The Wilderness Prophet

Dear Friends,

Pastor Steve Holm

I guess I really am a prophet! My prediction for worship numbers last Sunday was right on! But come to think of it, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that folks would react to Thanksgiving and Black Friday mayhem by using Sunday as a true day of rest. It certainly didn’t take a prophet!

The text for next Sunday, though, will feature a real prophet, John the Baptist, the wilderness preacher who Jesus called the greatest man ever born to a woman. In Matthew’s gospel he simply appears on the scene as a prelude to the Jesus’ story; nothing is said of his background or origin. Obviously he’s a significant figure, but all we get from Matthew is a brief description of his ministry and his connection to Jesus.

I believe that John was a big deal in his day. Josephus, the great Jewish historian, mentions him at length and says no more than a sentence or two about Jesus. John had large numbers of disciples and was a political force to be reckoned with. Even King Herod feared him. But who was he, and where did he come from?

Based on my reading and a little bit of imagination I’ve constructed a backstory for John that I think helps make some sense of what he says in this week’s text from Matthew 3:1-12. It might also help us understand why Jesus also says of him, “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I’ll be sharing that backstory as part of my sermon this Sunday, and I hope it helps us all understand the beauty of Jesus’ life and radical legacy.

I hope your Advent is going well, and that you’ve managed to develop a daily ritual to guide your meditation and prayer. I’ll see you at worship!



Surprised By Joy

Dear friends,

When I was serving a congregation full time I never particularly liked the years that Thanksgiving showed up just four days before the First Sunday in Advent. Not only did parishioners wear themselves out with holiday feasting, large numbers left town for the whole weekend. Those who remained often got caught up in Black Friday shopping excursions and few had much energy left for worship on Sunday. Attendance would plummet!
Now I’ve not been around Esperanza much at this time of year, but I suspect that something of that sort may happen this week. I won’t be surprised if I end up just preaching to the choir! Though, come to think of it, many of them are likely to be gone too! And that’s okay! I’ve been around long enough to know that we need our holiday rest–and if it means a long weekend without worship, that’s not all bad!
But it would mean that you would miss my commentary on Matthew 24. It’s a rich passage, one that contains a prooftext for the rapture and some words from Jesus about how to prepare for the Last Days. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t recommend a flurry of frenzied buying! While I’m not sure at this point the direction the sermon will take, (it isn’t likely to be an endorsement of rapture theology), I am leaning away from trying to scare folks into thinking the last times are near! The phrase, “surprised by joy,” has been bouncing around in my head in reaction to Jesus’ words, and I like the accompanying insights that have been popping in and out. It could be a fun Sunday!
Advent is one of my favorite seasons–maybe because blue is my favorite color–and it invites us to spend long moments in meditation and reflection on the coming Christ. We light candles on wreaths, hang symbols on Jesse trees, and think about what Jesus means for our daily lives and for our futures. I’ve written devotionals for the season for many years now and I love exploring its themes. If you’re interested in what I’m writing this December, you can check the daily devotional at
I’m keeping Esperanza in my prayers. May Advent be a blessing to us all!
Pastor Steve Holm

Christ the King

Pastor Steve Holm

Dear friends,

The cultural calendar is familiar to most everyone and operates pretty much on a linear basis. It starts with New Year’s Day, and is followed in rapid succession by Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, and Easter. There’s then a bit of a gap until we get to the Fourth of July and after that a really long wait until the biggies, Halloween, Black Friday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Each of these holidays has a distinctive emphasis and broad appeal.
Christians are pretty much in tune with that cultural calendar and celebrate all the holidays, not just the ones that overlap. In fact, as the church continues to lose influence, the liturgical calendar, which dictated religious observances for centuries, has become a mystery even for many believers.
This week at Esperanza we’ll be celebrating Christ the King Sunday, the end of the liturgical year that began last December 2 with the short season of Advent, a mini-penitential period that prepares us for the 12 days of Christmas. The whole year operates in a circular fashion with each season leading into the next with an amazing sense of beauty and rhythm. We see that clearly at this time of year as the Last Days theme at the end of Pentecost meshes perfectly with the End of the World scenario on the first Sunday in Advent. The church year is like a well-balanced wheel that pulls us through our lives with constant reminders of faith essentials.
The end of the year texts this week from Colossians and Luke are particularly rich and will challenge our understanding of the Christ, the One who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. For most of my life I’ve struggled in my relationship to this mysterious figure and I think I’ve only recently begun to figure things out. Sunday, I’ll share a bit of that journey in my sermon–I pray that I can find words that will convey the depth of what I’ve discovered.
I do want to thank you for your patience as I’ve led worship these last three weeks. You’ve been very kind.
With deep affection,

