Transfiguring Dignity

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel. Photo by Paul Wellauer at Used with permission

(sermon 2/14/21 – Transfiguration Sunday)

Mark 9:2-10  

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.


We packed into the little minivan, a bunch of us from seminary who were doing J-term study in Israel and Palestine, very early one morning at the foot of Mount Tabor – the mountain that sits just about four miles or so east of Nazareth that, while no one knows for sure where it really happened, is at least the traditional site of the Transfiguration. We sat in the minivan packed like sardines, while the driver and tour guide sat up front, discussing something in Arabic as we doubled back and forth on the precarious little switchback road leading up the side of the mountain on our way to the top.

When we arrived, the whole mountaintop was encased in a thick fog; a silvery-grey mist filling the air, deadening sound and giving everything a magical feel that made you believe that yes, maybe something as mystical as the Transfiguration could have really happened right here, and something just as mystical could even happen again on this very morning.

And it was something mystical, something hard to imagine, this Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John just going along with Jesus for what they assumed was another routine mountainside bit of prayer time, when suddenly, Jesus is transformed, glowing, radiant, whiter than the brightest white; and he’s joined by Moses and Elijah. From a theological standpoint, their presence – Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the foremost prophet – are a sign, a validation that Jesus is indeed the summation of the Law and Prophets, God’s specially chosen one. It’s validation to us that our God-given trust and faith in Christ is justified. And also, in a way, it’s a sign that in a way clearly not identical, but in some equally mysterious and inexplicable way, God changes, transforms, transfigures us as well, making us new creations.

A big part of being that new creation is recognizing, and being grateful for, the dignity inherent in each of us – having been created in, and bearing, the very image of God. A dignity that doesn’t lead to any sense of superiority or supremacy of haughtiness – just the opposite, actually. This dignity leads to a recognition of the beauty and connectedness of all of us. A quiet, humble celebration of the goodness and love that dwells within and connects all of us, and that we’re all capable of; and, honestly, coupled with a disgust, a tiredness of people being ugly to one another. Maybe, as I think about it, it isn’t that God transforms us and then we recognize that dignity; maybe it’s in the recognizing of that dignity, of God’s thumbprint on our soul, that God achieves the transforming. Because there absolutely is transformative power in that dignity that God has given us.

One day while I was working as a hospital chaplain, I glanced at the names of the patients on one of my floors in the hospital, and I recognized one of the names. It was the name of a very well-known architect in the city, part of a partnership that had designed a number of large, impressive projects over many years. I was intrigued – it wasn’t really a common name – L___d – and I wondered if it was just coincidence, or if it was the same person, so I visited that room first that day. I knocked on the open door and stepped into the room. Inside, there was an old, gaunt man propped up in the bed, while a staffer gave him a partial sponge bath. He had a vacant look in his eyes; he clearly didn’t know exactly where he was or why. He had an bad case of hospital hair, several day’s growth on his face. He was sitting on a bedpan but couldn’t remember asking for it and said he didn’t know if he needed it. Overall, he looked distant, depressed, and just, well, small.

I sat down next to him, calling him by name, introducing myself and asking if he’d like a visit and to talk. We made a little chitchat, to the extent that he was able, while the aide continued quietly caring for him. After a couple of minutes, I asked if he was, in fact, the architect. I told him that I’d also been an architect and that if he was, I’d always been impressed by his work, that his firm was the kind of firm I’d have loved to have worked for. He smiled faintly and said that yes, he was the architect. We discussed the profession a bit, and we talked about some of his firm’s noteworthy projects while he sat there, looking tired and somewhat distant. Then, I asked him what his favorite project had been, and he told me it wasn’t any of the big projects he’d done, but rather, a small church that he’d designed in conjunction with the very famous Italian architect whose name anyone architecturally in the know would recognize immediately. I asked him about the project, and what it was like to work with him. And as he started to answer me, something happened. Something magical. He smiled, and he suddenly gained a clarity in his eye. He sat up, his shoulders broadened, it was almost like he got physically bigger, his presence filled the room. He regained his presence – he regained his dignity. In a moment, he was no longer a tired old man battling dementia in a hospital bed, he was the consummate professional again, the mover and shaker, sitting behind his executive desk in the corner office in his expensive suit and holding court with a younger protege. He told me about that project for maybe five or ten minutes, and during that whole time, I was spellbound, not only by the fascinating story itself, but by his transformation. For at least that ten minutes, he’d regained himself. He’d been transformed, transfigured, through that spark of human dignity. And then, when his story was done, just as quickly as it appeared, it was over. He shrunk back, and became the tired, confused man still sitting on the bedpan. It was a remarkable thing to experience. It was a gift – to him, to me, and to the hospital staffer who had seen it all and was amazed and commented on it, too. That was the first and last time I ever got the chance to talk with L____d; I saw in the newspaper that he’d died probably less than a year after our encounter, but I’ll never forget it, or him.

Human dignity – sometimes hidden, but always present within each of us – is one of the greatest expressions of God’s love for us, and one of greatest gifts that God has given us.

