everybody else.” It saw broader need that would include Greeks, whose language was the economic driving force of the time. It would include Romans, who held the headquarters of the emperor and all his forces. It would include the Moabites, if they were still around at that time, whether or not their women were treated any better and whether or not they had gotten around to building a brewery. Shucks, the Gentiles and that everybody-else-ness even goes on to include you.

Let the impact of that sink in: recall the shameful depiction of Lot and his daughters and descendants, the marginalizing. Remember the portrayal of enemies, inhibiting how the chosen people can enter the promise, so far removed from any possibility of sharing God’s blessing and goodness that your great great great great great great great great grandchildren still wouldn’t be allowed in. That’s a barrier. Or that what your great great great great great great great great grandparents did could still be affecting you. Instead, all of that is wiped away, reversed, for reparations or repatriation, for possibility.

Our version of the Ephesians verse about Gentiles says they (or we) “have become coinheritors, are of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” In the original, the with-ness is emphasized with the same prefix three times: we are co-inheritors and part of a co-body and co-having the promise. The language itself is looping us all together. Co, co, co. The Gentiles, the outsiders, the bad guys and girls now have a share in the goodness.

And there, let’s jump to the Gospel reading. With it, liberation theologian Justo Gonzalez wrote, “We come now to what is perhaps the least favorite passage in the entire Gospel of Luke, the genealogy of Jesus.”  But he says Luke must have had good reason to include it.* And reason we hear it today, besides the adventure of pronouncing all the names.

Matthew’s genealogy stops at Abraham, seeming in some ways to show Jesus as the consummate insider with the right pedigree. Luke goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, and ends with “child of God,” reminding us all of our origins, our divine connection and blessedness, and tying Jesus and the promise to the whole human family. We’re in this together, and in it for good.

That may strike you that you need to be mindful of those you’d excluded, to figure out shelter and refuge for the daughters who face war and violence not of their own causing, those who have been caught up in the machinations of oppression, those you called opponents.

Or maybe you need the promise yourself, that you are brought in, that God intends goodness for you. You may need it so much that the notion of being part of the human family and sharing with the great cloud of descendants may not feel enough. You may not want to be another factoid of a fallen leaf from an enormous family tree, mere decomposing data in the genealogical record, not simply swept past in the current of time’s ever-flowing stream.

So for that we pause in the waters of your baptism with the promise that God has chosen you, claimed you, anointed you with the gifts of the Spirit. You are God’s child. God is concerned for your wellbeing, and with you God is well pleased. Welcome to the family.

* Luke, Belief Theological Commentary, p54


Healed for What?

sermon on Mark 1:29-31

Within minutes of seeing this Bible reading, somebody sent an email asking, “So the Gospel this week tells us that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law so she could wait on the guys (‘minister to them’)? What does Womanist Theology think about this?”

It’s a great question. Though it’s not the exclusive purview of this lectionary, it may well be part of the point of the framing from the Women’s Lectionary—confronting us with the question.

The Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, creator of our lectionary, offers questions for interrogating Bible passages such as this, including “Where are the women and girls, what are they doing, and what are their names? When women or other marginalized characters speak and act, whose interests are they serving? Who (and where) are the characters without which the story could not have unfolded as articulated?”*

remains of 5th & 4th Century churches built on Peter’s mother-in-law’s house in Capernaum

Here, (Peter or) Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, then was lifted by Jesus to quote “minister to them,” most often meaning serving food. It seems she was serving the interest of Jesus and the four disciples with him—at least they were the ones named.

This mother-in-law was not named, and this is her only appearance. At least she made it into the story; Simon Peter evidently had a wife, but she’s neither named nor given a role in the story, even though presumably it couldn’t have unfolded without her.

As Peter left to follow Jesus, was she taking care of things at this house in Capernaum that remained a gathering place and focal point for 500 years, and still now (as pictured)?

As Simon often failed as a disciple, dumb as a rock, as he denied Jesus before the crucifixion, we could wonder whether this wife already had been putting up with those traits in him.

And when Peter went on to lead the community of believers in Rome as bishop, a leadership role eventually known as Pope, did his wife go along? How did she wind up so forgotten in the story now that the Pope—in Peter’s role—is the primary one enforcing a rule that priests can’t be married? I don’t know. We can only guess at such answers.

Backing up to start directly with what we have in these Bible verses, we might ask if Jesus was a chauvinist, like “Hey woman, stop lying around and make me a snack.” If not totally excusing it, some people qualify that Jesus was part of a patriarchal society, and this was just how things operated.

I suppose even if this is how we think about the issue, there’s some benefit simply that we noticed it. Our reaction may show there’s something questionable that such gender roles existed, and still are too predominant.

Maybe we’re especially challenged in wanting Jesus to be better, not wanting him to be yet another chauvinist.

So beginning to turn in a better direction, at least from my perspective, is that Jesus notices this sick woman, he attends to her, takes her hand and lifts her up—probably already a contact boundary his culture wouldn’t have permitted.

Even if we take that at its crassest of him selfishly relying on the unnamed woman, as if Jesus were no help around the kitchen (a dubious claim about a guy who could whip up snacks for 5000), even if Jesus were the stereotypical man where the way to his heart is through his stomach (nicely incarnational though that might be), still we’d have to say that Jesus breaks the mold of stereotypes. And not just of ancient men but of our society still.