An Opportunity to Testify

Luke 21:5-19

Pastor Steve Holm

Dear Friends,
Like the rest of you members of Esperanza I received a commitment card in the mail a couple of weeks ago with instructions to return it (filled out I presume) by this Sunday, November 19. I’m familiar with the practice. Commitment Sunday is a big deal in the life of any congregation. Without a response from a significant portion of the membership the congregational council will only be guessing when they prepare a budget for the following year.
Generally, the folks who set up the lectionary texts for the year give pastors a boost on this Sunday. Whether it’s purposeful or not the gospel will have some reference to what Jesus said about money–but this year it didn’t work out that way. The Luke passage is about the last days and the trials and tribulations of believers in dark and dangerous times. There’s nothing in there about generous, sacrificial giving. But still, there is a verse that caught my attention! At the very end of the assigned reading Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
As I’ve thought about that line, which in context refers to disciples being hauled before kings and governors, I realized that it’s a perfect verse for our community. Our pastor has left us, a substitute is filling the preacher role, and an interim has been assigned. Obviously it’s a time of transition and uncertainty–but what an opportunity it is for us to testify! In this moment we can say to the world that we are committed to our sisters and brothers in this congregation, and will continue to work with them in the mission God has given us. Pastor Steve has gone but the ministry continues!
Personally, I’m going to increase my financial commitment to Esperanza. It’s probably the best way possible for me to testify of my love for its people and to say thanks for the amazing love I’ve received in the last seven years. I just hope I can remember to bring the card with me on Sunday–and I hope you remember too! It’s important!

I know that my Redeemer lives

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

Pastor Steve Holm

Dear Friends,

It was reported that last Sunday former president, Jimmy Carter, after a lengthy absence following a fall, returned to his church in Plains, Georgia to deliver his regular Sunday School lesson. His topic was the book of Job and he shared his feelings about suffering, death, and life after death. He reported that after 95 years of life he has absolutely no fear of death.
It may be a coincidence but this week’s first lesson at Esperanza is also from the book of Job and will include the well-known verse, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” As we look at this verse and consider Jesus’ comments about resurrection from Luke 20, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to think about some of the questions we have about the life to come. From our childhood on we’ve confessed our faith in the resurrection from the dead, but most of us have little certainty about what that might mean. Some of us, heavily influenced by scientific evidence and rationalism, may even have begun to doubt that there is such a thing. For such persons, the arguments of the Sadducees, who said there is no resurrection from the dead, are more reasonable than what Jesus believed and taught.
I can’t promise that I’ll be able to give you satisfactory answers for all of your questions about the afterlife. (Frankly, I’m suspicious of any who would claim to give definitive answers about that which is unknown.) But lack of answers should never prevent conversation…sometimes it is as we wrestle with those big questions that insights come. I do think that it’s possible to come to the point where we have a sense of peace about the future…and if that can happen for us on Sunday, I will be full of joy!
Thank you for the expressions of love I’ve felt from you as I’ve begun these two months of service…I am blessed by your thoughtfulness.

The Christ Is Still Present

A note from the Congregation Council:

This Sunday will be our first since Pastor Steve Hammer’s retirement. We are pleased to announce that Pastor Steve Holm has graciously agreed to lead worship through Christmas. He has also agreed to share some thoughts in this space during his tenure with us. We hope to welcome an interim pastor in January, who will minister to us through the call process.

Pastor Holm is already a friend of Esperanza, and worships with us alongside his wife, Elaine. Please join us in welcoming him to the pulpit!

Pastor Steve Holm

Dear Friends,

It’s a bitter-sweet week! On the one hand we’re happy for Pastor Steve … but we are going to miss him! I have a sense of what that’s like. Seven years ago, I retired as the senior pastor of Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe after 22 years of exciting and stimulating ministry. It was so hard to leave … I’d baptized, buried, confirmed, and married so many. My experiences had been rich and full. When I left, all those relationships changed … in many ways I felt like my leaving was the death of me. I had to sever ties to allow the interim pastor to fully function and prepare for the new senior pastor.

That’s how it is now for Pastor Steve. He’ll miss us … and we’re certainly missing him. I’ve been able to tell him that his life post-Esperanza will be rich and full. New opportunities will come … and certainly he’ll find relief from weekly pastoral responsibilities. I rejoice for him and his family! But I’m going to miss him. Steve was my pastor too … I joined Esperanza because of his magnificent sermons and story-telling. Sermons like the ones he gave were manna for my soul … he made me think in new and provocative ways. And he was always prepared! Oh, how I valued the work he put in to get ready for each Sunday! When my wife, Cherie, died, he was the man I chose to preside and preach at her service.

It’s fitting that our first Sunday without Pastor Steve will be All Saint’s Sunday. It’s a day set aside to remember loved ones who have died who now rest in the peace of the Church Triumphant. Even though he has not died, (it only feels that way), he is indeed finding rest from his labors. And we will be remembering him with deep and affectionate love! Oh, we’ll still see him from time to time, of course we will … he’s not moving away and our paths will surely cross.

