A Child of His Time (Phil. 4:8)

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Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these thin [Phil. 4:8] Being Christians does not exempt us from being children of our time. Like Christians of times past, …

A Child Shall Lead Us (Is. 11:6, 8-9; Mk. 10:15; Matt. 18:1ff; Lk. 11:11ff)

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In many non-Western societies, children are regarded not as incomplete adults but as collective symbols of social and personal fulfillment. Consequently, children figure prominently in rituals of purification, healing, restoration, various forms of divination and in rites of passage. in much of Christianity, however, children are deemed unfit for the central rites until puberty. Growing …

A New Moon Sensitivity (Amos 8:4-7, I timothy 2:1-8, Luke 16:1-3)

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The scripture readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost contain an extraordinary consistency. Amos 8:4-7 describes God pressing a serious charge against his people for oppressing the poor and seeing religion as an annoying "new moon" inconvenience. The Epistle reading in I Timothy 2:1-8 speaks of the cessation of anger and quarreling as marks of …

A Season of Prayer (Acts 1:1-14)

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One of the buzz phrases in the United Methodist Church appointment process these days is "seasons of ministry." As our bishops and cabinets try to encourage longer-term ministry appointments, this phrase helps us expand our imaginations. For too long in our tradition, clergy lived year to year, and so did congregations. Now we are imagining …

Abide in me . . . (John 15:1-8)

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Abide. It’s an old-fashioned word. Highway motel signs read "Stay here," not "Abide with us tonight." Baseball announcers don’t sum up an inning with "One hit, a walk and two abiding on base." Nor do Northwestern University football fans breathe easier because Gary Barnett is abiding as head coach. Of the 17 uses of abide …

After Liberation, What? (Lev.19:1-2, 15-18; Mt. 22:34-46)

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Often when I address affluent church audiences on the subject of liberation theology I am asked: When oppressed people get liberated, what then? Further honing of the question yields this: What kind of ethic will they (oppressed people) develop to prohibit them from becoming oppressors? And doesn’t the liberation struggle destroy law and order? I …

Altar Call (Psalm 51:5-17)

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Ash Wednesday is a day of penitence marking the beginning of Lent, a journey of 40 days to Good Friday and Easter. Ash Wednesday is a time of recalling our mortality (“ashes to ashes”), repenting of wrongs, and preparing for death and resurrection, both of Christ and of ourselves. To be sure, the reformer among …

As a Hen Gathers Her Brood

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On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the …

Back to Life (John 11:1-45)

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I didn’t want to come back. My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney. It was all over, I thought. The last sensation I remembered had been incomprehensible pain, then a tunnel, and a grinding noise as described in other "near death experiences." But unlike other people who tell of "NDEs," I …

Balance Sheet (Mat. 22:15-22)

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"Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, "The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’" (Matt. 15:20-21). I was emphasizing to parents of confirmands that the young people should be …

Between the Lines (Prov. 8: 1-4, 22-31; Ps. 8; Rom. 5: 1-5; Jn. 16: 12-15)

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According to Emily Dickinson, you speak the truth best when you tell it “slant.” I am quite sure when she penned this line the blessed Trinity was far from her thoughts. Nonetheless, her characterization of truth-telling is good to keep in mind when approaching this mysterious feast of God, the three in one and one …

Blind Spots (Mark 10:46-52)

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Even the common lectionary cannot hold ecumenical friends together this Sunday. Some of us will depart from the scripture texts and focus on the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Some of us will center on the Mark 10 story of Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. I want to acknowledge these different directions, and also reflect …

Blinded by the Light (John 17:20-26)

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In Edwin A. Abbott’s story Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions, the two-dimensional square narrator encounters a three-dimensional sphere that changes his perception of reality. While trying to find a scientific metaphor for religious experience in 1884, Abbott created a delightful story that is still a favorite among students of mathematics and physics, religion and …

Boast Not (I Cor. 9:16-23)

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Several decades ago, when I was filling out my application for seminary admission, I came to a question that asked me to provide biblical justification for my calling. I knew I wanted to attend seminary, but found it difficult to state why. Then I remembered my Wesley Foundation pastor preaching on 1 Corinthians 9:16b, and …

Building Bigger Closets (Ec. 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23;<I> </I>Ps. 49:1-12; Col. 3:1-11 Lk. 12:13-21)

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We are building a house. I have noticed that there is some instinctual urge in empty nesters to do that. My husband and I are mesmerized by this project — reading books and doing Internet searches. Every time I go through the checkout line at the grocery store I succumb to the siren song of …

Building Community Amid Troubles (Phil. 22-4; Matt. 21:28-32; Ezek. 18:1-4)

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One of the hardest things to do in our troubled North American society is build community. This is no less true in the Christian sector than it is in the secular world. Viable, wholesome community is what each of us needs in order to experience well-being, care and support. Yet in our capitalist, technological society …

By Our Love (Jn. 13:31-35)

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On February 19, 1998, a car sped across the grassy median of Interstate 95 near West Palm Beach into southbound traffic, then back into the northbound lanes. At least three people reported seeing a woman throw her infant son through the driver’s side window. When questioned by police, Krisann Haddad said she would “rather have …

Called to Order (Deut. 18:15-20; Ps. 111; I Cor. 8:1-13

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HOLY MOSES! The first surprise in this passage from Deuteronomy is that the biblical lawgiver par excellence is also the prototypical prophet. In 21st-century America, prophets are not so easily disguised as congressmen and senators. What does Washington have to do with Waco? Law, or the codification, enforcement and interpretation of community mores, does not …

Chapter 2: The Approach to the Bible  in  

Book Chapter

The critical method finds its way between the horns of a dilemma: It rejects restraint from without upon liberty of interpretation, and at the same time excludes an arbitrary or capricious use of liberty by accepting the intrinsic control of the historical movement within the Bible itself.

