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)

Easter 5C: Where I Am Going

15-01-18-CFIRST LESSON:  Acts 11: 1-18

To read the Acts passage

This story is actually told in Chapter 10 and then again in Chapter 11 of the Book of Acts.  The issue that was rather hotly debated was whether the newfound faith of these early Christians was intended only for Jews or whether it was to include Gentiles (while allowing them to remain Gentiles).  In other words, was circumcision so important as to keep people out of the community of faith?  The biggest concern was eating and sharing bread and food with these “unclean” believers.  And there was no lack of voicing of people’s opinions about this matter.  Conflict and confrontation was open and loud, rather than being swept under the carpet the way we often do today.  Perhaps it is a reminder that voicing conflict can indeed be transformational for a community.

So Peter has heard this confrontation and conflict and responds to it.  His response is to tell a story (Gee…wonder where he learned that!).  He retells the story of what happened to him in Chapter 10.  He tells the story of his vision and the sheet with all of the creatures and the reminder that nothing of God is profane (and that everything is in effect “of God”.)  He did not charge in angrily shouting theological platitudes.  He just told them a story.  As Stephen D. Jones says in Feasting on the Word (Page 453), “a story invites people across the separating chasm, making everyone the winner.  Jesus knew this as he changed so many hardened hearts with parables.  His parables often left people with questions for them to explore, rather than theological issues for them to debate.”

Peter was not trying to go outside the boundaries.  He just recognized that God had somehow shown him a different way of looking at something.  The point for Peter is that God had given those Gentiles the same gifts of the Spirit received by the apostles and the more orthodox believers.  That is a turning point for the whole Book of Acts and, for that matter, the whole Christian message.  Here, Peter was in no way demeaning Jewish belief; he was just saying that God’s vision was a larger one.  Rather than characterizing this Way of Jesus as an alternative boundary, it becomes an alternative vision, a different way of viewing all of Creation.

It is a good reminder that theological reflection is not a list of rules; it is a way of living, a way of understanding how God is at work in our lives as well as the lives of those around us.  It is also a good indicator that bringing people of a different culture or a different lifestyle or a different focus into a faith community requires us to rethink and re-reflect theologically on the statements of that faith.  It is in that way that our faith community grows and truly transforms the world.  It is not a matter of “accommodating” or “tolerating” or even compromising; it’s a matter, rather, of continuing to listen to God and how God is working in the world.  According to Peter, the things in the faith that do not change are speaking the name of Jesus, bearing witness to the resurrection, and acknowledging the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps everything else is open for discussion…


If Golgotha was the day of reckoning for our salvation, then the day that Peter dreamed of innumerable unclean creatures made clean in God’s estimation was the day salvation actually came to our house, to you and to me. Before that moment, Christianity was not available to those who were not born and ritually inducted into Judaism. But ever since the early church was opened to Gentiles, Christians have struggled to be as open in other times and places, and as willing to embrace those we thought were unclean but whom God has declared clean.

Christians have always struggled with two images that describe the church: is the church the Virgin Mother, pure, unsullied and unstained? Or is she an Earth Mother gathering her wayward children to her skirts? In the church of the Virgin, no eye is pure enough to see God, no tongue clean enough to speak God’s name. This church is vigilant in covering her children’s ears and tries to keep them from seeing or touching the world’s impurity. Its clergy are a model to the flock in morality, goodness and self-control. In the church of the Earth Mother, however, the dirty hands and unwashed faces of her children are a delight. “I am come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you might have it abundantly.” This church’s children gather to her like Ma Kettle’s kids come in from the barnyard, frogs in their pockets and grass stains on their jeans. What they lack in cleanliness they more than make up in joy. Her clergy are earthen vessels.

Of course all churches are a mixture of these symbolic figures. Christians are neither all heaven nor all earth, but a wondrous mixture of dust and glory, which is why churches are hospitals for the soul—less like sterile operating rooms scrubbed and sanitized for elective surgery and more like MASH units where mangled bodies of injured humans are rolled in for emergency treatment.

