Proper 13C: An Ever-Changing, Gracious God

An Ever-Changing God.jpgFIRST LESSON:  Hosea 11:1-11

Read the Old Testament passage

This week’s Lectionary passage is similar to last week’s in that it offers a depiction of the gracious, merciful, and always-loving character of God.  But here the metaphor changes from marriage to parenting.  It alludes to the exodus, in which Israel is delivered from oppression and captivity by Egypt in an act of love and the covenant with God is established.  But Israel has continually proven to be a wayward child.  Essentially, Israel fails to know the importance of knowing God.

The passage emphasizes the parent-child relationship and a portrayal of God as a nurturing (or nursing) mother.  We then read of the articulation of the well-deserved punishment of a disobedient child and a return to oppression and captivity (probably in the face of the Assyrian invasion in 733 BCE).  But then the tone changes and it seems that the punishment will either cease or never happen at all.  The reason has nothing to do with any change in the people’s heart and mind but rather the heart and mind of God.  God agonizes over the future of the people that God loves do deeply.

According to the Law of Torah, rebellious sons are to be stoned to death.  So, in that mode, Israel deserves destruction but apparently God cannot bring the Divine Self to do that.  God is willing even to break the Laws of Torah to save the life of the beloved children of God.  God’s compassion prevails over further destruction, demonstrating forgiveness rather than punishment.  This grace calls for a fundamental change in the understanding of holiness.  No longer is holiness separation from the sinner.  God is the Holy One in your midst, bearing the burden of the people’s sin.  Holiness is the turning of God, rather than repentance of the sinner.  It is God who repents.  Such extraordinary compassion, such suffering-with, such amazing grace is what makes life and hope possible.

The mention of Egypt and Assyria suggests that Israel’s infidelity had somewhat “punishing” circumstances.  Infidelity almost always does.  But that is not the determining factor in Israel’s future.  God’s grace intervenes and overwhelms and is beyond anything that we can do.  God’s grace overcomes any dark side of God that we can imagine.

This is a strong depiction of the feminine side of God and the use of feminine imagery for the Creator.  It is a depiction of a broken-hearted God, who wants his or her children to succeed and be near so badly, that they become more important than any rules or laws that may have been laid down.  It is a God who has loved and nurtured and wanted the very best for the children of God but who is continually rejected by those same children.  And yet, God will do anything.  Maybe the depth of God’s compassion is the reason that we see God’s moods run such a range.  God wants the best, envisions the best, and offers the best for these children.  But if that doesn’t work, God will change.

It is a depiction of a God who lays everything aside and is willing to actually change to fit the needs of the child.  I think it defies the image of an “unchanging” God.  God is always moving and changing so that we can find our way.  Wrath and revenge are not part of who God is and so can never be ours.  In order that we might become the image of God, we must change too.  Maybe that change in and of itself IS a part of that image of God to which we are all called to be.

I actually think that I like this image better.  After all, do you want a God who stands in ready defiance until you give in and come to where God is standing?  Or do you like the image of this God who loves you so much that She would weave the world around the life that has already been envisioned for you, a God who loves you so much that the rules and the traditions and the way things “should be” can easily go by the wayside if they are better for you, a God who loves you so much that he or she would move or change or even die if it is what you need for your real life, a God who loves you so much that the unchangeable, omnipotent, immovable Divine would actually come to you?


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does this image of God as mother and nurturer mean for you?

3)      What does this image of God as “broken-hearted” mean for you?

4)      What does it mean to dispel the thinking of the “unchanging God”?

5)      What does it mean, then, to become the image of God in which you were made?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Colossians 3: 1-11

Read the Epistle passage

In this week’s reading, the writer strongly exhorts the Colossian believers to live in newness.  It is, once again, a call to a change in perspective.  The Colossians were being pulled away from the focus of Christ by growing religious syncretism that espoused faith as of our doing rather than Christ.  More than likely, it was some form of pagan Gnosticism, with a totally removed God and some types of lesser gods in the world.  They were also continually dealing with the pervasive legalism of the faith.

So the writer reminds the readers that they have been raised with Christ, the power and the wisdom of God, the one who became righteousness, sanctification and redemption, the cornerstone of our faith the Bible calls it, and the first fruits from the dead. We have been raised with Christ in the waters of our baptism. That becomes very clear.