Chapter 3: The Old Testament  in  

Book Chapter

A chronology of early Old Testament writings with emphasis on the prophets and their interpretation of history; also: the call of Abraham; the post-exilic period; "Wisdom literature;" Apocalypses; the inconclusiveness of the Old Testament.

Chapter 4: The New Testament  in  

Book Chapter

Like many new movements, Christianity exhibits in its earliest history three successive stages: expansion, conflict, consolidation. The writings of the New Testament connect themselves naturally with these three stages, which may serve to provide a rough chronological scheme.

Chapter 5: History as Revelation  in  

Book Chapter

We meet God in history, but God speaks to us beyond history. God provides the initiative and enters history as judgement and as power of renewal. God calls for the response of obedience.

Chapter 6: Bible and the Historical Problem of Our Time  in  

Book Chapter

The place where history is made is the place of encounter between God and man, where the Word of God is heard and man responds in obedience. History is alive in the Church, which was brought into being by it, and continually witnesses to it. In our time history is being made in the Church.

Chapter 7: History and the Individual  in  

Book Chapter

In the biblical history we are to find a revelation of God that can be understood as to give meaning to history in our own time. Those who hear, in the setting of the Church’s corporate worship, are summoned to place themselves within the history which is God’s revelation, at the point where it culminates in Jesus Christ, and to lay themselves open to the Word of judgement and of renewal which is spoken there to every human being.

Clean Sweep (Luke 15:1-10)

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The best storytellers paint pictures with words, using words to fill our minds with vivid imagery. I remember reading the first Harry Potter novel to my first-grade son. Each time we completed a chapter and I turned the page to start a new one he would shift in my lap and look away from the …

Couples (Mark 10:2-16)

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In a few weeks voters in six states will decide on state constitutional amendments that will bar same-sex marriage and any other legal recognition of same-sex couples. Most mainline denominations have come out against the amendments even though some of them do not allow same-sex couples to wed in their churches. Most evangelicals and Catholics …

Cover-ups (Psalm 85)

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Blaise Pascal evokes a sense of existential dread in this famous line: “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me. ” In his poem For the Time Being: A .Christmas Oratorio, W. H. Auden pictures the human being forsaken in a blank, fathomless universe: We are afraid Of pain but more afraid of silence; for …

Damn Preacher (Lk 6:17-26)

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All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative …

Dangling Gospel (Mark 16:1-8)

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Most new testament scholars say that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with the story of the women who go to the cemetery, only to encounter a mysterious young man pointing to Jesus’ empty tomb and announcing the resurrection. One of the challenges of this view is that if Mark truly ended his narrative here, …

Doing the Right Thing (Is. 66:10-14; Ps. 66; Gal. 6:1-6, 7-16; Lk. 10:1-11, 16-20)

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The family is a funny institution. We make much of being related to each other, of sharing common ancestors, common history, common DNA. We speak of fierce loyalties with phrases like “Blood is thicker than water.” As parents and children, brothers and sisters, we have bonds that go beyond words. We love each other even …

Donkey Fetchers (Mark 11:1-11)

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As Jesus was about to descend the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem, Mark reports, he dispatched two of his disciples to fetch a colt. A seemingly minor matter of transportation it would seem, but surprisingly, over half of Mark’s story of Jesus’ entry into the city is occupied with mundane details about acquiring this …

Dose of Forgiveness

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In the play A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner, a character named Murray discovers that he can offer a simple apology to almost anyone — even a complete stranger — and he or she will forgive him. He stands on the corner of 51st and Lexington in New York City one day, telling those who …

Dust and Ashes

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Book Review: Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary). By Samuel E. Balentine. Smyth & Helwys, 714 pp.   The book of Job is one of the most beautiful and perplexing books of the Bible. G. K. Chesterton said, "The Iliad is great because all of life is a battle; the Odyssey is great because all …

Easter (Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Lk.24:13-35)

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I like the fertility symbolism surrounding Easter–bunnies scattering colorful eggs all over the place for children to find, the Teutonic goddess of spring, earth renewing itself, etc. If these ancient rites hadn’t been co-opted by capitalism, hadn’t morphed into pastel M&Ms, plastic grass and My Little Ponies with bunny ears, I might find it a …

Encore (Jn. 21:1-19)

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“After these things,” John says. After Jesus had been crucified and buried, after he had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples — after all these things, “Jesus showed himself again.” Why? I remember a concert at which the singer left the stage before we in the audience were ready for him to …

Excellence Beyond Standards (Is.25:6-9; Phil.4:4-13; Mt.22:1-10)

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We who teach in seminaries, colleges and universities often hear the issue of standards and excellence raised. Time and again I have heard colleagues, deans and presidents say, “We can’t compromise our standards.” Usually this statement surfaces when the discussion is about increasing ethnic minority enrollment or increasing the number of women and ethnic-minority faculty. …

Extra Credit (Mark 12:28-34)

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By the time we reach the 12th chapter of Mark, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a kind of theological cross-examination free-for-all. Priests, scribes, elders and other assorted defenders of the letter of the law are swarming all over him in a frenzy of entrapment. First there’s a question about divorce (with a follow-up …

