15 November 2017

Text Study for November 19 - A Child is Born

Prayer of the Day
God of light, there can be overwhelming obscurity in this world. But you shine your light and increase joy, and for your brilliance we are grateful. Let the light of your grace, which shone through Isaiah's prophecy, shine through us also, that we might radiate your joy in a darkening world. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Reading: Isaiah 9:1-7
The prophet Isaiah brought a message of hope to the people of Israel and Judah in a time of great suffering and sorrow. After the fall of Israel in 722 B.C., many of the people of the northern kingdom were taken into exile in the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah prophesied that the tribal territories conquered by Assyria would one day be rebuilt by the power of God.
A reading from Isaiah.
1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
 those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
 you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
 authority rests upon his shoulders;
 and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
 The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.


  1. What questions do you have about these readings?
  2. “…Zebulun and Naphtali” (9.1)
    1. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the original 12 tribes of Israel, alloted lands north and east of the Sea of Galilee (see map). The territories roughly correspond to areas that were taken by Assyrian king Tilgath-pileser III in 732 B.C. Isaiah’s prophesy of redeemed hope and light for these lands would have been heard as the work of God, since they had already been lost to Assyria at the time of Isaiah’s writings here. 
  3. “…as on the day of Midian.” (9.4)
    1. A direct reference to the victory of Gideon over the gigantic Midianite and Amalekite armies recounted in Judges 7: “…all the people…lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” Despite these overwhelming odds, the Lord sent only 300 Israelites with Gideon against them, so that the Lord alone could claim the victory.
    2. “The comparison would have been evoked by the similarly long odds of Judah surviving the mighty Neo-Assyrian empire.”  (Christopher Hays. http://bit.ly/2ANBauZ)
  4. “Particularly in the light of the history of the interpretation of this text, it is important to clarify the tenses in the poem. Verses 2-5 clearly speak of past events…the verbs in v. 6 are perfects and consecutive imperfects, the normal narrative tense in Hebrew. They must be read as reporting past action or, in view of the passives, possibly as present: ‘A child has been born to us…authority rests upon his shoulders.’…The implications of this analysis are quite clear: the reasons for celebration - release from an oppressor, destruction of battle gear, and the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’ - are not in the future but in the past. These events form the basis for confidence in the future.” (Gene M. Tucker, The New Interpreter’s Bible, v. 6: Isaiah 1-39. © 1996 Abingdon Press. p. 122. Emphasis mine.)
  5. The titles listed in v. 6 would have been a common element for the birth proclamation of a crown prince in the Ancient Near East. Egyptian Pharaohs were particularly well-known for the descriptive titles attached to the names of their children who would one day ascend to the throne. 
    1. Keeping in mind this is the past tense proclamation of the birth of a prince, these would not be earned descriptors but a kind of hortatory title - the sort of thing one wishes to be, not what one has already demonstrated. Think more along the lines of "Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons” (though some of these titles from the series A Song of Ice and Fire are earned honorifics) and less “Vlad the Impaler.”
  6. A few questions to ponder:
    1. “…he (God) brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali…” Does it disturb you to think of God bringing down the fortunes of a kingdom or a people? Does it delight you? What do you imagine this word must do to the people who are presently suffering? 
    2. Most Christians see this passage as a prophetic announcement of the coming of Jesus over 700 years after the earliest time this passage could have been written. However, Biblical scholars are almost unanimous in stating this was not Isaiah’s intent at the time it was written - any messianic connections to Jesus are a later addition to the scriptural tradition. Does this sort of historic analysis of scripture challenge your understanding of the Old Testament? Are you comforted or disturbed by the idea that Isaiah was not talking about Jesus, that it is our interpretation and not his original intent? 
    3. Can you hear this text without thinking of the Michael W. Smith/Amy Grant Christmas recordings based on it? (Confession: your pastor cannot. 😀 )
    4. What brings you hope from this reading? What would you love to see fulfilled, even if it isn’t a direct prophetic utterance predicting a certain future?