Once we experience that kind of life-changing dignity, once we’ve seen its magical, transfiguring power and beauty within ourselves and within others, how could we not want to help others recognize and experience it within them, too? I firmly believe that’s at the center of our purpose in this life. That even though each of us walks our own particular path laid out for us by God, the whole point, the central focus, of all of those paths is to help all of God’s people know and live that dignity – the dignity that comes when we’re accepted as equals, and treated with compassion, and justice, and equity. The dignity that comes when you aren’t made to feel less than. When you don’t have to worry about, or be afraid of not having enough food, or shelter, or a decent education, or adequate healthcare, or meaningful work.

I don’t imagine any of us will ever experience a transfiguration as dazzling and impressive as Jesus did, whether it was on Mount Tabor or somewhere else, at least not until our own resurrection. Maybe some of us will experience a transfiguration sometime in our lives as dramatic, even if not with the specific details, that I was blessed to share with L_____d in the hospital that day. But all of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, all of us, as people of God’s realm, have, in a very real way, already been transfigured; we do all have that bit of divine/human dignity within us. And together, as God’s people, God calls us to help others in every way God makes available to us to discover that same dignity, and experience that same transfiguration, within themselves.


I’ll Be There

(sermon 9/27/20)

Photo by Samad Deldar, used with permission –

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”


Last week, the primary First Lectionary Text of the day was from Exodus 16, detailing God’s provision of quail and manna for the Israelites to eat as they were led by Moses through the Wilderness. It’s a great reading, but it’s a bit long, and trying to be mindful of the length of the service, I opted for the shorter alternative text from Jonah. That Exodus reading was a lead-in to today’s First Reading where, although the Israelites now have food, while they’re en route to the place God had said to go, Moses had chosen a place to encamp that had no water – the most essential of requirements for life.

The story is full of tension and drama. For us English speakers, the drama is even more amplified by a coincidental play on words between the Hebrew and English – they’re in “the Wilderness of Sin;” I mean come on, you know something noteworthy is going to happen in this story.

And what happens is that as a group the Israelites, who have had problems with Moses’ leadership in the past, confront Moses about his choice of campsites. In fact, the Hebrew term here is “rib”, which is often used to denote filing a complaint, often in a legal or a judicial sense. In short, the people lodged a vote of no confidence in Moses, citing his incompetence and ineffectiveness.

Moses’ response was interesting, and completely human. First, his defenses up, he complains about the complaints and the complainers; that the charges are baseless and unfair. And then – importantly – he equates the people’s complaining about him with their complaining about God; equating his own leadership decisions with God’s. It’s unthinkable to test or challenge God, so now it’s unthinkable to challenge Moses. To do so would call into question the complainers’ goodness or loyalty as Israelites. This was Moses’ response to the mass of people challenging his leadership, even though in the passage, we never hear that God had picked this particular campsite, and we never hear the people actually challenging God at all, only Moses.

This story comes down to us in the Book of Exodus along with the author’s intended gloss, telling us at the tail end, in the last verse, what we’re supposed to think about it – that it’s an illustration of the Israelites being troublesome complainers, disloyal, even at times anti-God; a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” as it says elsewhere in the scriptures. But if I just read the actual words here, without that gloss, I don’t see faithlessness. I don’t see any challenge to God. I see a group of people who are dying of thirst, who are suffering, who are rightly upset and angry at Moses and his leadership – which, honestly, the scriptural record shows to be pretty spotty and even at times unacceptable to God.

And just looking at the words, it’s almost impossible, especially after this most difficult and newsworthy week here in Louisville, to not see parallels between the Israelites’ complaints against Moses, and Moses’ response to their complaints; and the anti-racism protestors’ complaints lodged against the city’s leadership, and their response to that challenge; that those complaining are just a bunch of complaining, disloyal troublemakers.

If the story stopped there, it could end up being just another depressing reminder of all the chaos and problems we’re all living through right now, especially in the wake of the grand jury decision regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor, but also in so many other ways beyond even that. But thanks be to God, this story doesn’t end there. In fact, out of all that trouble, two important, over-arching, hope-filled moments of grace and gospel, both for the ancient Israelites and for us, comes through in the end.

The first of these is that the Israelites’ complaints, and their discomforting of Moses, were actually heard. Simply put, the Israelites standing up and making themselves heard by the power over them got actual results. This fact, that people’s voices, working together, can work change, real change, great change, in the leadership over us, was hope-filled good news to those Israelites, and it’s every bit as good to us as well, whether we’re talking about seeking an anti-racist city and society, or we’re thinking more generally about the incredibly important election coming up in just over a month. There’s great hope in the fact that the Israelites were heard. If you’ve seen any video of protests coming out of downtown, or other cities, whether on the evening news, or online, maybe watching one of the “502livestreamers”, you might have heard an often used chant that makes this very same point, that ”There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people won’t stop!”