God comes to us to help us do just that.  No longer a removed and inaccessible deity, God comes to us in the Water and the Word and offers life and renewal.  The “hiddenness” of God is not inaccessibility, but mystery.  We have to shed what we have created to enter the mystery that is created by God.  So, we are reminded to “put to death in you whatever is earthly”.  It is not a literal exhortation, but a spiritual one.  The call is to let go of those things that get in the way of our relationship with God, that claim to give our life meaning and instead strip us from the meaning and identity that is given us in Christ.

The truth is, the people of Colossae were wrestling with the same questions and problems that we do.  Who is Christ?  What are we called to do?  How can we fit that into our lives on this earth and in this society?  The writer of the letter to the Colossian believers is clear that our focus is one-fold.  We cannot mix and match as it is convenient or comfortable.  It is a hard message.  It is hard to imagine letting ALL the old go and taking on ALL the new (rather than picking and choosing what to keep from Column A and what to keep from Column B).  It is hard to imagine letting go of those comfortable idols to which we hold.  No longer can we live being politically correct or socially acceptable or morally expedient.  Our purpose and focus is the way of Christ.  It’s pretty extreme.  We’re called to die to self and live in Christ.  You can’t have it both ways.  You have to let go of the old to let the new be.

Ahhh…God bless mulch piles.  For any of you gardeners out there, you know the magic of a mulch pile:  a place where smelly fish carcasses and eggshells transform into rich, dark dirt, dirt that gives life to things like aromatic lavender and brilliantly colored daylilies…Who knew the Apostle Paul was a gardener?  “Get rid of all such things–anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth (which is, of course, the “trash”) and cloth yourself in something new.”  Two thousand years later, Paul reaches out and asks us all: 

  • What trash–what anger, fear, shame, or jealousy–do you need to throw on the mulch pile? 
  • And what beautiful new things will you grow in its place?


It’s a very simple concept and because of that, I think the mulch pile metaphor makes a lot of sense…Mary Oliver, wrote:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  If you care about this “wild and precious life,” then you have to ask yourself:  What trash do I need to throw on the mulch pile and what beautiful things will I grow in its place?  Don’t waste this life on trash that brings you down and stinks up your house.  As Paul says, get rid of these things.  Take out the trash, throw it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something healing and wonderful and new. (From “The Mulch Pie”, a sermon by Rev. Susan Sparks, August 14, 2011, available at, accessed 25 July, 2013)


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How does this message speak to us today?

3)      What are the “idols” and vices that get in the way of your own way of following Christ?

4)      What is the hardest part of accepting this thought of dying to self?



GOSPEL: Luke 12:13-21

Read the Gospel passage

This passage is typically Lukan, dealing with justice and egalitarianism as only this Gospel writer could master.  It begins with an assumption of the pervading culture of the time.  The question regarding inheritance was well-known in the Hebrew tradition and it was not improper for a rabbi to render an opinion on the issue.  Presumably, the person making the request is a younger brother.  In Hebrew society of that time, the oldest brother would inherit the lion’s share of his father’s estate.  This younger brother seems to assume that Jesus would decide in his favor.  Perhaps the man has been listening to Jesus’ egalitarian sermons and supposes that family inheritances should be treated in a similarly egalitarian way.  Jesus responds by saying that he is not in a position to render a judgment.  Then, he issues an exhortation on the subject of greed and the meaning of abundance and begins to tell the familiar parable.

Jesus was telling this story, keep in mind, in a world where 90% of the people lived at the level of bare subsistence.  A big landowner with big barns holding “much goods” is not likely to generate much sympathy in a world where many people were losing what little land they had and many others were driven into destitution and homelessness.  The rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself.  He makes no consideration for his neighbors, nearly all of whom are peasants.  Moreover, in disregarding his neighbors, he also disregards God.

And then, almost comically, he says, “I will say to my soul, “Soul”.”  In our culture today, the expression “I will say to myself, Self”–which is the same thing–is something of a cross between a lame joke and a lame cliche.  The man is not only talking to himself, he’s actually addressing himself, as if he were outside his own body.  He’s not only disconnected from his neighbors, he’s also detached from his own self!  And so God calls him a fool, a sort of nitwit.  After all, he is losing his life in just a few hours.  What good, really, is everything that he has amassed going to do him?  It is interesting that this is the only New Testament parable in which God is an actor.  Perhaps God intervenes because the man has shut everyone else out of his life.