But Sunday also marks the first Sunday in a new era at Esperanza. This is a remarkable community of faith and I can’t wait to see how the Spirit of God will be stirring things up in the months and years to come. We have been called through our baptisms, fed at the Table, and equipped with magnificent gifts for ministry. Steve has gone but the Christ is still present…and he will do marvelous things!

As for me, I am humbled that the church council has asked me to help out until after Christmas. I can’t promise the same high quality sermons that Steve delivered, but I will be here faithfully to preach and preside.



Be Still and Know – Psalm 46:10

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36
Life is full of surprises. Thirty years ago, the desert was pretty close to the last place I ever expected to live. Twenty-two years ago, I never imagined I would be serving in parish ministry again, and I certainly didn’t think I would ever be in one place this long. Come to think of it, I still don’t think I have fully wrapped my mind around the idea that I am retiring, or that this is my last newsletter.
It has been quite a ride and looking back, some of it has simply flown by. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride but going through the rough parts together has brought us together in ways that might not otherwise have happened.
But the good memories still being a smile to my face. Filming a spaghetti western in Gold Field Ghost town when the temperatures were well into triple digits stands out. There were shows and skits and music and Vacation Bible School and Campfirmation antics along the way. There were births and baptisms, confirmations and weddings, and memorial services where we said good-bye to old friends. There were candles on Christmas Eve and shadows on Good Friday; things we planned that went well and things we planned that just didn’t work.
Feed My Starving Children began in our sanctuary on its way to a dedicated space in Mesa. Houses were built for families with partners from three other congregations. Children of Hope opened with hurdles that seemed too high, but we jumped them and over 600 children have been nurtured here since. The Garden of Eatin’ began with two demonstrations beds and has now grown into a full community garden. And there has been so much more.

The Psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God.” Yes, life indeed is full of surprises. Esperanza has found a place in my heart that I never imagined. I know that it will continue to be a beacon on the corner of Ray and Thunderhill; a place for rest and recovery, celebration and purpose, ministry and worship; a place where all are welcome at the table of hope. Vaya con Dios.

Here is my favorite poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The Times Are a Changin’ – Luke 18:1-8

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Pastor Steve Hammer

I was in a conversation last week and the topic shifted to “what was the first concert you ever went to?” I assumed that the question related to popular music – I had been to a couple of symphonic performances – so my answer was Peter Paul and Mary. What I did not realize at the time of the concert, which was probably in 1965 or 66, was that PP&M were introducing me to the work of Bob Dylan. They had two big hits back then that were both Dylan tunes: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times, They Are a Changin’.”

The first hit had a gentle, mournful tone, the second one more of an edge. They both fit into their time and I think have transcended the boundary of time. When I first heard “The Times, They Are a Changin'” I thought began to think of myself and the coming change and others as the ones standing in the doorways and blocking up the halls. Today I hear, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” in a very different way.

What I would like to think about myself is that I will get out of the old road and maybe even lend a hand, but sometimes it is a struggle. Doing justice always has been. The parable in Luke’s gospel this week has more than one title. Some call it the parable of the unjust judge and some call it the parable of the persistent woman. Depending on your focus, either one works. The characters need each other for the story to happen.

On the one hand, the judge is described as a man that “neither feared God not respected people.” That isn’t exactly a great endorsement. The woman on the other hand is a widow which might have meant that unless she had family to take her in, she had nothing and no standing of any kind.

When I read this parable, I think about Rosa Parks and my Uncle Carl. Parks of course was a Civil Rights activist who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the whites only section of a public bus in Montgomery Alabama. My Uncle Carl was a telephone lineman in Philadelphia riding the bus home from work. He was tired and the only seat available was in the blacks only section at the back of the bus and he sat there. He was not an activist, just a tired man on a hot day. The driver stopped the bus and demanded that Carl come to the front of the bus. Carl explained that he didn’t care about what part of the bus he was in, he just wanted to sit. He didn’t get arrested, but he refused to give up his seat and eventually the angry driver continued the route.

Unless ordinary people without power or position persistently demand justice, even when there is a cost for doing so, then justice will remain a dream. The woman kept demanding that the judge do justice even though he neither feared God or respected people. He was a man who knew no race, and yet, if only to get rid of her, the judges ruled in her favor.

The prophet Habakkuk proclaimed, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it.”

Here is the last verse of Bob Dylan’s still-relevant song:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last.

Welcoming the Outcast – Luke 17:11-19

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 23:8-15

Steve Hammer

The events of the past few weeks have taken me back to the early 70’s when the suffix “gate” started to be added to every kind of scandal imaginable. I was in college when Watergate became a household word and the student body reflected the nation in its division regarding the President’s role.

