Sunday, October 18, 2020

Seeing the Face of God

 Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22


Seeing the Face of God


I want to start by talking about why we pay taxes. This image gives an outline of some of the things our federal taxes pay for. Please notice that this is an image from 2018, long before the pandemic threw everything out of whack.


Large portions of our tax dollars pay for health care, military, government, and unemployment. Smaller portions pay for housing, education, food stamps, and transportation. Included in this budget are some funds for our local communities’ needs, like roads and bridges and firefighters. The taxes we pay help the community as well as needy people.


Over the decades, programs that used to exist to give aid to the needy have been reduced or eliminated for various reasons. In response, charitable organizations have imperfectly but faithfully taken up the challenge to care for the neediest people among us.


The more federal and state budgets are cut, the more churches and other charities move to provide care. Which results in a system where, if we care about needy people, we either pay Uncle Sam or we pay Jesus – through our offerings to the congregation and other organizations, like Interfaith Emergency Services.


So, if the Pharisees asked Jesus today, “Is it lawful to pay taxes, or not?” I believe he would have answered the same way. Jesus’ answer centered on whose image was stamped on the coin. In this case, the image was that of the Emperor.


This is not so simple an answer as it seems in our world today. Our money has the face of dead presidents and leaders on it. George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Susan B Anthony, to name a few. We have made heroes and role models of these people, but we do not see them as gods. But in Jesus’ time, the emperors – the Caesars – thought of themselves as partly divine.


So, when Jews handled a Roman coin, they were touching the image of a foreign god, which is something they were forbidden by the Commandments to do. In addition, the tax in question may have supported the Roman army’s presence in Jerusalem. It has long fascinated scholars why a Pharisee would even have one of these coins in his pocket!


And, of course, Jesus’ answer reminded the Pharisees that since everything on earth belongs to God, the tax and the coin cannot really be separated from that which belongs to God.


We, too, you and I, belong to God. We have God’s image painted in oil on our foreheads and in our hearts. Giving our offerings and paying our taxes is ultimately about finding ways to care for the people in our midst, who also have God’s image painted on their foreheads and in their hearts.


Because everything in creation belongs to God, the Pharisees ask Jesus a trick question. They are using the politics of the day, some partisan politics at that, to get Jesus to either denounce God or denounce the Romans. They know what they are doing. And Jesus sidesteps the trap by saying it’s both-and.


Human government and politics may not be fair; in fact, laws are often more fair for some than for others. God’s government, God’s politics are always fair and just. Human government usually gives advantages to the people who own stuff and have power because of how much they own. God’s politics focus on mercy and forgiveness for all, not just for the wealthy and powerful.


It’s true that taxes may not be fair – they weren’t in Jesus’ time, and today, some taxes are more of a burden on poor people than they are on wealthy people. But, it is through our taxes that we have the freedoms we have in the US.


As we continue living in the uncertainty of a world aflame with division and pandemic, those of us who are able to give offerings and pay taxes are an essential lifeline for those who are ill or who are not able to work because their job no longer exists.


Our offerings pay for sermons, and Bible study, and well-maintained buildings. They also support the ministries we do with others in the community, the Synod and in the ELCA. Our taxes pay for roads and restaurant inspections and schools and hospitals. As a proud Lutheran, I happily give offerings so ministry of all sorts can happen. And as proud a citizen of this country, I happily pay taxes so we can be safe in all sorts of ways.


Legend said in Moses’ time that anyone who saw the face of God would die. As God made arrangements to meet with Moses and Aaron on the mountain, God warned that people should not approach the mountain, or they could be killed just by being too close to God. God was literally “Putting the fear of God” into the people.


This understanding of the need to fear God remained until Jesus came to show us the human face of God. Jesus totally reversed the warning. Now, he says, we can see God and know who God is and what God says. The image we have of God through Jesus is that God is to be revered, held in awe, but not feared.


And since the time of Jesus, we are encouraged to see God’s face, God’s image, in those around us – including those around the world whom we have never met. When those in whom we see the face of God are hurting, we want to help them, and we help them by increasing our offerings and gladly paying our taxes.


