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Lectionary Readings
(from the Revised Common Lectionary)

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Sunday, November 27, 2022

First Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A


Preachers familiar with the Lectionary will not be taken off guard that the very first Gospel reading to begin the church’s year is a potentially anxiety-inducing warning of the end. The Preacher is advised to lean into that shock and awe, and not ameliorate it to the images of babies in mangers already creeping into parishioners’ heads as the Christmas decorations have already gone up at the department stores. Christ’s words jolt us out of holiday complacency. The Christ Child we picture as a sweet cherub and frame with sugarplums and garlands will come at the end of all things to judge the living and the dead!

The preacher might focus on “coming” in verse 37, parousia, literally “presence,” an ordinary Greek word used for a visit by a political authority, but which the church adopted as a label for intervention by Christ in the course of history. This special sense of “coming” can be used as a single word to describe the visit of the King of Kings that we ought to use for Advent, but also to expect: At the end of the world when he will judge the living and the dead as glimpsed in our first reading, but also in the course of our own lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul speaks to us about in the second lesson. Truly every moment of our entire lives is lived in the anticipation of the advent of our Lord both now and in the age to come.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Second Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A


The Old Testament prophets were often commanded by God to do symbolic actions to amplify their verbal message (cf. Ezek. 4, 24). John the Baptist’s entire life is a “speech-act” that heralds Jesus’ life. John’s ministry mimics the Lord’s: He leads a popular movement outside of the religious establishment, preaching repentance, claiming direct authority from God, and executed reluctantly by the rulers. Even the bodies of both men were taken by their disciples after death. In verse 4, John cuts an Elijah-like figure (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), an impression Jesus reaffirms in next week’s Gospel.

The Gospel of Matthew is uniquely focused on the continuity of Jesus with the Old Testament scriptures, and John’s special place in this Gospel’s panoply of types and allusions is as the hinge between Old Testament prophetic tradition and Jesus’ ministry. John, the Old Testament prophet, whose message points the people forward to the one who is “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John’s baptism is a pledge of repentance, Jesus’ comes with supernatural gifts. Like the prophets before him, John heralds a coming judgment, and Jesus will execute it.

John the Baptist’s Christ-shaped life is also our vocation as Christians. John reflects Jesus from the B.C. side of history, we do the same from the anno Domini. In this, modern Christians have every advantage, empowered by the Spirit and intimate with Christ. This does not mean all true believers must launch a prophetic ministry in hopes of martyrdom. The Christ-shaped life is not a matter of career planning. Rather, our own lives will take on Christ’s shape when we follow John’s advice to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” The believer who does this daily, repenting of sins, and looking for opportunities to exercise the fruits of the Spirit, will find that her life has indeed come to bear Christ’s image.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Third Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A


There are a few puzzling phrases in this week’s Gospel, perennially debated by interpreters. The occasion for John’s disciples request for clarification of Jesus’ mission is nowadays taken to mean that the Baptist himself was puzzled or disheartened while in prison, often leading to homiletical reflections on how even the strongest believers sometimes find themselves in doubt. (More likely, the bemusement came from John’s disciples, with their master electing to put them in direct contact with Jesus himself).

Verse 7 sees a tantalizing allusion to the reed symbol found on Herodian coinage of the time, sparking preachers to harp on a favorite theme of Jesus’ superiority to political authority and God’s operation on the margins of imperial power. Still more argued over is Jesus’ meaning of “the Kingdom of Heaven subjected to violence and the violent take it by force” of verse 12. This is probably a positive comment on how sinners came rushing to John’s message of repentance, bypassing all of the proper religious channels.

A more foundational sermon will focus on verses 11-15 and replace the Psalm with the Magnificat in Luke. Choosing this will cause the readings to resemble the great Deisis icon, used in the Eastern traditions since late antiquity, which sees Mary and John the Baptist flanking Jesus, gesturing toward him.

The message of the image is verse 13, which may also be the main idea of the sermon: That the spoken Word of God of the Prophets is passed through John to its perfection, the Incarnate Word born of Mary. The sermon can be an opportunity to instruct the congregation on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Gospel’s pride of place in liturgical services sometimes scandalizes believers who, rightly, consider all Scripture to be “God-breathed and profitable for teaching.” It may seem stranger still that the peak of the liturgy’s crescendo comes after the ministry of the word at Holy Communion. God’s Word written in the scriptures is perfected by God’s Word Incarnate: Jesus himself. Therefore, all Scripture finds its proper place by pointing to him.

This theme was especially important to the Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel. The Law came directly from God and the Jewish peoples’ fidelity to it defined them as a people. Then as now, honest devotion to Yahweh was nagged by the temptation to reduce God himself to the script. Modern believers, tempted in the same way toward a bare textualism in their worship, will benefit from the same reminder: That Christ is not a literary construct or on vacation in heaven, but immanent to his church by the Holy Spirit, who communes with them in a special way by way of the sacraments. All words point to the Word made flesh for us.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Fourth Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A


On the last Sunday before the Nativity, it is essential to focus on the mystery of the incarnation. Matthew’s Gospel sheds light on two things: Jesus’s Davidic title through the lineage of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father (v. 20; also the preceding genealogy is three sets of 14 generations, the numerological symbol of David), and his divine authority of God his true father evidenced by the Virgin Birth. Jesus then is Lord of both heaven and earth. Jesus declares this dual kingship explicitly at the end of the Gospel: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” ( Matt. 28:18).

As the gauzy haze of the holidays closes in, the congregation may be exhorted to recognize that the Christ Child is not only Lord of Heaven (which is, in our secular age, a safely far-off “spiritual” idea) but his authority is over our earthly lives as well. His words, law, and church therefore, have authority over how and toward which ends we live our lives. This will prepare the congregation to receive his words in Matthew’s Gospel as news and command, rather than inspirational quotes and the off-chance of an afterlife. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth both now on earth, and forever in heaven.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A


At Christmas Eve, the preacher must be vigilant not to ease into a comforting exposition of the well-known Christmas story. As the last Christian feast our society bends around, the temptation will be to preside over the palpable sensations of hearth and home like the merry Spirit of Christmas Present. But the feast is too foundational, the scriptures too portentous, to cover over with gauzy sentiment.

It is probably a good idea to let the Isaiah passage lead the themes and exhortations, because it gives meaning to Luke’s moment. The Lectionary gives us no room to shy away from the Christological target of the millennia-old prophecy: It is about the gladsome arrival of Jesus Christ, the promised child, surely more (and more wonderful) than anyone bargained for. The new birth is the realized hope of Israel and a light to the nations. The congregation would be well exhorted to imitate Mary as they go home to their dinners and presents and families—to treasure these things quietly in the midst of the hubbub, that their faith may not burn off with the moment, but be confirmed by prayerful contemplation.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A


In this first of the two Christmas day services (traditionally at dawn), the Gospel from Christmas Eve is (largely) repeated, however a new Isaiah reading takes center stage. God’s vow to restore Jerusalem ends with an encouragement that the “Daughter of Zion” recognize her salvation is arriving. The preacher should not be timid to draw the Marian parallel here since she is a type of the church. Salvation is indeed “with her,” literally to be found inside of her, and from her womb springs the firstborn of a redeemed, holy people. Titus spells out the terms of that salvation hinted at in the Isaiah passage: Entrance through the baptismal waters of new birth in the Spirit, justification by Christ, one great movement leading to the hope of eternal life.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A


The principle text for the feast of Christmas is undoubtedly John 1. Each of the Gospels, in the sequence in which they were written, begin Jesus’ story earlier than the last. Mark begins at Jesus’ baptism, Luke at the Nativity, Matthew’s genealogy extends back to Adam himself. John, astoundingly, begins before all beginnings.

