Author Archives: revmaryaustin

Narrative Lectionary: Glory, then Guts (Luke 9:28-45)

Like eating a big pile of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, we gorge on glory before we enter the somber season of Lent.  The Transfiguration story fills us up with mystery before the Lent’s fare of sacrifice and approaching death.

Read the text here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

Death and glory mingle together in this story, as Jesus moves toward the end of his life.  “About eight days after these sayings,” our story begins, making us wonder…what sayings.  Before this, Jesus has announced that his death is coming, and that following him involves more sacrifice than anyone really wants.  Then he says, “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”  The glory at the top of the mountain foretells the glory to come, but I have to wonder if the disciples thought they were dying right then and there, on the mountain.  Looking at the glory of God embodied in Jesus, they do get a taste of death, as promised.

They’re surrounded by the cloud of God’s presence, and it overshadows them.  When the angel announces to Mary that she will have a child, the angel uses the same word — the power of God will overshadow her.  The word overshadow shows up only four times in the Christians scriptures, and two of the four are in Luke (plus another in Acts.)  Each time, there is a sense of power being transferred.  The three disciples are being prepared for the sacrifice and death ahead, but they are also being covered by the power of God.

The deep mystery of God’s presence is always fleeting, giving way to the concerns of ordinary life.  Just a day after they hear God’s voice, Jesus and the three disciples hear another voice, this time a desperate father, begging for help.  With Jesus away, the other disciples haven’t been able to heal the man’s son.  The unclean spirit within him has triumphed.   Jesus has a strong rebuke before he heals the boy, and we can’t tell if he’s talking to the father, the disciples or the whole crowd gathered around.   He announces his coming betrayal again, but the disciples don’t understand.  Perhaps they’re still stinging from being called  a “faithless and perverse generation,” and they’re afraid to ask Jesus what he means.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all preserve this Transfiguration story, with the healing story following it, but only Luke has the detail about James, John and Peter being sleepy.  Their fatigue here evokes their sleepiness with Jesus in the garden at the end of his life.  Here they manage to stay awake and see Jesus in his glory, but there in the garden they fall asleep and leave him alone in his distress.  On both occasions, Jesus sets out to pray, and from that intention, dramatic things happen.

Just like our own lives, the Transfiguration story holds a mixture of mystery, grandeur and sleepiness, followed by human need and our inability to meet it fully.  At the edge of Lent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness and prayer, and we follow him into a way of sacrifice, looking for glimpses of transcendence along the way.

Sermon possibilities:

  • As Jesus prays on the mountain, some of the disciples are left behind. The drama below starts as they fail in their efforts to heal the boy.  Jesus says later that their failure is related to prayer – this kind of work can only be done through prayer.  The sermon might look at the connection between prayer and the work we hope to do in God’s name.
  • The sermon might explore the theme of being sleepy or awake. To which parts of God are we asleep?  Where are we awake to what God is doing?   Is God waking us up, or do we need to wake ourselves up?
  • In a season of deep personal distress, Pastor and public theologian Jennifer Bailey recalls that the pain was so great that she “folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest. Yet, as I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emerged…Rocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, “I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.” Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mama’s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, “Baby, we ain’t never been safe”.  In a similar way, in a time when Jesus has announced that there is no safety for those who follow him, Jesus and the disciples experience the presence of Moses and Elijah, their ancestors in faith.  The sermon might look at how we find our ancestors’ presence and strength in difficult days.
  • Tracy Cochran writes “In Buddhism, a definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. The root of the word patience is a Latin verb for “suffer,” which in the ancient sense meant to hold, not to grasp but to bear, to tolerate without pushing away. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It means being attentive, willing to be available to what is happening, going on seeing, noticing how things change. When we aren’t wishing for something to be over, or when we aren’t freezing around an idea about what it is we are seeing, we see and hear more.” How do the disciples keep their faith at the bottom of the mountain, as well as at the top?  How do we?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  Let us know in the comments section below.  We look forward to a conversation with you!

 

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Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church, a diverse Presbyterian church in the city of Detroit.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time about her Detroit adventures at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from the Jesus MAFA series from Cameroon, and is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.  See more: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Friday Festival: Desires

February is the month of longing.