This week, I encourage you to spend some time pondering your attitude about what you give to Caesar and what you give to God. I hope you discover you are thankful you have enough to give generously to both. Amen

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Evening Prayer / Vespers for October 7, 2020


You may wish to light a candle and place it before you as you begin.



Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over.

Let your light scatter the darkness and illumine your church.

HYMN: Christ Be Our Light, ELW 715

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FIRST READING: Deuteronomy 6:10-25 (CEB)

A reading from: Deuteronomy

10 Now once the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to you—a land that will be full of large and wonderful towns that you didn’t build, 11 houses stocked with all kinds of goods that you didn’t stock, cisterns that you didn’t make, vineyards and olive trees that you didn’t plant—and you eat and get stuffed, 12 watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 Revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take your solemn pledges in his name! 14 Don’t follow other gods, those gods of the people around you— 15 because the Lord your God, who is with you and among you, is a passionate God. The Lord your God’s anger will burn against you, and he will wipe you off the fertile land. 16 Don’t test the Lord your God the way you frustrated him at Massah. 17 You must carefully follow the Lord your God’s commands along with the laws and regulations he has given you. 18 Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight so that things will go well for you and so you will enter and take possession of the wonderful land that the Lord swore to your ancestors, 19 and so the Lord will drive out all your enemies from before you, just as he promised.

20 In the future, your children will ask you, “What is the meaning of the laws, the regulations, and the case laws that the Lord our God commanded you?” 21 Tell them: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our own eyes, the Lord performed great and awesome deeds of power against Egypt, Pharaoh, and his entire dynasty. 23 But the Lord brought us out from there so that he could bring us in, giving us the land that he swore to our ancestors. 24 Then the Lord commanded us to perform all these regulations, revering the Lord our God, so that things go well for us always and so we continue to live, as we’re doing right now. 25 What’s more, we will be considered righteous if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.

Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God.

PSALM:  Psalm 119:49-56 (CEB)

ז zayin

49 Remember your promise to your servant,
    for which you made me wait.
50 My comfort during my suffering is this:
    your word gives me new life.
51 The arrogant make fun of me to no end,
    but I haven’t deviated from your Instruction.
52 When I remember your ancient rules,
    I’m comforted, Lord.
53 But I’m seized with anger because of the wicked—
    because of those who abandon your Instruction.
54 Your statutes have been my songs of praise
    wherever I lived as an immigrant.
55 Lord, I remember your name at nighttime,
    and I keep your Instruction.
56 This has been my practice
    because I guard your precepts.


Gospel:  John 11:45-57 (CEB)

A reading from: John

45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

47 Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council and said, “What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs! 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.”

49 One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything! 50 You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” 51 He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation— 52 and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one. 53 From that day on they plotted to kill him.

54 Therefore, Jesus was no longer active in public ministry among the Jewish leaders. Instead, he left Jerusalem and went to a place near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

55 It was almost time for the Jewish Passover, and many people went from the countryside up to Jerusalem to purify themselves through ritual washing before the Passover. 56 They were looking for Jesus. As they spoke to each other in the temple, they said, “What do you think? He won’t come to the festival, will he?” 57 The chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where he was should report it, so they could arrest him.

Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God.


God has a plan. We don’t always understand what the plan is, because we live day-to-day lives in the moment. It’s only when we look back a year, a decade, a century, that we can discover God’s plan and purpose.

A popular saying is, “People plan. God laughs. Just wing it.” My favorite version of this is printed on refrigerator magnet of an angel. I couldn’t find that image, but I also like this one: “Leave room for God to send you on detours because the blessings may come on the paths that you didn’t expect to take.”

When Moses first met God, he didn’t realize that God had been watching over him from birth. Now, in final days of his mission to bring the people to a new land, Moses hears about the future. “Remind the people that these laws we have written are for their benefit. Pass them on to the children and let them know they are a reminder of how God took them out of slavery and into a new land. These laws are a reminder of how much God cares for them.

Jesus’ days are also numbered. The plot is taking shape. The Leaders are aligned against him, and are looking for an opportunity to arrest him and get rid of him. So, for now, he and the disciples are away from Jerusalem in a place called Ephraim, which is near Jericho, north of the Dead Sea.