Facing Up To Inequalities

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  Book Review: Inequality and Christian Ethics. By Douglas Hicks. Cambridge University Press, 287 pp.; also in paperback. The Common Good and Christian Ethics. By David Hollenbach, S.J. Cambridge University Press, 269 pp.; also in paperback. What Government Can Do: Dealing with Poverty and Inequality. By Benjamin I. Page and James R. Simmons. University of …

Fit for the Reign of God (I Kings 19:19-21; Luke 9:57-62; Gal. 5:1, 13-25)

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Fit for the Reign of God Israel’s covenant with God Stipulated that no other powers, divine or human, would rule the people’s lives. Yet the biblical story repeatedly tells of the nation’s turn away from God’s rule to other gods or to the misguided political judgments of the kings and rulers who did not heed …

Floods (Matthew 5:45)

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He . . . sends rain on the just and on the unjust [Matt. 5:45]. The land would have to be very dry before one would gladly welcome a flood: days of torrential rain soaking the parched soil until it could hold no more, turning the solid earth into a quagmire. Rivers rising and sweeping …

Foolish Wisdom

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In the matter of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the Washington Post, we stipulate that compassion be shown to Joan Biskupic, a Post writer who reported on Scalia’s April 9 speech in Mississippi on religion and public life. Using secondhand accounts, without a full text of the original speech, Biskupic reported that Scalia “delivered …

From Wrath to Grace (Zeph. 1: 7,12-18; Ps. 90:1-12;I Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30).

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A young seminarian could effectively caricature the preaching of his supervising pastor. “Repent!” he would holler at the top of his lungs. “Too late,” he would add sotto voce, his head turned aside, as if walking away. His supervising pastor, the Zephaniah of the Great Plains, must have been stuck on the texts for the …

General Principles

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I had a childhood friend whose mother yelled at her a lot. Her mother’s ravings, however, were rarely attached to identifiable offenses. Asked why she was yelling, she’d snarl, “On general principles!” It was a free-form thing. Sometimes she’d yell about real crimes, but Tina was innocent of many of them. Her mother was unbowed. …

God So Loved (John 3:17)

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For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the at the world might be saved through him. [John 3:17]. Go ahead admit it, preacher. You love it. Lent is your favorite season of the church year. Children love Christmas, missionaries love Epiphany, charismatics dote on Pentecost — but for preachers, nothing beats …

Going Against the Stream

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The other day someone told me about a friend who had been asked to preach in the church of one of the famous television preachers whom millions watch every Sunday. On the way from the airport, the guest received these instructions: “People worship with us in order to feel good about themselves. Therefore, don’t mention …

Have a Happy Day (Lk. 23:28)

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Jesus, turning to them said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" [Luke 23:28]. When asked to rate their happiness level, the Irish turn out to be just about the happiest people in the Western world. The Republic of Ireland tops the happiness list, with the …

He Is Not Here (Mk 16: 1-8)

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We will have to deal with the question sooner or later, so we might as well get it over with: Where does the Gospel of Mark end? There are four possibilities. The ending with the least support among ancient Greek manuscripts of Mark is the one comprising 16:8 and a short summary statement. This "shorter …

He Is Risen (Mark 16: 1-8)

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Easter morning is the defining place and moment of Christian space and time. It is the Christian Genesis: male and female in a garden, darkness becoming light. The first day. It is the Christian nemesis: death and despair displaced by life and hope. The last day. As Christians we come to church on Easter Day …

Heart of the Matter

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“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1: 19b). The vagaries of the calendar and the cycles of the moon bring in an early Lent and Easter this year, and …

Hello and Goodbye (Easter)

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Life is a long series of transitions. The healthy person accepts this, and deals with it so that life ultimately thrusts forward. Unhealthy people fight and put off, even deny, transitions. But changes come, whether we choose them or not: children are born; relationships change; jobs terminate; roofs leak; people die. No permission is sought; …

Home Court Disadvantage (Jer. 1:4-10; 1 Cor. 13:1-13; Lk. 4:21-30)

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Early on, even Jeremiah could have located himself somewhere within Frederick Buechner’s pithy essay on vocation in Wishful Thinking. "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet," says Buechner. Jeremiah would later recall for God that initial gladness: "Your words were found, and I …

Imagine Being Brilliant (Genesis 2:15-17; Matthew 4:1-11)

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Imagine being brilliant–Massachusetts Institute of Technology kind of brilliant. You’ve aced the course work in electrical engineering and computer science and you’re ready to work as a Wall Street analyst. But there’s one test left, and it has absolutely nothing to do with electrical engineering or computer science. You have to swim 100 yards. That’s …

Imagining Christ (Ezek. 34:11-16,20-24; Ps. 95:1-7a; Eph. 1:15-23; Mat. 25:31-46)

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As we approach the season of Advent, we find Ezekiel being outrageous in true prophetic style. If we pride ourselves on being spiritual seekers, Ezekiel insists that it is God who seeks us out and not the other way around. Can’t we prize the maturity of knowing who we are and of finding communities where …

Jesus Math (Matthew 18:21-31)

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Only a few of the 365 days in each year are associated with extraordinary events, but for those who experienced the events, the dates arouse great emotion. For Koreans, August 15 commemorates the restoration of the country’s independence after a Japanese occupation of 36 years. June 25 marks the outbreak of the Korean War. And …

