Proper 11C: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Mary at Christ's Feet (Prop 11C)FIRST LESSON:  Amos 8: 1-12

Read the Old Testament passage

The visions in Amos 7 that we read last week condemn the social injustices that were prevalent in the society at the time.  The people had, in Amos’ view, forsaken God and were not living out their relationship within the community. Last week’s reading dealt with the third vision and the confrontation between Amaziah and Amos.  In Amos 8, the fourth vision pronounces the finality of judgment by Yahweh on Israel.  The reason, again, is because they have oppressed the needy.  Amos’s vision involves the land, which in this case will suffer a famine for the people of Israel. Essentially, the judgment is in the form of what appears to be divine silence and unbearable darkness on the part of God.

The pronouncement includes a reversal of time and prosperity.  The end will be clearly filled with ruin.  No longer will the people be prosperous and ignore those who have less.  No longer will they neglect and ignore their neighbor.

This is a hard passage.  We’re used to reading Scripture and finding messages of hope, forgiveness, and redemption.  But this is different.  The passage speaks to us and calls us to look at the balance we have in our lives.  It shakes our lives up a bit.  How much of our lives is about us?  How much of our lives is lived with the consideration for others?  How much of our lives is focused on God and what God calls us to be?  Have we forgotten God?  Perhaps this is a message of hope—a “wake-up call” if you will.  God does forgive; God does redeem.  But God loves us too much to just let us continue down the unbalanced path that we sometimes create for ourselves.

So, we could dismiss this as a misinterpretation of the words of a grace-filled God or we can relegate it to a time gone by.  But, maybe, just maybe, we’re actually supposed to pay attention.  Maybe it’s the only way that God can waken us out of our prosperity-induced coma and realize that it is us.  We are the prosperous ones.  We are the ones that are holding that bounteous basket of summer fruit.  And we are the ones who are called to respond to the injustices of the world.

Martin Marty says it well.  According to him, “You can tell a lot about people by what they hang on their walls. If it’s someone with an office, it gets even more interesting. In my office at the church I serve, I do not have any diplomas hanging. No awards. No trophies or medals either—not that I ever won any. Not even my ordination certificate is on the wall. I figure that if I or anyone else has to look at some framed document to see or remember my orders before God, I’m in trouble.

Among some interesting pictures and sculptures—you’ll have to see them sometime—I have a construction level mounted on the wall. It’s actually very precious to me. A contractor in my congregation named Rudy gave it to me as a symbol of the need to keep life in balance. He knows I have enjoyed construction in the past. So here is this Stanley level from the 1880s, crafted of beautiful cherry wood and brass. There is also, of course, the little bubble inside, which keeps reminding me that I mounted it about 1/8 inch off level.

I  can’t be the only one needing balance in my life. Every day something is out of whack in every soul’s scheduling or decision-making. It has to be, given life’s many pressures. This 24-inch chunk of lumber on my wall is my daily conscience check.

Reflecting on this week’s Old Testament reading makes me look at this level with new eyes. I am beginning to think it is staring me in the face not just to highlight my many challenges to the balanced life. (My wife would be happy to point those out to you.) My level from Rudy is also staring at me to point out the dreadful imbalance that exists between the privilege of my own life and the struggling needs of others. Its gorgeous cherry is tipped in my favor and against the favor of so many people who get stepped on by my way of life. And this gap is a lot more than 1/8 inch.

Amos spoke of scales weighted in favor of the well-to-do and of God holding a plumb line to measure crooked lives. I have this level on my wall telling me to get inside the skin of those harmed by my privileged life. I am an unwitting participant in far too much systemic injustice, more than I’d like to believe. Every system, societal practice, purchase and piece of legislation that benefits me at the expense of the dignity of some other human being is wrong.

I remember Tim Wise once saying that there are a whole lot of us who were born on third base yet think we hit a triple. That’s good. Maybe next week I’ll have to put up a picture of a baseball diamond, right next to Rudy’s level. There is space on the wall. (From “Balance and Privilege”, by Martin Marty, in “Theolog: The Blog of The Christian Century”, July 12, 2010, available at


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      Where do your own discomforts lie with this passage?

3)      What is is that causes us to live lives so out of balance?

4)      What message of hope do you hear?

5)      What response does this call us to make?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Colossians 1: 15-28

To read the Epistle passage

The first part of this passage is a sort of “hymn”, proclaiming Christ above all things of this world, proclaiming Christ as the very image of God.  It is followed by this address to the Colossians.

