Pentecost 16 B
September 12, 2021
For You, Who Am I?

The main part of the retreat house in Gloucester where I made a long retreat was once someone’s “summer cottage,” much like the mansions along Bellevue Avenue in Newport were. Inside the house, between what had been a ballroom and a paneled room with a striking fireplace are massive doors on huge brass hinges. The hinges themselves are remarkable little works of art that simply do the work they’re meant to do, so most people never notice them.

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Pentecost 16 B September 12, 2021

Isaiah 50:4-9a Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 8:27-38 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

For You, Who Am I?

The main part of the retreat house in Gloucester where I made a long retreat was once someone’s “summer cottage,” much like the mansions along Bellevue Avenue in Newport were.  Inside the house, between what had been a ballroom and a paneled room with a striking fireplace are massive doors on huge brass hinges.  The hinges themselves are remarkable little works of art that simply do the work they’re meant to do, so most people never notice them.

Most of us wouldn’t notice that our gospel reading today is the hinge between the two parts of Mark’s gospel – the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus up until now and the passion part of his story about to unfold.  Something shifts in this passage, and we notice it.  We can feel it.  And we might not like it.

Jesus has gone on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi in the northernmost part of Israel, to a region where Roman and Greek culture hold sway.  The ruins of an old temple where the god Pan was worshipped are there.  Not long before Jesus was born, Herod the Great built a marble temple to honor Caesar Augustus there, and later Herod’s son Phillip built another to honor the current emperor, Tiberias.  It’s a region where the God of Israel has competition, shall we say.

And that’s where Jesus is going.  On the way, he asks his disciples who people say that he is.  Some think he is John the Baptist come back from the dead.  Herod thinks that, and he fears it.  Others think he’s Elijah, the prophet who didn’t experience death but was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot.  He was expected to return when God’s plans for Israel were fulfilled.  Yet other people think Jesus is one of the prophets, one of those through whom people in earlier times had heard the voice of God speaking. 

I wonder why Jesus asks about this.  Maybe he’s curious about his reputation or maybe he wants to gauge his effectiveness as a teacher and healer.  Perhaps it’s just the lead-up to a much more meaningful and significant question: “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you whom I’ve called, you who’ve been on the road with me and sent out by me, you who are closest to me – who do you all say that I am?  Peter, who someone in Bible study described as the first kid in class with his hand up, answers, “You are the Messiah.”     

In Mark’s gospel, the first kid with his hand up – and with the right answer – doesn’t get a gold star.  Instead, Jesus says to all of them, “You’re not to talk about this to anyone.”  And he doesn’t just say it, it’s a stern order.  In Greek, it’s the same word Jesus uses when, in the synagogue in Capernaum, he rebukes an unclean spirit – a spirit that said, “I know who you are!” -- and makes it leave the man who was afflicted by it.  Now Peter has said, “I know who you are – the Messiah,” and he and the others have felt the sheer force of Jesus’ insistence that they are not to speak of this to anyone.

Surely they are confused by this.  And we may be, too.  If so, we’re in the good company of biblical scholars who’ve wondered for centuries about what’s often called the messianic secret.  We’re at the hinge here, at the place where Jesus has asked who the disciples say that he is, and where Peter has given voice to the truth of who Jesus is.  Peter has the right word, but he doesn’t have a clue about how Jesus understands what that word means.  “You are the Messiah” just hangs there in the air.

    This second half of Mark’s gospel is where the disciples – and we ourselves – are taught by Jesus about who he is and about what it will mean to follow him.  Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man” – a way he sometimes refers to himself – “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  He says this “quite openly,” and I suspect that it’s not only Peter who can’t believe what he’s hearing.  Not all Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah, but among those who were, an ideal ruler who would overthrow Rome and restore Israel’s power under the rule of someone from King David’s line was what many anticipated – and it would be glorious.

Jesus rips that vision to shreds before their very eyes.  It’s not that suffering hasn’t been part of people’s lives who’ve answered God’s call throughout Israel’s history – people like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses, like many of the prophets.  But a suffering Messiah seems contradictory.  A Messiah who will be rejected by his own religious leaders doesn’t make sense.  And a Messiah who is killed, is executed, is simply incomprehensible.  The disciples must have been stunned by all this, and they might have barely heard Jesus say that such a Messiah would rise again.

Peter is having none of it.  He takes Jesus aside, rather than confronting him in the presence of the others, and Peter rebukes him, saying, “Stop talking like this.  Just stop it!”  I don’t know what it has cost Jesus to say out loud for the first time what he has come to understand as the inevitable course of his life if he’s faithful to who he believes himself called by God to be and what he believes himself called by God to do.  Perhaps Peter’s deep desire to have Jesus shut up about all this is tempting to Jesus – and who could blame Jesus for wishing for an easier way, a way without suffering and rejection and death?