Jesus’ Final Exam

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The problem with any speech that one hears repeatedly is that a hardening of the ears sets in. That may be the case with the first portion of our lectionary reading containing the summary of the law: we have undoubtedly overheard it. There is something appealing about what Jesus does with the theology professors and …

Just as I Am (Eph. 2:1-10)

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On Larry King live the other night, a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story, and it was exactly the kind of story I prefer not to hear from the pulpit. As King peered at him through his owlish glasses, the musician told of being raised in a warm and loving Christian family and …

Kingly Presence (Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72:1-7; 10-14; Eph. 3:1-12; Math. 2:1-12

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Because we know almost nothing about the wise men, our imaginations take wing. If we were brought up in the Christian faith, these characters have ridden across our minds and hearts ever since we were taken to our first Sunday school pageant. Even the most sophisticated children secretly envy those who have been selected to …

Let the Imbongis Sing! (Ps. 96; Is. 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Lk. 2:1-20)

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Back in 1994 TV viewers all over the world watched transfixed, as South Africa’s first democratically elected president took the oath of office. While a dignified Nelson Mandela addressed the heads of state, many viewers wondered about the man dressed in leopard skins, standing directly behind him with a little flag stuck quaintly in his …

Letting Go Down Here (Rom. 6:3)

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Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [Rom. 6:3]. Life is an uninterrupted succession of leave-takings and good-byes. Just when we begin to feel comfortable with our surroundings, someone or something dies, reminding us that, down here, nothing lasts. Sooner or later, …

Life-Giving Fear

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When I was a hospital chaplain, the calls I dreaded most did not come from the emergency room, the psychiatric ward or even the morgue. They came from the pediatric floor, where little babies lay in cribs with bandages covering half their heads and sweet-faced children pushed IV poles down the hall. One day I …

Life-Giving Law (Psalm 19)

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Lent carries in its bosom a seductive danger: excessive inwardness. The seduction is this: a season of prayer, repentance and preparation for Good Friday and Easter necessarily involves trips to the heart, but tarry there too long and repentance can stall out as melancholy. The danger is this: self-examination may spawn attempts at self-improvement, with …

Limited-Time Offer (Is. 55:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Lk. 13:1-9)

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“God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our …

Living by the Word Matthew 16:13-20

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The conversation at Caesarea Philippi is a defining moment for the synoptic Gospels, although only Matthew and Mark name it as the location for Peter’s confession, "You are the Messiah." For the Gospel narratives as post-Easter interpretations, reflections and perspectives, who Jesus is constitutes the most important question for those early communities that claimed belief …

Makeshift Communities (Is. 9:1-4; Ps. 27:1, 4-9;I Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23)

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A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the …

Mark: The Movie (Mark 10:32-45)

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If Mark’s Gospel were a movie, this scene would make the perfect trailer. Without entirely giving away the ending, it summarizes all the major themes of Mark’s Gospel. In a nutshell, it offers everything that is quintessential Mark: the journey toward the cross, suffering and death, wrongheaded disciples, the reversal of power and Jesus’ reflection …

Mary as Role Model (Luke 1:26-38)

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What comes to mind at the mention of Mary, Jesus’ mother? Pale blue? Alabaster statues? An unnatural look of chaste perfection? Sneers about front-yard grottoes and dashboard figurines? In Mary in the New Testament (Fortress, 1978) , in which collaborating Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars examine what the churches and the New Testament have said …

Material Things (Mark 10:17-31)

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On the way out of my city I often pass a large self-storage center. Rows and rows of nondescript units are lined up like barracks at an army base. I often wonder what is inside those storage units: treasured heirlooms, vast collections of National Geographic, broken and tattered belongings that someone doesn’t want to give …

Miracle Worker (Mark 6: 1-6)

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After the remarkable healing of a woman who had suffered for 12 years from hemorrhages and after the raising of the dead child of Jairus, Jesus goes home to Nazareth accompanied by his disciples. He teaches in the synagogue on the sabbath, and the people are amazed both at his teaching and at the murmured …

Missing the Resurrection (Acts 1:15-17, 22-26; Ps. 1; 1 John 5:9-13; Jn. 17:6-19)

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Imagine being Judas and having your name be come synonymous through the ages, in every country on earth, with an act of treachery. That would be heavy wouldn’t it? Years ago, when my wife and I saw Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar on a London stage, the cast came down …

More than Enough

Article

The vocation of the church is to celebrate the politics of love. That may sound curious. What does the gentle, touching gift of love have to do with the ugly, underhand machinations of politics? Most people think of politics as a regrettable but necessary business. Necessary, because we live in a world of scarce resources, …

Muddling Through (II Kings)

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When I became a seminary administrator, a colleague at another school gave me this advice: “People always act from self-interest. When you approach them with a plan, they’ll invariably ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Figure out the answer to that before you propose anything, and approach issues accordingly.” Pared to its core, it …

Namaan‘s No-nonsense Cure (2 Kings 5: 1-14)

Article

Traditional Christian appropriation of the Hebrew scriptures often flattens them. Stories become precursors of later New Testament events rather than genuine events in themselves. Vivid multidimensional characters become mere prefigurations instead of figures in their own right, and complex narrative situations are reduced to a single theological point. This is due in part to the …

New Math (Matthew 18:21-35)

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Matthew’s Jesus has been teaching the disciples that the kingdom of heaven works not as the world works, but as a new way to live based in forgiveness. Now for the parable, which illustrates almost every point of the discourse that preceded it. What’s surprising to me is how thoroughly the parable teaches the lesson: …