In a long winter, we long for sunshine.  In unusual political times, we long for clarity.  Valentine’s Day can leave us longing for love, companionship, or just a really fantastic cupcake.  If we raced straight from Advent to preparations for Lent, we long for quiet, and a moment to breathe.  If surgery has been on the schedule, we long to move without pain, and to feel energetic again.

Our wise bloggers write about different desires this week.

New mom Traci Smith is longing for us all to have some sense when we talk to pregnant women.  We’ve all learned not to pat pregnant women on the belly (we have, haven’t we?) but we haven’t learned what to say.  Smith says that people still say things like “Wow, you’re enormous!”  Or, perhaps, “Wow, I hope you don’t have the baby right here!” “Are you sure there’s only one baby in there?” “You’re gigantic!” “You look like you’re about to pop!”  Smith adds, “Unsolicited comments about the size of one’s belly are never welcome, but for some reason, people feel like pregnancy is an exception to this rule. Few people would walk up to an overweight person and say “Wow, you’re ENORMOUS!” Yet to pregnant women, it happens all the time. Baffling.”

Spoiler alert:  Smith advises that the proper comment, for all situations, even when something else pops into our minds, is: “How are you feeling?” or “You look beautiful/healthy/happy/wonderful/radiant” or “How is everything?”

Valentine’s Day can be blissful – or hard.  Tara Ulrich longs for a wider understanding of the day, and for us all to see our worth outside of traditional romantic pairs.  She reminds us, “today especially I need each of you to continually remind me that I am one of God’s beloved. I need to know that my life isn’t wrapped up in my singleness. I need to be reminded continually that I’m not past my prime. I also need to be reminded that there is even beauty in the uncertainty of it all. (So much easier said than done)…I’m single. Not sick, not a problem and not past my prime. So please don’t pity me on Valentine’s Day, because today of all days, I need your help to remember that my value doesn’t rest in a relationship status, in a box of chocolates or in a red rose. It rests in the fact that no matter what lies ahead of me, I am God’s beloved and His plans for me far exceed the feelings of a day.”

A longing for certainty leads us to interpret some scriptures as fixed, set as guidance for all times and places.  Professor Wil Gafney sets that aside and begins with the provocative title “Jesus Rewrites Scripture and So Can We.”  Looking at the scriptures from Matthew 5 where Jesus says things like, “You have heard it said…but I say…” Gafney reminds us that Rabbi Jesus is interpreting the scriptures as he teaches.

She adds: “Jesus is our example in all things. He is out teacher, our rabbi. We are to do what he did to the best of our ability. In this case, that means we are to wrestle with scripture, wrestle with the meaning, and when necessary, wrestle a blessing out of it, which means wrestling with those bruising passages that have been used to hurt us and so many others. That includes some of today’s lesson, verses of which have been used to keep folk in unsafe marriages, or ostracize other marriages, even in church.”

A longing for perfection leads Rachael Keefe to reflect on her lack of singing ability, and then to realize that the desire to sing is part of a deeper issue.  She shares with us that “It was the desire to be perfect that was my personal demon. If I’m honest, it still is on occasion. During my teen years, I was so enamored with the idea of perfection that I nearly traded my life for it. I was driven by the idea that if I were perfect, then I would not feel pain and I would be loved.”

In a stable job, we long for room to be creative.  As freelancers, we long for stability.  MaryAnn McKibben Dana explores the different joys of being, as she calls it, “a free-range pastor.”  For anyone pondering a change of vocation, she says, “I love my quirky unofficial parish. I’ve been called upon to pastor people in a whole range of settings: walking the kids home from school with a gaggle of parents, via Facebook message, and even while running—trying to explain the Reformation while running a hilly eleven-miler was a special challenge.”

What are you longing for in these February days?  Let us know, and share your hopes, in the comments section below.

 

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Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Narrative Lectionary: Deep Water (Luke 5:1-11)

fish-and-feet-from-coventry-cathedral

Within a short time, Simon Peter has three experiences of Jesus’ power.  Just before this, Jesus has healed his mother-in-law from a fever.  Now he hears Jesus teach. Finally, Jesus sends him back out, after a night without catching any fish, to try again.  The huge haul of fish finally breaks Peter’s mind open about Jesus.  The healing was received with joy, no doubt.  The teaching may have been compelling, at least the parts he heard while he continued to mend his nets and worry about the night with the empty nets.  But now Jesus has Peter’s attention.