08 November 2017

Text Study for November 12 - Let Justice Roll Down

Prayer of the Day
God of all people, you are justice itself, and in you righteousness flows over all of creation. Create justice and righteousness in us, that all may rejoice in your blessings and live in your kingdom of peace and lovingkindness. Amen.

Reading: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
King Jereboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah ruled during a long period of relative peace and prosperity for both kingdoms during the 7th century B.C. It appears that the tribal systems of land ownership broke down in those days, and a new wealthy class emerged at the top of Israelite society, at the expense of many commoners and laborers. Into this environment, a shepherd named Amos was called from the southern kingdom of Judah to proclaim the word of God in Israel.  
A reading from Amos.
1The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake. 2And he said:
The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
 the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.
 14Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
 and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
15Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;
 it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

  1. What questions do you have about these readings?
  2. “…two years before the earthquake.” (v. 1:1)
    1. There is evidence of a large earthquake in Hazor, between the Sea of Galilee and Lake Huleh, dating to c. 760 B.C. This earthquake is also mentioned in Zechariah 14:5, which was written hundreds of years after Amos, so it seems likely it is a historic event by which we can reliably date most of Amos to roughly the years 760-750 B.C. This would match the time of the kings mentioned in the introduction (Amos 1:1).
  3. “…justice in the gate.” (v. 5:15)
    1. In Amos’ Israel, ‘the gate’ most likely meant the entrance to the courts or chambers of local magistrates. The judge’s seat would be put in the shade of the gate and people would bring their cases to him. There was no guarantee of counsel, good or bad, in the laws of the time, so as you can imagine, the lower classes often found the courts stacked against them by sheer ignorance of the law, to say nothing of bribes and other injustices the wealthy and well-connected might employ to their advantage. 
  4. It’s worth a minute to consider the setting and context of Amos’ words. 
    1. “Consider any of the small nations of the world today, and imagine being a citizen of a neighboring country and going to that small nation to inform its people that soon they would no longer exist as a nation. Worse yet, imagine trying to convince them that this was the will of their god. How could such destruction and death be the will of any god? That is the theological problem Amos and the other pre-exilic prophets created for their people, and the problem remains for us.”
  1. “All of the 8th century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah) link social justice with proper worship of the one true God. Life and worship are a balance like a fair, properly-weighted scale. Worship of other gods and oppression of the poor and the weak are the immoral acts that are most criticized by Amos. Unfaithfulness to YHWH is all the same. It breaks the communion with covenantal partners both human and divine.”
    1. Looking back a few weeks, do you remember why the house of Eli lost its ancestral claim to the priesthood in the days of Samuel? 
    2. In what ways are worship and justice connected? Why, in your words, would missing the mark in one make for problems in the other?
  1. “Amos does not intend to replace ritual with social action. Rather, what goes on in society must correspond to what is said and done in worship. Amos tells us God does not accept the worship of those who show no interest in justice in their daily lives.”
    1. Is the problem in Amos’ world worship, or worshipers? 
    2. What about today? How would our worship be affected by injustice locally? Nationally? Globally?
Quotations pulled from The New Interpreters' Bible and the Lutheran Study Bible.

26 October 2017

Text Study for Reformation Sunday - Free, Indeed!

Prayer of the Day
God, renewer of life and only reformer, you surround us with a great cloud of witnesses throughout time and place whom you have called into your work, witnessing to your Gospel of liberation by grace alone. Continue now to raise up witnesses for your work of renewal and reform, that we may all grow more deeply into that mystery of communion that is your church. Come now, and sustain the on-going reformation of your church. We ask this all through your son Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Reading: Romans 3:19-28
Paul’s words stand at the heart of the preaching of Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders. No human beings make themselves right with God through works of the law. We are brought into a right relationship with God through the divine activity centered in Christ’s death. This act is a gift of grace that liberates us from sin and empowers our faith in Jesus Christ.
A reading from Romans.
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Reading: John 8:31-36
Jesus speaks of truth and freedom as spiritual realities known through his word. He reveals the truth that sets people free from sin.
31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