Of course, we aren’t naïve. We’ve all been around the block more than a few times, and we all know that massed “people power” can be a force used for good or bad, and that actually brings me to the second, and most important, most hope-filled, most gospel, good news in this story. Moses goes to God for help, and interestingly, he ups the ante to God claiming that he was afraid that the people were about to stone him; he was afraid they were going to resort to violence – even though the people never said anything like that in the story. In God’s wisdom, God just sluffs off that comment, but then tells Moses “I’ll be there.” God commits to being present, and to bringing a solution to the people’s suffering. God says “Moses, you still have a part in this too; you’ve got to get your rear end out here to this rock, but I’ll be there, ready to make things happen. You go ahead and strike the rock with your staff, and I’ll make the waters flow. In this story, Moses was just an agent in God, the real power, the real authority, solving the people’s problem. It was God’s presence, and God’s ability, and God’s desire, that caused the life-giving water to flow from the rock – bringing forth water where there seemed to be no water; bringing forth hope where there seemed to be no hope; bringing forth goodness and life where there appeared to be none.

Right now, in any number of ways, it might seem like there’s little if any hope at all, whether we’re looking at larger social issues, or we’re just at our wit’s end about when our kids can get back to school in person. Or we can go back to work in person. Or back to church in person. Or when we’ll be able to see our relatives again in person. Or maybe it’s a lack of hope due to concerns about our health. Or our finances. Our a strained or broken relationship, among family or friends. Or something else; whatever it is that might be sapping our hope right now, know that God is just as present with you, with us, as was the case in this text. Know that through Christ, God was present, and is present, and remains present; as is able and willing to cause living waters to flow for us, too. God can, and will. We might not know how, or when, but God will. God will hear our voices. God will hear our prayers. God will hear our cries, see our tears; embrace our worries and know our fears; and will bring us out of our wilderness just as the Israelites were brought out of theirs. This is our great hope. This is our great joy. Because while the protestors are right about the power of the people, it’s even more true that there ain’t no power like the power of God, ‘cause the power of God won’t stop.

So hold on to the hope in this story. And don’t be afraid, don’t worry, if you never actually hear God say “I’ll be there;” it’s only because God already is.

Thanks be to God.

Hearing the Wind

(sermon 3/8/20 – Second Sunday in Lent)

Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


The man had heard the stories about Jesus. He’d heard some of his teachings in person, enough to know that he was the real thing – smart beyond what would have been expected from his age and his decidedly common and uneducated background; his insights giving pause to many older and  far more educated religious scholars and leaders. He really wanted to meet this man, to sit and pick his brain, have a one-on-one conversation with him, but he knew that could cause problems. Jesus’ teaching had ruffled a lot of feathers; Roman, religious, and in general among the man’s social circles. It had gotten to the point that being seen around Jesus could hurt the reputation of a good, respectable person. And Nicodemus was certainly that – a respected and educated member of the community, serious about his personal religious faith, involved in his community in any number of ways. If he lived in our time, he’d probably belong to the Rotary Club and volunteer with the Kentucky Derby Festival, and he’d likely be a good solid Presbyterian, or maybe a Methodist. In short, Nicodemus was a good person, someone we’d like, someone we’d probably like to be like – not the clueless hypocrite he’s been painted as in too many bad sermons and essays.

But this good man still had to consider appearances in order to protect his reputation. So he waited until after dark, when most people were at home and behind closed doors, to visit Jesus. And after circling around the block on the opposite side of the street three times, until the coast was clear and there wasn’t anyone else walking by who could spot him, he darted walked across the street and slipped into the doorway where Jesus was staying, and where the two of them had this conversation that’s gone down in history.

Many times, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus have been portrayed as him offering Nicodemus a scornful rebuke, even a mocking of Nicodemus, that Jesus was angry at him. Sometimes, just as it is with a text message or an email, it’s hard to read the actual emotions and intentions behind written words, and maybe Jesus really was in a mood and throwing shade at Nicodemus; I don’t know for sure. But when I read these words, I think of times when I’ve received similar words of confrontation from someone – times when someone has offered me a challenge, getting me to dig deeper into the real meaning of my own words or thoughts; or what was at the root of the way I felt or responded in some situation. In those times, the person offering me that challenge, that confrontation, wasn’t mocking me or angry with me at all – on the contrary, the words were meant to be constructive, coming from a place of mentoring and compassion, trying to get me to see something important to my own development and growth. You’ve probably had similar experiences with someone in your life, too.

I personally think that was more the tone of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus that he’d missed the boat and was heading in the complete wrong direction. Instead, he seemed to be telling Nicodemus that he’d compartmentalized his religious faith. He was on the right path; he just needed to take it further. He needed to broaden his understanding of that faith, and to let it touch every aspect of his life. It wasn’t something that could be reduced to strictly a personal relationship with God – it was that, to be sure, but it was also so much more than that. And that’s what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus into when he talked about God’s Spirit being like the wind; we can hear it, and feel it on our skin, but we don’t know where it’s come from, and we don’t really know exactly where it’s going. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to allow himself to hear and feel the Spirit, and to follow where it was trying to lead him, even if he couldn’t tell exactly where and how that was all going to end up. Jesus seemed to be telling Nicodemus that if there were any consequences to following that holy wind, that Spirit – and in all honesty, there probably would, there always is, as Jesus’ own life offers example – that what he would gain, the experience of living this abundant, more fulfilling way of life, more in tune with God and God’s broader desires for all of creation, and for all people, would be far more than anything he lost in the process. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about being born from above, being born in a new way.