As Christianity spread beyond the world of Jewish hopes, the acclamation of Jesus as the Christ became more an acclamation that God had made Jesus king in a much broader sense. Christians began to declare that Jesus will be lord of all. He will unite all people, indeed, everything in one single realm of God’s goodness. “Who is the power or rule or beginning”: this means God has enthroned him, but it also affirms that Christ was there from the beginning. This association of ideas is present in the next phrase: “the firstborn from the dead”. It means, he was the first to be raised from the dead and also that he is God’s firstborn son. Traditionally, the firstborn inherited the major power in a household.

In other words, the old messianic hope has now been transformed, so that it affirms Christ’s resurrection as the moment when something new began: Christ was raised from the dead, the first of many to come, but as the first he is also the leader and will bring about the rule or kingdom of God throughout the whole created order of things. God’s fullness chose to live in Christ. On that basis he will seek to bring about peace in the entire universe: peace with God and peace among all peoples and things.

The writer of the letter also mentions the church. The big vision is that the church is the name for what Christ created at his resurrection rather than a small building on some corner of a city. It is wherever God’s goodness comes to rule. These are grand thoughts. They are easily open to abuse. Some have seen the church as destined to control all political power on earth as part of this vision, often with disastrous consequences. But if we allow the abstractions of the poetry to settle and see beneath and beyond them, the vision is really about God’s love through Christ filling the universe, an echo of the notion that the earth shall be filled with the glory of God. It is a vision of reconciliation with God and among people. It also invites us to include in this the whole creation. It is also very confronting of any and all powers which set themselves up as above love and above God, including both political powers and our own ideas and constructs of our religion.

You could read this as if the writer (probably not Paul) was just trying to get his or her readers back to basics, back to what matters.  Maybe it was meant to be a reminder of why we’re here at all, why we believe, why we are the church in the first place.  What is it that motivates us to stick around, to keep the church going, to work toward that vision that God holds?  And maybe it’s a reminder to not let the “ways of churching” get in the way of what we’re really about.  Just stick to the purpose.  But, first, we have to know what that is.  What does it mean to “present everyone mature in Christ”?


In his classic book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker tells how purpose-driven living can affect countless lives in a lasting fashion. He tells the story of Nurse Bryan, a not-so-flashy caregiver who kept an entire hospital on track with her eleven-word purpose-driven philosophy. When facing a medical decision, Nurse Bryan always asked the question, “Are we doing the best we can to help this patient?” These eleven words gradually permeated the entire hospital and became its cultural creed known as “Nurse Bryan’s Rule.” That’s because patients on Nurse Bryan’s floor recovered faster. Drucker claims that ten years after her retirement, “Nurse Bryans’s Rule” was still influencing the culture of that hospital. Superiors and subordinates alike were profoundly affected by one common person’s passion for purpose. It was the great motivator that continues to inspire us here today.

Negotiating the twenty-first century is…bumpy for most individuals and churches. That’s because change is coming at us faster than we can digest it. Education is just one of the areas that is being forced to re-examine its traditional assumptions. Take Shop Class for example. It’s a rite of passage many Boomers enjoyed in their junior and high school years. We learned how to spot-weld a tin pan together, turn wood on a lathe, and run a band saw safely. But those days are fading fast. That’s because shop skills are not being demanded on a college level. Employers are not clamoring for skilled tradesmen as much as they are for trained computer technicians.

So what’s happening in the classroom? The same thing that’s happening in our traditional churches. In a nutshell, we must “pick our pain” from two options. Painful scenario one is a choice many churches are opting for. It goes like this: we will keep doing what we have been doing — and work harder. That’s choosing to continue shop class because we’ve always offered shop class. The result of that decision is that we will maintain what’s familiar, reliable, stable, and comfortable. The pain involved is that we will decline and possibly die. That is because we can never create a better past. It’s done and gone.

Pain number two is the decision to go beyond shop class, but remain true to the purpose of education: preparing people for living life. That involves the pain of growth, risk, renewal, and hard work with much criticism. It’s saying that we will exist to educate people. If shop class fulfilled that role for a time, great, but if it’s not relevant anymore, we will change. Not from education, but from how we’ve always done education. We will let purpose drive us, not precedence.