The situation of the 21st-century church is not that different from that of the first-century church in Jerusalem. Today we struggle to maintain a holy community in the church where the glory of God can shine brightly in the lives of God’s humble servants. But we do so realizing that we are only human, and that strive as we may, we are not all holy.

In the first century the dividing line between exclusionary holiness and holy hospitality was circumcision, dietary laws and ritual observance. Today it is homosexuality, gay marriage, women’s ordination and the right of property ownership. Today’s fixations are not the issues that divided Christians at Chalcedon or Nicea or even Jerusalem, but they are, nonetheless, issues on which we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

It would have been so much easier if the Spirit had left well enough alone and not blown where it did, showing Peter the wider dimensions of a gospel meant for all people, both clean and unclean. But the Spirit is a spirit of love and cannot resist drawing disparate elements together; it has a broader vision of the future and a greater hope for our humanity than we have ever imagined, a vision articulated by the 148th Psalm, which sings of a time when all the earth and all created things shall praise the Lord. Angels praise God, sun and moon, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, kings and peoples . . . all of us praise the Lord. Salvation, occurring in all times and places through the Holy Spirit’s direction, is today offered to one and to all. (From “Dreaming in Joppa”, by Jon M. Walton, in The Christian Century, April 17, 2007, available at, accessed 28 April 2010.


For us, who is it that we deem “impure” (either intentionally or without even thinking), that we view as unworthy of church membership or church outreach or just love and acceptance in general? What boundaries have we improperly drawn through this glorious vision that God holds for us?


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does that truly mean that the Gospel is available to everyone?

3)      What would it mean for us to live as if theological reflection were a way of living, rather than a way of rule-following?  What would that mean for our faith?




NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 21: 1-6

To read the Revelation passage

We are probably accustomed to hearing this passage read at funerals.  And yet, this vision reveals what God has in mind for all of life—even now.  This is the New Jerusalem that God is bringing into being—not after we are gone but now, as we speak.  And the reason we as Christians know these things is through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  This is the way that the vision for all has been revealed to us as Christians.  Eugene Peterson writes, “The Biblical story began, quite logically, with a beginning.  Now it draws to an end, not quite so logically, also with a beginning.  The sin-ruined Creation of Genesis is restored in the sacrifice-renewed creation of Revelation.  The product of these beginning and ending acts of creation is the same:  “the heavens and earth” in Genesis, and “a new heaven and new earth” in Revelation.”  (From Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 169)

For many people and indeed many Christians, the hope lies in heaven only.  This is a reminder that hope is here and now—if we will only imagine it and claim it.  It speaks to the broadness of Creation and perhaps reminds us that we should care for THIS Creation rather than banking on the possibility that we’re going to leave it all behind anyway!  But remember—God is here, making the Divine Home among us, among the “unclean” to go back to the Acts passage.  Wasn’t that what the whole Emmanuel, God-with-us, was about?  Wasn’t that why Christ came as God incarnate?  The hope expressed in Revelation is the one that makes all things new.  Isn’t that remarkable?  It is not about personal conversion; it is about world order.  It is about staking one’s very life not on the way things are now but on the way things could and will be, the way God envisions Creation.

This passage is a promise to us.  Perhaps it is a call for patience; perhaps it is a call to not be so hard on ourselves (in spite of St. Augustine’s purporting that we are hopeless and helpless sinful creatures!); perhaps it is simply a call to imagine—to imagine what God can do in our lives and be open to what that looks like, to be open to newness, to be open to the place between endings and beginnings.

This is not a dream for a different place, for a different city.  It is the dream for THIS one, the place where we are living now.  And it’s not just putting us back in that perfect utopian garden in which we started.  After all, we have grown WAY beyond that, fully embracing that whole free will thing and all.  I don’t think that’s what God has in mind.  I think the Garden was a beginning.  Maybe God even MEANT us to break those boundaries.  Maybe that was the whole idea, the place that we learned that boundaries were meant to be explored and pushed and, yes, even blown wide open so that the Spirit of God could blow through unhindered and recreate all that is.