I think that’s why this story is one of our Lectionary texts for Lent. We can all benefit from Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus. Like him, I suspect that most of us aren’t really off on a completely wrong path, but sometimes, we might allow ourselves to compartmentalize our faith, to keep it in a comfortable, non-threatening box, not allowing it to shape and inform the totality of our lives, only hearing the comforting parts and rationalizing away the parts that might make us uncomfortable.

Now no one is recommending everyone quitting their jobs and running off to seminary, or selling all their possessions and checking in at the Gethsemane monastery or the Iona Community in Scotland. It’s really more like this: does your religious faith go beyond just knowing what you believe? Is it just one of many branches of your life, restricted to this area over here, with all the other areas of your life being separate unrelated branches; or is your faith at the root, at the core, and everything else springs from it, and is formed and fed by it?

Does your faith shape how you live? How you treat and relate with other people? How you conduct your business affairs?  It’s a big election year; how do Jesus’ words inform your politics? When something Jesus taught contradicts some political thing we’ve always believed, that we were taught on our parents’ knee, which one ultimately guides how you fill out your ballot? Does it shape and inform how you schedule your all-too-precious time? When there’s a time conflict between participating in something related to your faith, and participating some other pursuit or activity, how often does the faith-based thing come in second place? Some of the time? Most of the time?

Lent is a good time for us all to hear Jesus’ gentle but blunt reminder, his invitation to allow ourselves to hear and feel the wind of the Spirit, not be afraid of allowing it to shape us, and of following where it leads. Following that wind leads us to the cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to the resurrection, and beyond, as well. That wind, the Spirit of God, is leading us all into an eternal kind of life; a life that’s more abundant, not less, and each step of the way as we follow that wind, it’s leading us closer to God.


Frankincense, Gold, & Har Gow

(sermon 1/5/20 – Epiphany Sunday)


Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Right after Christmas, George and I hit the road, taking off on a long road trip to visit family and friends. Beyond it just being nice to catch up, this was even more special for George because this was the first opportunity to return to Canada, since he was prohibited from leaving the country while his green card was in process. First, we visited George’s parents in western Ontario, near London. Then, we drove east to catch up with his brother and his family, and to see our nephew playing in a hockey tournament. After that, we went on to Toronto for more visits. Then we turned south, back to the U.S., going to Pennsylvania to visit with some of my relatives, then to Ohio to visit with some more of them, and finally, heading back home to Louisville.

While we were in Toronto, we also made arrangements to reconnect with some of George’s relatives in Richmond Hill – a city of about 200,000 people a half hour or so north of downtown Toronto. Toronto itself is a wonderful racially and culturally diverse city, maybe more so than any other city I’ve been in, and the full range of excellent restaurants there reflects the full breadth of that diversity. But to those in the know, if you want the best authentic Chinese food in the area, you go to Richmond Hill. So, as we’d done in the past, we all got together at a restaurant in Richmond Hill that serves the most amazing, authentic dim sum I’ve ever had. If you aren’t familiar with dim sum, it’s a traditional style of dinner that originated in Hong Kong, where you order a lot of small orders of all sorts of traditional Chinese snacks – barbecued pork steamed buns, soup-filled dumplings, deep-fried squid, meat or shrimp-stuffed rice noodles, and on and on – that are meant to be shared around the table.

So there we were again on this trip, in this huge banquet facility that had at least 250 people in it, and probably more. As I glanced around, I could see that I was one of probably only three of four non-Asian people there, which was fine – I felt completely at ease and welcome sharing this good time with extended family. I only mention that to make the point that this was a very authentic Chinese place, serving an almost exclusively Chinese clientele, which means that the menu was written almost completely in Chinese – what English translations were there were sparse and ambiguous, to put it mildly. So I didn’t really know what a lot of the dim sum dishes on the menu were, as all the Chinese speakers at the table were picking out small plates to order from the menu.

I’ve had dim sum enough to have a number of personal favorites that I think are delicious. But the palate is definitely a culturally conditioned thing, and honestly, I’ve had some dim sum dishes that, to my admittedly limited and deficient Anglo palate, tasted something like grass clippings wrapped in congealed wallpaper paste – but I also knew that the very same plate was delicious to George, who grew up with those tastes and textures, and it brought back all kinds of warm memories of family gatherings from his past.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though – those less-than-favorites dishes for me are actually pretty rare – I really like most of them. And as my own palate is evolving – improving – over time, I’m appreciating more of them all the time. And eating those dishes with the extended family sitting around the table makes it all the better. Still, since I don’t always know what’s coming, one of my favorite parts of these meals is when the food starts to arrive, usually in little covered bamboo steamer baskets, and they’re placed on the table, and the lids are ceremoniously removed, revealing what, for better or worse, is inside.

Even sitting there in that wonderful moment of the big reveal, though, the pastor’s brain is never completely on vacation, and as odd as it might sound, I was still aware that this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, was coming up – and sitting there waiting to see what was going to be inside when those little bamboo steamers were opened up made me think about the magi, and the treasures, the gifts, that they brought with them and presented to the Christ child.