From this dizzying vantage point before and above all creation, the preacher may feel vertigo, since there is literally nothing in all the universe that is irrelevant to this text, and therefore an infinity of possible themes to be explored, so it will helpful to follow the text of the Gospel itself to properly relate these cosmic mysteries to the church to whom they have been revealed.

Verse 14 grounds the mystery of the eternally begotten logos and the incarnation, not in appeal to philosophical categories, but in concrete experience. “We saw his glory” (NASB) ought to be taken straightforwardly as an eyewitness report, not some sense of spiritual or intellectual “seeing.” Though Christ is above and before all things, the main message here is that he was directly experienced, and may still be today through his Holy Spirit and in prayer.

Ordinary human contact with the divine is what our faith is built upon, not clever philosophical ideas. Hebrews drives this point home, declaring that Jesus is the “perfect imprint” of the Father. The unseeable God is made perceptible, which brings theology into simplicity, eternity into time. Preachers ought to craft their messages with this “downward” movement in mind, not staying in the clouds of cosmic mystery, but proclaiming the gospel that the highest God has made himself fully knowable to limited beings, even little children. Our sermons ought to be just as knowable!

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year A

Sunday, January 1, 2023

First Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year A


The Gospel of Matthew is concerned to show the continuity between Jesus and the Jewish scriptures. This is displayed both in direct fulfillment of prophetic word–Hosea 11:1 fulfilled in v. 15, and Jeremiah 31:15 in v. 17–and also by revealing the archetypical form of the story. In this passage, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth closely resemble Moses’: Saved from a paranoid ruler’s decree to kill male babies, squirreled away into the heart of Egypt, and returning home after the threat is past. Jesus is the higher Moses.

Therefore, the preacher will do well to avoid simply re-telling the beats of the narrative, adding unrecorded color commentary (“We can only wonder what Joseph might have been thinking …”) in order to fashion some sort of exhortation out of the twists and turns of the plot. The Gospels do more than simply relate what happened next, they paint a portrait of Jesus which fulfills the lives of the patriarchs, faithful monarchs, and prophets of old. Like theme music, the passage illuminates Jesus’ mission by relating it to the Exodus. The salvation of the Israelites brought about by God through Moses has now been recapitulated on an even greater scale: God himself rescuing all his children from the slavery to sin and death.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Holy Name of Jesus (Mary, Mother of God)—Christmas, Year A


The Feast of the Holy name on January 1 is a fitting way to begin the calendar year: By reflecting on the identity of Jesus Christ and recommitting ourselves to participation in the mission of his church on earth.

The “name” of God in the Old Testament carries a great deal more weight than just functioning as a label. It represents authority and reputation. For instance, Yahweh often acts “for the sake of my Holy Name” (Ezek. 36:22). After the incarnation, Jesus has become “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).

The Gospel passage shows the telltale pattern of the Spirit in the church: The shepherds, receiving the gospel revelation from on high, are not content to simply receive it. They are immediately up and out on mission, rushing to the Lord, and then off to tell the world the good news. The believer’s proper response to the identity of Jesus is to rush to be near to him, and then go out with joy to do the work that he has given us to do: To spread the news to all. Mary’s response signals the church’s vocation is not just enthusiasm, but contemplation of God and his action in history. Together, the band of shepherds and family prefigure the church’s work in the world and through it, the name of Jesus is honored and proclaimed.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Second Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year A

Friday, January 6, 2023

Epiphany of the Lord—Epiphany, Year A


The Feast of the Epiphany, in the ancient church, far outshone Christmas. The first of the three traditional manifestations of Christ observed by the church in this season is the revelation of Christ to the Magi which represented God making good on his promise to “bless the nations” through Israel, bringing the “other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16) into the center of God’s saving work.

The Magi prove that the Gentiles are not an afterthought, but are major characters from the beginning, even being used by God to thwart the tyrant’s treachery. Also, the Magi bring three gifts that reveal Christ’s identity and mission: Gold—a gift fitting for his kingship, Frankincense—the priest’s provision for offering sacrifice, and Myrrh—an embalming oil, foreshadowing his crucifixion (cf. the appearance of Myrrh in Mark 15:23 and John 19:39).

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year A


Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the second of the three traditional manifestations of Christ, contains John’s protest. This is included to make clear that Jesus was not an ordinary human being in need of repentance from any sin.

The church saw many layers to the reason for Christ’s baptism, each with potential pathways for the preacher to explore. It was to endorse and fulfill John’s preceding baptismal ministry. It was to show that he is “meek and lowly” (Matt. 11:19) to encourage conversion. It was to give an example of repentance for others to follow. Most profound of all, perhaps, was the suggestion that while the waters of John’s baptism symbolized the cleansing from sins, Christ himself baptized the waters he entered, inaugurating his baptismal ministry which truly forgives sins.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A


John the Baptist, the Voice who speaks of the Word, witnesses to a few key details that clarify Jesus’ divinity.

First, John sees Jesus walking toward him, indicating that Jesus always takes the initiative. No less than at the Cross (cf. John 10:18), Jesus is the one who acts, he is not acted upon.

Second, John proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God “who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus is the true Passover Lamb, who is already without blemish. By coming to be baptized he is taking on the sins of the world which had, as it were, been laid down in the waters of John’s baptism, completing the Baptist’s ministry.

Third, the Holy Spirit resting on Jesus “like a dove” recalls the dove that never returned to Noah after the flood. The return of the dove signifies that Christ is the true mount that saves us from the waters of death.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A


It is not an accident that the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew comes right after John’s imprisonment. The transfer of John’s ministry to Jesus’ is now complete. From now on it is Jesus calling for repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus reverses the normal order of disciples seeking out a rabbi. Like Elijah calling Elisha, Jesus calls his disciples to him. The evocative part of this story for the preacher is in the response of the two pairs of disciples (v. 20, 22). Echoing the frequent Markan phrase, they “immediately” (without hesitation) turn from their livelihood and family, and then turn to Jesus by following him.

Usually, Christians tend to focus on the repentance from sin as the only requirement for following Jesus, but Jesus also places special calls on his followers’ lives to turn from good things and the common run of life (cf. Luke 14:26) to follow him in special ways. Missionaries and monastics spring to mind, but a call can be anything at any time: To visit a sick person, aid a poor person, or confront a friend’s sinful habits. In so many seemingly small ways, Jesus calls us out of our ordinary lives to turn toward him. Every moment is a chance to say yes.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A


Having announced the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand in Matthew 4:17, the Lord is ready to give a new law. The Beatitudes are the introduction to the entire Sermon on the Mount, which runs from chapter five through seven.

The location and Jesus’ posture are not details to pass over. Ascending the mountain, Jesus resembles Moses on Sinai, but instead of receiving and handing down the law to the people below, he gives the new law himself to his disciples and the crowds who have ascended with him. This new law then is more excellent than the law of Moses.

Each “beatitude” declares a state of happiness for those who exhibit each of the listed virtues. The accompanying rewards for all, save the first, are promised in the future when the Kingdom of Heaven is fully realized—the poor in spirit already possess the Kingdom since they recognize their need for God, a prerequisite for the following:

- The mourners are saddened to see evil in the world; they will be comforted by the Kingdom when it comes in its fullness.
- The meek are the gentle who will inherit the earth, as opposed to the violent who own it in the present.
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness yearn for goodness on the level of their affections; the Kingdom will satisfy this hunger.
- Those who give mercy to others will receive the same from God (cf. 6:14)
- Those whose hearts are singularly focused on God, and unalloyed by unrighteousness will see him in a perfect, unmediated way.
- Those who promote peace, rather than just stay out of trouble, are to be counted the “sons” or heirs of eternal life.
- Those who receive abuse for their fidelity to Jesus (who is righteousness) can expect heavenly reward as opposed to vindication in the present.