This is hard for us, the ones who live in one of the richest nations in the world even in a down economy.  So much of our lives is about amassing, either for prosperity or safety or both.  We build barn after barn, or closet after closet, or storage facility after storage facility.  How do we make sure that we keep it all in perspective?  Why do we need so much stuff?  What does it say about us?

And yet, I don’t think this was Jesus’ way of depicting money as evil or wealth as bad.  The parable is a reminder to keep it all in perspective, to not get pulled into putting our trust in something other than God.  Like today’s reading from Colossians says, we need to be aware of those things that we make into idols, those things that without us even realizing it sometimes, seep into that holy space between us and God.  When we look to the wealth we have or the wealth we desire for our salvation or our redemption or our life, we have missed the mark.  When we think that we cannot live without it, when we think our lives will be better “when” we have something, and when we find ourselves holding on to more than we really need in spite of the need around us, we have probably lost perspective.  Greed is sneaky.  Stuff is sneaky.  Sometimes we don’t even realize what’s happened.  In other words, we may be the rich fool, building more and more barns to house things that we don’t even need.

You surround yourself with the things that define you.   And hopefully, that’s more than a bunch of stuff.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God calls us to live some sort of stoic life that is totally devoid of things that we enjoy.   The created world holds too much beauty for that.   William Morris once advised to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  It is a way of putting it all in perspective.  It is a way of receiving and yet still appreciating everything that God gives us.  Perhaps we are all called to have a conversation with ourselves. But rather than just telling our souls the way we have justified what we do in our lives, we also need to listen to our deepest yearnings.  We need to listen to that thing that is at the very core of our being, that is the very essence of who God created us to be, for it is guiding us to use those gifts from God in the ways that we are called to use them.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How uncomfortable does this passage make you?  Why?

3)      In what ways are our “things” idols that get in the way of our relationship with God?

4)      What does it mean to keep it all in perspective?

5)      What does it mean to be “rich toward God”, as the passage says?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

When we are no longer able to change situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  (Victor Frankl)

We would rather be ruined than changed; We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die. (W. H. Auden)

Gratitude is the intention to count your blessing every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances.  (Timothy Miller)




Jesu, thy boundless love to me no thought can reach, no tongue declare; O knit my thankful heart to thee and reign without a rival there.  Thine wholly, thine alone, I am; be thou alone my constant flame.  O grant that nothing in my soul may dwell, but thy pure love alone!  O may thy love possess me whole, my joy, my treasure, and my crown.  Strange flames far from my soul remove, my every act, word, thought, be love.  Amen. (Paul Gerhardt, trans. by John Wesley, The United Methodist Hymnal,  183)

Proper 12B: How Much Abundance is Enough?

multiplication of loavesOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 11: 1-15

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

“In the spring of the year…the time when kings go out to battle.” The stage is set. It is spring and battles rage. Perhaps this story begins with that seemingly poetic phrase as it is trying to set the context for us. You know…”all is fair in love and war”, right? Really? Is that our excuse? Let’s get real…this is the grand poetic prelude to one of the biggest out and out failures by anyone in the Bible. Just to set the record straight: I do not think that this story can simply be dismissed with one of those “God can even use characters like this” comment. This is a clear exploitation and manipulation of power—even God-given power. Being “God blessed”, whatever you think that might be does not exempt one from sin or the consequences of that sin.

This story depicts a shift from the public domain to the personal, from power to vulnerability, from blessing to curse. There are four main episodes of this story: First, David is at home while his armies rage and lay siege to Rabbah. He sees a beautiful women bathing and exercises his power as king to take her. She becomes pregnant. So, David brings Bathsheba’s husband Urriah home from the front to sleep with his wife to cover up the pregnancy. But Urriah is too dedicated to his comrades in battle. And, finally, David arranges with Joab to see that Urriah dies in battle. But other innocent lives are lost in this process.

It’s actually pretty remarkable that this story was preserved and that it became part of the Hebrew writings and, thus, our Christian canon. After all, it doesn’t exactly show the fair King David in the best light. So, often this story has been “explained away” by depicting Bathsheeba as a beguiling seductress, which would then transform David into some sort of victim. Many take it as a warning against sexual temptations. Oh come now! Then, there are also those that will explain this away as the work of God to rectify the marriage of Urriah, a Hittite, to Bathsheeba, an Israelite, which was forbidden. There is even a story of Satan appearing as a bird and when David shot an arrow at it, the screen toppled, revealing Bathsheeba to David. But, sadly and truthfully, this is probably the story of a hero gone bad. David failed; David sinned; and then David did the unthinkable to try to hide what he had done. From whom did it need hidden? Those whom he ruled? God? Perhaps David himself? So what are we supposed to get out of it?