Read the scripture here.

Find the Working Preacher commentary here.

When Jesus presence allows them to catch way more fish than they think is possible, Simon Peter reacts with shame.  He urges Jesus to get away from him, “for I am a sinful man.” Peter knows that he is experiencing more than fish – he’s getting a glimpse of the divine, breaking into the ordinary world of fishing.   It evokes the later moment, after Peter has been with Jesus for a long time, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, because Peter’s understanding then is so limited.  In this early moment, Peter sees clearly who stands before him.

Peter breaks out of the routine of the fishing boat to acknowledge Jesus.  While everyone else is hauling in the catch, while the boat is still in danger of sinking, Peter lets go of the nets to fall on his knees in front of Jesus.  He is overwhelmed by what he sees – and he trusts Jesus enough to know that the boat isn’t going to sink.  In that moment, Jesus takes priority over fishing.  In that moment, Peter’s life changes.  Jesus gets Peter’s attention by beating him at his own game – by being a better fisherman than even Peter is.  With this display, Jesus proves to be worthy of Peter’s time, attention and finally his life.

Fishing in Jesus’ time was a highly regulated system, where licenses were purchased and had to be paid for.  A night of catching no fish is not just a disappointment, it’s an economic stress.  When Peter, James and John leave their nets to follow Jesus, they’re stepping out of a rigid, economically demanding system into a life of more freedom — and also more risk.  Jesus is offering them a change of vocation, and also a change of identity.  Family groups often fished together, and Jesus is pulling them out of that familiar, family-based life, into a new family group.  His telling them not to be afraid is a well-timed word  – they’re leaving the trade and relatives they know for something completely unknown.

Jesus doesn’t end this exploitative system, but he offers a different vision of it to Simon, James and John – and they have the courage to accept his offer of something different.  The large catch is more than a display – it also leaves the families left behind with an economic cushion.  Jesus is taking the men away from their work, and he leaves behind a practical gift, a way for the families to pay the bills that are due.

Stepping out of everything familiar into a whole new life is an act of tremendous daring.  Often in the gospels, the disciples look like clueless bumblers, but they show great spiritual and economic courage here.  May we have the same, as we follow Jesus into new ways of living.

Sermon possibilities:

  • Peter is unmoved by whatever Jesus is talking about in the boat, but he recognizes the divine spirit in Jesus when he sees the miracle of the huge catch of fish. In this action, Jesus speaks to Peter in Peter’s own language.  If we are fishers for people in our own time, how do we speak to people in ways they understand?
  • Jesus intervenes in a rigid economic system and draws people out of it. How might our work do the same?  How do we, as congregations, step into systems that exploit people, and work toward another way of doing business?   Attentive congregations serve free trade coffee, but what steps can we take beyond that?  Catholic Relief Services and Fair Trade USA have some starting suggestions.
  • Jesus moves from the shallow water to the deep water, and our spiritual lives often follow the same pattern. Where do you notice your congregation, or yourself, moving into deeper water with Jesus?
  • How do Peter, James and John find the courage to move out of their old lives into the new life that Jesus offers? How do they manage the fury of family left behind to do all the work, and the complaint that they’re abandoning their responsibilities?  How do we find the nerve to follow God’s call in unexpected ways?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to hear your thoughts, and to continue the conversation in the comments section below.

Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.  The image above is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition and is from Coventry Cathedral.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Friday Festival: Buh-Bye 2016, Hello 2017

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For some, the end of 2016 means stocking up on champagne and chips.  For others, this is the time to reflect on the old year, and make plans for the coming year.  Some of us are letting out a sigh of relief at the end of a tough year, and others are dreading the year to come.

What plans, dreams, worries or intentions are leading you into the brand new year ahead of us?  Our blogging friends have wisdom to share.

Ruth Everhart shares her practice of choosing a personally meaningful phrase to guide her through each new year.  Past choices have included “Be Lighthearted and Gracious,” while doing the difficult work of writing her memoir, Ruined.  Other years have been guided by “Do the Work,” and “Love the Work.”  She’s pondering the right phrase for 2017.  What would yours be, if you chose one?