Rebukes are flying everywhere in this story, and, after “turning and looking at his disciples,” Jesus rebukes Peter, telling him that the force at work in him right now is opposing God, that Peter’s role is to get behind Jesus, to follow him, and to not let himself be seduced by what the world values because that’s not what matters to God.  Since Peter and the others can’t yet comprehend what Jesus is teaching them, they need to keep their mouths shut for now.

Whew!  I imagine that there’s lots of tension in the air, lots of people – Jesus and the others -- feeling their feelings, lots of bewilderment and fear and misunderstanding, lots of disciples wondering what they’ve said ‘yes’ to.

Jesus is about to answer that part.  He calls together not only the disciples but the crowd who is with them, and he says, “’If any of you want to become my followers,’ here’s what that will look like.  You’ll put what God desires before what you want.  You’ll be humble – and humbled.  You’ll go where I go, even if that takes you to a cross yourself.”

That doesn’t sound nearly as appealing as “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” does it?  In truth, at the end of Mark’s gospel, no one is following Jesus.  Judas has betrayed him, Peter has denied him, the rest of them have fled after his arrest.  The women stay at the cross, but when the young man at the empty tomb tells them that Jesus who was crucified has been raised, they flee “for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story.  The young man at the tomb had said, “Go, tell the disciples and Peter that [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  The women must have told someone who told someone else who told someone else because the other gospels, the book of Acts, and all those letters in the New Testament bear witness to Jesus’ followers telling Jesus’ story, to the Holy Spirit teaching them and reminding them of all that Jesus had said, to communities of believers who worshipped together and shared meals and cared for those whom Jesus had cared for, to countless compassionate people who did follow Jesus.  Suffering and rejection and death did mark the lives of some, but following Jesus took many forms then, and it still does.

The very good news in today’s story comes in three particular phrases.  First, “on the way.”  Jesus and the disciples were “on the way” somewhere; they hadn’t arrived yet.  We too are “on the way – no more fully formed as disciples than Peter and the others that day.

    Second, “Jesus began to teach them.”  He doesn’t say, “I’m going to tell you once, and that’s it.”  He begins to open up for them where he understands his call will lead.  He begins to teach them what it means to follow him.  He begins to reveal how God can bring new life out of suffering, rejection, and death.  All that teaching is for us, too, even if we have come to understand him as Messiah more fully than the disciples could at that moment.

Third, “If any want to become my followers . . . .”  I do want to live as someone who knows and loves and follows Jesus, so I take heart because Jesus makes space for “becoming,” space for wanting and resisting and wanting and failing and continuing to want to become who he calls me to be.  Maybe that’s true for you, too.

Here at the hinge in Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus ask not only “Who do people say that I am?” but also “Who do you say that I am?”  In French, that second question is, “Pour vous, qui suis-je?”  For you, who am I?  That lands a little differently.  It invites reflection not only on Jesus as Messiah, but on other ways we experience his presence.  “For you, who am I?”  Messiah, Lord, Savior.  Liberator, Teacher, Companion on the journey.  Insister on justice, Teller of stories, Brother.   Healer, Friend, God with us.

Jesus asks each of us who are on the way with him, each of us whom he has begun to teach, each of us who want to become his followers, “For you, who am I?”  May our knowing Jesus in any or all ways deepen in us – as a whole congregation – both the desire and the willingness to follow Jesus wherever he may lead us.


Pentecost 15 B
September 5, 2021

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Jesus had been teaching and healing people in the villages in Galilee, and he had sent his disciples out two by two to do the same. When they returned and told him all that had happened, he said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

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Pentecost 15 B September 5, 2021

Isaiah 35:4-7a Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 7:24-30 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


Jesus had been teaching and healing people in the villages in Galilee, and he had sent his disciples out two by two to do the same.  When they returned and told him all that had happened, he said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  It seems like they all needed some down time.  Unfortunately, people saw them leaving in a boat, figured out where they were going, and arrived on foot ahead of them.  Tired or not, when Jesus saw the huge crowd that had gathered, he had compassion for them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

He taught them, and then he fed them.  Taking the five loaves and two fish they had, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to the disciples so they could pass it out to the crowd, and he divided up the two fish among them.  Remarkably, not only did everyone eat until they were full, but there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets.  You might recall that this was a picnic on a lawn way bigger than our church’s front yard.  This was a picnic crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children.

So much for a little solitude, a little peace and quiet, a little much-needed rest.  When they back across the lake in the boat, people recognized Jesus and brought those who were sick to him.  Wherever he went, “into villages or cities or farms,” people begged for his help, and he healed them.

Later, contending with a group of scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus’ followers because they didn’t do the traditional practices meant to assure ritual purity, Jesus put them on notice.  “You get stuck on the little things while you ignore the big things, the things that actually matter,” he said.  And then, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, Jesus heads north, out of Galilee, into Gentile territory in the region of Tyre.  It sounds like he goes alone.  And there he hides out.  The writer of Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  What house or whose house, we don’t know.    