Each one of these represents a valid trailhead for the preacher to follow. These are not to be taken as unachievable standards given solely for the purpose of conviction of sin and the need for constant dispensations of mercy. While this is undoubtedly true, the teaching is a high standard but not unattainable with the help of the Spirit.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A


Salt benefits food in two ways: It flavors and preserves it. In the same way, the righteousness of Christians benefits the world by working against its tendencies toward corruption and dissolution. Christians also make life on earth enjoyable for those who encounter them. Where salt is an unseen force, light is conspicuous. Christians, although they are not to be haughty or arrogant, are not to hide their works of righteousness, since they point onlookers back to their source in God. The imagery here has been a fertile territory for sermons. The preacher should focus especially on the missional vocation of good works. Personal piety is not in view here. Godly conduct is evangelistic.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A


Jesus is greater than the Law of Moses, preaching a more exacting standard even than that of the Pharisees. In these several sayings (delivered in the classic rabbinic style of “you have heard … but I say to you”) Jesus prescribes moral action on the level of the heart’s intention, not only on the resultant behavior. The orthopraxy of the Pharisees emphasized right action, regardless of what one may think or feel underneath. God, however, looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7) and his desire is for a people whose very souls are inclined toward him in all things. Therefore, those who refrain from adultery must also refrain from entertaining lustful thoughts. Refraining from murder also means quenching the anger that gives rise to it through reconciliation.

At the same time, certain practices provided for in the Law of Moses are rendered obsolete by a consistent practice of Jesus’s ethic. Divorce is sweepingly prohibited (the exception for porneia probably referred to unions that were unlawful on their face, rather than valid marriages wounded by sexual indiscretions) making its provision in Deuteronomy unnecessary. Oaths are similarly rendered moot by a straightforwardly truthful habit of life that gives no reason to suspect falsehood.

The preacher may alight on any one of these immortal sayings and extract a rich teaching on these universal human experiences. But the underlying principle must be kept in mind: that the heart’s intentions, not only the external acts make one liable to judgment. Righteousness comes from the inside-out, with the Spirit at work on the level of the heart.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year A


This usually misunderstood episode is not Jesus showing off his resurrection power. Rather, there are important theological truths revealed and confirmed. The presence of Moses and Elijah are significant in more than one way. First, these are the two Old Testament figures who saw God (theophany), each imperfectly, from the mouth a cave. But now from the mountain they see God perfectly in Christ. The two also declare that the Law of Moses and the legacy of the prophets culminate in the fulfilling work of Christ on the Cross. Jesus’ face also shines with the very light that made Moses’ face glow when he came down from the mountain. The “bright cloud” that envelops them recalls God’s presence in the shekinah glory of the cloud in Exodus. Here it also refers to the Holy Spirit’s future coming on the church in baptism (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1). All of this is confirmed in the presence of Peter, James, and John, the “two or three witnesses” required in the Old Testament for verifying anything. These are those who will not “taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).

Constructing a sermon out of this maelstrom of resonances should center on the purpose of the episode: That Jesus himself is fully God, and to see him is to see the Father perfectly. This vision buoys believers in hope while shouldering their crosses. The Christian life is not the emulation of the example of an ordinary earthly teacher but progress toward the very glory of God. By drawing near to the Sun of Righteousness, we too may hope to be likewise transformed.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

First Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year A


The recent rediscovery of Lent in many Protestant churches has left many scattered ideas about its purpose. The real theme is preparation to celebrate the great mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter. This was the period when catechumens and notorious sinners were joined by the whole congregation in fasting and preparation for baptism and reconciliation at the great Easter Vigil.

In the Lectionary, the Old Testament readings recount the salvation history of Yahweh and Israel, while the Gospels give Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of these past acts, linked together by the theology of the New Testament authors in the New Testament readings.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is always the first reading in Lent. In Matthew, it is possible to reflect on the virtuous example he sets in contrast to Adam’s and Israel’s past faithlessness. The “wilderness” here is an allusion to the wilderness into which humanity was cast after being expelled from the Garden by Adam’s sin of grasping at godlikeness. Jesus is our pioneer, charting the path out of this wilderness back to the Garden by succeeding where Adam failed.

The original temptation in the Garden and Satan’s tempting of Jesus follows the same pattern: Dividing our will from the Father’s by grasping at what God has already promised. The serpent suggests to Eve an alternative path to godlikeness, when that likeness had already been granted by God (Gen. 1:26). So too, Jesus’ divine sonship is questioned (“If you are the Son of God …”) but Jesus proves that status by submitting to the Father’s will instead of grasping at it himself (Phil. 2:6-8). And whereas Israel grumbled for bread in its 40-year wandering, Jesus remains faithful to the Father in his 40 day fast by refusing Satan’s temptation of bread.

The preacher should connect the Gospel passage to our 40 days in Lent as a special time to become alert to our ongoing walk of obedience throughout our lives and how temptation and testing is part of the program, not an obstacle to spiritual comfort.

Jesus’ duel of exegesis with Satan is also a good opportunity to comment on how—in our time as in our Lord’s—the letter of Scripture may be learned and accurately quoted, but deprived of its spirit of obedience toward God, it can be twisted by the devil in order to detract from its intent. As Paul emphasizes in the Romans passage, Christ succeeds where Adam fails, bringing life to the world to reverse the curse brought about by our Fall.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Second Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year A


If the Transfiguration was celebrated at the end of Epiphany, John’s Gospel may be used on this Sunday.

“Born again” in Greek wording, is literally “from above,” as in “from the top!” John’s gospel uses this play on words to describe baptism. This “second birth” is in fact receiving God’s own life from him: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Only by receiving this new life can we see our way clear to God’s will.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews” represents the very best Judaism had to offer, and yet cannot see past the earthly valence of these words: “Born twice” instead of “from above.” His nocturnal visit indicates that he is emerging from darkness into the light of the truth (and later in the Gospel we see Jesus gets through to him). In the same way, we in our spiritual walks are emerging from the darkness of our own understanding and into the light of truth by holding to Christ in his Word and Sacraments.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Third Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year A


Beginning on this Sunday, the three Gospels leading up to Holy Week center on elemental themes: Water, Light, and Life. The “living water” promised to the Samaritan woman at the well is nothing less than the Holy Spirit delivered by means of the grace of baptism. That the woman is reported to have been living in sin is not accidental. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). If candidates are preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil, the preacher will have strong catechetical material.

For the baptized, the Old Testament passage may be highlighted. The Israelites enjoyed the same sacramental signs of God’s presence and faithfulness (1 Cor. 10) and yet they still complained faithlessly. We too, even enjoying the greater grace of baptism frequently backslide into the same behavior in our own lives (and under much milder circumstances). And yet, even in this, God meets grumbling with grace: Water from the rock.

Just as he did for the woman at the well, Christ reaches out to us today even while we are in sin, renewing his offer of living water of the Holy Spirit. The proper exhortation is for the congregation to renew their baptismal vows through earnest prayer and fasting, and accept the grace that God continually offers to us.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Fourth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year A


The Fathers’ term for baptism was “illumination” suggesting much more than the expiation of guilt or entrance into a covenant community. The eyes of the soul are opened, and begins to apprehend the divinity of Christ, perceiving life on earth by a light from above.

The preacher should draw attention to the details of Jesus’ activity in order to tie the miracle to its proper context of baptism and then draw out the catechetical value of them, especially for those who are preparing to receive it.