At The Wisdom Years, Mary Elyn Bahlert reminds us of the beauty of looking back at our lives, turning our memories over to see them from different angles.  She writes, “The longest night of darkness has passed, and we begin again the cycle of new light that begins at winter solstice.  The seasons pass quickly…Now that I have entered the wisdom years, I remember other times of my life…Sometimes I choose to look into those events and times again, looking more carefully, from a distance, a distance in time.  I can see my life as seasons, also.”

At Creo in Dios, Susan Stabile leads us away from thinking about accomplishment toward the practice of contentment.  She notes that “Hygge” is a Danish term defined as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment and well-being.”  It has also been described as “a feeling or mood that comes taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary, every day moments beautiful or special,” and “the art of creating intimacy, either with yourself, friends and your home.”  Perhaps that’s what we should cultivate in 2017.

If you’re pondering a New Year’s resolution related to your health, at The Thoughtful Pastor, Christy Thomas reveals that walking changed her life this year.  She walked thousands of miles, using the walks as prayer time.  Along the way, she came to understand many things, including the truth that “Losing weight and keeping it off is the privilege of the well-to-do.”

While juggling the demanding work of parenting small children, Messy Jesus Business also claims our attention, and reveals the presence of the holy.  Amy Nee-Walker reflects on the fact that Jesus was nursed by his mother, which prompts a thought about how “Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.”  The coming year invites us all to nurse the presence of Christ – to feed and nurture the divine presence in the world, in our work as parents or friends or pastors, or all of the above.

At the year’s close, April Yamasaki invites us toward gratitude to God with a prayer that will work for a gathering of friends, worship or private reading.

New Year blessings to all!  Let us know your own reflections on 2016, and plans, intentions and prayers for 2017 in the comments section below.

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Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Narrative Lectionary: Born in the Night, Mary’s Child (Luke 2:1-20)

heqi_013-medium-jpg-nativity            The story of Jesus’ birth is so well known that even Saturday Night Live can parody it, assuming that their audience will know the story.  Twice-a-year church attenders, college students dragged to church while home on winter break, and our Jewish neighbors all know this story.  Is there anything left to say about it, or can we just skip straight to the Christmas carols?

Working Preacher commentary for Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Read the scripture here.

The mental images are deeply familiar – the weary couple who have traveled a long way, the baby, the angel shining with the glory of God, and the bewildered but faithful shepherds, each playing their part in God’s story.  We recreate the story in children’s pageants, carols and with crèche sets, and we know it almost by heart.

Rev. Ian Paul says that our mental picture is all wrong – he argues that we mis-translate the word kataluma in Luke 2.7. “Older versions translate this as ‘inn’…There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home.”  There’s no room for the couple in this place where guests are lodged, so they are moved upstairs to the family’s private quarters, Paul suggests.  He adds that it would be unlikely that the young couple would be left alone.  “It would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives.”  We can shift our mental picture from Mary and Joseph, all alone, to imagining them with family around them.

The shepherds never fail to fascinate.  They experience something they have never seen before – an angel’s visit – and take it in so fully that they leave their work and head out of the fields to see the baby.  I always wonder if they left one shepherd behind to watch the sheep.  Did one person miss out on this life-changing experience?  Or was there one shepherd who thought everyone else was crazy, and was more than willing to stay behind?

Luke clearly has a deep concern for the lowly and impoverished, but I also wonder if people at the edge of life have more ability to take in God’s presence because they’re not distracted by so many other things.  If the angel had visited the chief rabbi, or the town elders, or the most prosperous merchants in town, I wonder if they would have been able to hear the same message.  Or would the pressing needs of faith or business have kept them from hearing?  Would they have needed to go and see the baby later, when everything else on their lists was done?

Luke does an interesting balancing act.  He connects Jesus to the family of King David, who evokes the glory days of Israel’s past.  He also connects him to the poor, the sorrowful and the outcasts, proclaiming that God’s good news is especially for them.  His birth calls us back to God’s concern for all who are in need, and awakens awe in our lives again.  The story is old, but amazement at God’s surprises is always new.  The characters and the action are familiar.  Waking up to the wonder of God’s determined presence in our world never grows old.