No Keeping Score (Gen. 45:3-11,15; Ps. 37:1-12, 41-42; I Cor. 15:35-38,42-50; Lk. 6:27-38)

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Keeping score and getting even — that’s what enemies do. Time after time the Tutsis and then the Hutus have waited their turn to get even with each other in Rwanda. In the last outbreak of violence, loyalty to tribe even outweighed allegiance to religious vows for some clergy. Sacred sites in Jerusalem separate rather …

No Way Out (Luke 16:19-31)

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In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus there is no wiggle room. Deeds are done and lives led, and there are consequences for each of the three characters — the rich man, Lazarus and Father Abraham. No matter what each of them wishes, desires or hopes, the matter is finished. It turns out …

Party Time (Matt. 22:1-14)

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Tables spread with mouth-watering morsels, guests gathered in the perfect ambiance, lots of noise, laughter and fun. We know a party when we see one. But we also know that not all parties are the same. Like the towels in the guest bathroom that are there to be admired but never touched, some parties focus …

Pent-Up Power (Jer. 33:14-16, Ps. 25:1-10, 1 Thess. 3:9-13, Lk. 21:25-36.)

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Born in the vast mountain ranges of British Columbia, the Fraser River floods southward to its rendezvous with the Pacific. At one stage of that long journey the mountains gather themselves to form a deep narrow canyon through which the Fraser must pass. It does so in a thunderous flood, gouging an almost 200-foot deep …

Pick it up, Read it. (Ps. 121;Gen. 12:1-4a; Rom. 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-l7)

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One of the disadvantages of being both a Lutheran and an academician is that you hear so few good conversion stories. The weight of my tradition identifies regeneration with the work of God in baptism. Those who tell their conversion stories with great gusto or whose spiritual c.v. runs on for pages (or hours) are …

Piety and Preparation for New Life (Am.5:18-24; I Th.4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13.)

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The prophet Amos warned the people that their shallow piety would not prepare them for the new life they believed God would bring. God finds no pleasure in their feasts, solemn assemblies, burnt offerings or peace offerings. Their pious acts are of no avail, for God’s pleasure is in justice that must "roll down like …

Plato was Wrong (Jn. 1-1-9, 10-18)

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Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that "Plato was a bore," but this snooty remark merely confirms the madman’s madness.’ Alfred North Whitehead concluded, boring or not, that "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." In the voice of his master Socrates, Plato bestowed …

Prayer from Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36)

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Who was Jesus? The answer to this question has inspired but also divided Christianity since the beginning. Christians must raise and answer the question as to the meaning of Jesus’ lordship. A christological understanding cannot be evaded in the name of some anti-intellectual harmony, and yet whenever it is raised, brothers and sisters in Christ …

Preface  in  

Book Chapter

This book represents a Course of ‘open lectures’ given under the auspices of the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge. The text is partly based on shorthand notes taken by hearers of the lectures, among whom I am particularly indebted to Miss M. Buchanan. Both the substance of the lectures and the general arrangement …

Protest March (Mk 11:1-11)

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Even if we’ve set out on the Lenten pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday and taken every step in penitence and prayer, we are still not prepared for the arrival. Neither were those who joined Jesus in Galilee and made their way up to Jerusalem. For many it was an annual pilgrimage, this Passover. Others, having to …

Proud to be Humble

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For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. . . . therefore, as it is written. “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” [I Cor. 1:26, 31]. Text: When Paul wrote these words, he was obviously addressing …

Punctured

Article

One of the things I love about the liturgical life of the church is the way that the Holy Spirit, quietly and gently, works on us. Through the texts and prayers set out each year in the lectionary the Spirit draws us ever more fully into the Presence. If we read the texts in a …

Reading Acts (Acts 2:42-47)

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I have absolutely nothing new to say about the 23rd Psalm or the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and most readers have little need to rehash what they’ve already learned. What I don’t know much about, and what many of us fear to fully and faithfully confront, is the reading from Acts. In …

Reading Romans

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Book Review Romans: A Commentary. By Robert Jewett. (Fortress), 1,250 pp. Those paying the $90 price for this commentary in the distinguished Hermenia series can scarcely complain that the book was lightly tossed off. It includes 70 pages of front matter (such as bibliography), 125 pages of back matter (indices and the like) and over …

Reality Show (Mk. 9:2-9)

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Not far from where I live is a geological oddity. Stone Mountain is a bald and rounded mass of granite a mile and a half long and nearly a thousand feet high. Eons ago, molten rock pushed up from the earth’s core to the surface, then bubbled out and hardened into a monolith. Given the …

Reflections on the Lectionary (Col. 3:1-4; Matt. 28:1-10)

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Rarely are cemeteries as peaceful as they seem. My boyhood friends visited them by night to consult with spirits–86-proof spirits, as I recall. Sometimes we’d glimpse young couples having soulful, breathy talks among the tombstones. The Mount of Olives, Jerusalem’s ancient cemetery, hummed with political conversation when Passover pilgrims spent the night there. The prophet …

Regeneration (Psalm 51)

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The one who voices Psalm 51 is on the floor before God, utterly ashamed and as dust before glory: “My sin is ever before me.” The symptoms of sin are gradually displaced by the greater reality of God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” The speaker does not look outside for an oppressor to …

Repent, Then Obey (Jer. 31:31-34; Ps.; 51:1-12; Ps. 119:9-16; Heb. 5:5-10)

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Two dominant themes weave through these readings. The first is the permanent need for repentance. The second is obedience: Christ’s obedience to his heavenly Father and the Christian’s obedience to Christ. Neither repentance nor obedience is very high on the American scale of values. A culture that exalts individualism, self-affirmation, independence and assertiveness has a …

Risk and Fulfillment (Is. 63:7-9; Ps. 148; Heb.2:10-18; Matt. 2:13-23)

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All of the Spirit’s labor–the pruning of our imagination, the background work on our expectations–comes to fruition on Christmas Day, when we are brought into the Presence. The virgin who for nine months has been weaving the veil of the temple out of the material of her own body sits in stupefied and exhausted silence. …

Risky Business (Prov. 25:6-7; Ps. 112; Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16; Lk. 14:1, 7-14)

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In The Fragility of Goodness, author Martha Nussbaum writes, "The peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability." Goodness is fragile and its vulnerability is part of its beauty. But in several of these scripture texts, it is not the fragility of goodness that stands out but the sturdiness of righteousness. The psalmist proclaims …

Road Trip (Luke 24: 13-35)

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The storyteller weaves it all together — an unknown traveler named Cleopas and his companion; the resurrected Jesus, who is present but in an unrecognized, mysterious fashion; the travelers’ sudden recognition of Jesus; and his sudden disappearance. I have always loved the story but have never understood why this particular resurrection appearance is so much …

Saving Saul (Acts 9:1-19)

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Before my children were able to read they knew several stories by heart. The stories were picture book favorites that we read to them again and again. When I dared to skip a page or change a word, they would protest, "Mom! That’s not what it says. Read it right." The conversion of Saul is …

Says Who? (Matthew 21:33-46)

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Here’s the big question: By whose authority? Who has given Jesus the power to cleanse the temple, heal the sick and forgive Sins? Because it’s hard for us to understand life in Jesus’ time, it’s also hard to understand just how fundamental his attack on the moneysellers is. By forgiving sins, Jesus is blasting away …

Seeing Things (Mark 9:30-37)

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Start seeing motorcycles," said the bumper sticker. I didn’t know I wasn’t seeing motorcycles, I thought, then realized that that was the point. How do you begin to see something you didn’t know you were missing? "Start seeing the resurrection," says Jesus, as he walks with the disciples to Jerusalem. He Is teaching them about …

Send Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

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The deacons of a well-off parish announced that they would give grocery vouchers to strangers who dropped by the church office. The vouchers could be used for food, but were “not valid for alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco.” The congregation was thrilled. Cash handouts were making them uncomfortable. No one wanted to see his greenbacks …

Sharing in the Holy Spirit (Gen.1:1-2:4;Ps.8;Matt.28:16-20;2 Cor. 13:11-13)

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It is getting harder in the modern translations of the Genesis stories, to extract what Christians have traditionally assumed were references to the three persons of the Trinity. What was clearly translated as “the spirit of God” in the King James Version is “a strong wind from God” in the New Revised Standard Version. If …

Shattering the Closure of Unbelief (Is. 55:10-11; Rom. 8:18-25; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23)

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Lectionary readings tease our minds because of their odd combination of openness and closure. They can become a deconstructionist’s dream. By providing only fragments from biblical books (in this case part of an oracle from Isaiah, a reassurance from Paul, a parable from Jesus) , they leave a suggestive opening, not only to other texts …

Showing Up (Matthew 21:23-32)

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A missionary friend was scheduled to speak about his mission work at a distant church. He got up before daybreak that Sunday morning and drove 300 miles, preached at two services and spent the afternoon speaking with members of the congregation. As he was leaving that evening, the treasurer of the church gave him an …

Shriveled Delight (Is. 58:9b-14; Ps. 103:1-8; Heb. 12:18-29; Lk. 13:10-17)

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As a weekend gardener, I have discovered the deep satisfaction of seeing the fruit of a well-watered garden. Months of tending and watering yield a delightful harvest of well-formed, abundant produce. In contrast, a hot summer with little water yields plants that are shriveled and produce that is unusable. For a casual gardener the difference …

Sin Insulation (Ex. 32:7-14; Ps. 51:1-10; 1 Tim. 1:12-17; Lk. 15:1-10)

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The sins revealed in these first three scripture passages are blockbusters — betrayal, idolatry, adultery and violence — the raw material for larger-than-life stories and films. The Bible does not whitewash the sins of its major characters. Their awful failures and wrongdoings are part of the story, as are the human consequences, divine judgment and …

Sin of Scorn (Luke 18:9-14)

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The first time I heard this parable was as a small child attending vacation Bible school at Fond Fork Baptist Church, where my great-grandparents, great-aunts and grandparents all worshiped. I remember the end of the little curtained balcony where our class was held, sunlight coming into our room rejoicing through a dusty window, the buzzing …

Sit on It (Judges 4:1-7)

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Deborah: Judge. Prophetess. Wife or “spirited woman,” depending on how you translate the Hebrew. Powerful woman who advised generals and led troops into battle. Creative woman who composed songs of victory. Wise woman who “sat.” As a seminarian, I was impressed by Deborah’s many roles and responsibilities. She was a leader of men when women …

Staying Power (Luke 24:36-49; Acts 3:12-19)

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Cleopas and his unnamed (female?) companion get all the credit. Everyone preaches about an "Emmaus road experience." Nobody preaches about a "stayed-in-Jerusalem-and-waited-to-see-what-happened experience." Everybody preaches about how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread, but nobody preaches about what happened after Jesus asked, "Have you anything here to eat?" …