Blindness means more than a simple disability. Especially in John’s Gospel, it represents the darkness of the fallen state of humanity and its ignorance of God. Jesus heals the man’s blindness to indicate his greater purpose of healing humanity’s darkness apart from God. He does this by spitting in the dust to make clay, recalling the mixture of dew and dust from which God formed Adam (Gen. 2:6-7). This is a clear indication that Jesus is God himself, and that this healing is not a temporary solution to a local problem, but that he is working a new creation. From there, Jesus tells him to wash, indicating baptism.

After the man’s sight is restored there is a contrast between him and his interrogators. The Pharisees are the ones who think they know all about God through the Law, and yet they do not know the source of God’s power to heal (Jesus himself). The healed man does not pretend to know anything, only going so far as to report what happened to him. The two parties take opposite trajectories. The man once blind enters deeper into the Light of his Lord, and the men once illuminated by the Law, descend into the darkness of willful ignorance of the Lord.

The preacher should connect these two reactions to the congregation. Those of us who have once been illuminated in baptism ought to respond by coming before the Lord as the healed man does (v. 38). In this we continue to see more and more clearly. Otherwise, we will be darkened, and even what we know (“we know God spoke to Moses” v. 29) will avail us nothing.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Fifth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year A


Before going to the Cross, Jesus displays his power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead. The miracle is a “raising” not a “resurrection” in its full sense. Lazarus will die again, but Jesus, having been raised from the dead will never die again (Rom. 6:9). The hope, then is glimpsed before entering Holy Week. This death will end in victory, no matter how heavy the stone or how long the body has laid there.

The key to preaching the passage is found in Jesus’ response to Martha’s confession: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This places Jesus’ power over death in the present, not only in the future at our own deaths, or the final judgment, and not left behind in the past as a one-time miracle. Wherever Jesus is, life is there also. Abiding in him every moment is the key idea, not postponing his help for future trials nor leaving him behind as a pleasant memory. “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). It turns out that encountering God in the present is the only time to do it.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year A


The Passion reading at Palm Sunday begins the strong contrasts (joy to sorrow and then to joy again) that typify Holy Week. This can aid in any number of sermons.

Matthew’s account typifies Solomon: Jesus is the “Son of David,” a “king of peace” who comes humbly on the royal donkey (1 Kings 1:33). Jesus’ humility here is not abasement or identification with the lowly: A donkey was not a cheap ride but more like a kingly limousine. Matthew’s account of the disciples procuring the donkey highlights Jesus’ divine foreknowledge (“Immediately you will find a donkey …”) and his authority (“If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them’”). The point is that he is not coming to take his kingdom by force, but expects to be welcomed by his people. And so he is, but only for the time being.

Here the Preacher has a few options for application and exhortation, but the most compelling may be to use the Triumphal Entry with all its attendant royal resonances in contrast with the Passion reading’s preview of things to come. This further reveals the astonishing content of God’s heart for his people: How he comes expecting to die, and is willing to be feted by the very people who will call for his crucifixion a short time later. His conquest is his sacrifice on the Cross, the outpouring of love that swallows up death forever.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year A


The Passion reading at Palm Sunday begins the strong contrasts (joy to sorrow and then to joy again) that typify Holy Week. This can aid in any number of sermons.

Matthew’s account typifies Solomon: Jesus is the “Son of David,” a “king of peace” who comes humbly on the royal donkey (1 Kings 1:33). Jesus’ humility here is not abasement or identification with the lowly: A donkey was not a cheap ride but more like a kingly limousine. Matthew’s account of the disciples procuring the donkey highlights Jesus’ divine foreknowledge (“Immediately you will find a donkey …”) and his authority (“If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them’”). The point is that he is not coming to take his kingdom by force, but expects to be welcomed by his people. And so he is, but only for the time being.

Here the Preacher has a few options for application and exhortation, but the most compelling may be to use the Triumphal Entry with all its attendant royal resonances in contrast with the Passion reading’s preview of things to come. This further reveals the astonishing content of God’s heart for his people: How he comes expecting to die, and is willing to be feted by the very people who will call for his crucifixion a short time later. His conquest is his sacrifice on the Cross, the outpouring of love that swallows up death forever.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Wednesday of Holy Week—Holy Week, Year A

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)—Holy Week, Year A

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Day)—Easter, Year A


Matthew’s account of the Resurrection is laced with important details that together express an entire gospel message, not to be missed in the hubbub of a full sanctuary and lunch plans afterwards.

The Resurrection happens on the “dawn of the first day of the week” beginning the new creation promised in Isaiah 65. The women, informed by the brilliant angel, enter the tomb and see with their own eyes that Jesus is not there. The Gospel is based upon witness, not hearsay. Their thoroughness is fulfilled by Jesus himself who meets them on their way to share the news with the disciples. At this point, they “took hold of his feet” proving that Jesus was no vision or ghostly being. Jesus then immediately sends them on mission to share the news with the Apostles.

The proper response is to go and tell the news (hence the women have been referred to as “The Apostles to the Apostles”). Also, Jesus’ promise to appear to his “brothers” indicates in word and deed that he has already forgiven them for their faithlessness at the Cross and thereafter. The gospel means the forgiveness of sins, even for those guilty of the worst offenses (betrayal). These details paint a rich portrait for the preacher to use on this the highest feast day of the Christian year.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Second Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


The appearance to the disciples in John emphasizes the reality of the resurrected body of Christ. His body is tangible but also glorified, capable of more than ordinary human flesh. Here the disciples receive the Holy Spirit for the first time (at Pentecost the gifts of the Spirit manifest), the source of the church’s power as a vessel of Christ’s authority on earth.

Like Thomas, many are apt to doubt the incarnate reality of both Christ and his church. It is easier tolerate Jesus’ resurrection as an ideal but not the body itself. Similarly, it is easier to understand the church as an inspirational institution, rather than a custodian of spiritual realities. Doubt of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is linked to doubt of the church’s authority on earth and vice versa. But both of these together give us hope of our own bodily resurrection at the Last Judgment. In Christ and his church is real hope, not pleasant ideas or ghostly forms.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Third Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


The treasured story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, only found in Luke, reveals the sources of encounter with the risen Christ, which Christians return to weekly in divine service. The two disciples (one is named, recommending the text as a probable eyewitness account) begin their journey disheartened and confused, doubtful of the woman and Apostles’ report of the resurrection.

The two disciples are in the same position in many respects as modern believers living after the time of Christ. When he appears, he begins the encounter by expounding the scriptures of the Old Testament, which are in fact about him. In the same way, divine service since the earliest times has begun by reading and expounding the holy scriptures according to the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Though their “hearts burn within them” they still do not recognize him. Instead, he is “known to them in the breaking of the bread.” That this passage has the Eucharist in view is plain from the use of the telltale four verbs “took, blessed, broke, and gave” a liturgical pattern that recurs at the Last Supper.

In the Word, disciples are instructed, whetting the appetite for the full encounter at the Table. The response, like the women at the tomb, is to go on mission: Finding the others and reporting the good news. So too do believers today respond to what they have received by telling the good news and inviting others to encounter him as well.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Fourth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


The readings now begin to prepare the congregation for the Ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. In the Gospel reading this Sunday, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for the time of his absence in the flesh and presence by the Spirit.

There is an important distinction between true shepherds of the flock and the “strangers, thieves and bandits,” that lead the sheep into death instead of life. The details of the parable correspond to the situation of believers and leaders in the church. Christ is the gatekeeper; the shepherds are the elders of the church; the sheep are Christ’s elect; the sheepfold is the church; and the thieves, robbers, and bandits are the false teachers that would lead believers astray. The relationship between the Shepherd and his sheep is the thing that allows them to discern shepherds from bandits. Many false teachers would attempt to lead Christians away from the church, but believers only need to listen: Whose voice do they hear from their leaders? That of the gatekeeper or someone strange and novel? Only shepherds who “enter by the gate” are authentic leaders—that is to speak the words of Christ and imitate his example.