It seems Jesus is only waiting for the right time – Kairos – as we discussed at Bible study yesterday. Close enough to the Passover that it will be God’s time, in conjunction with human plans, that will carry out God’s plans.

Though the disciples are not an active part of this story, it’s not hard to imagine what they are thinking. “We have to keep Jesus away from the city until this cools off.” But, we know that is not God’s plan.

God’s plan for our lives is intertwined with God’s plans for the lives of everyone in the community, the nation, and the world. What seems like tragedy can have a greater benefit. The Priests say this about Jesus. The trouble is they don’t see the whole picture. They don’t know this is exactly God’s plan.

A short recognition is due to Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, whom we celebrate today. In 1742 American Lutheran churches realized they needed someone to organize them, to help them become better at ministry by working together. Muhlenberg came and was instrumental in shaping worship and planting churches in Pennsylvania and beyond. Today he is considered the founder of American Lutheranism. I am sure he had no idea of the impact his years of ministry would have on us 250 years later.

Today, we may rightfully wonder what God’s plan is for this virus, for the political and racial unrest, for climate change. Is God using these disasters to call us all to work together? Will we see greater world and local harmony as a result? In the day-to-day we don’t see it coming. But in the longer term of God’s plan, perhaps it will come to pass.

For now, today, we can be sure that God has not abandoned us. We can be sure that God weeps with us over every death and rejoices over every healing. God cries out in dismay at every unjust action and cheers when laws and policies are changed. God longs for the day when humans recognize the created world is on the brink of destruction.

God’s Spirit is actively working in human hearts to awaken us, to help us discover new ways of being community, new paths to a better world, together. Let’s be part of implementing God’s plan for a healthier, more just, greener world. Amen



Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,         

but in these last days, God has spoken to us by the Son.



For the peace from above, and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For the health of creation, for abundant harvests that all may share, for plentiful water, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For essential workers, public servants, the government, and those who protect us; for those who work to bring peace, justice, healing, and protection in this and every place, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For those who travel, for those who are sick and suffering, for those who are in captivity, and for those who are living in isolation, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For deliverance in the time of affliction, wrath, danger and need, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Other prayer petitions may be offered here.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go forth with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only trusting that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory, are yours now and forever. Amen.

HYMN:  Thy Word

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Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, + keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen


Liturgy from ELW Annual Liturgy License 26504


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Living the Commandments


Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21: 33-46



The Ten Commandments have been part of Jewish history since Moses led the people through the Wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. As a whole, the Commandments describe the kind of relationship God wants with God’s people – between God and humans, and among humans. We revere God and remember God gives us what we need. We treat each other with respect.

Fourteen hundred years after the Exodus, by the time of Jesus, the Ten Commandments were part of the catechism of life. Everyone knew them. Rabbis and priests also knew the 603 others in the Hebrew Scriptures and many of them knew the Talmud, which helped them interpret the ancient commandments for the modern day.

They also knew the Shema, a ritualized prayer prayed by Jews daily. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The shema continues with a statement we hear Jesus give when he is questioned about the commandments. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

However, just like today, people of Jesus’ time chose which parts of the Commandments they wanted to obey and which ones to ignore. Jesus frequently gives the people lessons on God’s kind of justice compared to human justice.

One of those lessons is in this parable.  But it is a challenging one. Who is who in the parable? Is it as simple as the priests and Pharisees seem to believe it is? Why is the murder of innocent people justified? Or is it? Who are these tenants?

The usual interpretation says that it is a simple allegory. The vineyard has been a symbol of the Jewish people for centuries. The tenants are the leaders of the Jewish people, who again and again have refused to listen to the prophets’ call to obey the Commandments. The landowner is God, who sent the servants (the prophets) to collect the rents and the tenants (the leaders) killed them. Finally, they killed the son (Jesus). And God removed the leaders and put new ones in their place.

This is probably how the priests and Pharisees understood the story. The leaders are trying to figure out how to get rid of Jesus. They wanted to arrest him, but they didn’t dare do it so publicly. They know he sees their real intent and they are terrified of the consequences.