I started to imagine the scene: Jesus is being cradled in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph, as they welcome these strangers from far away. And did she and Joseph wonder, as I wondered about the dim sum steamers, what would be revealed when they opened the lids of the gifts they’d brought? No doubt, they were grateful for the gold. But did they really appreciate the frankincense? The myrrh? I mean, a little bit of either of them goes a long way. Would burning the frankincense trigger Mary’s asthma? Did they worry that baby Jesus would get ahold of the myrrh and choke on the little crystalline nuggets? All things considered, would they have rather gotten a child seat for the back of the donkey and a Pack ‘n Play? We all know that when you open a gift, you never really know what’s going to be in store when it’s opened.

The journey of the magi from the region that we now know as Iran and Iraq, regardless of how many of them there really were, and regardless of whether they were all men or not, and regardless of even how wise they might have been, has become one of our most beloved aspects of our sacred story of Jesus’ entry into human history. But to take the story further, what meaning can it have for us now?

Their coming to worship and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, the anointed one of God, and offering him gifts, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to our own worship of him – our own offering of our lives, our devotion, our talents, our resources, all in a spirit of gratitude.

But I think the reverse is also true. The magi presenting of gifts to Jesus can also be seen as a reflection of God’s offering us gifts – first, the gift of Christ himself, but so much else that follows, too. Sitting here at the beginning of a new year, we’re receiving gifts from God, whether we imagine them as treasure chests, or bamboo steamers, waiting to be opened up to reveal what’s inside, or we imagine them some other way.

What will this year bring for you? What will it bring for me? For each of us, the year will bring times of joy and contentment, as well as times of challenge. We might experience real happiness and fulfillment arising out of our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, those same relationships might bring stress, pain, or grief. We might enjoy good health, or we might face difficult, maybe insurmountable, health problems.

I want to be very careful here – I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that happens to you, or to me, during this year will be God’s choice or will. I don’t believe that God literally deals with us in flippant or uncaring ways, as, for example, the story of Job would indicate, where God takes away everything from Job, health, family, fortune – everything – just over a stupid bet God supposedly makes with Satan. I don’t believe that God sends us troubles, not even with the intention of testing us or making us stronger. And on the flip side, I don’t believe that every good thing that happens to us is a sign of God’s favor, either. So many times you’ll see the survivor of some tragedy, a plane crash, a fire, whatever – and the person will thank God for their survival, saying it’s a sign that God loves them – but didn’t God love the ones who didn’t survive, too? Did God love this survivor more than the others? To be honest, whether we ascribe all of the good, or all of the bad, in our lives to God is actually pretty flawed theology.

The gifts that I think God gives us in our lives aren’t necessarily the actual good thing or the bad thing that we experience – but rather, what’s in the treasure chests that God gives to us – what’s waiting to be revealed inside those bamboo steamers – is God’s own love, and grace, and strength, and guidance to deal with both the good and the bad in ways that please God, and that strengthen our lives of faith, that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Another of these gifts is the gift of community, the church, this congregation, to help us in the good and the bad. The greatest of these gifts that God serves up to us is the reassurance that through the life of this Christ child, the one worshiped by the magi, God has chosen to stand with us, to walk with us, to let us know that we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and that whatever may come, good or bad, we will never face it alone.

There will be ups and downs, and no shortage of surprises along the way this trip around the sun, for you and me both. But whatever comes, we can be assured that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can know that once God has invited us to the great, eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, there is nothing that could ever keep us from it. And we can rest assured  that at that banquet in addition to the finest bread and well-aged wine, as the scriptures say, and the choicest of meats filled with marrow, there will also be plenty of xiao long bao, cha siu bao, and har gow.

Thanks be to God.


Where Is It? (sermon 8/9/15)


Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. … He came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go…”   – 1 Kings 19:1-3a, 9-15a


Today’s Old Testament text is a small part of a larger story that you need to know a little more about in order to be able to put into context, and hopefully understand a little better. This is a story of the prophet Elijah during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab had married Jezebel, who was the daughter of the King of Tyre, an adjacent kingdom to the north of ancient Israel, in part of what is modern-day Lebanon. This marriage undoubtedly helped Ahab with trade relations, political and military alliances, and so on. Jezebel worshipped Baal, the ancestral god of her people, and while Ahab kept focused primarily on the military, and statecraft, and the business of the kingdom, he let Jezebel handle the religious affairs of the household, and by extension, the countryside. Jezebel established temples to worship Baal, and supported hundreds of priests and prophets of her religion. And that’s when problems with Elijah, who had never been a big fan of Ahab anyway, came to a head.

There was a dispute over who would be the God that the people worshiped – Baal or YHWH. In order to decide the matter, Elijah proposed a competition, a showdown of sorts. The prophets of Baal would slaughter a bull and put it on an altar, and Elijah would do the same. Then, they’d each call on the name of their respective gods, and the one who actually sent fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be one to worship. The people all thought this sounded fair enough, so the competition was on.

The prophets of Baal – all 450 of them – went first, but despite praying and calling on Baal for pretty much an entire day, nothing happened. Now Elijah was a cheeky, sarcastic sort of prophet, and as the other prophets were praying and wailing to Baal, he started to taunt them – What’s wrong? Where is your God? Maybe he’s off praying somewhere and can’t hear you; maybe he fell asleep; maybe he took a long weekend to the beach.

