Monday, September 25, 2017

God is at Work in You – 1 October 2017 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 26

A number of questions hang in the air with these texts. What is authority? How do we judge it? Do words or actions matter more? What is the “mind of Christ”? How could we ever hope to have such a mind ourselves?

Lest the preacher get trapped by the impossibility of answering these questions adequately, let us all concentrate on the promise of God’s active presence among us. In that promise lies the final answer to all the questions that have no solution.

Matthew 21:23-32

The leaders’ question [to Jesus] about authority is not unreasonable. . . However, the real question. . . is not about [Jesus’] credentials but about the inability of the leaders to trust God’s Word when it appears. They rejected John’s call to repentance. They now reject Jesus. Jesus then tells this parable, which is unique to Matthew.

The heart of the matter is whether talk or actions are what really matter. Certainly, Jesus aligns the leaders who confront him with the son who agreed and then did not act. The tax collectors, sinners, and other riffraff. . . are aligned with the son who said no, but then acted anyway. As the leaders of the Temple answer with the obvious answer, they indict themselves and—here is the key to the question of authority—show themselves to be without authority to ask the question of Jesus in the first place.

. . . The good news here, and in all the passages, is that God is indeed acting in our midst to call us to new life. . . –– Timothy V. Olson

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

The exiles have fallen into a hopeless acceptance of exile as punishment for Israel’s past sins. The prophet will have none of it. In the form of a legal debate, Ezekiel challenges any feelings of unfairness the people may have toward God. Punishment is a consequence of rebellion.

Ezekiel also will not let them wallow in hopelessness. Despite the length of time spent on punishment in the chapter, it all drives to the redemptive word at the end. Repentance is possible because God does not desire punishment or death. God is a god of life and calls the people to turn and live. –– Timothy V. Olson

Philippians 2:1-13

While this passage is a highly Christological reading with the cross firmly planted in the middle as we read it every year in Lent, the current liturgical setting allows us to see the communal concerns perhaps a little more fully. The overall concern of the passage is unity and faithfulness.

Verses 1–4 use an “if, then” structure to lift up some marks of living a life in Christ that a community of disciples should bear. Consolation, compassion, encouragement, unity, humility and self-sacrifice are to be manifest if Christ is present in Spirit, and love is what guides the community.

Paul then uses the Christological hymn in 5–11 to show the way that this is possible. What is tricky here is how to translate verse 5. Some translations make this a call to conformity or imitation. Others make it out to be an openness to God’s work at empowering us to follow. The first puts the burden upon the faithful, the latter on the work of the Spirit. Either approach is a legitimate rendering of the Greek. However, if the argument is to square with verse 13, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you...” and 1:6, where Paul assures that God will complete the work begun in the Philippian community, one might choose the latter reading. This does not create a passive submission, however; these are still people on the journey of faith, capable of resistance and rejection. –– Timothy V. Olson

Timothy V. Olson is the Lead Pastor for Mission and Vision at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Ankeny, Iowa.

Homily Service 38, no. 10 (2005): 47-56.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Fusing the Natural World with Worship

A burgeoning concern of liturgical scholars and worship leaders has been to find ways to emphasize the gift of creation and the joy God’s word expresses about creatures and plants, water and earth itself. Scott Kershner explains here how he helped lead a mountain community to more fully welcome nature into worship. The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 4.

In 2010, I left eight years of parish ministry in Brooklyn, New York, to accept a call as pastor at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state. Surrounded at Holden by the Glacier Peak Wilderness, I went from one of the most densely urban places to one of the most remote sites in the continental United States. The challenge of pastoral ministry in a wilderness threw matters of ecology and liturgy into bold relief. The task of connecting liturgy and local ecology is a pastoral imperative in every setting. Holden Village’s wilderness context allowed me, as a pastor, to appreciate this urgency. . .  

Holden Village is located on the site of the company town of an abandoned copper mine, given to the Lutheran Church in the early 1960s. Getting to this mountain valley of stunning beauty requires a three-hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan, a fjord-like fifty-mile-long body of water largely unmarked by human presence, followed by a bumpy bus ride on an eleven-mile dead-end road into a glacier-carved valley. As an intentional community and retreat center, Holden is composed of the resident staff, volunteers, and guests who stay for days or weeks. The institution is dedicated to learning, creativity, sustainability, and the nurturance and renewal of the church. The community gathers every evening for vespers (Evening Prayer) and shares Holy Communion every Sunday.  