Perhaps we are supposed to look at ourselves and our own reactions. In essence, David becomes sort of a comic character in this story. The great military strategist is now put in a position of petty scheming and secret plotting to cover up his own lack of control. God’s response actually does not come until next week’s reading. A hint: Even David’s monumental breakdown is not enough to negate what God is doing.

It also should be noted that while David was doing all this, his army was fighting for their lives and taking the lives of innocent others. (After all, it was spring. Why wasn’t David with them?) And then when David needed Uriah’s death, he framed it in a military way, using his role as “Commander in Chief”, if you will, to cover up his own wrongdoing. David as king was meant to show and live out the righteousness of that role. But this is a story about the abuse of power and privilege and the victimization of others. The theology of failure is quite explicit. What does failure mean to God? What does the failure of our leaders mean to us? What does our own failure mean for us and for our faith?

The truth is, while all the violence was going on around him, David was enacting his own war, his own set of violent actions—violent sexuality, violent cover-up, violent murder. Maybe the most profound of all is the violent act of David’s own self-deception which, in all honesty, is also an attempt to deceive God. And, for us, rather than just slapping the hand of the perpetrator (“BAD DAVID!”), maybe in some odd sort of way, we are supposed to take a look at our own deceptions, at our own violent actions that are not in harmony with the Creation that God has envisioned. After all, we try, but, still, “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…, where are we?


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about how we react to all of the issues in this passage?
  3. What does this say about sin?
  4. What does this say about God?
  5. What does failure mean to God and to us?
  6. What message does this passage hold for us today?


NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 3: 14-21

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

This passage contains a beautiful prayer that builds to the eternal proclamation of God. At the beginning, it proclaims God as “father”. This does not imply a “parental” or fathering relationship but, rather, one of power. Essentially, it is saying that God is God and there are no others. The writer then speaks of God’s Spirit, not as an “other-worldly” thing, but as part of our inner self that governs all that we are. This is continued with the mention of the Risen Christ, implying God’s ever-abiding Presence with us.

And, so, who we are, the very foundations of our lives are rooted in who God is. Knowing God, though, has nothing to do with knowledge of God, but, rather, in being so attuned with the God here and the God-piece in us that we begin to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of God. God does not desire our worship or our glory; God desires to be known by us. God desires that we know and enter the immeasurable power that is God.

In a sermon on this passage, Edward Markquart relates the story of Ollie the Oyster with these words:

It’s time for a story, the story about Ollie the Oyster. It is an old story that is like a weathervane for me on the top of a house in rural North Dakota. This old weathervane points in the right direction, and this story about Ollie the Oyster has always pointed me in the right direction. Ollie the Oyster was swimming along one day in the ocean and he was having a wonderful time, with the sun out and weather warm. He was cruising along at the bottom of the ocean happily and joyfully when suddenly, a piece of sand, a piece of ocean grit, got into his skin. Ohhh, what pain. That piece of sand hurt so much. Ollie didn’t necessarily do anything wrong to get that sand in his life; it just happened. But ohhh, how it hurt! And so Ollie the Oyster cried. How he cried! He cried and cried and cried, tears and tears and tears, so much so that the ocean slowly rose over the days, weeks and months and years. After he had cried for two or three years, Ollie stopped and…and…the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? So Ollie the Oyster started to cuss. He used every cuss word that he learned in grade school and junior high school. He cussed and cussed and cussed, so much so that a plume of blue smoke came up from the ocean where he lived. When Ollie the Oyster was finished cussing, he stopped….and…and…the sand was still there in his side, causing him immense pain. So Ollie the Oyster started to pretend. He would pretend that the piece of sand was not in his side. He pretended and pretended and pretended. He repressed and repressed and repressed. When after all those months and years of repression had passed, he woke up to reality enough to realize the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? And slowly, ever so slowly, it began to dawn on Ollie the Oyster. Slowly, o so slowly, he remembered that he had a special power within, and so he grunted and groaned and groveled and slowly an excretion of gooey oil came out and surrounded the piece of sand, insulating the sand and the pain went away. What a miracle! The pain was gone. And ever so slowly, over time, that gooey substance began to harden around the grain of sand, and in time, it became a pearl. Yes, a pearl, for that is the way that pearls are made. (Edward Markquart, “The Power of God Living Within Us”, available at, accessed 23 July, 2012)