It strikes me that even if a person is in a role to do vital things for us, we’re still more apt to discard them rather than help restore them to their potential.

The early pandemic focus on essential workers is an exception that proves the rule of how we take such people for granted. Very briefly, we understood those who work in hospitals to be truly important. Far more than just them, even those who stock grocery store shelves and who drive deliveries. That was pretty short-lived. Within weeks, we heard about outbursts against medical staff and teachers and our usual disregard returned.

My general point, in comparison to the Bible story, is that if your Door Dash driver were sick, you’d almost certainly just find another option for your hungry belly instead of trying to ensure that person’s health and well-being and ability to return to work like Jesus does.

For the return to work in our story, the word translated as ministering was, indeed, the Greek word for waiting on tables. But it came to take on more meaning in the church. The word is diakonia, coming into English as deacon.

If we were looking to disparage Jesus, we might ponder why following him reinforces doing the same old things, Simon’s mother-in-law making Saturday supper, why women and marginalized service sector workers are still stuck, not freed from waiting on those allegedly more powerful.

But instead of disparaging Jesus, we might first notice our attitudes that disparage and are demeaning to service work, that don’t value what mothers and women and others do so much. Why don’t we honor them as essential all the time? What convinces us they’re less important and other work is better?

And is Jesus just reinstituting the old hierarchical structures? The first time the Gospel uses this term deacon, it is angels who are waiting on Jesus (1:13). Later, he’ll say that he himself came not to be served but to serve (10:45). There is something godly here, subverting old systems, giving a new model of greatness, as Martin Luther King said. Jesus himself is more a deacon—a waiter—than a bishop, and prefers that.

My New Testament professor Sara Henrich wrote that this serving:
characterizes [Jesus’] disciples [though the men don’t usually get it]. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.**

Still more, after noticing the needs and illness of this mother-in-law, Jesus takes her hand and lifts her up, it says. Actually the term is “raised up,” used most centrally of Jesus’ resurrection. This is the first resurrection in the Gospel, giving this woman new life. It may at times look like the same old life, but it is transformed, and is reshaped in value by Jesus.

In the end, it seems you could try to decide Jesus is an old-fangled power hungry (and plain old hungry) chauvinist demanding service.

Or you can get caught by this one who reaches across boundaries, serving you first, lifting you to rise, transformed as you live valued and valuing essential service.

* Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, p8



Rippling Circles

a sermon on Matthew 3:1-6,11-17; Isaiah 62:1-7,10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:2-10; Psalm 18:2-11,16-19

It’s funny how we expect some things to go together. For example, peanut butter and _____.

For pairings, you may know just what goes with a rich pinot noir. Or know that French fries require ketchup (at least in this country). Some of you may think cold pizza for breakfast is great. Some may not eat ice cream in winter. Some may put hot sauce on nearly everything, like I do. Some of you may be surprised to see tofu on the menu at a steak house. You may think wild honey goes great with locusts; at least John the Baptizer did.

My dad sent a box of citrus from wintering in Arizona. The oranges are a delight, particularly since I otherwise don’t purchase produce that’s traveled so far. But I’ve also been having to remember not to eat them before brushing my teeth. Not a good pairing.

My point is that how things pair matters.

That’s an interesting thing with this new Women’s Lectionary. The Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney has given us some new pairings and how things go together.

For this Sunday when we hear of the baptism of Jesus, the pairings change the feel. Our 2nd Corinthians reading would be a standard passage for Ash Wednesday, and the new context of pairing it with Jesus’ baptism makes it different, like making a peanut butter sandwich with pickles. Or maybe with wild honey. It changes things.

For one thing, what our lectionary is intending to do is to bring in pairings we too often have overlooked, stories and perspectives of those who have been excluded. When we’ve focused on the insiders, especially the church insiders, this reorients our view to those who have been left out.

Another aspect of the pairings, then, may not be quite so obvious from today’s Old Testament reading. We heard about a bride, a virgin girl, dressed up and adorned with jewels, getting married, celebrated, cherished, called “my delight is in her.”

She’s called that instead of getting called Forsaken. That’s the one hint you might have at the unobvious part—though it might get almost buried under all the bridal euphoria. Forsaken: that was her identity.

At this passage, we’re almost at the end of Isaiah. There had been 61 chapters before this, and through many this feminine identity was much less complimentary, certainly less to be desired. There are references to her infidelity—not infidelity in its literal meaning of not being faithful to God, but in a metaphorical portrayal that she was sexually promiscuous, even portrayed as a whore, or one who sold herself for sex. Still more, she was taken without her will, given over to abuse, even to be raped. I’m sorry. I’d said less preferable. You may have a sense of why she’d be called Forsaken.

Let me first rush on to say that that’s really the power of our reading. The one who had been through all of that, who may have felt mistakes, who had clearly suffered, who continued to be inflicted with shame, cast out and dispossessed and unwanted, she was now being celebrated. After all of her history—and maybe in spite of all of it—today, she is being called a virgin bride, a daughter. My delight is in her!

With that, we can say that these are metaphors about ancient biblical people and imagery for relationship with God. But it’s not just metaphors, because this portrayal relies on real experiences, especially of women, and can be extremely hard language, hitting real people in intense ways.