. . . At Holden, it was not difficult to recognize the walls in which we gathered as both necessary (especially in a place with an average winter snowfall of twenty-five feet!) and a limitation to our liturgical imaginations. Our attempts at breaking down those theological and ecological walls were experiments in religare, the Latin root of religion, to bind together. . .

Here are some examples of how the worship at Holden Village came to attend to both the liturgical calendar and the blessings of nature’s seasons at the same time.

Because the shortening days of the Advent season were palpable to us as valley dwellers, we reflected in vespers on Advent themes of darkness, waiting, and hope. We worshiped outdoors in inky-dark evenings, with “pews” cut from banked snow while singing Psalm 19 by candle and starlight. The Christmas proclamation of the birth of the Light that shines in the darkness was a message of existential promise. When we filed out of Christmas Eve candlelight worship, handheld tapers were planted in snowbanks under a wheeling night sky as we sang, “Silent night, holy night.” Epiphany worship included a great Christmas tree bonfire. . .

Lent sent us into the woods. I spread field guides around the circular hearth at the center of our sanctuary and invited the community to collect cones during Lent from each of the sixteen varieties of our native conifer neighbors. Some grew nearby; others only at harsh elevations. As people hiked, skied, and snow-shoed, cones of each of these species began to populate our worship space, representing the forests our human community invited indoors to join the liturgical celebration. We began to see these trees as co-participants in our common worship and ourselves as faithful members of the land community beyond our doors.

Scott M. Kershner, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serves as University Chaplain at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He received a Pastor's Study Grant for this research, funded by the Louisville Institute.

Scott M. Kershner, “Worship in the Wilderness: Experiments in Liturgy and Ecology,” Liturgy 32, no. 4 (2017): 40-46.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Always Expanding the Base – 24 September 2017 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 25

Matthew 20:1-16

As is often the case in Matthew’s gospel, there is no clear context for the parable. Nor is there a parallel to this parable in another gospel. We may guess that in telling this parable, Jesus was responding to criticism that he was paying more attention to those outside the law (e.g., tax collectors, prostitutes) than to those who abided by the law of Moses. . .

The evangelist gives his own interpretation by locating the parable after the exchange between Jesus and his disciples about what the disciples will receive for having left everything to follow Jesus. Jesus promises great rewards to his disciples, but he also adds the warning: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30). The parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds the original twelve that other disciples will follow them, and God’s generosity is such that they all receive the same reward: eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. . .  

The . . . parable is neither a lesson in economics nor in morality. It is about the generosity of God’s grace to the last as to the first. –– Frank C. Senn

Jonah 3:10––4:11

The prophet Jonah had been called to proclaim to the great Syrian city of Nineveh that unless the city repented of its evil ways, God would destroy it. After evading God’s call once (and being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a great fish), Jonah did the job God had given him. . . and the whole city repented. . .

Jonah is angry that God relented and did not punish the Ninevites. God uses the bush that shades Jonah and then withers (further angering Jonah) to make a point:

. . . If Jonah cared so much for the bush, which he didn’t even cause to grow, why should God not care for the great city of Nineveh?

Since Nineveh was a gentile city, the whole story of Jonah can be taken to be an expression of God’s concern and grace for God’s gentile children, with the implication that God’s Jewish children ought to . . . sympathize with . . . all God’s wayward children. –– Frank C. Senn

Philippians 1:21-30

Remaining faithful in the absence of the apostle to lead them must have been an issue for this church since Paul’s letter emphasizes persistence in the faith in the face of opposition. This opposition perhaps came more from the pagan society of Philippi. . . than from opposing parties in the church since Paul does not get into particular theological controversies in this letter but does make the Christian faith a life and death matter.

Since Philippi was a military town, the Roman civil religion probably flourished as strongly as any local cult. We are aware that Christians were not considered good citizens because of their refusal to participate in emperor worship. . . .

Perhaps in this context, Paul presents the example of his own situation as an encouragement to the Philippian Christians. Paul is apparently under armed guard, but this has given him an opportunity to witness to Christ. He . . . sees positives no matter what happens. If he lives, he continues to witness to Christ. If he dies, he gets to be with Christ. . . . The bond between apostle and church is that they suffer together because of their faith in Christ. –– Frank C. Senn

Frank C. Senn, an ELCA pastor who served Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois, from 1990-2013, has also taught liturgy courses at a number of seminaries and divinity schools and published thirteen books mostly on the history of the liturgy.

Homily Service 38, no. 10 (2005): 33-45.