Could that be the great motivator for us as God’s people? Could knowing why we are on the planet be the corrective to keeping us on track? We are going to experience decent folks off track every day — in our families, in our churches…The great motivator for Paul was to see “everyone mature in Christ.” The energy for that work came from Jesus himself. The same motivation and power are offered to us right here, right now. It is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (From “The Great Motivator”, a sermon by Kirk R. Webster, available at, accessed 11 July, 2013.)

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      In what ways might this passage be abused?

3)      What message does it hold for our society today?

4)      It almost sounds trite, but what does it mean to you to put Christ first in your life?

5)      What motivates us as believers of God and followers of Jesus Christ?



GOSPEL: Luke 10: 38-42

To read the Gospel passage

This is a short passage, but probably holds enough to make us a bit uncomfortable.  We are forced to think about all the things that we “do” for God.  We are forced to look at our busy and too-full lives into which we try to cram as much “good” stuff as we can.  And, sadly, many of us experience the same realization that I had:  “Damn, I think I’m the sister!”

I personally think Martha gets a bad rap.  I mean, after all, she was the one trying to make everyone comfortable, offering “radical” hospitality.  And on some level, her sister just let her do all the work and went and sat down and listened to Jesus.  But the point is, she LISTENED.  She didn’t do for Jesus what she thought he wanted or give to Jesus what she thought he needed.  She actually spent time sitting and listening.  She opened herself to Jesus himself.  The writer is assuming that the most important response is to receive Jesus’ word.

This is probably not meant to be an attack on the “normal” role of hosting guests, just the preoccupation with them.  But there’s another side to this.  Remember that Martha was acting in the role that society had assigned her.  This, too, should be a wake-up call to us.  Are there others that we’ve relegated to roles that leave them out of truly being a part of Jesus’ word?  Are there others that through our societal or church constructs, we haven’t allowed to enter the conversation?  Do we leave room for everyone to live the life that God calls them to live?

I do so want to be Mary.  I want to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his words.  I want to bask in his presence and be a part of who he is.  And I want others to feel like they can do the same.  But what, pray tell, do we do with all those dirty dishes?  Maybe the message is not only about being open to Christ but also about making sure everyone feels free to do the same.  The dishes can wait. (But maybe the point is also that we’re all supposed to take part in doing them a little later.)  The good news is that Jesus grants permission for all of us distracted, frantic people to sit down and get our fill of Jesus’ word and promise.  When we are filled, then we can go to work.

Now, truth be told, if I knew that Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Son of God and Son of Humanity, was coming to dinner, I do think that at least some of my Martha would need to kick in.  I would make sure there were fresh flowers and the table would be set with Aunt Doll’s china and I would probably pull out all the stops and make Caramel Macchiato Cheesecake with the homemade caramel sauce that takes so long.  And, of course, Maynard the Wonder Dog would have a new bow tie to don.  After all, this is Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, Son of God and Son of Humanity!  Shouldn’t we be presenting our best?  I mean, surely it’s not appropriate to invite him to your house for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and put him to work folding laundry to get it off your dining room table so that you can eat!  I DO think that’s important.  After all, all work is holy if it has the right perspective, the right focus, the right motivator.  But, then, after all the preparations were done, I would hope that I could sit and listen and immerse myself in this Holy Presence.  I would hope that somehow I could take all the distractions that come to mind and make them holy too.  Maybe that’s the whole point—it’s not that what Mary was doing was good and what Martha was doing was bad but rather that somehow, Martha had lost perspective, burying herself begrudgingly in the enslavement of “women’s work” while her flighty sister hob-knobbed with Jesus.  What if her preparations were instead focused on creating a feast for a king?  What if in her divine work, the presence of God was truly revealed?  What if she realized that she was preparing a holy meal?

Maybe her mistake was not being busy but rather missing God in the busyness of everyday life.  Maybe she just missed that God shows up in everything that we do and no task is wasteful or menial in the Presence of God. (Or maybe her mistake was not spending the extra 45 minutes to make homemade caramel sauce for the cheesecake!)

…As Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, ‘Repetition is reality, and is the seriousness of life…repetition is the daily bread which satisfied with benediction.’  Repetition is both as ordinary and necessary as bread and the very stuff of ecstasy…Both laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks.  But both are the work that God has given us to do…To convert all our work into prayer and praise is admittedly an ideal, but the contemplatives of the world’s religions might agree that it is something to strive for.” (The Quotidian Mysteries:  Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work, by Kathleen Norris, p. 28, 29, 83)


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Where do you find yourself in this passage?