Story Time (Dt. 26:1-11; Ps. 91:1-2, 9-1-16; Rom. 10:8b-13)

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It was Christmas afternoon. The living room was littered with spent wrapping paper, while gifts were scattered willy-nilly under the tree. Christmas dinner dishes crowded the counter, one daughter-in-law was assembling yet another batch of cookies, and teenagers were picking at Christmas goodies and sampling the dinner ham. Then my mother-in-law began a story. “When …

System Failure

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"A virus breached the campus computer network last week and the entire system crashed. Repair has been difficult, but I bring a word of hope." The director of information technology at the college where I was about to lecture on eschatology added, "This has been frustrating for everyone. Files have been corrupted and programs do …

Table Manners

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P>I saw them eating and I knew who they were. That is a Middle Eastern proverb that Jesus probably knew. It does not make much sense in our own age of fast food and family suppers around the tube, but in Jesus’ day what you ate and whom you ate it with were critical matters. …

Test Run (Mark 1:9-15)

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It is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts in the room talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar. Mark is the text before us, but Matthew, Luke and John are also in the room. Each has a right to be heard, and there …

Testing That Never Ceases (Matt.4:1-2; 4:3-11; Gen. 3:5; Deut. 8:2; Deut. 34:1-8; Deut. 18:18)

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Still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterward he was hungry" (Matt. 4:1-2) . With these words Matthew addresses those who gather for the first Sunday of Lent. What …

The Bible Today

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(ENTIRE BOOK) A simple and clear analysis of the nature of the Bible. What is the Bible? How do you approach it? The Old Testament. The New Testament. Revelation. The Bible and the modern historical view. History and the Individual.

The Discovery Channel (Gen. 15:1-l2, 17-18; Lk. 13:31-35; Phil. 3:17-4:1)

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Some grow in their faith by imitating the faithful. Some enhance their faith through study. But today’s lessons suggest that faith involves discovery. Discovery happens in the moment when we shout, "I see!" In that moment we not only learn what was discovered, but we make our own discovery. The apostle Paul was trying to …

The God’s Aren’t Angry (Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20;1 Peter 3:13-22)

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On the night before Thanksgiving, a clergy friend and I went to hear maverick preacher Rob Bell, who is touring the country on his "The Gods Aren’t Angry Tour." Most folks were home dressing their turkeys, but an interesting crowd of baby boomers, Generation X pastors like me, punk "throw back to the ‘80s"- looking …

The Jericho Affair

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Imagine that congress has set up a committee to report on the disquieting events on the Jerusalem-Jericho road and their aftermath. Here are some excerpts from its findings. "The Inquiry is satisfied that the priest acted in a thoroughly professional manner. We are aware that he is a man of high profile in Jerusalem society, …

The Magic Kingdom (Jer. 23:5)

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"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land" Jer. 23:51. The Scripture readings (Jer. 23:1-6, Col. 1:13-20, Luke 23:35-43) will not allow us to push Christ’s kingship off …

The Millstone (Mark 9:38-50)

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Eternal punishment. Like it or not, it is a biblical concept, albeit a late-blooming one. In the Old Testament, the afterlife is rarely spoken of, and when it is, it is usually pictured as a shadowy, wraithlike existence. For the dominant line of thought in the Old Testament, "Sheol [the realm of the dead] cannot …

The Offense (Lk. 4:21-30)

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Jesus’ behavior surprises me. Not his challenge of the narrow expectations in his hometown — an attack on parochialism, nationalism or ethnocentrism fits what we know of him. But I’m surprised by the offensive way he picks this fight. Hearing his stirring words in the synagogue, his old neighbors approve of him, are proud of …

The Proclamation (Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Cor. 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21)

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Majestic now Christ stands and proclaims the prophet’s words fulfilled. Well, that’s not quite accurate. He does read the words standing up, but then in good rabbinic fashion he sits down to teach. Still, there is majesty to be imagined in that sitting and in the brief sentence pronounced to the expectant hearers: “Today this …

The Protestant Dilemma (Jer. 31:7-9; Ps. 126; Heb. 7:23-28; Mk. 10:46-52.)

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Once upon a fairly recent time it was common knowledge, at least to Protestants, what a Protestant was. On the last Sunday in October Protestants gathered together to celebrate the fact that a Protestant was not a Roman Catholic. Reformation Sunday was meant to affirm the inheritance of a reformed and evangelical Protestantism, with a …

The Psalmist (Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Ps. 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Jn. 20:19-31)

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The psalmist has a body, and it figures prominently in his poetry. His kidneys lash him, his heart rejoices, his pulse (or liver) beats with joy. His body is not gross matter imprisoning him; it pulsates, breathes, dwells securely and participates fully in the overflowing joy and delight he feels in God’s right hand forever. …

The Sent and the Sender (Is. 61:1-2, 65:17-25; I Th. 5:16-28; Jn. 1:6-8, 19-28.)