Finally, it was Elijah’s turn, and he placed his sacrificed bull on the wood on the altar. And then, just for added theatrics – I told you he was a cheeky sort – he had them doused with gallons and gallons of water, twice even, until everything was completely saturated with water. And then, standing there in the mud from all of the water running off the pile, and water trickling between his toes, Elijah calls on the name of God to send fire, and BAM! Fire shoots down from heaven and the sacrifice bursts into flames. The people were all impressed, as I supposed they should have been, and they side with Elijah; and in the religious fervor of the moment, Elijah orders that they seize and kill all 450 of the prophets of Baal. Which brings us to where we pick up the story in today’s Lectionary text.

Well as you might expect, Elijah’s killing all of the prophets of Baal doesn’t sit very well with the Queen, , and she vows that if she ever gets her hands on Elijah, she’ll do to him what he’d done to the prophets of Baal. So Elijah flees for his life. Ultimately, he ends up in this cave on Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God spoke to Moses and handed down the Ten Commandments according to the book of Deuteronomy. There in the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah tells God how everyone has turned against him and away from God, and they’re all out to kill him, and that only he was left in all of Israel to stand up for God and defend God’s name – which seems a little odd, considering it was just a few verses earlier that there were apparently enough followers of God to seize and kill 450 prophets of Baal – but Elijah was on a roll at that point, and God seems to just let him go. And he undoubtedly reminds God of that event too, to show how devoted and faithful a servant he was.

After listening to Elijah’s answer, God seems to set up an object lesson for Elijah. God tells Elijah to go stand out on the mountain, because God was about to pass by. And then, there’s this tremendous show of force and power and fury – a mighty wind, and earthquake, a huge fire. It was a scene that made Elijah’s sacrifice showdown look tiny by comparison. But the story tells us that God wasn’t found in any of that. It was only after that show of force, that illustration that God was perfectly capable of taking care of himself against his enemies, without Elijah needing to supposedly defend the faith by killing a bunch of people and then playing the martyr card – it was only after that, when everything had died back down to absolute silence, that God offers Elijah a second chance to answer the question. So… What are you doing here, Elijah?

And in what seems to be a classic scriptural case of cluelessness, Elijah seems to miss the whole point of God’s demonstration and just offers God the exact same answer again. At that point, God tells him to just go, setting him off on his next adventure. At this point, you can almost hear God sigh. You can almost feel God’s shoulders droop. You can almost hear God say “Well… maybe we’ll work on this lesson with him another day.”

Even as great a servant of God as Elijah sometimes gets things wrong. Even Elijah can get wrapped up in delusions of grandeur, that he’s the sole defender of the faith, that he’s got to go to extreme, maybe even violent means, to save the faith and protect God’s name, all in the name of faithfully trying to hear the voice of God.

This story shows us that we don’t usually hear God’s voice in the big, mighty, loud things of the world. We don’t usually find it in the high drama or theatrics or sarcasm. Contrary to some televangelists, we don’t hear the voice or judgment of God in earthquakes or floods or hurricanes or mudslides. And we certainly don’t find it in acts of violence. Whether in Elijah’s time or our own, the voice of God is most present, most hearable, in the still, small moments. In the silence.

Where is it that you find the voice of God? Maybe in moments of silence, here, or in the chapel, or looking out at the lake at sunset. Maybe we hear God’s voice in a recurring dream that we can’t seem to shake, that comes to us over and over again in the middle of the night when the distractions of the day that tend to drown out the voice of God are largely set aside. Maybe we hear God’s voice through the surprisingly wise and observant words of a small child. Or maybe, as sometimes happens when we’re in times of real distress, we just hear the voice of God within us – not in actual words, but just resonating inside our very being, just as audible as my words are to you right now.

Where is it that you’ve heard God speaking in your life? Wherever it may have been, one good thing that we can get out of this Old Testament story is that if God’s asked something of us, and we didn’t quite get the point, or if we didn’t really come up with the answer God wanted us to, God will keep speaking to us. Just as was apparently the case with Elijah, God will keep loving us and working with us on getting the right answer, maybe on another day.

Thanks be to God.

What Is It? (sermon 8/2/15)

Manna Snow

What is it? Is it manna? Actually, I think it’s a light dusting of snow, but the idea is the important thing.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not…. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’  – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15


So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:24-35


Today’s gospel text picks up right where we left off last week – it’s right after the story of Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Here, Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds have followed him here, too, and are asking for a sign to prove that they should believe in him. I guess we can hope that this request was coming from some new people in the crowd, and not the same people who’d just seen the sign, the miracle of Jesus feeding all those people, because if it were coming from the same people, they must have been pretty stupid or had very short attention spans. And as they asked for a sign, they make reference to the Exodus story of God providing manna, bread from heaven, for the Israelites to eat as they wandered through the Wilderness. We heard that story here this morning, too, and even though it’s a little hard to follow after it gets translated into English, the Israelites called the bread “manna,” because that’s the Hebrew phrase for “What is it?”, and that’s exactly what they asked when they first saw it lying all over the ground.