The prayer itself has been handed down to us, handed through thousands of generations, because we need to hear it. Knowing God is not private work. It is part of the community in which we live and work and have our being. In a commentary on this passage, Sally A. Brown says that “we are blessed with each other and stuck with each other.” (available at In other words, this community is God’s dwelling place. God is already here. Love and grace and God’s power comes before. The One to whom we bow has been here for all these countless generations. All we have to do is know the God who is already known and enter the mystery that abounds. It is the love and grace that fills us. We were never promised easy; we were promised life. We just have to open ourselves to what is already there and be transformed in the process.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “knowing God” mean to you?
  3. What is that inner power, that “God-piece” that is in you? What does that mean?


GOSPEL: John 6: 1-21

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This is one of the most well-known passages. Its popularity was also evident in the first century, because it is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. There are subtle differences. Here, the writer depicts the group of people as a “crowd”. According to the Gospel known as Mark, it is a “throng”. (I don’t like crowds myself, but, oh, to be part of a throng!) But Luke and Matthew state that it was 5,000 strong (not counting women and children, of course!) So we end up looking at this as some sort of extraordinary miracle where Jesus was able to multiply the food that the little boy had.

But notice, first of all, that it never says that that was the ONLY food. Perhaps there were some people holding back their food, tucking it away so that it would not be discovered and so they would be expected to share. Perhaps the miracle lies in the little boy. He was first, freely and openly offering everything that he had to Jesus. The lunch of barley loaves and fish would have been a basic lunch of the poor. Barley is a very inexpensive grain and fish were plentiful here on the Lake (remember, it’s really a lake, rather than a sea!) of Galilee. And yet, this unnoticed and uncounted person of poverty offered everything that he had. Maybe the miracle was that he sparked others to come forward and offer what they had. Maybe the miracle was that there was enough after all.

I, personally, would like to be like that little boy. I would like to learn how to offer what I have and not feel compelled to hold back for fear of running out. And also notice, that Jesus did not just somehow provide exactly what was needed. This is not the story of a magic trick. There were leftovers. And nothing was wasted. The sandwiches and leftover fish were not left on the grassy mountainside to rot and be picked apart by animals. They were carefully gathered and saved to be used—maybe for the next picnic, maybe for those in the village that did not have enough, or maybe it was given out as holy doggie bags to remind us what can happen when we open what we have and who we are to others!

This is a story about abundance. But we Westerners struggle with scarcity, with worrying that there won’t be enough, with knowing that we have to take care of ourselves first before we take care of others, worrying that there is some storm right around the bend for which we need to be prepared. Why do we struggle like that? Well, the story takes care of that too. The passage tells us that the disciples started across the lake in the darkness. And, just as they had feared, a storm did surface—blowing winds, waves crashing into the tiny boat, drenching them through their slickers. But there, there is Jesus. Do not be afraid…Do not be afraid. Interestingly enough, this account never says that the waves were calmed. It says, rather, that Jesus calmed the disciples. Isn’t that what faith is about? Perhaps abundance has nothing to do with what we have or with the world around us. Perhaps it’s the perspective that comes when you know that God is present your life. Maybe that little boy got that. Maybe faith is about realizing that there are always fragments around us, there is always importance in what has been tossed aside.

In one of his sermons, Thomas Long tells the story of a student of his that went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood.  As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own.  At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a pizza to be delivered to their home when they got there.  As they headed for the phone, though, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change.  So the father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins, “Here,” he said to the homeless man.  “Take what you need.”  The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.

Well, it only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone.  “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call.  Can you spare some change?”  The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins.  “Here,” he said.  “Take what you need.” (Thomas Long, “Surprise Party”, available at, accessed 21 July, 2009.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What makes us hold back from the abundance that God offers?
  3. What stands in the way of us being like that little boy?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

There’s a crack. There’s a crack in everything. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is from God. (Meister Eckhart, c. 1260-c. 1327)


If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. (Annie Dillard)




My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask [God] to strengthen you by [the] Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! [God] does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, [with a ] Spirit deeply and gently within us.

Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh yes! Amen.

Ephesians 3: 14-21, in The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson