Proper 14C: One Direction

Lighted Path Image.jpgFIRST LESSON:  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Read the Passage from Isaiah

Chapter 1 of the book we know of as Isaiah is made up of a series of small oracles, possibly coming from the prophet we have come to know as Isaiah, who prophesied in the last third of the 8th century BC in and around Jerusalem. At that time, the Assyrian empire, centered on the Tigris River far to the north east, was on the rise and presented a major threat to the peace and well-being of small countries on the Mediterranean coast like Judah and Israel. Early in Isaiah’s career, about 734 BC, he had advised the then king of Jerusalem, Ahaz, on this political problem. Judah’s neighbors to the north, Israel and Aram wanted to resist the Assyrians. Ahaz weighed up this risky strategy with the equally risky one of submitting to the Assyrians. Either strategy could cost his land and his people dearly. On the one hand he could find himself in conflict with his neighbors, and on the other, with the mighty Assyria.

The oracles in Isaiah 1 would seem, however, to come from the very last years of Isaiah’s prophetic work, around 701 BC, when a more faithful king, Hezekiah, is on the throne. The theme is one of judgment on a disobedient people. The Lord has brought up the people like children.  And, yet, they do not seem to grasp the covenant.  It’s not that they didn’t understand its intellectual meaning.  It’s that they did not have a sense of themselves in it.  They had forgotten to whom they belonged.  But for the prophet Isaiah, judgment and hope are linked.  This word of judgment that is handed down to these covenant-forgetting people is also one of hope.

Isaiah calls them to hear the word of the Lord, the teaching (torah) of their God—not just read it but hear it, digest it, make it part of you.  The prophet is telling the people to start paying attention to who they are and who they are supposed to be.  And this is not just calling for the removal of bad practices, but also pointing to those religious practices that have perhaps become excessive and no longer resonate with who God is and who God calls the people to be.

You can read this as a calling not to be religious people, but to be faithful.  And being faithful is about living a life of justice and mercy and compassion for others.  It is about rescuing and defending, about being advocates for those who cannot speak for themselves.  It is about getting out of yourself and becoming who God calls you to be. The prophet is demanding what is essentially a new reality for the people.  It is a call to perhaps admit that we need help, that we need God, that we need a reminder every now and then of who we are and who we should be.

But lest you think this is some sort of colossal game of hide and seek, the hiddenness of God is what draws us in, compels us to move, to change, to follow.  If God were obvious, all we’d need is religion to show off to this obvious God.  But a hidden God?  Now THAT requires real faith.  Maybe that’s the whole point.

I love the line in this passage about arguing.  You can just hear God.  God has had it.  “Fine,” God says, “go ahead, argue all you want.  You’re going to lose.  You’re wrong.  You’re so wrapped up in your frenzy of religion and tradition that you have forgotten what it’s about.  So, let’s argue.  Let’s look at all sides.  Hmmm!  Sacrifices and perfect worship versus lives of justice and mercy and love…high holy days versus inviting everyone in…meetings versus relationships.  Yep, thought so…I win!”  (And that means you do too!)  Because God wants the best for God’s people.  And God wants God’s people to want the best for each other.  You see judgment is brimming over with hope!


  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What is your image of “judgment” or of a “judging God”?
  • Why do we shy away from the idea of “judgment”?
  • In what ways is judgment a sign of hope?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Read the passage from Hebrews

Frederick Buechner says that “faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved.  Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”  Faith is knowing that all the madness of this world will not be the last thing standing.  Now keep in mind that this letter was to a faith community that was struggling.  It’s hard for us to fully imagine, but their lives were filled with persecution.  But the writer reminds them that this suffering is but temporary.  The writer is not belittling their suffering; just promising that it would not last.

Now we don’t really know who the writer of Hebrews is.  Third century theologian, Origen said that “only God knows” who wrote Hebrews.  When you think about it, that’s actually pretty appropriate.  The passage reminds us that there is an unseen reality that is greater and beyond where we are.  It acknowledges that life is sometimes hard.  In fact, that life can sometimes seem almost unbearable.  Sometimes our lives just don’t seem to “fit”.  We seem to be strangers in a strange land.  But we are reminded to look beyond. That is faith.  There is always something more, always something beyond what we can see and feel and touch, always beyond even what we know.  This is not just looking beyond our sufferings.  It is not just looking on the “bright side” of life.  It is knowing that there is something more.  It is hope.