Sermon possibilities:

  • If Jesus is born into a family setting, surrounded by concerned people, does that change our understanding of his birth? Do we see him, or his parents, differently?
  • How did the shepherds find the courage to leave the fields and head into town to see something so unusual? The angel’s message is completely out of their frame of reference, unlike anything they have known before.  How do they manage to make sense of it, and act on it?  What combination of courage and ability to see something brand new is necessary for their faith – or ours?
  • If God spoke to us today, would we be able, or willing, to drop everything and go see what God was doing? Or are we too busy for revelation?  Or too weary, too disheartened, or too suspicious?
  • How is Christmas new for you, or your congregation, this year? What new thing is God doing where you are?  What are people hurrying to see?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We’re eager to hear, and hope you’ll continue the conversation in the comments section.  Christmas blessings!

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Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.  The image above is The Nativity by Dr. He Qi, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Narrative Lectionary: Lions and Tigers and Prayers, Oh My! (Daniel 6:6-27)

Like a modern day reality TV show, the story of Daniel moves back and forth between the officials conspiring against him, the weak and easily swayed king, and Daniel himself.  While the officials plot and scheme, and the king struggles to use his power, Daniel is steadfast in his faith in God.  As Daniel’s story comes to us on the first Sunday of Advent, he prompts us to think about what it means to be faithful to God while other competing interests swirl around us.

Our story happens in the book of Daniel after Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego endure the fiery furnace, and there’s a change in power at the top.  Darius is a new king, but he hasn’t learned  from his predecessors not to mess with the power of the God of Israel.

Read the scripture here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

With all the plotting and scheming around him, Daniel has an enviable steadiness in his faith.  He’s aware of the new law passed to trap him, but he continues to pray on his regular schedule, in a visible place.  He doesn’t construct his faith to fit anyone around him.

Places of power and powerlessness pop up as the characters interact.  Daniel is an influential official in the court of King Darius, and also a stranger, who worships a foreign God.  The court officials force the king’s hand, hoping to get rid of Daniel, and ask the king for a law forbidding anyone to pray to anyone except the king for 30 days.  Then they force the king to enforce the law, in spite of his misgivings.  The king seems to be uncertain about how to use his power, and his officials are bossing him around like he’s in elementary school.  The king reluctantly puts Daniel in with the lions, leaving Daniel without any of his own power.  There, God’s power is revealed.  In his prayer of praise, the king notes the power of the lions – and the greater power of God.

In his anguish about Daniel, the king is sleepless and unable to eat, until he rushes to the lions’ den in the morning.  He calls out to Daniel to see whether God has saved him, and it seems that he’s expecting Daniel to be fine.  The king doesn’t peer nervously in – he calls out to Daniel, with the expectation of an answer.   Seeing Daniel alive and well prompts the king to acknowledge the God of Israel.  All through the story, his words have been hesitant and conflicted.  Now he speaks with clarity and purpose, praising God by saying:

“For he is the living God,
enduring for ever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.”

We begin Advent this year beset by national divisions and ugly politics, with a surge in hate crimes.  For anyone feeling discouraged about the election, Daniel shows us a way to live our faith in a time of exile.  For anyone rejoicing about the election, the king’s officials and the king show us how power can be used to punish, or how to proclaim God’s mercy.  The words of a foreign king remind us that the kingdom of our God is more enduring than rulers and presidents.  Advent begins with a call back to the power and grace of God.

 

Sermon possibilities:

  • King Darius doesn’t seem to recognize, or want to use, the power he has. He’s pushed around for most of the story.  None of us are kings or queens (that I know of…) but still we have different kinds of power in the world.  How do we use the power we have to proclaim our God?   In what places is our power blocked?  Where do we find God’s power at work in our lives?
  • The king expects God to triumph over the lions – and over his own inertia. Do we expect God’s victory over indifference and evil in our world?  Or are we not quite sure?
  • Are there places where we, like Daniel, live in a time or place of exile? Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have famously said [in Resident Aliens: Life in Christian Colony] that we, as Christians, always live in a different world than the powers around us.  Hauerwas and Willimon say, “The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession”. The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor.”  How does Daniel teach us about turning toward God, instead of toward the world’s shifting powers?
  • If Advent is about paying attention, watching for God’s presence in the world, where are we finding God in the midst of turmoil this Advent?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?   Share your thoughts in the comments section below.  We would love to continue the conversation with you.

 

Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.  The image above is from the National Gallery of Art’s Open Images program, and is Peter Paul Rubens’ Daniel In the Lions’ Den.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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Narrative Lectionary: The Scroll of Your Heart (Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; then 31:31-34)

God’s message rarely gets through the first time.  The prophet Jeremiah understands God’s peculiar timing, and is willing to keep repeating God’s message.  God is persistent, and the people who work for God are called to live that persistence, too.  Jeremiah has already demonstrated his own persistence by buying a field in a doomed city. (Chapter 32)  Now he has a message for the people and for the king.

Read the scripture here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

Moving from the prophet Isaiah last week, to Jeremiah this week, God continues to seek the people’s attention, and their faithfulness.  If the house of Judah hears from God, they may yet change course.  The prophet Jeremiah has acted out God’s message, and now God’s word comes on a scroll, dictated by the prophet Jeremiah, and then written and delivered by Baruch.

Interestingly, the people get to hear the message before the king does.  To hear God’s word, the king has to send for the scroll.

Curiously, the king doesn’t have the whole scroll burned immediately.  He listens to each section, and throws it into the fire, as if caught between wanting to hear that God and the prophet have to say, and wanting to stop up his ears and ignore the whole thing.  We can’t tell if he just wants to hear what the people have already heard, or if he’s interested in what God has to say.  We don’t know if he’s burning the sections as a sign of defiance, or in despair that he won’t be able to comply with what God is saying.  He is caught between what is and what should be.

Jeremiah understands that God’s plans move slowly.  He himself is confined in the palace (32:2) and he manages to speak God’s word of freedom through his own place in prison.  Before this God has announced: “See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me? 28Therefore, thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hands of the Chaldeans and into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall take it.”  (32:27-28)  Destruction will come before restoration, but God continues to promise renewal. “Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them.”  (32:42)  God is thorough, but not quick.

The readings move backward in the scriptures to end with a word of hope.  Despair and forgetfulness are never the last word for God.  Earlier the prophet has promised us a connection between our weeping and our restoration.  “Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.” (31:15-17)

God promises a new covenant, when fragile, temporary scrolls won’t be needed anymore because God’s law will live in our hearts.  We won’t need a book or a tablet or a scroll.  We won’t need someone to read it to us, or teach it to us.  We won’t need an intermediary.  No ruler will be able to do away with God’s word simply by burning it up.  It will live fully in our hearts.

We haven’t arrived there yet, but God’s promises still stand.  In a time when our own country is buffeted by violence in words and actions, when we seem to be overtaken by a spirit of division, God’s word comes back to us through the prophet.  The invaders at our gate are the inner armies of hatred and separation, but God’s promises endure for those who are willing to hear, and to live with God’s persistence.

Sermon possibilities:

·         Jeremiah is a prophet who acts out his messages from God, in addition to using words.  How do we embody God’s promises, as we convey them to people?  When the world is awash in chatter, how do we enact God’s word?

·         God is not deterred after the first scroll is burned.  God and Jeremiah join forces again to write the same message on a second scroll.  The sermon might look at the spiritual discipline of perseverance, and how badly we need that as we collaborate with God on God’s plans.  God’s work is slow, and we inevitably meet setbacks.  How can we maintain our energy and focus in doing God’s work?  How do we avoid becoming discouraged?

·         The king has God’s words read to him, but he isn’t able to take in the message.  He can’t hear what God is saying.  The sermon might look at the places where we can’t hear what God is saying, and explore what gets in our way.

·         God’s message comes through Jeremiah and Baruch, as a team effort.  Neither one could deliver the message alone.  The sermon might explore how God’s work requires us to work together.  If each one of us only has only part of the talent God needs, how do we collaborate on God’s work?  What talents do we need to complement our own?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.

Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church.  Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.  The image above is the prophet Jeremiah, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.

Categories: Narrative Lectionary | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Narrative Lectionary: God Would Rather Rent than Own (2 Samuel 7:1-17)

covenant-by-alexander-libermanBuy the best house, in the best location, that you can afford, conventional wisdom tells us.  But God, it turns out, doesn’t want to be pinned down.

Read the scripture passage here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

After years of war and chaos, now David is the king, ready to do kingly things.  Once he’s settled, first on his list is building a house for God.  The first king, Saul, has been killed in battle, along with his son and David’s companion, Jonathan.   The tribes of Israel ask David to be their king (5:3) and David solidifies his hold on the nation by taking the city of Jerusalem in battle.  The stronghold of Zion is now called the city of David.  (5:7)

After years of battle, David settles in one place, in a house built for him by the King of Tyre.  Living in a house, being in one place without the need to go out to battle, allows David to understand that he really is the king now.  “David then perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.”  After a last battle with the Philistines, David sends for the Ark of the Covenant, ready to bring it to Jerusalem.

Comfortable in his own home, David starts to think about a building to house the ark.  It feels wrong to him to live in comfort, while the ark, holding the presence of God, is still in a tent.  The prophet Nathan carries God’s words to David, speaking for God to say that God has been on the move for a long time now.  The divine presence has traveled with the people in a tent from Sinai, through all of their travels, into this new land, through the time of the judges.  The holy presence has never been contained in a building, and God is not ready to settle into a fixed dwelling place even now.  David might be settled, but God doesn’t want to be yet.

God reminds David that God is the one doing the building here.  God lists everything that God has done to build him up – turning him from shepherd to warrior to king.  God’s actions shifts from past to future, and we hear God make a covenant with David, promising to raise up future generations for David, to build up the nation, and to make sure the people are secure.  God will build up the household of David, giving the throne to David’s descendants.  Walter Brueggeman says that this “is the dramatic and theological center of the entire Samuel corpus . . . one of the most crucial texts in the Old Testament for evangelical faith.” (in  I and II Samuel, as cited by Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians)

Like Job, David is reminded of the magnificence of God, and of his own smallness, even though he is the king.  All of it depends on God, and the plans God has for him and for the nation.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “David, full of what he’s going to do for God, is now subjected to a comprehensive rehearsal of what God has done, is doing, and will do for and in David. What looked yesterday like a bold Davidic enterprise on behalf of God now looks picayune” (Leap Over a Wall)  David’s reaction to God’s “no” is to come back to the presence of God.  “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”  His response is not anger, but praise, remembering all that God has done for him.  He enters back into a place of humility before God.

Sermon possibilities:

  • The prophet Nathan first agrees with David about building a dwelling place for God, assuming that this will meet with God’s approval. Then God speaks up, and says no.  Have you experienced a “no” from God?  What was it like?  Painful?  A relief?  Embarrassing?
  • God says no to David’s desire to build a place to for the divine presence to dwell. Why do you think God says no?  Does God not want to be trading favors with David?  Is the glory of God too magnificent to be tamed and contained in a building?  Does God want to stay on the move a while longer?  Is God reminding David that they’re not equal, that God’s favor can’t be repaid?
  • Someone else will build God’s house, Nathan tells David. The sermon might explore how we know what God wants us to do, and how we let go of work that belongs to someone else.  Congregations are filled with resentful people who are doing too much, and bored people who don’t feel engaged.  How do we hear what God is truly asking us to do, and leave other people’s work to them?
  • Nathan brings God’s voice to David, bringing him news he doesn’t want to hear. How do we react to people who tell the unwanted, uncomfortable truth in our congregations, or in our shared public life?
  • Or the sermon might look at why David can’t hear God directly about this. Does he need someone else who knows God’s plans to keep him accountable?  Does the covenant need a witness?  Has all of the activity of the past years of battle dulled David’s ears to God?  The sermon might explore the times when we, too, need someone else to listen to God for us.
  • Where are your thoughts taking you this week? Please share in the comments section below.  We look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

Rev. Mary Austin serves as pastor of Westminster Church, a multi-cultural congregation in Detroit.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.


RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.


(Image above the sculpture “Covenant” is by Alexander Liberman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

Categories: Narrative Lectionary, RevGalBlogPals | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Narrative Lectionary: When Dreams Come True (Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21)

joseph-thrwon-into-the-pitJealousy.  Lies.  Bitterness. Favoritism.  Sibling squabbles.  A good family therapist could have saved Jacob, Joseph and the whole family a lot of trouble.  Suppose Jacob had learned not to show favorites among his sons, and to appreciate each one for who he was.  What if Joseph had learned not to be such a button-pushing brat?  And what if the brothers had practiced not letting him get under their skin?  The whole story of our faith might have changed.