  1. What questions do you have about these readings? 
  2. In case somebody hasn’t heard, this is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation! Anyone throwing a party? No? Just me? Okay, then. 
  3. One breakout sitcom from 2016 was NBC’s “The Good Place.” In an episode I just watched with Kristin, a character named Tahani is frustrated because she can never get higher than second to last place on the “rankings” in heaven, no matter how hard she works. At the end of the episode, this heaven’s architect, Michael, sits her down and explains that the rankings had to do with Tahani’s life before death - in heaven, they mean nothing. Once you’re in “The Good Place” you’re free to be what you are without proving anything to anyone.
    1. In essence, Luther’s theological breakthroughs in the early 1500s brought this sense of belonging to the Christian faith, and the reading from John 8 for today emphasizes the gift of it all. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” As Luther understood it, a Christian was perfectly free from any requirement for righteousness or justification once Jesus had declared the Christian ‘free.’ 
    2. Romans 3:28 is incredibly important to the faith of the reformers: “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” It’s important to note that one of the easiest ways to sabotage this is to turn faith into something we do: “All you have to do is believe.”  NO - even belief is a work of God on our behalf, according to Luther.
      1. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or com to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with [its] gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.” This is from Luther’s Small Catechism, and for my money it’s the most important part of the whole thing. God’s Holy Spirit is already at work in me long before I can turn the gift of faith into a work I must undertake to make myself righteous in the eyes of God. In Baptism and Holy Communion God sets us free from such things, and in that freedom we are truly free from requirements, fears, and anxieties about whether we measure up to some hypothetical standard or stand out from those around us. 
    3. Why do you think letting go of requirements and rankings is so hard for Christians? What is it about rules and standards that we find so seductive, and what is it about freedom that can be so incredibly difficult?
  4. “To make the way smoother for the unlearned - for only them do I serve - I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit: 
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
    1. This quote is taken from Luther’s treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, written in 1520 with an open letter to Pope Leo VIII in hopes that he might understand Luther was trying to help the church become more faithful, not attempting to rebel against the church or break away. The treatise is one of Luther’s most important in what Timothy Lull calls “his most productive year.” In it Luther lays out the central paradox which has defined true Lutheran faith for almost 500 years, even if the Lutherans themselves continue to struggle to understand, incorporate, and embody it.
    2. What might it mean for a Christian to be at the same time a free lord and a dutiful servant? How does this particular understanding of Christian faith evolve from the freedom Jesus promises in John 8?

11 October 2017

Text Study - 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1 - The Call of Samuel

Prayer of the Day
Beckoning God, in the stillness of the night you called Samuel into your service. Call us into service with a voice we are able to hear, and give us hearts to come when we are called. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Reading: I Samuel 3:1-4:1
After the Exodus and the establishment of Israel in the land of Canaan, a period of about 250 years followed in which Israel was a loose association of tribes with no central ruler. The books of Samuel tell the story of Israel’s transition to a monarchy, beginning with the calling of Samuel as God’s prophet.
1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. 6The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." 11Then the LORD said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."
15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." 17Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."
19As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. 21The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD. 4:1And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

  1. What questions do you have about this reading? 
  2. The setting has jumped again this week. As the introduction to the text notes, approximately 250 years has passed between the time of the Exodus and the end of the period of the Judges in Israel’s history. After settling in the land of Canaan, the Israelites established tribal lands and the city of Shiloh became the religious center where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.
    1. The “temple” to which this reading refers is likely the tent sanctuary held over from the Exodus and not a permanent structure. Scholars believe there was no permanent Temple until the reign of Solomon.
  3. “We are told that the ‘lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (v. 3). At its most literal level, this expression may indicate the time prior to dawn. Priestly protocol called for the burning of lamps in the sanctuary from evening to morning. But this phrase may convey multiple levels of meaning…this story opens with the vocabulary of sight and insight. Visions are infrequent. Eli’s eyesight is growing dim; he cannot see. The lamp has not yet gone out. This visual vocabulary prepares us for an ironic contrast. The boy Samuel sleeps near the ark, which is a source of divine presence and illumination, but he cannot perceive what is really happening, whereas the priest Eli, nearly blind and sleeping apart from the divine presence of the ark, finally perceives that the Lord is speaking to Samuel…the expression may refer both to the near extinguishing of divine vision in Israel and to the waning of Eli’s literal vision as well as his role as a priestly source of spiritual vision.” (Bruce Birch, The New Interpreter's Bible, v. 2: I & II Samuel. (c) 1996 by Abingdon Press. p. 992.)
    1. Have there been times in your life when you’ve found it difficult to “see” what God is doing? 
    2. What about times when you’ve confused the voice of God for that of something else?
    3. Thinking in the opposite direction, have there been times when you were absolutely certain you could see what God was doing, and why?
    4. Again, the opposite direction: have you been certain you heard God’s voice clearly and completely? 
    5. Looking back on all of these times, were you correct? Incorrect? In what ways? 
  4. Have you ever given or received harsh news like Samuel must give to Eli? What was that like? 
    1. How would the world operate if we all heard and spoke God’s word with the gentleness of Eli and the humility of Samuel?

04 October 2017

Bible Study for Exodus 16

Prayer of the Day
Holy provider, despite your people’s hardened hearts you gave them manna when they were hungry. Soften our hearts, and make us grateful for your marvelous gifts. We pray this in the name of Jesus, your Son, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Reading: Exodus 16:1-18
After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel went into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula on their journey home. They were free, but they were also on uncertain ground: the food and housing provided by Egypt was much more certain than food in the desert.   
A reading from Exodus.
1The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
4Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" 8And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him — what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."
9Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11The LORD spoke to Moses and said, 12"I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. 16This is what the LORD has commanded: 'Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'" 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 

  1. What questions do you have about this reading? 
  2. A timeline point mentioned by Prof. Kathryn Schifferdecker: at the time of this reading, the Israelites have been traveling out of Egypt for one month, including the crossing of the Red Sea, and they’ve complained three times and have said they want to go back to Egypt three times.
    1. Think back to long car trips as a child or with your own children - what was the response when someone had complained about the same thing three times? How does God respond?
  3. Dr. Craig Koester of Luther Seminary says this story marks a critical juncture in the lives of the people of Israel, particularly in light of their desire to go back to the slavery they at least understood. “[The people of Israel] can’t have the past as they wanted it to be: will they step into a future that can only be lived by faith?” 
    1. Dr. Walter Brueggeman also notes this looking back to Egypt and remarks, “Present anxiety distorts the memory of the recent past.” 
  4. If God can make bread come from heaven, why wouldn’t God provide bread from heaven that doesn’t spoil every day?
  5. As you encounter this scripture reading, can you think of a time in your life when you were wandering in the wilderness, sustained by manna? If this was some time in the past, do you see things the same way today as you did when you were actually in the “wilderness”? If you’re currently in the wilderness, what gives you hope?

01 October 2017

October Newsletter Article

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. - (Colossians 3:14-15)

27 September 2017

Text Study for Genesis 2-4 - "The Name of God"

Prayer of the Day
God of all people, you remembered your children who were enslaved in Egypt, and by the power of your name you set them free. Remember us and free us from slavery to sin by the power of your name. We pray this in Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Reading: Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17
This week we jump ahead many years, from Jacob in the land promised to Abraham to his descendants in slavery in Egypt. Jacob’s son, Joseph, brought his family to Egypt to escape a serious famine where they lived, but after many generations, the children of Israel (Jacob’s other name) had grown numerous and were enslaved by the kings of Egypt to keep them from threatening the king’s control. 
2:23-25After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
3:1-15Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." 
4When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." 5Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." 
11But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" 12He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
13But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14God said to Moses, " I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ' I AM has sent me to you.'" 15God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,  and this my title for all generations.”
4:10-17But Moses said to the LORD, "O my LORD, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." 11Then the LORD said to him, "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak." 13But he said, "O my LORD, please send someone else." 14Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, "What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 15You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. 16He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs."