Maybe you, too. Especially if you live through trauma persisting after sexual violence, or just being you, which might involve regrets or things clinging to you when you’d like to wish away that past, and it may feel like it defines you, inescapably, feels like it has changed so much about you, with injuries and physical or emotional or social damages that continue to ripple through your life, or even through generations.

Religious damages often compound that, with claims about purity and who is worthy to be in and who should be excluded. Again, I’m so sorry.

Unfortunately, church has much too often fostered the sense you’re welcome to put on a pretty face and bring the good parts of you but not those other parts of your story. John the Baptizer has been enrolled in that task, in the message of calling the righteous and those who can feel right about themselves. Clearly the church has pretended to be a place for those who are right and good and whose life goes according to plans and wishes.

But that is not God. That is not godly.

So you have the assurance today that you are claimed by God, irrespective of your past. None of your labeling by self or others holds you. It’s a whole new identity, as God’s cherished one, a promised vow forever.

I would normally say that the most important part of the Gospel reading is the voice that says Jesus is the beloved Son of God, and extend that to your own baptismal promise, that you are a beloved child. But today with this lectionary pairing, our Isaiah reading serves to proclaim you are the opposite of kicked out this inner circle; you are a daughter, you are a child. You are named, My delight is in her! That is your identity.

Today I’d say that the important thing to hear in the Gospel reading is that you are not chaff; you are grain. You are what God wants and strives for. Where you felt disgrace, you instead are received with grace, rippling out from the waters of baptism through your life.

To set that more broadly within the purpose of this Women’s Lectionary, we can sometimes view God’s grace as widening the circle of who is accepted, that those who were outside the fringes before have been brought in. We may often conceive of this with the term inclusion, expanding the boundaries. It might be seen as leveling the playing field.

But it would be better—particularly using the lens of this Women’s Lectionary—to see it as flipping the goals, an entire re-centering. Those who had been the center are made to realize we are not. Those who had been at the margin are brought into focus, not only included but exemplary of who and how God is. You are at the center of God’s story, God’s attention, God’s love. The rest of us find our place and know God because of who God is for you.

When your self or society would marginalize you for what you have experienced, including your trauma, when you’re made to feel used up and left out, this precisely says God seeks you. You are not chaff, not worthless. You are cherished. You are beloved “through much endurance, in tribulations, in distress, in calamities, in beatings, in tumults…as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” God says, My delight is in you.


Christmas Eve 2022

a sermon on Luke 2 & Isaiah 26:16-19

There are some pretty dumb lyrics to Christmas songs.

Maybe you’ve noticed, tuned in to the Christmas radio stations for weeks now, or might just catch the occasional head-scratcher this evening.

One that has continued all season to send me into mental gymnastics for wondering how in the-O-holy-night it seemed reasonable is this:

A child, a child shivers in the cold.

Let us bring him…

…silver and gold?!

Nevermind my high-falutin’ liturgical looniness pointing out that the magi with gifts don’t arrive until Epiphany—after the 12 days of Christmas, and so it is an Epiphany lyric not actually a Christmas song. Forget that.

Let’s ask the basic question: who sees a child shivering in the cold and thinks, “Hey! I know just what that baby needs: how about some hunks of fancy metal!” Smart thinking. Not exactly the most cuddly or coziest. Maybe a blanket would’ve been nice to bring, though that’s harder to rhyme in a song. It would end up something like:

a child, a child shivers cold—well, dang it—someone give the tyke a knit blanket!

That’s my violently visceral reaction about the song “Do You Hear What I Hear.” It was one of my sister’s favorites when we were growing up, along with the—to my mind—all too monotonous “Must Be Santa” that her class sang in second grade.

I had really no taste for either song until Bob Dylan’s album “Christmas In the Heart” came out in 2009. Maybe what finally did it for me was picturing that the child, the child who shivers in the cold could hardly do worse than having raspy, wrinkly old Bob Dylan show up. He’s not exactly a heartwarming presence.

It might even be a preferred visitor for the baby to have the Little Drummer Boy arrive—again, a real head-scratcher when somebody with creative genius in the lyric department thought a kid with percussion hardware would be welcome around a newborn’s nursery. More like: get your rum-pah-pah-pump outta here, sport. As bad as a banjo lullaby.

Which, at last, brings me to the shepherds now appearing in tonight’s story.

After traveling down from Nazareth amid contractions, finally to endure late-night labor pains, only to give birth amid all the literal creature comforts of a barnyard, it’s tough to imagine Mary wanted to welcome much of any visitors, but least of all to be entertaining this set of strange strangers, this batch of bozos, these nutty nomadic nocturnal night-callers: the suddenly enthusiastic shepherds.

My favorite portrait of this posse comes from a retelling of the New Testament auf Deutsch.* My German is a bit scratchy these days, but I think it describes the angel chorus as singing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio but with more English flair of a Beatles vibe. The angels tell the shepherds they’re invited to a little birthday party, convincing them with the capper: there’s free wine.