Find the scripture here.

Read the Working Preacher commentary here.

Of all people, Jacob, now named Israel, should understand the destruction ahead when a parent loves one child more than another.  Jacob was once the younger brother who took the elder brother’s place, and now he has made one of his younger sons a favorite over the older brothers.  Joseph, the spoiled young son of the father’s old age, is sure enough of his father’s affection to lord it over his brothers.   He is seventeen, the story says, a young adult, old enough to know better, but he still runs to his father to tattle on his brothers.  His dream that they will one day bow down to him adds to their rage.  The angry brothers in this story echo the fury between Jacob and his own brother, Esau.

The brothers are so angry with Joseph that they can hardly think straight.  When the opportunity arises, they decide to kill him.  No wait, they’ll rescue him.  No, on second thought, they’ll sell him to some traveling traders.  And so off Joseph goes, and they believe they’ll never see him again.  They don’t confess the truth even when they see their father grieving day after day, believing the “evidence” that Joseph is dead.  In the face of their father’s pain, they stay silent.

After many years, and more dreams, a famine forces the brothers to come to Egypt to seek food.  A series of reunions happens, and finally the family is restored.  Seeming wiser now, Joseph is deeply emotional about seeing his brothers again.  As his long-ago dream promised, his brothers are now bowing to him.  Instead of reveling in that, Joseph wants something different now.  He seeks the long-lost connection with his family, knowing that what he didn’t value before has now become precious.

Looking back over the turbulent decades since their last meeting, Joseph announces that the plans they constructed for evil, God has used for good.   He offers his brothers a word of forgiveness, but the word also holds the echoes of the old relationship.  Joseph tells them, “have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”  If they’re seeking a family bond where all of the brothers are now equal, now that their father has died, that still hasn’t happened.

The story gives us an important part of Israel’s history as a people, and tells us about our ancestors in faith.  At the heart of the story is one fractured family, and God’s redemptive and gracious work.  The family ends the story as they started it – imperfect and anxious.  We can see clearly that this family at the foundation of our faith is much like our own families, and that God’s plans to continue to unfold through wildly imperfect people.

Sermon possibilities:

  • As the brothers conspire to get rid of Joseph, they say “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Joseph’s dreams circle around to fruition, but not in the way he imagined.  What dreams – either waking dreams or sleeping dreams – have come to life in unexpected ways for you?  For your community of faith?
  • What dream of God’s is your faith community seeking to bring to life?
  • In this story, God’s plans take decades to be revealed, and there’s pain and grief along the way that are not erased by the ending of the story. How long do we have to wait for the unfolding of God’s purposes?  What do we do while we wait?  Can we give the pain we experience its own meaning, in our stories?
  • Faith communities often act out family dynamics, with bossy older siblings and free-spirited younger siblings reprising familiar roles. Do you notice people in your community returning to old roles?  Do times of stress or worry kick you back into familiar patterns of your own?  Do you sense God at work in any of that?
  • Have you experienced being someone’s favorite child? Or being the less loved child?  How did that experience motivate you, or stunt you?  One of the redeeming experiences of faith is that we are all God’s favorite child.  Has this filled in any broken places for you, or someone you know?

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We’d love to hear your ideas, and to continue the conversation in the comments below.

 

Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church, a multi-cultural Presbyterian church in the city of Detroit.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

The image is “Joseph Thrown in the Pit,” artist unknown, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.
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Categories: Narrative Lectionary | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Monday Prayer

Creator God,

Olympic feats of skill and grit

remind us of our own physical triumphs,

rising from bed,

the joy of a morning stretch,

the feel of the floor under our feet,

or the whoosh of the scooter that takes us where we want to go.

Make us, we pray, mindful of the gift

of our steps,

our breath, in and out,

the feel of a chair, solid beneath us,

the food that sustains.

We are grateful for embodied gifts.

Bring grace, we ask, to all who find their bodies

painful,

frustrating,

shameful,

burdensome,

that we all may take in this day’s gifts.

In grateful wonder, we pray, Amen.

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The Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church, a diverse Presbyterian community in Detroit. She blogs at Stained Glass in the City.

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RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.


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