  His solitude, peace and quiet, and rest doesn’t last long.  A woman shows up, comes right in, humbles herself, and begs for his help – not for herself, but for her child.  As would be expected outside of Jewish territory, territory, she’s a Gentile, a woman whose background reflects long-standing tension with Jesus’ own people.  She explains that her daughter has what in antiquity was often described as an unclean spirit or a demon.  Today, we would more likely speak about a medical condition or use the language of psychology.  But whatever it is that afflicts her daughter, whatever it is that somehow has her daughter in its clutches, she wants it gone for the sake of her child’s well-being.

She asks for Jesus’ help.  She begs for it.  And Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It’s a shocking thing to hear come out of Jesus’ mouth.  It’s tempting to just gloss over this and move right along to the end of the story, but we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to sit with the discomfort of hearing Jesus insult this woman, of hearing him rudely call her and her daughter “dogs.”  It’s an ethnic slur, and it surely stings.

Many scholars have sought to soften Jesus’ words, suggesting that the Greek word for “dogs” here really means “little puppies,” so it’s not really insulting.  Except that it is.  Others have argued that Jesus is just testing the woman, just giving her a chance to acknowledge her faith in him before he does what she asks.  But in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has never refused to heal someone who asked for his help.  There’s been no litmus test required.  Jesus has been generous and compassionate, gracious and merciful, so why is he deliberately unkind and unfeeling here?  It’s out of character.  He’s Jesus, after all. 

A less determined woman might have just turned around and walked out the door she came in.  A less clever woman might have railed at Jesus’ lack of compassion or just wept in frustration.  A less desperate mother might have given up.  But the Syrophoenician woman is determined, clever, and desperate.  She takes Jesus’ insult and turns it into an argument he cannot refute.

You might have noticed that Jesus doesn’t refuse her outright when she begs for his help.  He says, “Let the children be fed first.”  Let the children of Israel be fed first.  Not “only,” but “first.”  That’s how Jesus sees his mission.  “’Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’  It’s not your turn yet.”  Ouch.  But she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In a conversation with two other Luther Seminary professors, here’s how Matt Skinner describes her response:  “Her argument, her retort, changes something.  . . . Her argument is based not so much on ‘Give me the dignity I deserve’ but ‘Come on, man, you’ve got plenty.  You’ve got enough grace or enough power to spare, and there’s no need to wait.  I’m not asking for a place of honor at the table.  I’m not asking for special treatment.  I just want you to realize that all the feeding work you’re doing . . . creates leftovers, creates more.” 

Her response apparently speaks to both Jesus’ head and his heart.  She makes her case in a clever and creative way, and he is moved to do as she has asked.  “For saying that,” he says, “you can go – and you’ll find your daughter whole and well when you get home.”  Taking what he says on faith, she leaves – and she comes home to her daughter who is now free from what had bound her, free to live more fully.

This unnamed Syrophoenician woman begged for Jesus’ help for her daughter.  She boldly and cleverly stood up to Jesus when he insulted her.  She insisted that he had more than enough grace and power to go around.  And she trusted his promise that her daughter had been healed.  Is this not astounding?          

In his encounter with this woman, something shifts for Jesus – something significant about his understanding of his ministry and of his mission.  He’s been preaching about the reign of God breaking into the world in surprising and unexpected ways – but he himself seems to have been slow to see the surprising places and experience the unexpected timing of all that healing and wholeness, grace and mercy, compassion and freedom that is being set loose in the world through him.  Jesus is about “not yet.”  The Syrophoenician woman is all about “now.”  He knows that, with God, there is enough.  In her desperation, she believes that, with Jesus, there is already more than enough. 

After Jesus’ striking encounter with her, he seems to know that, too.  He doesn’t seek out another place of solitude, another house to hide in.  Instead, from the region of Tyre, he goes further into Gentile territory, around to the Greek cities of the Decapolis, bringing healing of all kinds and feeding a crowd of four thousand -- again with what seems like an impossibly small number of loaves and fishes.

In the story of the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus, there is, as Matt Skinner says, “a thin difference between faith and desperation.”  Many of us might relate to that.  He says that “Faith is not necessarily having the right words to say or knowing who Jesus is, but desperation counts – and that contending against God is a legitimate form of faith.”  Remember the story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabok River, not letting go of the one he struggled with until he got a blessing?  The Syrophoenician woman does what Jacob did, and at times in our lives, it might be what we do, too.  She wrestled with Jesus and got a blessing, but she offers us something more than determination and cleverness.

On that thin line between desperation and faith might be where we find ourselves sometimes, too.  Jesus commends her for the logic of her argument, but doesn’t say anything about her faith.  And yet – she came to Jesus with her plea, somehow believing that he had the power to deliver her daughter from her suffering and that he could be gracious and generous to someone he’d consider an outsider.  I don’t know if that qualifies as faith by some standards – and yet it was enough, maybe more than enough.  When we hover on that thin line between faith and desperation, we might remember this woman’s story and take heart.  Jesus didn’t ask her any theological questions; ultimately, he responded to her unassailable reasoning and her desperate love for her child.  And he himself was changed by his encounter with her.  As she challenged his understanding of his mission, he had to wrestle with her conviction that there was enough – that he was enough – to satisfy the world’s hunger, to save and set free those who are bound, to pour out grace lavishly onto a broken world.  Really, Jesus was blessed by her – blessed with a greater understanding of the scope and breadth and timing of his mission to not only his own people but to the world God loves.

We who are sent out in his name go with the conviction that he is still at work in the world.  He is satisfying and saving, setting free and gracing, healing and feeding so generously that we – desperate and faith-filled people that we are -- know that there is more than enough for all.  Enough to share and still have some left over. 


Pentecost 14B
“This Doesn’t Sound Like the Bible”
August 29, 2021

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At Bible study, when we read this passage from the Song of Solomon, someone said, “This doesn’t sound like the Bible.” Perhaps not, but here it is. This little book is unique in a number of ways. It’s one of only two in scripture that don’t even mention God. Esther is the other, and in that story, God is clearly present, even if not mentioned. The Song of Solomon doesn’t reference God at all. It’s a book of love poems, scenes that celebrate the mutual, faithful, sexual love between a young woman and a young man.

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Pentecost 14B August 29, 2021

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 7:1-8, 14-16, 21-23 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

My beloved speaks and says to me:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,

   and come away;

for now the winter is past,

   the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,

   the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove

   is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,

   and the vines are in blossom;

   they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,

   and come away. Song of Solomon 2:10-13

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“This Doesn’t Sound Like the Bible”

At Bible study, when we read this passage from the Song of Solomon, someone said, “This doesn’t sound like the Bible.”  Perhaps not, but here it is.  This little book is unique in a number of ways.  It’s one of only two in scripture that don’t even mention God.  Esther is the other, and in that story, God is clearly present, even if not mentioned.  The Song of Solomon doesn’t reference God at all.  It’s a book of love poems, scenes that celebrate the mutual, faithful, sexual love between a young woman and a young man.

We probably hear this passage from the lectionary today because it’s attributed to Solomon, the third of the kings whose stories we’ve heard through the summer.  It was written much later, though, and in Hebrew scripture it’s called the Song of Songs – the epitome of a lyric about love.  Solomon, known for his pithy proverbs but also for his many wives, would have been an unlikely author for poetry about faithfulness in love.

You may be surprised to learn that the Song of Songs is the only place in scripture where we hear a woman speaking in her own voice.  Everywhere else, the biblical writer, almost certainly a man, is telling women’s stories, or a man is speaking for a woman or about her.  Even in calling this the Song of Solomon, this male bias is evident.  Here in what’s more truly the Song of Songs, a young woman not only speaks for herself but she also recounts what the man who is her beloved says to her.  Three-fourths of this little book is in a woman’s voice, either that of the young woman herself or her women friends, which has led some to wonder if this was written by a woman.  It’s a fascinating, complicated, confusing, argued-about book that barely made it into the Bible – and it’s a gift to a culture like ours.

It lifts up mutuality, consent, and faithfulness in relationships.  “My beloved is mine and I am his,” she says; “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”  They know each other.  They love each other.  They delight in each other’s bodies, and their longing is for one another.  We might compare that with far too many situations today where those who have power over others get (or take) what they desire because of their position or through the threat or use of violence.  The #MeToo movement courageously and sadly testifies to that.

In our time and culture, we are learning ourselves or are teaching our children to speak up about touch that may be welcome or unwelcome.  Depending on the relationship and the circumstances, a snuggle on the couch, a hand on a pregnant belly, or even a grandparent’s expectation of a hug may not be desired by both people.  The lovers in the Song of Songs, however, do welcome each other’s touch, reminding us of the power of desired touch to express empathy, care, affection, passion, and love.  They remind us that our bodies are part of God’s good creation.  And they lead us to give thanks for how human love at its best – mutual and faithful and full of delight – sometimes lets us glimpse God’s love.

The Bible doesn’t always speak with one voice, and some scholars see in the Song of Songs a complement or a corrective to the story in Genesis where God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  Here in the Song of Songs, the young woman says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.  In Genesis, not only is Adam and Eve’s relationship with God ruptured there in the Garden, but so is their relationship with each other.  But here, in scenes that take place in other gardens and that might remind us of that first Garden, there is mutuality and equality and the mending of what had been broken.  That kind of witness is a gift to us, too – a sign of hope that what is hurt might be healed.

Now, given the comment from Bible study about this passage not sounding like the Bible, you might not be surprised to learn that both Jews and Christians through the centuries have been ambivalent at best about the Song of Songs.  The lush, passionate, sometimes erotic language about love and lovers often makes people of faith nervous.  What has traditionally rendered it more acceptable has been to understand the Song of Songs as an allegory – for Jews, as the expression of God’s love for Israel, and for Christians, as Christ’s love for the Church.  Surely, if God’s passionate love for God’s people evokes ardent, fervent, passionate love for God, this allegorical understanding serves believers well.

I find myself wondering whether appreciating the physicality of love in the Song of Songs might lead us to a deeper experience of the embodied love of God we know in Jesus.  In him the unembodied Word became flesh like us, human like us with a body like our own.  To imagine ourselves held in the loving gaze of Jesus just might help us see our own bodies as not only acceptable but loved and cherished, to see ourselves as beloved of God not in some abstract way but as the young or aging, toned or flabby, hale-and-healthy or in-need-of-healing-and-help actual person that each of us is.  Jesus doesn’t love us for our minds; Jesus loves us – the whole of us – because Jesus himself is the embodiment of love.  The Word became flesh, after all.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  What might it be like to know God’s grace and truth in our bodies, in our bones, so deep in us that we aren’t prey to the insecurity, self-criticism, shame, or self-hatred that’s so easily evoked by the perfect bodies in ads and movies and all over social media?  Maybe the Song of Songs give us a way to see ourselves not through our own eyes, but through the eyes of someone who loves us, treasures us, is passionate about us – as Jesus is.  That is a gift that sets us free, a gift that saves us from ourselves.

The Song of Songs is read as poetry about human love and as an allegory about God’s love.  But perhaps because I’ve spent so much time in creation while I was on sabbatical, and because I invited you to do that with me through the Wednesday reflections and the art materials for families, I really noticed the springtime, the birdsong, and the green and growing things in our reading.  Winter is over; the rainy season’s done.  Now spring is here, bringing new life with it.  The Song of Songs is full of details about what the lovers see and hear and smell and taste.  “Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples,” the young woman says, “for I am faint with love.”

In this short book, twenty-four different plants are named – lilies, pomegranates, grapevines, mandrakes, palm trees, and more.  The lovers describe one another with metaphors from the natural world, most of which don’t travel well across centuries and cultures.  For example, I’ve never been praised because my hair is like a flock of goats coming down the mountain!  But in and beyond the odd (to us) comparisons from nature, the created world itself is front and center in the Song of Songs, and that’s a gift to us.

In a time when we’ve been outdoors much more than usual because of the pandemic and because it’s summer, perhaps we’re more aware of the wildflowers and the apple trees around us, the hawks above us and the mourning doves on the ground, the chipmunks and the deer nearby.  When we notice such things and become curious about them, we are more likely to care what happens to them.  When we name them as part of God’s good creation and recognize the interconnectedness of all life, human and other than human, we are more likely to act for the sake of the whole planet’s well-being, not just our own.

The lush and fertile landscape in the Song of Songs invites us to be mindful of the specific land near us and vast lands beyond us.  When I was in Vermont for a week, I kept seeing huge patches of milkweed all along the roadsides and in fields everywhere.  The very existence of monarch butterflies depends on milkweed, but I hardly see any around here.  My friend explained that all that milkweed is the result of a concerted effort in Vermont to provide for the well-being of these particular butterflies.  When there’s so much to mourn about the effects we humans have on the planet, all of that tall purple milkweed was a sign of hope and a pretty amazing reminder of the positive effects that working together for the good of God’s creation can have.

As you can see, the Song of Songs come to us bearing many gifts – gifts that, in truth, do sound like the Bible.  There’s a model of mutuality and faithfulness and consent in love.  The celebration of healthy sexual love.  The affirmation of a woman’s voice.  The mending of brokenness.  God’s love for God’s people.  The opportunity to see our bodies through the eyes of another’s love, through Jesus’ love.  A call to love and care for God’s good creation.

  I wonder which of those many gifts have your name or mine written on them – written, of course, with passionate love.


Sources consulted:

Sermon Brainwave #799,

Commentaries on Song of Solomon 2:8-13 by Wil Gafney, Elaine T. James, Kathryn M.

Schifferdecker, Alphonetta Wines,  Lisa Wolfe , all at

Renita J Weems, “Song of Songs,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsom and Ringe, eds.,

Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 1992, pp.156-60.

Pentecost 13 B
August 22, 2021
“If”s and “When”s

Throughout the summer, you’ve heard scripture and preaching about a particular time in the story of the people of God -- about a thousand years before Jesus was born -- when Saul, then David, and now Solomon were the kings. Today we hear part of Solomon’s prayer as the Temple is dedicated – a prayer that includes gratitude to God for God’s faithfulness in the past, joy in God’s presence now, and a deep desire that God will continue to listen and bless and forgive in the future.

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Pentecost 13 B August 22, 2021

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 Pastor Susan Henry

John 6:56-69 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“If”s and “When”s

Throughout the summer, you’ve heard scripture and preaching about a particular time in the story of the people of God -- about a thousand years before Jesus was born -- when Saul, then David, and now Solomon were the kings.  Today we hear part of Solomon’s prayer as the Temple is dedicated – a prayer that includes gratitude to God for God’s faithfulness in the past, joy in God’s presence now, and a deep desire that God will continue to listen and bless and forgive in the future. 

You may know that I spent the whole month of July on a silent retreat, along with others whose prayer was also grounded in gratitude, joy, and a deep desire for God’s presence.  Like Solomon, we prayed as individuals, and like God’s people gathered with Solomon, we prayed together during worship.  Like Solomon, all of us here pray as individuals, and we pray together as we gather in church or online to worship.  Unlike Solomon, of course, nobody was king on retreat or here today.  And unlike the bustling city of Jerusalem where huge crowds had gathered for the dedication of the Temple, neither the retreat house in Gloucester nor our church in Covid times is jampacked.

What we have in common with Solomon and with God’s people in his time is our shared humanity.  We are all children of God, and to be human is to be gifted and flawed.  To be human is to be whole and broken.  We celebrate Solomon’s wisdom, his writings, and his passion for building the Temple for God, but there’s a shadow side to Solomon’s story.  The Godly Play story about the Temple alludes to it when it says, “All of the people had to help build the Temple.”  Had to.  This was no Saturday afternoon volunteer project.  Scripture tells us that Solomon as king “conscripted forced labor out of all Israel” – thirty thousand men, of whom ten thousand worked shifts of a month at a time in Lebanon where the famous cedars were being cut down and prepared for use in building the Temple.  In addition, “Seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters [worked] in the hill country” under Solomon’s supervisors, cutting the huge stones necessary for the Temple and moving them to the city.  Alongside the moral issue of the forced labor of your own people (and, later, the enslavement of other people to build houses for you and your many wives), taxes to support Solomon and his vast household became more and more burdensome.  It seems that Solomon’s wisdom didn’t lead him to remedy the harsh and oppressive effects of his policies on ordinary people.        

Solomon was truly wise, truly gifted, truly passionate about building a house for God.  And Solomon was a man with power over others, with keen political instincts, and with desires for things other than God.  A saint and sinner at the same time, as Luther would put it.  A saint and sinner at the same time, like us.  In his wisdom, Solomon must have glimpsed that, because alongside his pride in what has been accomplished through the building of the Temple, some appropriate humility is revealed in his prayer.

Solomon’s father David had wanted to build a house for God, but God had instead built a “house,” a dynasty, for David.  God’s covenant with David was predicated on his descendants’ faithfulness to God.  David’s son Solomon would be the builder of a physical house for God, and that is what Solomon has done.  It’s an amazing place – fragrant with the cedars brought from Lebanon; solidly built with the stones quarried in the hill country and transported to Jerusalem; beautiful with olivewood carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; shining with all the gold that was overlaid on the walls and ceilings and even the floors.  Finally, after all the wandering that God’s people had done when the ark and the commandments within it were housed in a traveling tent, there is a place where people can come to pray, to worship, to seek justice, to be forgiven.

God had led God’s people out of Egypt long ago, and the glory of God had shown them the way through the wilderness -- a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Now the glory of God settles on the Temple as the ark, a sign of God’s presence and promise, is placed in the Holy of Holies.  Solomon first speaks to the people, the vast assembly gathered that day in celebration, and he begins by blessing God who has been faithful to God’s promise to David.  Now David’s son Solomon has built a “house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Then Solomon turns and prays.  Kneeling, spreading out his arms, he praises God.  “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David.”  Solomon remembers before God the promise that the house of David, the lineage of David, will continue always if God’s people walk before God as David did.

Solomon knows that no house, no Temple, is big enough to hold the fullness of God, but he asks that

God’s gaze will always be turned toward this place where the name of God will dwell, and that God will listen and respond to the prayers of those who pray here.

“Listen, God,” Solomon prays, “and forgive.  When we break your heart, God, by wandering down paths that lead us away from you, we’ll have to live with the hard or sad or sorry consequences of not walking in your way.  When we turn again to you, listen and forgive.”

Some of the petitions Solomon prays begin with “if” – “if your people do this or do that” – and others begin with “when” – “when your people do this or do that, when we turn away from what you desire for us and go our own way. . . .” Here is where the wisdom that Solomon asked for and the humility that true wisdom brings is revealed.  He prays – and we pray -- “Whether it’s likely or inevitable that we will not trust you, when we your people turn again to you, see us and hear us and forgive us.” 

Coming from the heart of a king whose own desires both are and are not God’s desires, that’s a pretty humble prayer.  It recognizes that, as a people, there will be times when a community’s or a nation’s collective sin needs to be repented of, when we’ve been caught up in something bigger than our individual acts, when we need to own our complicity in systems or structures that surely break God’s heart.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian and writer who walked with Martin Luther King, put it this way:  “. . . morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The suffering of human beings because of racism and wealth inequality and lack of access to health care, and the suffering of the earth itself made visible as forests burn and oceans warm and creatures cannot adapt to rising temperatures is ours to repent of, to ask forgiveness for, and to work to remedy.  Heschel’s conclusion goes right to my heart: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  People of faith – including Jews like Heschel who count being led out of bondage in Egypt into freedom as part of their story, and Gentiles like us who in Christ got invited to become part of God’s family – are also people of promise and people of hope.  And the world needs what we have.

It’s not necessary to be people of faith in order to address evil or indifference to evil.  We see that in people of good will in the world around us, and we can join cause with all who work for justice or address racism or seek an end to violence against others and the planet.  As people of faith, though, our responses come out of a deep sense of meaning and purpose as people called by God to love God more than anything and to love what God has created out of love – one another and creation itself.  Our responses come out of knowing that we are beloved of God, out of knowing it together in worship and prayer and in being fed -- fed with bread and wine, body and blood; fed by the stories that have blessed and called to repentance those who’ve come before us; fed by the work of the Spirit among us and in us and sometimes in spite of us; fed by the promise that God is with us and God can bring new life even out of death.

And so we do not despair.  Instead, like Solomon at his wisest, we pray.  We give thanks for God’s faithfulness.  We find joy and strength in God’s presence with us.  And we trust that God continues to listen and to forgive, graciously meeting us where our “if”s and “when”s have taken us, freeing us to turn and walk in God’s way, to follow Jesus who is himself the Way.





“Resurrected Bread and Wine”

“Gnaw Your Food”

Not everything in life is on the surface, available for us to look at, and ponder easily. A shoe is a shoe! A door is a door, though there are various kinds. We are so used using logic to proclaim and understand the wilderness complexity and marvel of the faith.

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“Resurrected Bread and Wine” House of Prayer, Hingham 8/15/21 “Gnaw Your Food”

Not everything in life is on the surface, available for us to look at, and ponder easily. A shoe is a shoe! A door is a door, though there are various kinds. We are so used using logic to proclaim and understand the wilderness complexity and marvel of the faith.

The gospel today talks about BREAD, Living Bread, not just some carbohydrates, the Body of Christ.

At the Exodus, the Lord God fed the Israelites, fleeing from bondage in Egypt. Yes, the Lord God fed them, but they quickly decided bread, simple survival-sustenance in the wilderness, was not enough, to satisfy their strange unending appetites.

They never sensed the Lord God’s presence in the bread, or in anything. It was “too small a sign” from God: it didn’t knock them over, or hit them in the head hard enough, to understand or believe.

They didn’t want to wait each day for the bread- they wanted to see future sustenance sitting, waiting for them, ahead of time, to prepare “thoughtfully” for a rainy day! They needed storehouses; barns filled with bread before they could trust God, and even then…..

They only sensed the Lord God’s presence, in the “things” of life. They looked past each day, tripped over each day, demanding greater assurances of future provisions, FROM THINGS.

What sustains us? What tempts us? How much is enough? How much do we trust our Lord? What allows our faith, to trust our Lord?

Or, do we just have a faith based on, “give us each day our daily complaints?” What does the Lord God have to give us to trust, longer than an egg timer can measure? Their faith was: what you SEE NOW, is what you get- period.

“What can enter our thick, faith skull?”

Most often, we give the Lord God limits- and today it is, “if I cannot see it, or eat it, it is not there- period. If You are going to lead us out of Egypt,” (or for the disciples, “if we go on this journey to Jerusalem,)” what is it totally all about?”

What and why is the reason we are going- what do we get, and what do we have to do? No pie in the sky stuff! Right! If it is in Egypt, what will we have to eat, or on the way to Jerusalem, how are we going to be protected, REALLY!?”

AND, the disciples had Jesus really there, in the FLESH. They still could not trust “Jesus’ REAL presence” enough to believe.

From out of nowhere, from an atheist, Federico Fellini, a new faith door is opened into a bigger faith life. We can learn from an atheist, who partially at times understood the Lord God better than we do. Fellini: the movie, “La Strada.”

Two dilapidated people struggled hard with life to make sense out of what very little sorry life they had left. One said, without panic, however, “I would give up on all in life, if I didn’t believe even a pebble, has life in it.” A PEBBLE!

Starving for life, he saw, felt, and believed, life can be apprehended even in a “stone?” How could a stone nourish us more than bread we store up? Not even a brick!

An atheist can see hope in a pebble, and we have a hard time seeing hope in the “real presence” of Jesus, as the Bread of Life?

While an atheist struggled valiantly with life, he could even find hope in a pebble that could easily be stepped on, or trip us up. It can still offer hope. What could a pebble provide? What hope could a stone pebble give birth to in my broken life?

But, if we look hard enough: what in life, cannot bring hope?

While hiking in Utah’s desert, within sight of where Thelma and Louise made a wrong turn with their T-Bird 25 years ago, we were warned on the barely visible trail- “please do not veer from the path set for you.” It was not because we might get lost or hurt, but we might upset the delicate power and balance of nature, that takes nature 100s of years to create. One foot print could damage nature, set back its progress a century, to fix what we trample on and destroy.

You looked off the path and saw what looked like only a light layer of dust  to walk on, a very slight moss, that in hundreds of years, if not trampled on, becomes only soil! That “nothing” moss, the sign said, took 100‘s of years to progress this far, in the process of making the rock later we can step on. If you step on it now, you will destroy it, destroy the work of a 100 years in the making.

The moss becomes the first base of a crypto-biotic soil, in the desert, where 9 inches of precipitation, a year is a flood. That soil has to have “faith persistence,” to prepare to grow life. It takes patience, but life arises from its almost invisible soil, in a harsh desert, to bring LIFE!

Not yet even daily bread!

Without that, the desert as we know it, would die. There is little growth, but that little soil, gives the growth, that can and will sustain life. With it, it can bloom, with patience and care. You almost couldn’t see the soil particles they were so small, dust like. 

So small, but gave birth to the desert we dismiss. Nothing big in the desert could do what that tiny moss could accomplish. Another word for patience: faith!

Mother nature provides well. Mother nature is patient. Change can be handled. Mother nature is not in a rush. Therefore, mother nature is confident. We are faith-greedy!

We stomp on mother nature and we wonder why she cries.

We stomp on mother nature and set her back over a hundred years. Yes, we have power. Yes we have faith, however for us maybe it takes even more than centuries to develop in us.

We are the beach bullies of life who kick sand castles around, and wonder why they crumble.

Why can’t we get along and listen to mother nature, a model of faithfulness?

Looks are deceiving. What looks great might not be, and what looks like nothing, can be marvelous.

Can we find hope in a simple wafer, and some ordinary wine? Real hope?

GNAW Part II- “Gnaw Your Food”

It is not good etiquette to GNAW your food, or as mom said, “don’t chew your food like a cow!”

BUT, John’s word for “eat,” for the Living Bread of Christ, is to “gnaw,” like an animal hungrily eats:  (John 6:54-56, NRSV) “Those who eat (gnaw) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood true drink. Those who eat (gnaw) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Can we GNAW hungrily like we believe it provides real life? Do we have the patience to see like the pebble, and cryptobiotic crust, this wafer and wine provide real life, if we are patient enough to give it a chance to help us believe?

Everyone wonders just exactly what Holy Communion is, and is not. Some look at it mostly physically, others mostly spiritually. We usually don’t think of the “process” to make it understandable. But we have a faith distinction that reveals much: it is truly BOTH the physical and the spiritual, just as our Lord is truly God, and truly human, as we are totally saints and sinners.

How do we see this totally, both ways? TRULY, Physical and Spiritual. To “gnaw” means to hungrily gnaw at the faith like an animal, to truly, confidently, fully eat so it is faith digested properly, to confidently nourish our faith.

Our faith calls us to see the faith not only as nourishment for our spirit. BOTH together! There is no logical way to explain the process, where the dividing lines are. Or like Auden describes, “we need to be a poet to understand the complexities of the faith.”

However, we demand, clear cut descriptions to make this understandable, like the distinctions of body and soul, spirit and flesh. We want to “digest” the faith, our way.

John says “gnaw” it. Both are real, the physical and spiritual. Our Lord does feed us totally, even with His body and blood.

Of course, we often just look at the wafer, or bread, and scientifically see it is just what we see scientifically. But we also say, as with Luther, it is most certainly true, it is our Lord’s body and blood given to us, to feed us in the faith.

Both total truths: opposites, as they seem, are true. Water in baptism, is 100% water, but also 100%, totally washes our sins, and seals us to our Lord forever.

Our faith mystery calls us to hold the tensions of both opposite truths together, not 50/50, BUT 100%/100%. The risen Christ in our midst, is still the crucified Christ, who is 100% divine, God, and 100% human, our neighbor. We “gnaw” physically on the spirit.

Christ dies to feed us. AND, lives!

(*Walter Wangarin) There is a special spider. This spider, as all spiders, really have no stomachs. Yet, one species is somewhat different. When food is scarce and their young are hungry, starving, the mother spider becomes their stomach, their food for her young. She sacrificially feeds herself totally to them, much like our Lord feeds us His body and blood. Dies!

But we want to understand it! We do not like to trust! We want to know, as a mechanic wants to know how to fix the car. How does it work? Yes, but back at Pentecost: the dry bones came alive?? DRY BONES, and it says, VERY dry bones, not just dry, dry as the dust the Lord God used to create Adam, “cyrpto-biotic” dry, “pebble” dry!!

Maybe we know how to fix a car, and can cure some diseases. We see this life giving meal, more like an Easter resurrection, life arriving from death, not just illness. Usually we think resurrection only works on the Easter level, life from death. God’s work, yes.

But can we understand all the items used today, as we go from plain bread, to bread “resurrected” into our Lord’s body, given to feed us.

It is all out of our hands, and we need to trust our Lords words as true: this is really my body and blood, given and shed for you, and “Lo I am with you, always,” AND, in all ways!”  We need to see how hopes are resurrected, and we do not know this any better, than an Easter resurrection. Amen.

*“Ragman and other Cries of the Faith,” by Walter Wangarin, Jr. from Harper Zondervan Publishing House, San Francisco, 1984. Chapter 7 “Modern Hexameron-De Aranea.”