While our passage today starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. “While the story of the Bible begins with a garden, it ends in a city,” writes Michael Pasquarello III (Feasting on the Word). And Dana Ferguson develops this further: “Why a city? Because cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and confusing journey. It is where God lives” (Feasting on the Word). What an intriguing way to spur our religious imaginations about our own cities and communities (no matter how large or small), as places “where God lives.” Imagine what it might look like for our cities to be places where we live not in competition and anxiety but in graceful community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, separation, loneliness, and exile. (From a reflection by Rev. Kate Huey, available at, accessed 28 April 2010)



1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does that “newness” look like for you?

3)      What does it mean for you to look upon this passage as a promise for THIS place, rather than a new place?

4)      What gets in the way of our own “imaginings”?

5)      What does it mean for us to participate in God’s vision for Creation?



GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

To read the Gospel passage

This Gospel passage is also read for Maundy Thursday.  But on this fifth Sunday of Easter, we are asked to go back to before the crucifixion.  The Gospel writer uses the word “now”, implying that all that has happened up to this point is coming to fulfillment.  It is Jesus’ way of preparing the disciples for his impending death, for the time when they will feel deserted and alone.  He urges them to have patience and to lean on each other, to care for one another and forgive one another.  It is a plea for them to abide in the life that he has shown them.  Rather than allowing their fears and their insecurities to pull them apart, Jesus is laying out a life that will bring them together.

This was a completely different way of looking at things, a completely different concept of what “glory” is.  This glory is the one that feeds that self-giving love that is contained in the “new commandment”.  Glory comes not from being placed above but by allowing Christ’s love to take root deep within oneself.  In other words, we find life and love in community, in the community of Christ.  Without that relationship, everything else falls apart.  No doctrine or theology can replace it.

Joan Chittister refers to community as a “social sacrament”, a sacred act far beyond connections or acquaintances.  Perhaps Jesus saw it the same way.  Once again, the spiritual walk is much, much more than rules or doctrines.  It is about seeing everything and everyone around you as part of God’s Creation.  And, interestingly enough, if you back up to the verses prior to this passage, we read of Judas’ impending betrayal of Jesus.  And then this.  Yes, even Judas, is part of that love, part of that Creation.

Now is the time.  It is time for Jesus to go.  But it is not the end.  It is time for those who love him and follow him to step into place, to experience what it is like to bask and embrace in the holy and the sacred.  Love one another…for that is the way that you will experience the holy and the sacred.  But this is not some sort of passive, saccharine-type love.  This was active.  This was putting oneself aside for another, putting one’s life down for another.  This, again, was breaking all those boundaries open in the name of love.  For it is in each other’s eyes and each other’s lives that you will experience God as Christ said that you could experience God.  And THAT is what glorifies Christ—your being there, your living in that sacredness, your embracing and being holiness.  It is a love that surrenders to God and God’s vision for us.  It is a love that imagines what God can do.  So, love one another…rest deep in God’s love.  That’s what it is about.  “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  You cannot come because there is much work to be done here.  You have to stay and be Christ in the world.  You have to stay and blow all those boundaries wide open.  You have to stay and love one another.  That is the way that we are called to be.

The following chapter goes on with Jesus’ words.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself.”  Jesus’s absence breaks open a new boundary.  Jesus’ Presence, always and forever here, is in our Presence, in our love, in our willingness to follow, to choose that new vision that God holds.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “new commandment” mean for you?

3)      In what ways does the Christian community feed your own faith journey?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Turn your face to the light and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori Proverb)


Faith is being grasped by the power of love…it is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so [today] we might become more like him.  (William Sloane Coffin)


People do not enter our lives to be coerced or manipulated, but to enrich us by their differences, and to be graciously received in the name of Christ.  (Elizabeth Canham)




We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


All praise to the [Creator], from whom all things come, and all praise to Christ Jesus, God’s only Son, and all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

(Peter Scholtes, 1966)