I was in a class on English Augustan Poetry and before the professor arrived a conversation/argument began on current events. When my professor arrived, instead of beginning his lecture, he began to tell a shocking story. He spoke of growing up in Germany. That alone was a surprise to us, he spoke without a trace of an accent. He cautioned about the dangers of hero worship. He was a boy in the 1930’s and recalled how the new chancellor was restoring a sense of German pride to a people struggling for a sense of identity after World War I. He talked about finding a sense of belonging in the Hitler youth with smart uniforms, patriotic songs and complete belief in “the leader” and the notion that the German people were superior.

Of course, it all came crashing down. The war was lost, survival became challenging and then the truth of genocide and crimes against humanity, especially those already on the margins and deemed expendable, was revealed. The uniform in which he once took pride was now a symbol of shame.

The room that had been loud with voices fell silent as he spoke in confessional tones, still filled with the horror from thirty years ago. He then spoke of his time as a refugee and the welcome he was given, first in England and then in the United States. He spoke of what the experience taught him about caring for those who had no one to care for them and then quoted Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.”

Immediately after the apostles asked Jesus to “Increase our faith!” they enter a village where there are 10 lepers who cry, “Have mercy on us!” Luke shifts the subject of the story from the 12 who formed his inner circle to 10 who were not just on the margins, but completely cast out. The conventional wisdom of the time was that diseases of the body were a manifestation of a disease of the spirit. Those with leprosy not only had to endure being ostracized from society but were also required to shout, “unclean, unclean” when others approached.

This is often interpreted to be a story about gratitude – the only leper who returns to offer thanks is the Samaritan – and it is that. But it is also a story about inclusion. Not only did Jesus restore all ten of the lepers, he also did so without asking them for anything. They did not have to repent of their sins, they did not have to profess their faith, they did not even have to accept Jesus. He simply told them to go show themselves to the priest and as they went, they were made clean. Jesus did not expect any reciprocity.

What about the Samaritan? He had two strikes against him: he was a leper and a Samaritan; someone who was by definition inferior. When you think about it, why would he go to the priest, why would he show himself to a leader of those who excluded him? It was probably because he was an outsider that he understood who Jesus was more than the other nine. Because of that, he was not just made clean, he was made well.

Here is verse three of Scotsman John Bell’s hymn, “The Summons.”

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?


Beyond Downton Abbey – Luke 17:5-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14

I have been a serious Anglophile since holding a season tickets to a small theater’s Shakespeare series when I was in high school. Pretty much anything on television with a British accent gets my attention. Naturally, when “Downton Abbey” premiered on PBS a few years ago, I was in. Just in case you somehow missed it, “Downton Abbey” was a series about an aristocratic English family in the early 20th century. After turning their estate house into a hospital during the first world war, the family must navigate changes in the social and economic fabric that threaten the long-standing estate system.

The series was wildly successful, and a feature film opened last month. I had mixed feelings. The production was lavish and well done, but I frankly I had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the characters – that is, the characters who weren’t servants. I guess I have a hard time feeling too sorry for someone who has inherited multiple generations of wealth who is just exhausted because they have had to change clothes four times in a day.

This week’s gospel was a little hard to swallow. There is something about Jesus’ comments about slaves and masters that really rubs me the wrong way. Particularly irritating is his suggestion that you do not thank a slave for following orders and that they should reply, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Am I supposed to declare myself worthless? I am reminded that Martin Luther referred to himself as a “poor stinking bag of maggots.”

Wrestling with the slave and master metaphor, I return to the demand of the disciples that touched off the whole thing: “Increase our faith!” At first it seems like a reasonable request, but the more I think about it, the more I understand why Jesus seemed so irritated. First, what makes them think faith is quantifiable? Come to think of it, an awful lot of us seem to think the same thing. Second, if faith is quantifiable, does that mean there is a faith economy in which a few have more, and many have less?

Maybe Jesus is irritated because the disciples want a faith economy and they want to be the faith aristocrats. It is easy to imagine that they would, the faith they have known was structured in just such a way with religious elites ruling over the religious serfs. For some, Jesus represented an inversion of the order; they could become the ones in charge; the ones living lavishly. No, it is not hard to imagine, in fact it is still happening among today’s preachers of what has been called the “prosperity gospel.”

This is the Jesus who said, “I come not to be served but to serve.” Worthless slaves? By the world’s reckoning, yes. But then, this is also the Jesus who said that it is by holding on to life that we lose it, and by giving it away that we gain life eternal.

October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi who died in October of 1226. Here is a quote:

“God could not have chosen anyone less qualified, or more of a sinner, than myself. And so, for this wonderful work He intends to perform through us, He selected me-for God always chooses the weak and the absurd, and those who count for nothing.”

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