  1. We jump ahead again this week, this time several hundred years. 
  2. In Exodus 1:8, we are told that a new king/pharaoh arises who “did not know Joseph.” That Hebrew word is yada, and it is used again in Exodus 2:25 when God “took notice of them.” This is a translator’s interpretive move: the Hebrew simply reads, “God knew.” 
    1. Do you think there might be a purpose in using the same word in these different ways? If so, how would you explain it?
  3. Moses resists God’s call in five ways, shown below with God’s responses to each point:
    1. “Who am I that I should speak for God?” 
      1. “I will be with you.” 
    2. “Who are you? Who do I say sent me?” 
      1. “I AM WHO I AM - tell them I AM sent you. Tell them the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sent you.” 
    3. “They (the enslaved Israelites) won’t trust me.”
      1. God gives two signs Moses can perform as proof, and promises a third if the first two aren’t enough. 
    4. “I am slow of speech and tongue.” 
      1. “Who made that mouth and tongue? Now GO: I will be with you.” 
    5. “Please send someone else!” 
      1. “Your brother Aaron is a good speaker - I will send him with you to speak for you.”
    1. Walter Brueggeman writes: “God’s action in the world is undertaken by human agents who are summoned into YHWH’s dangerous service…the odd joining of God and human history is done through the vulnerable, risk-taking body of Moses, on whom everything now depends.” Does this quotation inform your thinking about Moses’ reluctance?
    2. Terry Fretheim notes, "The oft-noted speech disability of Moses is striking in this context -- an inarticulate human being holds his own in debate with God!”
  1. Many churches using the Narrative Lectionary will have the hymn Here I Am, Lord during worship this week. The way Moses speaks the phrase implies not only location, but acknowledgment of his name and a willingness to serve an obviously superior being. Given what follows once Moses learns God’s plans, do you think most congregations will sense the irony in the hymn choice when compared to Moses ‘willingness’ to serve?
  2. What questions do you have about this reading? 

01 June 2017

June Newsletter Article

I got nothin’.
This is the fourth attempt I’ve made at a monthly newsletter article in the past 24 hours. To paraphrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, each of the first three articles sank into the swamp (or burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp). I’m hoping this fourth one stays up. 
Every summer, Kristin and I look forward to the end of school and a change in schedule with some anticipation. Yay! Things will slow down! Days are longer! We’ll go camping! Then every summer goes exactly the same as the summer before it: we over-schedule ourselves, forget that we actually have jobs to do on top of all the extra stuff, run out of time to do all the things we want to do, and wind up as exhausted in August as we were in May. I’d love to say it will be different this year, but I’m looking at the calendar and I don’t see it happening. Again. 
God does not intend for life to be a continual, frazzled run from one thing to the next. While I was in San Antonio this week, I had the chance to hear a sermon and a lecture from Dr. Walter Brueggeman, one of the preeminent Old Testament scholars in America today. I was reminded of the lecture I heard him give in January 2009, when he was Theologian-in-Residence at the UCC church in Ames. At that time, Dr. Brueggeman was working on his book Sabbath as Resistance, in which he argued that the constant demand of production and consumption in 21st century American life was every bit as enslaving as Israel’s generations in slavery in Egypt as told in the book of Exodus. In an environment where the Egyptians demanded production without cessation, Brueggeman argues, God created a law of Sabbath which was intended to break the cycle of unceasing labor. Sabbath was not instituted to be one more demand on a servant people: it was instituted for the benefit of the people. Without time for rest and re-creation, Brueggeman argues, we are less than God means for us to be. Ferris Bueller was right: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Then you sit down to write your monthly article and you realize you haven’t done much in the way of looking around, and you get what I got: nothin’.
I know you’re all just as busy as we are - some of you even more so. I know that sometimes the luxury of stopping is just not possible. But as we enter this summer, I invite you, for your own benefit, to consider how you could find sabbath for yourself before your well runs dry like mine did today. Turning nothing into something, after all, is what God does - in seminary the fancy Latin phrase we use to describe it is creation ex nihilo. It’s not what we were meant to do. It’s beyond us. So, before your something turns into nothing, schedule nothing for yourself so you can look around and consider the somethings all around you and how God has made them all. Blessings, friends!
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott

20 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 - A Theological Review [SPOILERS]

Every year, my birthday (5 May) aligns with the start of the "summer movie season" - a period of time marked by BIG MOVIES WITH STUFF ASPLODING ALL OVER. As much as home theater technology has advanced over the past 20 years, there's just no substitute for the theater experience: fresh popcorn, comfy seats, big screens, LOUD NOISES. This year was a doubly-special treat: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 opened on my actual birthday, which fell on a Friday this year. So I had an absolutely wonderful birthday: early morning workout, golf, an afternoon of reading, grilled a steak for supper, then the whole famn-damily hopped in the car and headed off to the movie theater.

You've likely read several reviews of GotGv2 so all I'll say about the movie as a movie is what I heard from Glen Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour: "did you like Guardians of the Galaxy? Here's more of that." What amazed me, however, was the theological juxtaposition presented by the central crisis of the movie: what constitutes family? So, there are spoilers ahead - if you want to maintain some surprises, don't read past the jump!

26 April 2017

Text Study: The Witness of Stephen

Prayer of the Day
Holy Giver and Receiver of life: your martyr, Stephen, shone with the light of your Holy Spirit. When his opponents took his life, he offered up his spirit to you, and prayed mercy for theirs. Make Stephen an example of faith and courage for all your followers, for the sake of the one who brought light and lie to this world, your son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. 

First Reading: Acts 6:1-6
In the early days after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the church was absolutely certain that a new world was near, and that Jesus would return quickly. Even so, as the new faith began to take root within the Jewish church, there were problems between local, ethnic Hebrews and the Hellenic Jews who had lived in other places and may not have been ethnically Israelite.
1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

second reading: Acts 6:7-7:2a, 44-60
After a time, Stephen’s witness to Jesus drew the attention of the Jewish authorities, who continued to be very concerned about the Jesus followers in their church. Eventually, Stephen’s preaching brought about a harsh response: death by stoning for blasphemy, and Stephen became the first follower of Jesus to die as a witness to Jesus.
7The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 
1 Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" 2And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me…
44Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands as the prophet says,
49'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?'
51You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56Look, he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.


  1. Glossary
    1. Hellenists/Hebrews
      1. In the ancient Mediterranean, some Jewish families either moved or were moved away from Palestine to other centers of population. These became known as the Jews of the Diaspora or “Hellenic” Jews, from the Greek H{llhnikovß, (h)ellenikos, meaning “of the Greeks.” These people were also joined by Jews who welcomed, adopted, and adapted Greek culture and customs into their faith. It was the Hellenic Jews (also known as Hellenizers) who produced the Septuagint, the version of the Jewish scriptures translated from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic into what is known as Koiné Greek (a dialect of Greek spoken in the Mediterranean during the life of Jesus). 
      2. This is a good moment to think about the fact that these early disputes were not Jewish-Christian disagreements: they were church disagreements. There is no early moment when Christians make a decided break away from their Jewish roots - historians and theologians agree that the split between Judaism and Christianity developed in stages between the death of Jesus around 29 AD and the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD. At the time of Stephen’s death, Christians hadn’t even been named “Christians” yet - they were an apocalyptic sect within Judaism much like the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sicarii (although without the violent tendencies of the Zealots and the Sicarii). 
    2. “synagogue of the Freedmen”
      1. This was not a synagogue as modern believers understand it, but an older interpretation of sunagwghv meaning a “group or gathering of people.” It literally comes from the roots a]gw and sun, meaning “go/lead/drive together.” A synagogue, then, is a collection of like-minded persons. 
    3. Are there other words or phrases that you didn’t quite understand?
  2. Thoughts and Notes
    1. “No one pages through the New Testament without repeatedly reading about violent resistance. The story of Stephen gives us much to consider, lest we forget the atrocities that are part of the Christian legacy--those inflicted upon people of faith, as well as those inflicted by them.” Dr. Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary. http://bit.ly/2pmQ8Vs 
    2. “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.” Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
  3. Questions to Ponder
    1. What is your history with the story of the martyrdom of Stephen? What have you previously heard or learned? What more do you want to know?
    2. What disturbs you most about this disturbing story? Is there anything that comforts you? If so, what is it?
    3. What other questions do you have about this week’s texts?