3)      What distractions exist in your life that pull you into a “Martha” way of being?

4)      Who do we “leave out” when it comes to truly experiencing Christ?

5)      What would it mean to open everything that we do to God’s Presence?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


More than a few Christians might be surprised to learn that the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and non-negotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus’ commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order. (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing)


Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world. (Thomas a Kempis)


Just being awake, alert, attentive is no easy matter.  I think it is the greatest spiritual challenge that we face. (Diana L. Eck)




Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.  Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.






(Shirley Erena Murray, 1992, The Faith We Sing # 2128)

Proper 24A: Transcendence

OLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 33: 12-23

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

As we have seen, the possibility of Israel’s future survival and well-being depends on Yahweh’s promise and presence.  We are given two speeches by Moses.  They follow the story of the golden calf both in our lectionary and in the Scriptures themselves.  Remember that at the end of that passage, we hear that God has had a change of mind.  Now that is a surprising if not powerful notion.  This omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent Creator of all just changes God’s mind!  So, where, then, are we supposed to put our faith?  In what are we to believe?

In Moses’ first speech (vv. 12-13), the verb translated “know” is used three times.  Moses wants certitude.  He wants to know about the future and the way that God intends on being present for Israel.  Israel is, in effect, having a “crisis of presence.”  They need a sort of guarantee.  So, are you with me or not?

In the second speech (vv. 15-16), Moses’ response seems more insistent, as though he had not been satisfied before.  Without the evidence of continued presence, Israel will appear to be abandoned.  Essentially, Moses wants more from God than what he has gotten.  He wants absolute and unequivocal assurance that God is there.  I suppose we all want that on some level.

YHWH responds again and seems to give over to Moses all that has been asked.  He assures Moses that he has “found favor”.  YHWH is fully committed to Moses and the future of Israel.  The old promise is still intact, even after the calf episode!  The amazing response of God is at the heart of faith.  Because God continues in fidelity, Israel must continue in obedience.  The final verses depict that Moses does get to see God—but not God’s face.  The seeing is “dimly”; the knowing is “in part”, but it is enough.

Now remember in last week’s passage, we are told that God “changed his mind” in response to Moses’ insistent pleading.  Moses tries his hand at the same thing this time, probably pushing his luck a bit.  But God does not fully fill the request of Moses’ to see God.  Instead, Moses is allowed to see only the back of God because seeing God would mean the end of one’s life.  The point is that God does choose to abide with humanity and to be in relationship with humanity.  But God is still God.  God is not our buddy.  God is not our chum.  God is God.  We are not meant to fully understand God.  We are not meant to see all that there is to God.  Perhaps we can only handle the backside of God’s glory.  The rest is, I guess, left up to faith.  But what we come to know of God’s presence is enough.  But, then again, maybe it’s meant to NOT be enough.  Maybe that’s why we keep longing and searching for oneness with God.  And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  After all, what good, really, is a God that we’ve completely figured out?  What faith do we need for that?

And God is described here as one who will be made known not by “seeing” (the usual revelation, I suppose) but in proclamation, in the proclaiming of God’s name.  Hearing the Word of God, then, IS the revelation.  So, what does that say about how real we are?  God is not dependent upon what God looks like.  God’s Presence is made known by hearing the Word of God; hence the language of God—Word, speaking Creation into being, and proclaiming truth and justice.  How comfortable are we, then, with the true revelation of God?  Or are we staring blindly into the abyss as God backside stares back at us?  True meaning comes from hearing and listening and witnessing to the Good News and then being quiet enough to hear the Word again.


a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      In what ways do we demand to see or know of God’s presence?
c.       What does that say about our faith?
d.      Is the God’s Presence that we know enough?  Is it meant to be enough?

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

The two letters to the church at Thessalonica are powerful witnesses to the early church’s struggles with the sufferings of its members.  The letters make it clear that separation from leaders, alienation from former friends and family, and ongoing threats of persecution and even death were present in the early church.  Paul’s powerful thanksgiving in the first half of this reading speaks appreciatively to God about a richness and a productiveness in the lives of the Thessalonian believers.  Paul’s goal for these believers was not the “good life” (i.e. material goods), but the “life that is good” (providing meaning).  He cites three evidences of “the life that is good”:  Responding positively to the loving initiative of God, welcoming and accepting caring leaders who cared about them, and tranformation in the lives of the believers.