Some people look at this story and say the point is to not be a complainer like the Israelites. That they weren’t justified and they were upsetting God with their whining. The message drawn out of this story is sometimes that when things aren’t going our way, we should just stop complaining; we should just be patient and trust God, and if we’re having problems, it must just be part of God’s grand plan. Frankly, this story has been abused in countless sermons that criticized people standing up and fighting against all sorts of injustice, inequity, and discrimination.

You certainly read in other parts of the Exodus story that the Israelites’ complaining angered God. But if you read this particular story carefully, you don’t see that response from God at all. The people’s complaint was apparently legitimate, and God heard their complaints and provided food for them. Excellent. That’s a much more hopeful message, and it should give us courage to speak out against problems like that, and that God will hear and honor our prayers.

But that leads us to another problem as bad as the first – the idea that because God loves us, God will always provide for our needs. Not for luxuries, of course, but at least all of the basics that we really need to get by. You hear that message in this Exodus story, and in countless other places in the Old and New Testaments, even in Jesus’ words – ask anything in my name, and I’ll do it for you.

And that’s a big problem, because we all know that this is just not true. According to the UN, more than 18,000 children starve to death in the world every single day. In that same single day, another 2,000 children under the age of five dies from plain old, run of the mill diarrhea, for want of a few pennies’ worth of over the counter medicine. Millions of people die each year for want of the basic essentials of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, or basic medical treatment. How are we supposed to square these realities with this idea that we should be assured that God will provide for us? Are we supposed to believe that maybe some people are important to God, while others aren’t?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer to that question. I can’t square these two things. I don’t know why God seems to provide for some, in abundance, even excess, while seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering of others. And I wrestle with preaching, or offering pastoral counsel about the idea of God providing for us when it seems pretty clear that sometimes God doesn’t, at lest not in any meaningful, immediate way, often for the very basics of life, and I don’t know why.

But I do know this: even while it doesn’t seem like God provides for every need, God does provide for much need. All the time. All around us. And when God does provide, it often comes in a way that we don’t immediately recognize or expect. It comes in a way that initially makes us ask “What is it?” Maybe it comes in the form of a “yes” or “no” in our lives, when all conventional wisdom and our expectations were the opposite. Maybe it comes as some surprisingly wise or perceptive observation made by the person you’d least expect it from. Maybe it comes in the form of some new and different thing, or situation, that you’d never have asked for and frankly, wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want, but through it, you found some new strength, new direction, new hope, new opportunity, to be Christ to yourself and to the people around you. But at first, you ask, “What is it?”

In my own experience, I’ve come to see that God is providing so much for us all the time. It covers the ground around us. Through Christ, we have the ability to see it for what it is, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s intention are in providing these things to us.

I heard a story in a seminar yesterday about a little church congregation with declining numbers in a declining section of a city, that was struggling with understanding what they should be doing as a church, what their role was supposed to be in the kingdom of God. There was a park right across the street from the building, but it was run down and the playground equipment was all broken, so no children ever came to play there. The city just let the park go, saying they didn’t have the money to keep it up. The little church had some memorial funds that had been given for the use of children’s ministries, but it had been years since there had been even one child who attended the church. So they took it upon themselves to use those funds and their own volunteer labor to repair the city park and make it usable for the neighborhood children, and before you knew it, there were dozens of kids playing there at any point during the day. So then the little church thought it would be a good idea to throw monthly parties for the kids, and host a picnic for them, and the kids and their parents loved it. And then a few retired schoolteachers thought it would be a good idea to offer the kids after-school tutoring and help with their homework, and the kids loved it. And before long, some of those kids, and some of their parents, started coming in for worship, and when they did, they were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the family from day one. And then some other people came, too, because they’d heard about the amazing way this struggling little church had become truly missional, and the great good they were doing in the neighborhood.

Everything they needed to do it had already been given to them by God. It was right there, all of it, right there in front of them. They just needed to see it in a new light, to put the pieces together in a different way than they were accustomed to. They just allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts, and to see how they could use what God had provided them with.

So today, as we’re sitting here on the lawn, I ask you – what is it that God has provided us with, put right in front of us to use, for us and for others? What is it that God has provided us with as a congregation? And what is it that God has provided you with in your own life? What is it that God calling you, calling us, to do with what we’ve been provided? What is it?

Thanks be to God.

Love Story (Sermon 6/7/15)

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.     – Genesis 2:15-3:21


A lot of sermons are developed to include some form of visual imagery within them; a painting of some kind of word picture or a jogging of your memory about something you’re familiar with. We preachers will do this for at least two possible reasons. First, they’re meant to help illustrate a particular point we’re trying to make. Second, they’re meant to stick in your mind a bit longer than just a bunch of words; they become a thing that you remember and which help to remember the rest of what was being said. If I can get you to remember Schrodinger’s Cat, or a Watership Down rabbit until, say, the following Wednesday, the odds are pretty good that you’ll also be able to say, “Yeah, I remember that – and the point behind it was….” That’s why so many sermons are structured that way.