You may have heard about shepherds as outcasts, poor, lowlifes, a job nobody else wanted, since they couldn’t swing it in straight society. The retelling ups the ante by describing them as swineherds, serving the ritually unclean bacon cravings and pork-ful pinings of the Roman occupiers. The retelling employs the evidently esoteric Teutonic terminology of regaling the roles of the livestock keepers as quote “piggyboys.” It further says that the good citizens of Bethlehem disregarded them as antisocial, always drunk, and smelly. (If you want the original German, the word is “stinkend.”)

Well, after the wine is gone, they depart into the darkness, labeled by the German slang “blau,” literally meaning blue. But not like they were having a Blue Christmas; rather, better rendered in English into drunk as skunks, soused and tipsy, the boozy bozos singing their way through the narrow Bethlehem streets and waking up the upstanding townsfolk, meanwhile failing to lend much credibility to their slurred repetition of the Bach-y Beatles dance tune of the biblically versed good news of great joy.

I like that retelling, I suppose, because it seems not only kinda funny but also plausible.

And it clearly raises the old question: who allowed this thing to get written this way? How did such odd lyrics get penned? It’s a head-scratcher of how God put it together.

Or, said another way, this occasion of a baby in a barn-y bassinette seems to do no less than drawing random rejects: whether you take that as simple scriptural shepherds or inebriated piggyboys, or compare them to today’s essential and exploited migrant workers**, or go on to factor in noisemaking neurotic nincompoops like little drumming boys or grinchy Bob Dylan, or silly songwriters and churchy chuckleheads who perceive a shivering child as needing silver and gold, or any other dim watt nimrods. It practically makes you the brightest bulb in the displayed assemblage of 25,000 twinkle lights.

To come at it yet another way: you’re finally getting it. This is the point. The whole, entire point. The reason for the season, we might gleefully cliché. The point is that God comes for all the left-out losers, all the disparaged and denigrated, the degenerates, all the unholy blesséd ones, all those looking and longing for life, all the cast-outs for whatever condition, all the babies who really are shivering in the cold, all the woeful unwelcome visitors, welcomed in with wild abandon. This is God coming for them. For you. You are welcome.

More than that. This is God coming AS you, in all these sorry situations and terribly troubling travails and disruptions, born exactly into such circumstances. Not because all is calm, all is bright, but because you want it to be so, need it, need peace, need grace, need a real gift at Christmas, somehow need new life. So it’s born. It starts.

When your best efforts seem not to bear fruit, and maybe birth only the emptiness of wind, when it all comes to be dry dust instead of verdant vibrant virtuous advantages, just then—now!—here comes good news. For you and for all people.

Whether or not you listen to drunken shepherds repeating the sounding joy. Whether or not you growl like Bob while beating on a little timpani. Whether you sing with the toe-tapping panache of Beatle-y Bach or stale hearty old Latin Gloria in excelsis Deo or don’t sing much at all.

Jesus is born. For people like you. For you. You are welcome. Merry Christmas!

* Der Junior Chef: Das Neue Testament, Michael Korth, p20-23

** thanks to Kelley Nikondeha in The First Advent in Palestine, p96 for this insight


“God Has a Problem”

sermon on Judges 13:2-7; Luke 1:46-56; 1 John 3:1-3

Let’s start with Samson.

First of all, who’s heard of Samson?

That’s impressive, because you haven’t heard about him here. Samson never makes an appearance in our usual Sunday Bible readings. The entire book of Judges is bypassed by the usual lectionary.

So what do you know about Samson? (strong, connected to his hair, tricked by Delilah—or he finally stopped lying to her, blind at the end, prayed to God for his strength back)

Again, impressive. Quite a list.

How about this: what’s Samson’s mother’s name?

That’s a trick question. You heard part of the story of his mother, but she is yet another of those unnamed women of the Bible, called only the wife of Manoah.

We can’t say that’s because the Bible finds her unimportant. Certainly God found her important. We heard that a messenger, “someone from God”—their appearance “incredibly awesome”—sought her ought, sought her for the message, the annunciation, the birth announcement.

The messenger notably did not seek out her husband. And when he didn’t believe his wife and wanted to hear straight from the messenger, still they came back and again sought out the mother-to-be, who had to go retrieve her husband. Even then he didn’t really get it, still didn’t understand the message, and somehow missed out entirely that they were from God. Maybe he couldn’t see the incredibly awesome appearance?

Through the conclusion of this chapter of the story, the guy was clueless. He finally understood this was someone from God, but took that as bad news that God was going to kill them. His wife had to be, like, “uhh, dude, they just said I was going to have a baby, so that probably means God isn’t going to kill us.”

The main part of the annunciation leading toward the birth of Samson was that he was going to be a nazirite: set-apart, consecrated, never to come near a corpse and such (Numbers 6), extremely rare in the Bible. So his mother-to-be was supposed to avoid taboo foods and alcohol while pregnant.

Which strikes me that if this used to be special separation and consecration and an extra demand on the expectant mother, it’s pretty par for the course in burdens of pregnancy now, with the many taboos and things to avoid and what you shouldn’t consume or do because it is seen as dependent on the mother that the baby can be born just right.

Samson’s case was designated by the messenger from God saying he would begin to redeem the people. Other so-called judges were military leaders—though I’d argue whether going to war really redeems people or is a spiral of violence, exacerbating the suffering, particularly of the most vulnerable.