It is often said that the best interpretation is often the simplest, so let’s accept that this is a simple allegory. But, then how does the parable apply to us today? Let’s go back to the Commandments. The tenants – the leaders of the Jewish people – were not taking very good care of the vineyard – the people. They were not obeying the Commandments.

The Commandments are structured so that if we obey the first commandment, the rest all fall into place. When we are grateful for what we have, we revere God’s name and allow ourselves to take time off to spend time with God. When we trust God to provide, we don’t need to steal, covet, lie, or abuse others to ensure we will have enough stuff, enough power. If we put God first in
everything, we don’t need much else.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest Commandment, he responded with part of the Shema: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and might.” And he added, “And the second is, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love God. Love others. These two commandments are so simple to memorize, we don’t even have to figure out which number it is in the list of ten. “Hmm, is stealing number 5 or number 6?” time for reflection. Actually, it’s number 7.

When we live our lives based on the two Greatest Commandments, it shows, and it makes a difference. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died a few weeks ago. I was struck by this comment I heard about her on a news program. This person said: Ruth loved the Constitution and always remembered that it began with the words, “We the people …” Ruth spent her life making the word “we” more and more inclusive. In her decades of justice work, she lived out the commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.

… Today we also remember Francis of Assisi, who died on this day in 1226, 800 years ago. Francis was called by God to rebuild the church. At first he took that to mean repairing buildings, but he soon figured God meant for him to rebuild human hearts and help them turn toward God.

Though he wanted to be a solitary monk and to live in a cave, he knew he was called to a greater purpose. He spent his life drawing people back to these two basic commandments of loving God and loving each other.

He especially focused on not owning anything, not even a prayer book. He reasoned that what we own, we want to protect, and if we own one thing it will lead us to owning more. And if we own something, others will want to own – covet – what we have, and that leads us into breaking a commandment. Francis was so detached from things, he regularly gave away the tunic he was wearing to someone who didn’t have one. The Brothers always found him another one – see? God provides.

How well do you do with obeying the Commandments? Is there one in particular that gives you problems? When I ask this question, many people say they have a problem with swearing. We know when we stub our toe we should not say God’s name in an angry way. But let’s go beyond that. How well do you trust God? Enough that you can let go of your “stuff” and be sure that you will have enough? How well do you love and respect others? All others, or just some others?

These days, our country, indeed the whole world, is having problems. Besides the virus which has drastically altered our way of life, the inequities experienced by many people of color has been exposed like a bandage being ripped off and exposing a pus-filled wound.

I know some of you disagree with me, and say that racism is not a problem. But I encourage you to imagine yourself and others differently. An old Native American saying says to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before criticizing them. Another saying I have heard is, “How many days have you spent as a person of color, or as a homeless person or as a disabled person or as a person who calls God by a different name?”

Until we hear and understand the stories told by other people, we have no right to do anything except love them. They are as much God’s children as we are.

I haven’t given homework lately, so here is an assignment. This week, I suggest you think about your relationship with God and with God’s people. How well do you put God first? How well do you love others? All others?


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Seeing in new ways

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

I once had a friend who was colorblind, and he occasionally asked me to read the directions for cooking a frozen meal in a red and black box. Ever since then, I have been aware of the challenges of being colorblind. So, it caught my attention when I saw an advertisement from Tennessee about its beautiful fall colors. To colorblind people, there is different beauty to be seen. But Tennessee has recently installed viewers that correct for colorblindness in some of the most scenic places. Now, people will be able to see the hills of Tennessee in new ways. 


The stories told in our texts today also are about seeing in new ways. It has been about a month since the Israelites left Egypt and slavery behind. They have already forgotten that aspect of their time in Egypt because they are hungry. The flour for unleavened bread is gone. They don’t have animals to slaughter for meat. There are no fresh vegetables available, at least in sufficient quantity for the group of travelers. So they complain to Moses and Aaron.


Moses and Aaron say, “Hey, it’s not our fault! Complain to God, not to us.” But they go to God and tell God what the people are saying. And God responds with the promise of quails at night, and manna every morning.