And we are reminded that we are not the first ones to walk this walk.  Those that came before us have walked the same road.  We both follow them and journey with them.  And this is more than just hoping against hope that things will look up.  It is knowing that there is something beyond this.  It is not a calling to be superhuman.  Life happens.  We will grieve; we will suffer; we will wander aimlessly.  But trust.  Trust that God is there.  And dare to hope beyond the hopeless, know beyond the unknown, and see beyond the visible.

The end of this passage speaks of a new homeland.  It is that vision of the New Jerusalem.  I hesitate to think of it as a “place” but rather a new way of being.  Because if it was a place, we would have to wait until we arrive.  But a new way can seemingly seep into your life when you let it.  That vision of God is already here for the taking—or at least the believing.  We’re not just waiting for things to improve; we’re actually letting ourselves believe that this new reality has already begun to emerge.  And faith is not blindly following but is itself a new way of seeing this new reality even as it comes to be.

On some level, we live in a world that trains us as skeptics.  Now that’s not all bad.  Questioning and, for that matter, even arguing with God is what gives us a chance to grow.  Faith is not about just accepting something that makes no sense.  That’s what the Marxists would call the “opium of the people”; instead, faith  is about living a life that is filled more and more with meaning, a life that doesn’t just believe in this new vision, this new reality, but believes it into being.  C.S. Lewis once said that “it is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one.”  Perhaps faith means that we quit pursuing a dream of glorified self-improvement and begin to see ourselves in this new way of living that is both already and not yet.  Because what fits into that way of being is what we’ve dreamed of all along.


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does “tradition” mean to you?
  • What does “faith” mean to you?
  • What does it mean to you to “carry on”?



GOSPEL:  Luke 12:32-40

Read the passage from the Gospel According to Luke

Do not be afraid…sell your possessions…get ready…stay alert.  Well, that’s enough to stress anyone out!  And yet, we are told not to be fearful and anxious.  But that is the stuff that our society and our economy is made of!  I mean, really, without fear and anxiety, where would we be?  What would the stock market do then?  What would the newscasters talk about?  Who would buy insurance?  And, sadly, how would some of our churches sustain their attendance?  And, besides, if we quit worrying, we would lose the last bit of control that we actually have! But Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to worry.  Rather, we are to pay attention and stay tuned for what comes next.

Now, of course, there are gobs and gobs of things that are based on the idea that if we’re not good little boys and girls, God will come and take only the good ones and the rest will be left behind.  Truthfully, that’s just bad theology.  God is not picking and choosing who gets to go live with God and who doesn’t based on our spiritual resume. God is just calling us to be ready, to pay attention so that we don’t miss what God is offering us.  After all, God is always and forever dropping into our life unexpectedly—if we’ll only pay attention.  God just doesn’t want us to miss the life that is envisioned for us.

This passage comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool that we read last week.  So, now that you know that you don’t need all this stuff to survive, Jesus tells his hearers to let go of their worry and to focus on what is important.  In other words, shift your treasure toward God.  And if that is your treasure, then what is there to worry about?  I don’t think it’s about staying alert, staying focused as you wait for God.  I think it’s saying that staying alert, staying focused is the WAY you realize God’s Presence that is right there with you now.  In other words, the unexpected hour is now, whether or not you expect it.  God is offering home.  It is where we belong.

Now notice that Jesus doesn’t say to sell ALL of your possessions.  He doesn’t say to give everything away as alms.  He really is just saying to pay attention, to shift one’s priorities from worrying about money and stuff and what’s going to happen with our life to realizing that God is offering us life itself.  Keep the lamp burning.  Keep the vision before you.  We’ve been handed a Kingdom.  You just have to open your eyes to see it.  Don’t worry.  It’s there.  It is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.  God WANTS to do this, wants to with every essence of the heart of the Divine.  Shhhh!  Quit worrying.  It’s already here!  You don’t have to earn it.  You don’t have to be someone you’re not.  You just have to be.  So why are you worrying?  So, maybe worrying is the last of the stuff that we need to get rid of.


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What is your image of the Kingdom of God?
  • What “alternative” to what we know could you imagine?
  • What does worry and fear play in your life?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.  (William James, 19th century)

The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s indifference. (Elie Wiesel)

Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase.  (Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century)



God of Revelation and Mystery, You have opened the door of Your mystery and invited us to enter and explore.  Open us to your guidance and give us the faith to follow You with the passionate expectation of the wonder you will reveal and the mystery that you hold that forms and feeds our faith.  In the Name of the One who opened the door and showed us the way.  Amen. (S. Williams)

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)