As he continues, Paul begins to describe events in the more distant past.  It is a way of remembering how the community came to be—receiving the “word” (of God) in spite of persecution.  A meaningful life, for Paul, requires reliable resources, things that can hold and remain through time and testing.  It means that even when things seem to be falling apart, God’s promises still provide us with a center that holds.

But hearing the Word of God is not an individual thing.  It is in community that that Word is affirmed, interpreted, and lived out together.  Otherwise, even the words themselves can become idols.  Living them out in community makes them real, gives them meaning.  But it is a costly meaning.  Being a Christian is not meant to be easy.  This early church had indeed fully committed themselves to this community and to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  They were open and available to wherever the Spirit would take them.

You’ll notice at the end of the passage that there is no promise of salvation in some far off future life.  Rather, Paul tells this struggling community of believers that Jesus “rescues” them.  The verb is present tense.  In other words, just by BEING the community of faith, just by BEING the Body of Christ, just by BEING who they are called to be, the Word of God, the very Presence of God, becomes real.  Jesus rescues. Jesus saves. Jesus delivers.  Jesus redeems.  So what are you waiting for?

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      How are Paul’s words relevant today?
c.       What does this say about the faith community and what, as a community, it is called to be?
d.      What is different about recognizing Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ redemption as a present 
reality?  What meaning does that hold?
e.       What sort of letter write to us? To our church? To our society?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 22: 15-22

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Continuing with the questions and discussion having to do with Jesus’ authority, those against Jesus once again tried to trap him.  After all, if Jesus chose God, defying Caesar, he might be arrested.  But if he chose Caesar, he was not who he claimed to be.  But in the same breath in which he declares that paying taxes to support secular and pagan governments is not against the will of God, Jesus goes beyond their original question, declaring that what is God’s must be given to God.  The Kingdom of God embraces all of life.  You cannot pit the “secular” against the “sacred”.

While the writer of Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and a higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  The writer leaves it to the readers to figure out what that we means.  Are we called to be part of this world or the realm of God?  (The answer is YES)

Governments are necessary.  Taxes are necessary.  But the point is that Jesus does not set the two on the same level.  God always has priority. Dorothy Day said this: “If we were to render unto God all things which are God’s, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” As hard as we try, Scripture and God’s Kingdom does not acknowledge a “two kingdom” view.  There is no “earthly and heavenly”, no “secular and sacred”, no “body and soul”.  God is here; God is now.   So if everything belongs to God, then what belongs to Caesar?  That would be the point.  But this is not a treatise trying to get us to ignore government or taxes either.  As we said, they’re necessary.  We humans cannot really function without them.  The question is to whom do we belong?  Whose are we?  Yes, THAT is what you give to God.  Yourself…(And that includes treating each other the way God calls us to treat each other which, I’m afraid, includes paying your taxes.  I’m sure we are called to live responsibly and compassionately in both perceived realms of the world.)

It’s not just a matter of prioritizing; it’s a matter of BEING the Body of Christ.  It doesn’t mean “giving” to God what is God’s.  It means letting go of what is not ours.  It means letting go of the success and the accumulation of wealth for which we have worked so hard.  It means allowing God to be God and becoming the very image in which we were created.  It’s hard; it’s tiring; at times it may even be somewhat dangerous.  In fact, it’s probably easier to pay taxes.  I think Jesus probably knew that.  So, with a sort of nonchalant shrug, he left it up to us to figure it out.  God doesn’t want our tax dollars. God could care less. God wants us–absolute obedience, total commitment, a complete denouncement of all other loyalties.  It means that all these idols surrounding us must be broken, all these distractions must be pushed away.  It means that we let God be God and, even harder, we let ourselves become the image of the one true God.

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      What does that say about our political life and our faith?
c.       How does this change our view of the world?
d.      How does this change our view of our lives?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)
Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world.  But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two.  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
In order to be truthful, We must do more than speak the truth.  We must also hear truth.  We must also receive truth.  We must also act upon truth.  We must also search for truth–the difficult truth, within us and around us.  We must devote ourselves to truth.  Otherwise we are dishonest and our lives are mistaken.  God grant us the strength and the courage to be truthful.  Amen  (Michael Leunig)