In a time where many churchgoers are concerned about poor leadership in churches, this passage can be consulted. Safety from abusive or exploitative leadership does not come from familiarity with the latest insights about trauma and psychological health, but from a deep familiarity with the words and example of Jesus Christ. Only by intimacy with the gatekeeper can the sheep know the shepherds from the wolves.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Fifth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


As Jesus’ departure approaches, he begins to instruct them on the profound connection that they will enjoy with Jesus and the Father after his departure in the flesh. Jesus is the church’s connection to God the Father. Thomas’ and Philip’s questions both have the same answer: Jesus himself. The way to the Father, and even the Father himself, is to be found in Jesus. Thus, the church’s abiding hope: That Christ’s identity with God welcomes them into eternal life. Through this connection, even the power of God to work miracles is available to his church while on earth.

The preacher should focus on the immanence of the church’s connection with Christ. Jesus is not talking about a far off and delayed hope, but rather an immediately available source of intimacy with God himself. Christ, being God and Man is the bridge which welcomes human beings into the life of God. This is more than a future hope, but a present source of comfort and power.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sixth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


In the final Gospel before the Ascension, Jesus explicitly promises the Spirit in John 14. Here he is described as “another Parakletos.” The word’s meaning varies by context: “helper,” “advocate,” or “comforter” are all possible options. The broad semantic range is theologically instructive. The parakletos comes to the aid of another to meet different needs. In verse 26, he is the enlightener who will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance,” Jesus’ words. In 15:26 he is a witness for Christ on our behalf. Note that the Spirit is the second parakletos mentioned in verse 16. The first is Christ himself. In any circumstance we find ourselves in the Spirit is the agent whereby Jesus works in and through us and remains present to us.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Ascension of the Lord—Easter, Year A


The first gospel option, the opening of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, prepares the disciples, (and the future church) for his departure.

Jesus prays for his disciples, that they would “know” God–not in a bare intellectual way, but as intimates.

He also famously prays “that they may be one” in verse 11. This verse is used too often as a sentimental call to fellow-feeling or cooperation between jurisdictions. But Jesus compares this unity to that enjoyed by the Trinity. The full and visible unity of the church is in view.

This unity is echoed in Peter’s instructions in the second lesson. Peter the chief apostle and symbol of the church’s unity, steels his brothers for the trial of suffering before them. In 5:10-11 he locates the source of diverse gifts in God himself. In the end, the church’s unity is its intimacy with God.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Seventh Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year A


The first gospel option, the opening of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, prepares the disciples, (and the future church) for his departure.

Jesus prays for his disciples, that they would “know” God–not in a bare intellectual way, but as intimates.

He also famously prays “that they may be one” in verse 11. This verse is used too often as a sentimental call to fellow-feeling or cooperation between jurisdictions. But Jesus compares this unity to that enjoyed by the Trinity. The full and visible unity of the church is in view.

This unity is echoed in Peter’s instructions in the second lesson. Peter the chief apostle and symbol of the church’s unity, steels his brothers for the trial of suffering before them. In 5:10-11 he locates the source of diverse gifts in God himself. In the end, the church’s unity is its intimacy with God.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Day of Pentecost—Easter, Year A


The Day of Pentecost is one of two comings of the Holy Spirit, and the preacher would do well to have the whole movement in view. The first is related in the John 20 passage, when Jesus breathes on his disciples, creating the apostolic ministry by imparting the Holy Spirit. This seed later comes to full flower in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit rushes upon the whole church.

First, in the private upper room, Jesus breathes life into his body on earth, recalling the breath of life given by God to Adam at the dawn of creation. Jesus’ breath is not just a commissioning, but an incorporation of his Apostles into his own body by giving them his own life and authority. Later, in the public gathering, the breath whips into a wind that comes upon the whole congregation in a miracle that symbolizes the church’s mission: to preach the good news to the world.

The timing of the day is propitious. The Day of Pentecost in the Feast of Weeks is harvest time, setting the stage for God’s harvest of the world, bringing the wheat into his barns awaiting the separation of the good wheat from the darnel at the final judgment (Matt. 13:30). Pentecost also traditionally celebrated the giving of the Law. The miracle of the tongues allows each person to hear the Apostle’s teaching in their own native language, fulfilling the promise in Ezekiel, that the new covenant would write God’s law onto the hearts of the people.

Hence, it is too simplistic to title Pentecost “the day the Holy Spirit came” or even “the church’s birthday,” because the reality is much richer. It is the culmination of a process of birthing the church into the world. Everything Christ has done has been to midwife his church into the world. The labor pains are on the Cross, the delivery is at the Resurrection, the first breath outside the womb comes in the Upper Room, and at Pentecost the baby gives its first cry, breathing out the breath it has received to the world in the message of the gospel.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Trinity Sunday—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The secret to making congregations care about the doctrine of the Trinity, is to demonstrate how God’s identity connects with his mission and presence.

It is not accidental that Jesus instructs his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In Genesis, the Trinity appears as Creator, Word, and Breath. God’s love within himself does not remain inwardly focused, but begets a creation whose purpose is also to enjoy that communion of love with God.

So too is the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity to the church connected to the church’s mission to the world. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit draws people into communion with the Son, who leads them in turn into the life of the Father. Preached in this way, the Trinity is the pathway into God’s life, an invitation that is relevant to everyone.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Proper 5 (10)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


This Sunday represents a crossroads for the preacher. For the rest of this year, the Gospel lectionary returns to the Gospel of Matthew, but the attendant Old Testament and Psalm are split between two different tracks.

Option I walks through a mostly chronological series of Old Testament texts beginning in 1 Samuel which are not thematically linked to the gospel passage in any way.

Option II (which is sometimes listed as Option III) is the more traditional set of Old Testament (and some Apocryphal) texts which thematically link up with the Gospel for the day.

A third option is to follow the Epistle readings, which also run along their own track, disconnected thematically from both sets of Old Testament readings and the Gospel.

The preacher should be prepared to commit to one of these options exclusively for the rest of the Christian year, since each is designed with its own arc in mind.

This guide will follow the more venerable Option II, as the theological and typological connections therein will introduce the congregation to the Christological principle of the scriptures, which will aid in their Old Testament study going forward.

Jesus finds love and faith among the sinful and the sick, not the religious leaders. Matthew and his tax collector friends sit with Jesus and the woman with the flow of blood reaches out to touch him.

In reply to the questions about his behavior Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, rendered in the first reading as: “For faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). The Pharisees are professional “sacrificers,” who police the ritual commandments of the Law, but for all that have not pledged their hearts to God. In their place the Gospels hold up those outcasts who welcome the Lord to their tables and reach for him for salvation. Ironically, it is these sinners and outcasts who are in a good position to pursue righteousness, even for it to exceed that of their naysayers (Matt. 5:20) because their desire is nearness to the Lord.

“Knowledge of God” in Hosea 6:3, 6 carries a deeper sense than merely collecting facts. To “know” in the Old Testament frequently connotes profound direct experience (cf. “knowing” as marital intimacy in Gen. 4:1; as exclusive fidelity in Amos 3:2). Through the Incarnation of the Son, knowing God becomes possible in a whole new way. The congregation should be encouraged to “press on” as the tax collectors and woman did, to know Christ by his word in the scriptures and his body in the sacraments. Moreover, today’s scriptures disclose the goal of these gifts: Not as one more set of rituals to be observed, but as the pathway to direct experience with God.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Proper 6 (11)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


All good pastors will recognize “like sheep without a shepherd” as the basic state of the common run of people in the world, not only the Jews in Jesus’ day. “Harassed and helpless,” the cruelty of fallen society and nature afflicts the poor. In response, they frequently go astray, following after false shepherds or turning on each other.