Samson, though violent (so much for not being near a corpse) wasn’t a military leader. He did his own thing. Which is strange for one set apart from birth to be consecrated for God. His mother put in all that effort to follow the rules, but then Samson didn’t seem eager to serve God so as much as himself, his story almost entirely entwined with three foreign women, including a sex worker. Each resulted in trouble for Samson. For his first fiancée, it played out as destruction for her community, killing her neighbors, and finally she and her father burned to death following Samson’s murderous vengefulness. Again, so much for his consecrated holiness.

I enjoyed the clarity of this summary from The Women’s Bible Commentary:

“Loving [foreign women], spending his time in wine country, handling dead carcasses and eating unclean food all hardly bode well for a nazirite who is to be [God’s] champion…Samson is not to be a military hero, for [the people are] not keen to take up arms against the oppressor. [They] seem, in fact, to want no deliverer at all, whether divine or human. The people do not cry to [God] for help; they even chide Samson for stirring up trouble.”Loving [foreign women], spending his time in wine country, handling dead carcasses and eating unclean food all hardly bode well for a nazirite who is to be [God’s] champion…Samson is not to be a military hero, for [the people are] not keen to take up arms against the oppressor. [They] seem, in fact, to want no deliverer at all, whether divine or human. The people do not cry to [God] for help; they even chide Samson for stirring up trouble.

“So God has a problem: How does one deliver people who do not want to be delivered?

“Here the answer seems to come in the form of the unexpected—a nazirite who breaks the rules, an Israelite who loves the enemy, a mighty fighter who is no leader, a deliverer who, in fact, does not seem to know that he is meant to deliver.”*

It’s a leap to transition from Samson and his mother to our Gospel reading. The similarities may seem to stop with two pregnant women who were visited by someone from God. After all, there’s an unnamed woman and then there’s Mary, probably the best known woman of the Bible, maybe the most important.

One will give birth to a selfish man, born to be a leader, described mostly for his sexual desire and his strange strength, directly or indirectly causing death and destruction everywhere he goes, who fails to follow the rules set for him and apparently goes against most anything God would be trying to do through him.

The other would be Jesus, who is born an outcast and yet the literal embodiment—or incarnation—of God’s will, who then embodies love and doing unto others, on the side of life, including as his mother sings today, of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, displacing the rich and scattering the arrogant, whose nonviolent resistance to oppression would be finally enacted not by killing enemies but by being killed.

I’m not sure I can reconcile the disparate stories of these two mothers’ children and how God was working then, or what that means now. When in doubt, I’ll always stick with Jesus and the sort of God characterized in Mary’s song.

But maybe we focus on the unexpected reversals—that God works deliverance through an unholy holy one who breaks the rules, loving the enemy. That description applied to Samson in The Women’s Bible Commentary could just as easily apply to Jesus, who ate with sinners, tax collectors and sex workers, was called a glutton and a drunkard, who helped foreigners, broke the sabbath and other religious restrictions, and brings deliverance through the greatest unexpected reversal: of defeating death by dying.

What we might say for your life now is that this God is still working reversals of deliverance, even if you “do not want to be delivered,” and in your crying for justice, through your missteps and rule breaking, crossing boundaries, when you’ve been ignored or are ignorant, in spite of too much violence around, to bring life out from grief and tears and death itself. Even now, this is still what God is bringing to birth, through Mary and an unnamed mother and you, too, children of God’s love. That is what you are.

* The Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsom and Ringe, eds., p78-79


Hagar the Incorrigible

sermon on Genesis 16:7-13; Luke 1:26-38; Philippians 2:5-11

I suspect a fair number of us, when hearing the name Hagar, would first picture a beefy comic strip Viking with horns and a beard who likes raiding kings and gorging on food and offending his wife: Hagar the Horrible.

But if you didn’t know her before, our new Women’s Lectionary introduced you to another Hagar today. Hagar the not-so-horrible. Maybe Hagar the Incorrigible. She’s resilient and enigmatic, and her story may also shed light on a more familiar story in this impressive lectionary pairing.

Hagar’s story started just a few verses earlier, where she’s introduced as an Egyptian slave-girl for Sarai. She actually enters the story because Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. 

Maybe you’re already feeling the unfortunate layers of power structure, that a woman was supposed to bear children for the man, and that this foreign slave-girl appeared for resolving that problem.

Sure enough, Sarai quote “gave” Hagar to Abram, which doesn’t seem like the most consensual of relationships.

It went even sourer when Hagar became pregnant and Sarai resented Hagar and began to treat her harshly (or, perhaps we should presume, treat her more harshly). So Hagar ran away.

That’s where our story today picks up. A pregnant girl, out of her home country, fleeing, a runaway slave. The location it described may be on the way back toward Egypt; maybe she still had family there, or maybe she’d been kidnapped into slavery, or maybe it was just familiar and far away.

On the way, God stopped her, or God’s messenger, or “angel” in other translations.

To skip to the most amazing part, in these verses Hagar names God. She gives God a name and title. She calls God El-roi, meaning God Who Sees, in response to her being seen by God. The only time in the Bible that a person gets to give God a name, and it’s done by this pregnant foreign slave-girl.