Manna is a mysterious substance that appeared every morning after the dew lifted. One description I found said it was the size of a coriander seed and white, which seems more pleasant than the other description, of bug spit. Somehow, this manna appeared in sufficient amount for each day, but leftovers rotted, except on the Sabbath.


God wanted it made clear that the people were to recognize that this manna and poultry came from God, who brought them out of Egypt. They needed to see in new ways, that God was not ignoring them, that God does hear their concerns and responds.


The Gospel reading is one of the hardest parables to understand, because it defies human logic. It is a clear demonstration of God’s economy – but we’ll get back to that later. Let me start by saying that understanding the parable requires us to see in new ways.


For most of us, a hard day’s work gets us a day of pay. To maintain a place to live, put food on the table, have clothes to wear, and so forth, we need to work several days a week.


In Jesus’ time, a lot of work was done by day laborers. We still have day laborers, but it is not as common as it used to be. Perhaps we might think about migrant workers who pick our fruit and vegetables. They work on a similar basis. 


Let’s just stay with Jesus’ time, when the laborers would gather early in the morning and wait for someone to hire them. They would go to the farm or quarry or wherever and work. In this case, the location was a vineyard. Four times during the day, in this parable, the landowner came to find workers for the vineyard.

When the day was over, they lined up to receive their pay, and they all got the same amount. The last hired were ecstatic, the first hired were angry and took their grumbling to the boss. “Where is the problem? I promised you a day’s wage, and that is what I gave you. I have not cheated you. Why does it concern you that I gave the same amount to the others? Is it not my money, to do with as I please?”


Let’s do some math. I am going to use round numbers here, the actual work day was longer. If the workday starts at 9am and ends at 7pm, that is 10 hours of labor. If the going day’s wage is $100, that’s $10/hour. So, the reasoning goes that those hired at 9 should get the full $100, those hired at noon would get $70, those hired at 3 would get $40, and the last hired would get $20.


Those who worked all day probably spent some of their time calculating which bills they could pay, or how much food they could purchase on the way home. Those who worked 7 hours did the same, though with less money. Those who worked only 2 or 4 hours really struggled to imagine what they could feed their children and how to pay rent on the $20 or $40 they would earn. Their day, instead of being filled with hard labor was filled with worry, stress, fear, and perhaps hunger.

Here is where God’s economy comes in. How many times in Scripture do we read that those who have plenty are charged with taking care of those who do not have enough? In human economy, money seems to be finite. The checkbook balance is $20, and not $100.


In God’s economy, money is infinite. In God’s economy, there is always enough, for everyone. When Jesus fed the thousands, he started with almost nothing, and when everyone had their fill, there were leftovers! That is God’s economy!


Notice that in our reading, the usual word “kingdom” has been replaced by the word “dominion.” Jesus says, “The dominion of Heaven (or God) is like … . Kingdom has an earthly feel to it, a human-ruler-kind-of-place with boundaries, of in-groups and out-groups, of wealth and poverty. The word dominion has a more expansive feel to it, more universal and inclusive.


In the dominion of God, there is no hunger or thirst, no power-hungry or greedy people, because everyone has enough. It seems unrealistic, in human terms, doesn’t it? In our normal world, there are always people who have – a lot of stuff, a lot of money, the best jobs, the most justice – and there are people who wish they had some, enough.


In God’s dominion, there is enough for everyone, … and leftovers! There is peace between people, because they understand the importance of forgiveness and acceptance. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And, yes, it is, unless we begin to see the world and the people around us in new ways.


The dominion of God in our place and time starts with us, each of us, with you and me doing our parts to bring it to life.


It starts with you and me seeing hungry people as deserving of food and clothing and a place to be.


It starts with you and me seeing different skin colors, different abilities, different political outlooks, different cultures, as equally deserving of God’s love and care as we ourselves are.


Simply put, it starts with recognizing that those who worked only 2 hours that day have as much need of the income as those who worked the full day.


More simply put, it starts by recognizing that it is God who gave the manna and the quails because God heard the people say they were hungry.

Even more simply, it starts with God’s grace overflowing into our lives and the lives we touch. Amen