Jesus sees past their sorry state and instead “has compassion for them.” The word used means something like “affection from the inmost parts,” so this is not detached pity for the pathetic, but real love directly from the heart of God who is love.

In love, Jesus is not dejected or overwhelmed. Instead, he recasts the situation as a great opportunity awaiting them in their role as apostles. The lost lambs become a great harvest with a high rate of return since its reapers are so few. This is foreshadowed in God’s commission to Israel in the first lesson, whereby he declares “all the earth is mine,” and his people are to be priests on its behalf.

This is a key gospel passage for pastoral ministry and spiritual direction: the problems of the world are the gospel’s opportunity. A happy world would need no good news. Pastors as well as all Christians on mission therefore should not avoid tough cases, but thrill to them, trusting that God is not cowed by any obstacles to faith. Prayer is the core of this mission. The laborers are sent by the Lord of the harvest, they are not free agents. The church thus fulfills the mission handed down from Sinai to Israel: to bring the whole earth back into right relationship with God through his priestly people.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Proper 7 (12)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Christianity will require courage of its adherents. Persecutions will be inevitable, one cannot expect to outdo Jesus for winsomeness and escape the bite (v. 24-25). However, Jesus’ disciples may rest secure that the occasions for their persecutions are Jesus’ teachings themselves, and one day they will be universally recognized to come from God (26-28). The Lord’s disciples are precious to him, and nothing that happens to them escapes God’s notice. But so too will God know if his disciples reject him in order to escape punishment (28-33). The Messiah may be the Prince of Peace, but his peace will be hard won. People will fall out from each other over Jesus. His disciples must be ready for this. Whether in small or large ways, each must be willing to walk the way of suffering for the sake of the gospel, but the one who does this will win life (34-39).

The preacher’s duty to prepare their congregation for suffering for the sake of the gospel is paramount. Without the expectation of hardship, even well-meaning Christians will be unprepared when their public fidelity to Jesus meets opposition, and the temptation to fall away will be very strong. Many today in the face of social censure, to say nothing of bodily harm, find it very difficult to remain true to Jesus’ teachings, suspecting that something must be wrong with their public witness when others are appalled by it. According to Christ, however, it is those moments that ought to affirm his disciples that they are truly emulating Jesus by walking the way of the cross.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Proper 8 (13)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


On the flip side of persecution, those who honor and welcome the Lord’s disciples receive the blessings of God. Jesus does not offer the world only judgment but opportunity to connect with God through his church.

In this short gospel passage, the rewards for those who devote themselves to the vocation of prophet, disciple, or even a simple lay-Christian (the meaning of “righteous person”) are transferred to those who aid them. The church is Christ’s body in the world. Therefore, those in the world who recognize this and receive his members with charity, even in small ways, will know the blessing of God through their connection to his body.

The preacher can use this text as an opportunity to encourage the flock not to go out in the world assuming ill-treatment from everyone. Each individual person in the world can either accept or reject Christ’s messengers. The church should thus be open-handed; as ready for a positive reception as a negative one.

Persecution tempts the believer to gloominess. Cynicism is the bane of joy. But Christ’s disciples are optimists, driven by hope rather than despair. Just as they should not be surprised when the world rejects them, they should not be surprised when it receives them. For after all, Christ died for the life of the world.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Proper 9 (14)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The religious leaders are out of step with God, no matter the spirit in which he approaches them. Whether the message is self-denial and asceticism or joy and celebration, the Pharisees can be counted on to go another way than God’s leading.

The most probable interpretation of Jesus’ puzzling mini-parable is that the game-leaders in the marketplace are Jesus and John the Baptist. The uncooperative children are the religious leaders. The point is no matter the tune–John’s severe, Jesus’ joyful–those determined to reject the message will find a serviceable excuse.

This is an important point for today: if a message fails to get across, there is either a problem with the messenger or the receiver. Jesus is saying that the messengers are not the issue, it is the hearers who fail to repent and follow God because of their sin and selfishness.

We must be careful not to rationalize our own rebelliousness. Often the reasons we give for failing to worship–the style of music, a principled dislike of the pastor or preacher, the manifold bespoke liturgical tastes–are only so many excuses for failing to seek God. Instead, we should cultivate an active listening, yearning to discern God’s will in any circumstance. What would Christ have us do here and now? Wisdom does not consist of words–our many cultivated opinions about authentic church worship—but in aligning our wills to the Father through Christ, and going and living like he did.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Proper 10 (15)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Why do some not respond to the gospel? The parable of the sower explains why. In the ancient world, a good yield for a crop was 10:1. A yield of “thirty, sixty, a hundredfold” is a fantastical amount of abundance. The point is that the message of the gospel is extremely fertile, capable of producing abundant growth. The condition of the soil, not the quality of the seed, is responsible for disparity.

The excluded interlude, when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables, is key for the preacher’s understanding of its message. Parables, unlike bullet-point propositions, require active listening. The gospel requires engagement from heart and mind to bear fruit. Those who hear but don’t engage their minds to understand have no root, and become easy prey for the devil’s tricks. Religious enthusiasm is nothing without commitment. Worldly wealth, like weeds, encroaches on our affections, until they crowd out love for God and neighbor.

The preacher should take care not to explain the parable in terms of eternal election. The point is exhortation: “How is your soil today?” might be a good question.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Proper 11 (16)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The parable of the weeds among wheat is the second in a series of agriculture parables. Jesus pursues different spins on the same metaphors, turning them around to elucidate the many layers of the Kingdom of Heaven. This one “zooms in” on the matter of those who reject the gospel and how the management of the Kingdom accounts for it.

The parable points out that the work of the Evil One sows in the same field, producing an evil crop; the “children of the evil one” amid the “children of the kingdom” (v. 38). These two grow up together for the time being, but at the final judgment are separated cleanly.

Why the delay? Clues come from the offending weed that the Lord had in view. “Darnel” is a non-nutritious plant that looks like wheat, especially in its infancy. By uprooting darnel too early, one could uproot the wheat instead. Only in its full maturity can the difference be reliably determined.

Because only God is capable of knowing which is which, one should not be quick to pronounce judgment on a fellow believer who strays from the faith, lest they turn out to be wheat. Instead, the message is for the church to be patient and forgiving of those within its care, leaving the final judgment of each and every soul to God alone and encouraging one another to grow up into the good wheat of the Spirit instead of the darnel of the Devil.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Proper 12 (17)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The gospel covers another succession of short parables, each likening the Kingdom of Heaven to things that are presently hidden, whose value is to be revealed later (the parable of the net excepted).

The mustard seed and the leaven are investments that yield a huge return, but only after a time of hidden growth. Like in the parables of the lost sheep and coin in Luke, these are aimed at male and female audiences. Here, the emphasis is on the return on investment. Our human efforts on behalf of the kingdom may seem unimportant or even futile, a tiny seed and just a little leaven, but like the boy whose loaves and fish seeded the feeding of the 5,000, God takes what little we offer and multiplies its effect.

The parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price illustrate how disciples of the kingdom are those who see the greatness of the reward, and are therefore eager to invest their entire lives into it. If one truly believes in eternal life in God, then there is no price that is not worth paying.

This Christian joy underwrites all Christian suffering, it is the motivation to take up one’s cross and the reason that so many Christians even today go joyfully to the grave rather than deny Christ. Light burdens indeed in the face of so great a reward.

The Lord’s teachings complete the old law, hence old and new treasures are the possession of those who keep them.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Proper 13 (18)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Matthew’s account of the Feeding of the 5,000 emphasizes the connection to two Old Testament figures: Moses and Elisha. First, the Jesus and the crowd are in a desolate place, like the Israelites in the desert when they were fed by the manna from heaven. The disciples’ incredulous response to Jesus in verse 16 follows Elisha’s servant puzzled by how they could feed so many men with so few loaves. However, in contrast to these episodes, Jesus has them recline (“sit down” is an unfortunate English rendering) on “grass” indicating that Jesus’ feeding of his people will be a full meal, not just sustenance. After the four eucharistic actions (took, blessed, broke, gave) repeated in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the crowd eats “as much as they wanted” with much left over.

Since the Feeding of the 5,000 is the quintessential sign of the Eucharist, the preacher should use their time to draw attention to the celebration of the bread and wine which (one hopes) will be coming at the end of service. In this, the preacher need not spend much energy on “application” since the reality of the Lord’s Supper is what brings these heady truths to bear on the present, with the people in the congregation. Like the bread, the breaking of Jesus’ body makes it possible for him to share his life through Holy Communion, empowering his people to live his life with him.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Proper 14 (19)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Jesus walking on the sea toward the boat proclaims the Lord’s power over death. This episode completes every Gospel’s account of the feeding miracle, since it clearly identifies Christ himself, not just earthly bread, as the true source of life.

At the “fourth watch” of the night (just before dawn, foreshadowing the time of Jesus’ resurrection) Jesus walks physically over the stormy waves, the symbol of death, calling out to his disciples that he is not a ghost–not less than human–but rather something even greater. The typical translation “It is I” misses the portentous ego eimi of the Greek, or “I AM.”

Peter’s excursion onto the waves shows how Jesus’ power over death is not the preserve of Christ alone. Humanity too is invited to share in Jesus’ resurrection power and everlasting inheritance.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Proper 15 (20)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The Canaanite woman (the “Syrophoenician woman” in Mark) is among the most frequently abused biblical stories today. Jesus’ nativist prejudices are not challenged by a woman’s sarcastic advocacy for herself. Rather, Jesus intentionally puts her radical humility on display to instruct the Jews about the meaning of saving faith. However, modern preoccupations with intersectional status notwithstanding, the woman’s ethnic status is a critical detail in the story, so the preacher must walk a careful rhetorical line, straying neither to the “colorblind” right or the social grievance-obsessed left.

Being a Canaanite, one of the peoples originally driven out of the promised land, put this woman at the bottom in the eyes of the Jews, and she would have had every reason to be resentful. Nevertheless, she has left her country to seek Jesus out, addressing him with the messianic honorific “Son of David” and responds to an intentionally belittling remark from Jesus (“dogs” likely being a common anti-Gentile slur which Jesus repeats, possibly softening it to “little dogs”) by gladly accepting dishonor if only it would result in God’s salvation, manifested in the near term as the exorcism of her daughter.

Thus, it is the woman’s childlike forgetfulness of her status before men and the grievances of the past that exemplifies her faith–given the rare honor of great by the Lord, contrasting with the little faith commonly attributed to his disciples–and this is the polar opposite of the sort of fashionable grievance-mongering prescribed to everyone today, which is just the storing up of another kind of social currency of “victimhood.”

In the end, the Lord is not content to merely throw the woman a scrap, as the disciples would have done in verse 23, but instead uses the situation to honor her over and above the chosen people, giving her a foretaste of the blessing that will come to all the Gentiles through him. Because the Jews have presumed on God’s favor as “the chosen” they are at risk of being excluded from the kingdom altogether. The poor and marginalized are to be considered blessed because they are most frequently free of the many species of pride that come from of birth, wealth, and status, making them especially open to receiving God’s blessings. Woe then to the rich of high station who trust in worldly wealth which decays and glory in the honors that die with them. The last, indeed, will be first.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Proper 16 (21)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Peter says more than just that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the “Christ,” but also that he is the Son of the Living God. This means that Peter understands Jesus to be more than just an especially glorious human being commissioned by God, but the Son of God himself. “He will be my son” reads God’s promise to David in 1 Chronicles 17:13. Likewise, we are not to regard Jesus’ words and ways as merely good advice from a great human teacher, but as coming from God himself.

However, this confession can only come from the inspiration of God: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Even addressing Peter’s parentage speaks to this, as “Jonah” is also the Hebrew word for “dove.” Peter then is truly a son of the Spirit to have made this confession.

So it is with all the baptized, that confessing and believing the divinity of Jesus Christ proves that we have spiritual parentage, and have been adopted into the life of the same heavenly Father who sent the Son.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Proper 17 (22)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Peter goes from high to low in just a few short verses. For denying the way of the Cross, and trying to dissuade Jesus from following the same, Peter takes on the role of the Tempter, even if unwittingly. Jesus’ harsh reaction shows that a great deal is at stake not only Jesus’ saving atonement, but also the life his disciples expect to live.

The Cross is not only for Jesus but for anyone who would follow him. Suffering for the sake of the kingdom is a requirement for coming after Jesus, and the broad way that avoids suffering leads not to resurrection but to destruction.

Today, the health and wealth message that says that God is waiting on the right amount of faith to “bless” you with riches or success, and its more cultivated cousin, in which following Jesus is really the path to unlocking one’s inner potential are the very Satanic counterfeits the Lord demands be put behind us. Nothing is more fatal to Christian discipleship than misconceiving it as the path to a better earthly life. Suffering is not the obstacle in the Christian’s path, it is the Way itself.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Proper 18 (23)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Jesus’ practices for reconciliation and discipline ought to be understood as pertaining to very serious matters of notorious sin where the health of the community is at stake, and it is not to be understood as a license for the church to resolve any conflict without the involvement of civil authorities when appropriate.

Still, membership in the community of faith is a matter of eternal significance, for “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18). Jesus is speaking about keeping earthly order within the heavenly community of faith. His process is one that avoids escalation, seeking to correct and reconcile without shaming or embarrassing the person in error, and seeking the offender’s repentance and return. The final measure of excommunication is to be taken only if the person persists in sinful behavior even against the will of the entire local community. Such a level of willful recalcitrance makes exclusion the only available step to remove the threat of a malign influence influencing others in the community to sin.

The preacher will need to walk a narrow way between those in the audience who are over eager to exercise what they suppose to be spiritual discipline and those who are repulsed by the very notion that their local church community claims any authority over their lives at all. The preacher would do well, regarding verse 17, to point out that Jesus pursued tax collectors and Gentiles with genuine love in order to invite them into his kingdom, but the price of entry was not remaining tax collectors, nor living like Gentiles.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Proper 19 (24)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The preacher will not find it difficult for their audience to understand and accept the moral logic of the parable of the unforgiving debtor. Drawing attention to the imbalance of the debts forgiven intensifies the message. Unforgiveness is so utterly alien to the Christian because it requires a forgetfulness or unappreciation of the debts God has forgiven us and the life he promises us. Unforgiveness then, requires a level of functional atheism that so directly imperils the soul that we can understand why Jesus warns his disciples that unless they forgive, they will be damned.