Still, there is plenty of ambivalence left in the story: God offered great blessing and assurance, but you may well wonder whether that overcomes that God also sent Hagar back into slavery. You may wonder for yourself whether God’s blessing and assurance is enough for you to go back to the problems you face, or wonder if God will help you out.

Well, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, a name offered by the angelic messenger as a reminder that God has heard of her abuse. I’m sorry I don’t know what to say of that hardness that, though God hears and cares, God didn’t stop the abuse.

Hagar did wind up back with Sarai and Abram, and another 14 years later, jealous Sarai, too, would give birth to a son, and then Sarai would really resent Hagar and not want Hagar’s son to be in competition for favor or a birthright with her own, so this time she kicked Hagar out. Abram sent her away with bread and water, and Hagar went wandering into the wilderness, until the water ran out and she threw her child under a bush (which seems strange to do with a 14-year-old) so she didn’t have to watch him die, but God again heard and came with promise that Ishmael would become a great nation. Indeed, he went on to have 12 sons—perhaps paralleling the 12 tribes of Israel.

We aren’t told the end of Hagar’s story, but Ishmael evidently restored some relationship with his father Abram, because he’s there with his half-brother to bury Abram when Ishmael himself is 89. Hagar the Egyptian slave is later named once more at Ishmael’s death.

I’d note that Ishmael is more significant in Islam, where the whole genealogy is traced back through him. In the Qur’an, Hagar is a second wife of Ibrahim, not a slave (if that helps any), and the very central location of Mecca is the spot where Abram left Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, though in that telling it wasn’t because of Sarai’s abuse and jealousy but because God promised—through the angel Gabriel, coincidentally—to take care of them, making Hagar is a prime Muslim example of trusting God.

So Hagar is complex: a slave-girl who triumphed where her mistress could not. Without having called out to God, she is sought out by God. She’s at the mercy of others and yet given enormous promise, including being the first person visited by God, receiving an announcement, or “annunciation” as we term it. Even Sarai, for all her position and role in the eventual shape of scripture, didn’t receive an annunciation; the message went to Abram. Hagar was abused yet audacious enough to name God. Right at the outset of the story of God’s chosen people, she’s a foreigner, an outsider, herself nevertheless chosen. She’s pregnant and vulnerable, yet resilient in the wilderness, ready to raise a strong boy. Incorrigible.

In all this, it strikes me we can’t unilaterally categorize Hagar—as strong or weak, as outsider or insider, as seen or unseen, watching for death but promised life, as cursed or blessed, as active subject or passive object, submissive or in control.

We can’t just put this woman in a box, or only see her in a demeaning light, nor ignore her terrible situation and God’s role in it. It certainly means she’s worth considering, more than many of us usually give her the opportunity for.

And we note the reaching out of God’s promise and work—coming to her in spite of the abuse she suffers though not stopping it, coming to strengthen her in various ways, coming though her circumstances might seem to preclude it. And somehow perhaps it leads to a closer connection with God, if not really solutions.

Today it all reflects and refracts with the much more familiar Gospel reading, of Gabriel coming to Mary, who pondered—and was troubled, it says!—by being greeted as “favored one.” Through the lens of Hagar, maybe we set aside thoughts of Mary as especially pious or pure. Maybe we also recognize Mary as complex: an outsider, from a small town that bore nothing commendable, under foreign occupation where the soldiers were unlikely to be good to the young women, already in desperate circumstances and much more so with an unpredicted pregnancy.

One addition in her story strikes me in this parallel: Mary says, “let it be with me according to your word.” And only “then the angel left her.” This was consensual. Mary got to give her yes to God, binding herself to the God who chooses to be bound to us.

This God best known for showing up in the form of a slave, among those who were oppressed and enslaved. We only claim the term Lord in that reverse way, subverting the powers to raise up the lowly, as we’ll hear Mary sing.

At the outset of this season, for your own life’s story, maybe you can see God’s presence and favor aren’t deserved or earned, but are surprises, even if that doesn’t straight up make things easier, or may still be troubling. Maybe you’ll ponder this consensual relationship that is so unlike what otherwise confines you. That is grace.

So rejoice, favored ones. Or be troubled? God is with you.


Singing the Sermon

sermon (and hymn) for Christ the King Sunday
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

This is the last Sunday of the church year. Unless you count occasions like Pride Sunday or our observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Christ the King is probably our most recent church festival.

It seems to have been invented 97 years ago, in 1925, because the Catholic Church was a little jealous that we had a nice festival like Reformation Sunday at the end of the church year, so they wanted a celebration, too, and put it to overlap at the end of October. It’s only been on this Sunday at the end of the church year since 1969.

I didn’t really know what to do with it this year. The readings all seem so different from each other in their sense of Christ the King. And, further, I hear that Bible study on Monday evening had lots of different notions around the concept. Maybe you, too.

I’d written 2200 words on it a few weeks ago (and can share that writing*) with references to Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and Wilco, to the president and King Charles III, White Christian Nationalism and a white Jesus painting and our recent Confirmands, Richard Rohr, the World Council of Churches, and more.

But those words didn’t seem to connect to this sermon.

So at 6:30 on Thursday evening as middle school youth group was gathering to bake pies, I was reading the history of our hymn of the day, which Sybil chose and which had been stuck in my head all week. I learned that Herb Brokering wrote the words at Holden Village in 1981. After Bible study each day, he wrote words for a hymn and the next morning the group would sing it.