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One of the most important motifs of the Advent season is that of "the sent" and "the sender." Generations of believers have found hope in the notion that someone (or something) is coming to relieve them of their burden. This someone will be sent by a higher, divine power who has seen the people’s affliction …

The Shadow Side

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“Fear,” writes Karl Barth, “is the anticipation of a supposedly certain defeat.” This is what rules the emotions of Joseph’s brothers, who fear and hate their brother’s favored status. This is what strikes the hearts of Jesus’ disciples when they see him walking toward them on the water. And this is how it is with …

The Short One (Luke 19:1-10)

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Once there was a short, rich, bad man in Jericho named Zacchaeus. He heard that Jesus was coming to town, and he really wanted to see him. Unfortunately, the crowds around Jesus were thick and Zacchaeus was short, so he couldn’t see. Then Zacchaeus had an idea. He would climb a sycamore tree. Fortunately, Jesus …

The Waters of Solidarity (Gen. 1:1-5;Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11)

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After the hectic and holy Christmas season, after the unusual turning of a new century, and, wonderfully, a new millennium, the church and the culture will settle back into familiar rhythms. For the church and its calendar, this means the season of Epiphany with its festivals of Magi, miracles, baptism and transfiguration. On the cultural …

Touch and See

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Touching can be as routine as a handshake or a high five. It can be as exploitative as lustful pawing, as threatening as a clenched fist. Or, as the Easter account in Luke 24 proclaims, touching can be the means whereby the risen Lord Jesus chooses to make himself known. After Jesus’ Emmaus appearance, the …

Trojan Horse (Mat. 25:14-39)

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Clarence Jordan used to say that a parable from Jesus was like a Trojan horse. You let it in, and Bam! — it’s got you. But this business about the “talents” has never quite “gotten” me. Yes, it has that marvelous, often-quoted line, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I’ve tried that in a funeral …

Turn in the Road

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Christians tend to compare their personal conversion experiences to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Not all of us, of course, talk freely about what happened in us and to us on the way to becoming Christian. Our levels of comfort with such talk vary widely depending on our congregational culture, our notions of …

Uncommon Sense (Mark 8:27-38)

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Often Jesus’ words seem perversely contrary to sense. Take, for example, his central bit of advice in our Gospel passage for today: "If anyone wants to follow after me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will destroy it; but whoever will destroy …

Unquenchable Fire (Lk. 3:7-18)

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You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Talk about throwing the book at your listeners. Where did this Baptist study preaching anyway? Didn’t they teach John the importance of introductions, of "contracting" and "partnering" with his listeners? But he isn’t listening to homiletics professors. "Look around," John says. …

Virtual Virtuosity (Mark 12:38-44)

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My favorite Kierkegaardian parable is called “The Man Who Walked Backwards.” The Danish philosopher was particularly hard on religious professionals, and claimed that inconsistent behaviors most often accompany exorbitant professions of good intentions: When a man turns his back upon someone and walks away, it is so easy to see that he walks away, but …

Waiting on God (Isa. 35:1f)

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The book of Isaiah juxtaposes desperate need with glorious abundance and speaks to people who know the first condition so well they find it hard even to dream about the second. Isaiah writes of the wilderness and dry land being glad, of the desert swarming with healthy blossoms, of people once wracked by "fearful hearts, …

What Does the Bible Say? (Ezek. 34:11-16; I Cor. 15:20-28; Mt. 25:31-46.)

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While giving lectures at a mid-western college I came face to face with a major affliction among young people: biblical illiteracy. As we tried to interpret some literature crammed with biblical allusions (all of which functioned symbolically), the students were at sea. They knew none of the biblical contexts. Finally we got to the theme …

What God Wants

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Last year, just in time for Easter, Mel Gibson released an edited version of his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. A few brutal scenes had been cut and camera angles had been changed, all in an attempt to soften the graphic violence of the original. Gibson said that the new edition of the …

What Then Shall We Do?

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And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” Luke 3:10-11. The strange story of Jesus begins with the even stranger figure of John the Baptist. This odd …

Whitewash (Revelation 7:9-17)

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I was in Cuba this summer on a mission trip when our host pastor, Héctor Méndez, approached me, his face grave and drawn. “They have attacked a Presbyterian hospital and school in Pakistan,” he said, “and people have been killed.” The next day our U.S. delegation, along with the congregation in Cuba, prayed for families …

Whose Casserole (John 6:51-58)

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When my daughter was in grade school, her teacher included a unit on table manners. The rule that amused me was, "When served food, you should never ask, ‘What is this?"’ I don’t think I’ve asked that question aloud, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially at potlucks. What is this gray casserole? I can anticipate …

Wild Fire (Job 19: 23-27a)

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“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19: 25-27a). Job sees God as fire. In God’s presence, Job’s skin burns away, yet he remains intact to behold …

Windblown (Acts 2:1-11)

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It was a great day for multiculturalism. It was the Tower of Babel turned upside-down, and what fell out was a glorious manifestation of the grace of God. It was also a tough day for future lay readers: all those forbidding names — Parthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphyilians — that whole crowd. In Luke’s …

Wine Tasting (2 Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:13-22)

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As the gusty winds of change blow unpredictably through the church, Jesus provides an intriguing sound bite in the Gospel lesson: "One puts new wine into fresh wineskins." Fresh wineskins, as faith communities experiment with alternative worship rituals. Fresh wineskins, as local congregations adopt new administrative structures. Fresh wineskins, as denominations reshape their organizational patterns …

Word Perfect (I Th. 2:9-13)

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I laughed out loud when I first heard Martin Luther’s explanation of how the Reformation happened: "While I have been sleeping, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, it is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing, I have let the Word act. It …

You Are Israel

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Devout Christians often appropriate the Bible’s language and patterns to frame their spiritual experiences. When feeling dry or abandoned, we speak of exile or desert sojourns. Prodded to an unknown destination, we invoke the memory of a wandering Aramaean. After long vigils, when we finally know, we say we’ve heard a still, small voice. Summoned …