On the other hand, remembrance of the depth of our forgiveness leads us to love those who have wronged us. In this way, the believer imitates God and so their sanctification is furthered. Wrongs done to us, and the debts they incur, become opportunities to fill them up with God’s love, forgiving as he forgave us.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Proper 20 (25)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


As in so many of Jesus’ parables, there is a macro and a micro level. On the broader view, we see him addressing Jewish superciliousness over Gentiles who would seek God. Because they do not receive with joy, the latecomers end up getting their wage ahead of them (cf. Matt. 21:31). Like the elder brother in Luke 15, those who grumble betray their unappreciation of God’s generosity and are disrespectful of his will. They reveal that their enjoyment of their wage comes from their status relative to others, not the gift itself. In the same way, individuals who look sideways at latecomers and converts reveal that their religion is of an entirely human cast. Yet God’s choice is to grant the same wage. As the owner of the vineyard and the money, he can do what he likes with it, and demanding his salvation be distributed on a graduated scale is to devalue the gift.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Proper 21 (26)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The two Gospel episodes are distinct sections connected by their reference to the authority of John the Baptist.

In the first, Jesus successfully traps the temple priests in the same sort of double-bind that they unsuccessfully attempted to trap him. They reveal that they cannot recognize the commission of God when its marks are before their eyes: the “way of uprightness” (v. 32) and Jesus’ miracles and works of healing (see John chs. 5-10).

In the parable of the two sons, Jesus makes plain that his standard for inclusion in the Kingdom of God is not an outward show of godliness but the capacity to recognize the voice of the Lord and obey it.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Proper 22 (27)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The remarkable thing about the wicked tenants is how dim they are. To think that killing the heir of the landowner would result in them seizing the vineyard is fantasy. But such as it is to scheme against the living God.

Jesus, aware of the plots of the Temple officials, warns them that their plan will not succeed, and that their status as God’s people will pass to outsiders. Although they get the message, they go on plotting anyway, sealing their own destruction.

The preacher may use this parable to point out how, in the present day, our own petty attempts at wresting control of our own lives and churches, our “vineyards,” away from God’s control can only meet with the same disaster. By tolerating sin, we crucify Christ all over again and forfeit our status as trusted partners in God’s work on earth. Being the masters of our own vineyards and attempting to kick God out of them is a boneheaded plan, destined for failure.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Proper 23 (28)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The parable of the wedding feast shifts the focus from the Jews who reject God to those who accept him under false pretenses. The one who not only accepts Christ’s free gift of grace but clothes himself in his righteousness will be saved (cf. 7:21) Works of mercy are not ours alone but are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The guest does not earn his garment, but rather is “chosen” (cf. Eph. 2:10).

The thing to emphasize is how, although it may feel like effort, our good works flow from our participation in Christ, rather than our best efforts alone. The result of the invitation is a changed life and a new identity, which may set us apart on earth, but is the ordinary dress of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Proper 24 (29)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees on paying taxes continues to befuddle and elude both modern activists and patriots. Jesus did indeed endorse dutiful paying of taxes, and therefore offering some level of submission and legitimacy to the ruling authorities. That this is what Jesus meant by “render unto Caesar” is confirmed by the fact that Christians in the Early Church were noted for voluntarily and honestly paying their taxes, an anomaly in a world that all but expected graft and corruption.

However, by “rendering unto God” Jesus subtly and inescapably prohibits the sort of jingoism that would subordinate the believer’s citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven to that of the City of Man. In “rendering unto God the things that are God’s” the Lord makes an implicit analogy between the coin made in Caesar’s image, and the human being made in God’s image. Therefore, the whole body belongs to God, and indeed this explains why Christians, though dutiful taxpayers, also went to the gallows just as dutifully when they refused to conform to the Empire’s unjust and impious laws.

As of this writing, the American church is in a state of political panic. On the one hand, many are certain that “Christian Nationalism” has overtaken American religious sensibilities and made them subordinate to the state. On the other hand, others are just as certain that the spiritual truths of the gospel have been traded for a tradition of cheap activism, no less captive to political interests.

The Lord focuses us on the true north in between these false paths. Recognizing ruling authorities and obeying them as far as is lawful while reserving ownership of the self for God alone is the real attitude Christians are to have for human authorities. Ultimately, no matter how fond we may feel for our nations and communities, we are after all created in God’s image, not man’s, and our real task is to offer ourselves to him, and not to men.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Proper 25 (30)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The Greatest Commandment is an executive summary of the whole of the Jewish Law. Jesus is asked, not to name one of the Commandments, but for the principle that undergirds the whole. This, Jesus says, is love, both of God and neighbor.

God’s plan for human life is not legalistic but integrated, a whole life of “heart, soul, and mind” devoted to God and others. Self-giving love is the bonding agent that binds the scaffold of individual commands together. Augustine’s often misinterpreted quote “Love and do as you will” has this in mind. If you love truly, then you will not be contradicting the Law, but living it out in its fullness.

Not content merely to give a new teaching, Jesus uses the scriptures in the next section to illuminate his own identity. Psalm 110, which was for the Pharisees a universally recognized messianic passage, carries a curious feature hiding in plain sight. Typically, a father (or ancestor) would be reckoned greater than his son. However, Jesus points out that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, calls his son “Lord.” Therefore, the Messiah, the Son of David is greater than his father. This is Jesus beginning to reveal his divine identity.

It is not only that the Lord is a great teacher, Jesus himself undergirds the Law in his divinity. Therefore, the teachings we receive from him are directly from God and greater than what has come before. Moreover, these teachings point us ultimately to him and his identity, not just as a pattern for our own conduct, but God’s self-disclosure: the Messiah given for us. Truly following the law of God is to receive Jesus Christ, love incarnate.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Proper 26 (31)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The only source of authority in the Kingdom of Heaven is God himself, and it is the imitation of God that is the mark of true authority, not honorifics, nor even accurate teaching.

Believers’ common recognition of one head in Christ makes them equals on earth. Jesus’ point is not that no one should ever be given the title of teacher or father, but that these titles should not compete with God the Father and Lawgiver. Therefore, no Christian should be eager for spiritual authority, since those who lead must actively put themselves in last place.

For pastors today, the temptation toward honors and visibility increases as their profession wanes in social respectability. The desire for a “platform” can outstrip the imperative of pastoral care of souls and paying attention to the least in the congregation. Christ’s teaching is unambiguous, that if a leader is not willing to place themselves in a position of dishonor for the sake of the sheep, then they are disqualified from spiritual leadership in the kingdom, the example being Christ’s own humiliation on the Cross.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Proper 27 (32)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


The parable of the ten virgins sits uncomfortably with many Protestant Christians used to the idea that perseverance unto the end is a guarantee for the believer. The parable, clearly addressed to those who hope in Christ, rebukes passivity as presumption. The attitude of the believer is to be watchful for the Master’s return.

And yet, the Lord does more than warn us. The “helper” of the Holy Spirit aids us in our present watchfulness, calling to mind all the Lord said and did. Hence, we are not left alone to cultivate the proper attitude. The oil that fills our lamps is the Spirit of Christ himself, and because he is with us, we can live our lives in hopeful anticipation of his coming.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Proper 28 (33)—Season after Pentecost, Year A


Like the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents ties the conduct of earthly life to heavenly reward or punishment. Characteristically, Jesus spins the previous parable to give a new emphasis: If the parable of the ten virgins is about disposition, then the parable of the talents is about action. Our lives are given to us by God to invest. The kingdom is an expansionist movement, and those entrusted with its assets are to yield a return.

The preacher would do well to leave detailed theological discussions of faith and works to one side in order to let the Lord’s warning come through. Though it would be just as well to dwell on those who gained a return than the lazy servant who did not. Even those given little can add value to the kingdom. It is not the amount of yield that qualifies one for the kingdom, but that it was expected and worked for. Our labor for the Lord is substantially connected to saving faith in him.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

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