I’ve written one hymn each time I’ve been at Holden, but never got to it this last summer, around their theme of Jubilee, a concept of freeing the enslaved and oppressed, offering rest and resetting our relationship with the land.

I’m sure no Herb Brokering. But since I couldn’t come up with words for a sermon for Christ the King, I decided I’d make you sing the sermon. Let’s go for it:

Hymn: “Thine the Amen” (ELW 826)



Repeat the Sounding Joy

sermon on Luke21:5-19; Malachi4:1-2a; Psalm98

Every three years, we get to hear this delightful Gospel reading. (That’s tongue-in-cheek; I doubt you found it very delightful). It’s how the lectionary works, which also makes this reading pop up on a 2nd Sunday of November, which also means that if there’s been an election we hear the reading after the election.

Does it sound a little fatalistic or dire, less than hopeful in this week after a difficult election?

For comparison, six years ago, in 2016, this same reading came up right after an election where Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. You may not need much of a reminder about that. Still, Jesus says, “when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Is that consoling for you? Even without knowing what would come, through January 6 and beyond, picture how you might have felt hearing this on the 2nd Sunday of November in 2016.

Sometimes I get wise or at least lucky: on the 2nd Sunday of November three years later, in 2019, when this reading came around the next time I wasn’t here. I escaped to Palestine (if going to confront the reality of the Occupation can be called an escape). Meier did pulpit supply for me and had to preach on this passage.

In 2019 when you heard this, you could’ve hardly known that four months later we’d be locked down with COVID, even though Jesus again said “in various places there will be famines and plagues.” Other versions translate that as epidemics or “suffering terrible diseases” (CEV). We almost certainly hear the line about plagues differently now than we did three years ago.

It might almost make us wonder if Jesus was predicting all of this, if these words were waiting for 2016, for the lead-up to 2020, for us this week in 2022, almost make us wonder if we’re living in the endtimes.

Or contrary to that, maybe you’d prefer to focus on and hope for the stability of human civilization, similar to the disciples, who point out the beautiful and solid foundation of the grandest construction projects.

Jesus is having none of it. He tells them, “not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”

I suppose you could imagine hearing those words on this Sunday back in 2001, less than two months after September 11th as the biggest if not most beautiful buildings were lying in heaps of rubble.

For any of the current events or occasions we might note, Jesus just won’t stop and keeps piling it on. The buildings destroyed, shattering also the institutions in them. Wars. Insurrections. Nation against nation. Earthquakes. Famine. Pandemics. Terrifying things from the skies. Persecution. Incarceration. Yikes. Yikes! YIKES!

It’s, as a favorite quartet of theologians calls it, “a disaster of biblical proportions.”
Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes!
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! MASS HYSTERIA!*

Mass hysteria. You can take it from the Ghostbusters, or you can take it from Jesus.

It may be seen as Once in a Lifetime, or, if you prefer the Talking Heads, “same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

Regardless—if it’s the end of the world or just another day for you and me in paradise (not to make this part of the sermon a Greatest Hits of the 80’s)—regardless, living through these huge events or living through another week of your life, we realize and Jesus realizes the real question is what to do about it.

One part of his answer is encouragement: “do not be terrified.”

Another part of the answer, actually the core of our Christian understanding, isn’t directly about addressing all the problems and catastrophes, about thinking you can make it all go away, but is also far from ignoring them.

That peculiar core of our understanding is that our Christian faith itself is at the heart of it all. Jesus is the center. And, in its own way, that changes everything.

That’s not to say that if you believe in Jesus everything will be hunky dory; he himself says you may have even worse things happen to you. So it’s not that if you pray hard enough the tornado will hop over your house. That if you believe firmly then you’ll be spared the bad diagnosis. The little Malachi prophecy isn’t just that other people will reap all kinds of suffering and punishment while you escape, gloating on the sidelines.

It means you see the sun rising, with healing. It means as you go through all of it, things will be different for you. Your reality will be different. You will live encouraged, knowing it’s not the end. Even death has not and cannot defeat this.

This is why we keep returning to these stories over and over, keep coming to worship week after week, investing ourselves in making sure this continues to be available: we do it all to reinforce the perspective we’ve been given, to practice our faith, to find true hope instead of wishful thinking, to retain this focus on God’s goodness and life in Jesus as our center. We do it so we can keep living through all of this. We do it so we’re transformed to see the larger reality, that it’s not only us as a small cohort of the spared and the saved, but to keep seeing the counterpoint to destruction and all the terrifying stuff, to take heart. Amid mass hysteria, we sing “Joy to the World.”

And, so much more, we don’t sing alone. We join the faithfulness of creation as the earth itself echoes in chorus, as the sea roars, the tides clap their hands, the hills sing together for joy. “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.”

Or, as we’ll sing with Kathy Johnson, who says “I especially like verse 4,” “He lives to silence all my fears; he lives to wipe away my tears; he lives to calm my troubled heart; he lives all blessings to impart.”

Hymn: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” (ELW 641)



Creation Care Commentary for Reformation Sunday 2022

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C 2022

by Nick Utphall

Reading for Series C: 2021-2022

Nick Utphall reflects on the river that makes God glad and flows with grace.

Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday. Usually this is the time to focus on the central Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, arising from Paul’s statement, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28).

It’s also likely a time to beatify Martin Luther and recount some of our history, the insistence on God’s liberating Word over against indulgences and other human practices that keep us confined, the evangelical—good news—gospel promise of God’s work on our behalf.

Your congregation will probably sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” coming from Luther’s paraphrase of the day’s Psalm. Luther’s hymn is set in the midst of battle, with swords and shields, with hordes of devils against a champion who comes to fight. Notably for how we perceive the paraphrase and the original, the Psalm itself speaks of God breaking weapons and shields (46:5), which is perhaps an image of ending human warring and the rage of nations, rather than entrenching human conflicts or elevating them to apocalyptic spiritual warfare.

But the mighty fortress isn’t the only feature of the Psalm that we might note. Although Luther didn’t include it in his hymn setting, there is also “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4a), which may call to mind a more peaceful and serene image than the fortress and the hordes of devils, and also has the feelings of gladness rather than trembling with fear.

Now, I’ve traveled several times to Jerusalem, and have yet to come across a river. There are famous ancient aqueducts to supply the lofty city’s residents, but it isn’t a streamside location up around Mount Zion and along the high ridge of the country. The Jordan River is far below to the east, down in the valley. But up in Jerusalem: no rivers.

So for the allusion of the Psalm, rather than thinking in terms of direct geography, maybe we reflect on the imagery of this river in the holy city. And that may move us away from being in the crossfire of Luther’s battle, with an opportunity to float leisurely through the stream of Scripture, and finally disembark at the end, again with a vantage of hope rather than desperation.

The river, then, may call to mind other Psalms. It could be those nurturing resilient trees “planted by streams of water” in Psalm 1, or perhaps the “still waters” that the Shepherd leads you beside in Psalm 23. Maybe you go back to envision the River Jordan, entering into the Promised Land (Joshua 3). Or the current Jordan that irrigates agriculture to feed residents throughout the land. Or, perhaps most likely, the Jordan River takes you to John the Baptist proclaiming the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit alighting on you with the declaration that you, too, are a beloved child of God (Luke 3:1-22).

For re-centering our lives of faith and our Christian identity, it is worth idling a while longer by those waters, with baptism as a bath that “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” As we pause repeatedly by those waters, it becomes a splash-y reminder as “daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever,” as Luther puts it in those two references from his Small Catechism.

With images of water that is constant (daily) and also endless (forever), we could turn to the image from the prophet Ezekiel. Like the Psalm where we began, the prophet also has a vision of the river flowing through the holy city (Ezekiel 47:1-12). There the spreading river is an indicator of the temple’s restoration and God’s abundance, no longer abandoning its home or driven into exile, but with goodness that continues to gush far and wide. It is that version that is likely picked up in the final chapter of the Bible.

Revelation 22 foresees the end of the story as God dwelling in the city, with a river running through it. The river actually flows from God “through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:2), and the waters are crystal clear. You can imagine the end of pollution, can visualize clean drinking water free from lead contamination. It seems exactly the opposite of the infamous pre-Earth Day occasions of the Cuyahoga River catching fire, it was so chemically altered. It is the freedom for children to grow without the danger of poisons in Flint, Michigan. Or, in this that has been yet another year of droughts and legal skirmishes over water rights on the depleted Colorado River, we may be in awe of the freely available abundance of an ever-flowing stream.

Beside Revelation’s river grows the tree of life. It’s the first we’ve been back to that tree since we were expelled from original Paradise in Genesis 3. There’s the unattributable Luther quotation, that he was asked what he would do if the world were ending tomorrow, allegedly responding that he’d plant a tree today. Well, Revelation gives us that tree enduring beyond the end of the world. It bears fruit 12 months of the year. So it’s a vision of satisfying hunger, that there is never a season of want. As we in the northern hemisphere come to the end of harvest season, it is remarkable to envision God’s promised bounty, endless like fresh produce from your garden year-round, a farmers’ market where you can always find something local and delicious.

And the leaves of Revelation’s tree of life are for the healing of the nations, those nations that were raging in Psalm 46. As we approach yet another divisive election in the United States, we may also long for that healing and reconciliation. What’s more, this goodness and relief is permanently accessible, since the gates of the city are never shut.

That has taken us on a fairly free-flowing journey beyond the simple reference in the lectionary’s Psalm of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” but perhaps it is nevertheless a worthwhile exploration to re-ground us in the hope of God’s amazing grace.

That voyage along some of the waters of the Bible nevertheless has brought us to the Reformation’s home port of grace, where all of this is offered as a gift from God for us “without any merit or worthiness of mine at all,” as Luther put it along with the first article of the Creed in his Small Catechism (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p1162). More than force of the law, we expect that it is that grace that transforms us. More than our ability to perfect ourselves, we splash with the baptismal promise that we are forgiven and renewed by God. More than our fears of hordes of devils filling the land, it is this with God seeing all as very good and for healing that we join the motivation to protect the planet. Perhaps it is that which not only enables us to care for creation, but also rightly to celebrate Reformation Sunday, returned again to the God of grace.

Nick Utphall