But I don’t have an image like that today. Sorry. The reason I don’t is that the Lectionary text today, the second account of creation from Genesis, is its own strong visual image. We’ve all heard this story a hundred times, and we’ve all imagined it; it’s already a big imprint on our minds.

This is a love story, maybe the greatest of love stories; the story of the love of God for us. It’s a long passage, and there are probably a hundred different topics that could be preached from it; dozens of church doctrines and positions are drawn from it; but I want to point out just a couple of thoughts from the story today that I think are very important to us.

Imagine this scene in your mind: God has created the earth, and the human being. And upon reflection, God says that it isn’t good for the human being to be alone – that the human needs a helper, a partner, a mate; someone to be in relationship with. So, God sets out creating various options to offer to the human being as a potential partner in life, by creating all the animals. Picture this; God creates an animal and presents it to the human being for approval: “How about this one? No? OK, How about this? How about this? How about this?” Until finally, after all the rejections, God creates a woman and presents it to the man – “How about this?” And finally, the man says yes, this is an acceptable partner and helper for me; someone who is like me, flesh of my flesh; bone of my bone.

Did you get that? The eternal, transcendent God who created the universe, the cosmos, by sheer will, by just saying “Let there be…” doesn’t act with that same kind of power and authority to just create a partner for the man and say, “This is it!” God grants the freedom to the human being to choose for himself who will be an acceptable partner and helper in life. That’s an incredible degree of autonomy, of agency, of authority over his own life. And it doesn’t end there. Notice in the story that when God presented all the animals to the human being, God allowed the human to name them. Now that may not sound like a big deal to us, but it was to the culture that this story was written for. In ancient Hebrew culture to know the name of a person or thing carried with it some authority and control that you had over them, and to have the power of actually bestowing the name meant you had all the more power and authority over them. This was a major statement in this story about the nature of God. At a time when the cultures surrounding them had creation accounts that talked about the gods deciding to create human beings to basically be slave labor for them, and who didn’t particularly care for them, the God of Israel, and of us, is described as one who provides so much agency and autonomy in the world that we become co-creators with God. We see that creativity in music, and architecture, and painting, and the theater, and on and on. We have the power and authority to do all these things in the world and more – and maybe that “more” is precisely the point. Along with this much control and agency comes great responsibility. We can’t just sit back on our haunches in this world waiting for God to take care of us, or of some problem in the world. God has given us all of this agency and co-creativity, in order to do good in this world in God’s name. We can’t just throw up our hands when we see something wrong and say “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” because God has – God has equipped and empowered us to do step in and do something about it.

That’s a lot of responsibility that we get with that great degree of agency. And that’s the problem: the greater responsibility we have, the greater possibility we have to mess up. Of course, as we know, it doesn’t take long for the human beings to mess up in this creation story. And they really mess up big; no one could have messed up bigger than this. And you hear the emotion in the words of the passage; Go sounds like the parent of every teenager who’s done something stupid, and the parent cries out “What in the world were you thinking?!!”

But then, after the initial outburst, did you notice what God did? It was the very last line of the passage. Did he send lightning bolts to obliterate them? No. You can almost hear God taking a deep breath, and saying “OK, you made a mistake. And the mistake has consequences. This isn’t going to be the life, the future, I’d originally planned and hoped for you. But it can still be a good one. Let’s get to work and make that happen together.” Instead of the lightning bolts, God sits down in the garden with them and stitches some clothing for them. God equips them for the life, for the journey, ahead of them. That’s the kind of God that Adam, and Eve, and we have. That’s very, very good news. And knowing that, what more can we say but

Thanks be to God.

I Chose You (sermon 5/10/15)


As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. – John 15:9-17


There was a very popular tradition in the 1800s that was a way to say goodbye to someone. Not just a “see you later” kind of goodbye, but a real goodbye – a “this is probably the last time we’ll ever see each other” kind of goodbye. The tradition took place in many groups – extended families, church congregations, whatever – that the women of the group would get together and make a Friendship Quilt, where each of them would make a portion of the quilt, and they’d all sign it and give it to the person who was leaving. It was a way for that person to remember those they’d left behind, and to stay, in a very real way, in their loving embrace whenever they’d wrap up in the quilt. It was a beautiful tradition, an excellent way to “say goodbye well,” as we might say today. It’s the same sort of thing that Erika Castro was talking about last Sunday – that on the last day of the service teams’ weeklong stay at Montaña de Luz, the kids would all sign their T shirts, or draw little pictures, or maybe put their handprint on the shirt with paint. It’s a way of allowing a little bit of them, and their love, to go with them when they left.

The portion of John’s gospel that’s been part of the Lectionary texts for the past few weeks has been telling the story of Jesus’ saying the same kind of goodbye to his followers. During his time with them, there have been good times and bad. When you read through some of the stories, especially in Mark’s gospel, you can sense the frustration in Jesus’ dealing with them at times. You can almost feel him sinking into a deep facepalm over their cluelessness. But on the night of this story, that’s all behind them. This is the night of the Last Supper, the night Jesus is going to be arrested, and he’s in the middle of a long farewell to them all. He’s trying to say goodbye well. He’s trying to give them some final words to help explain what this has all been about, and how to go forward from here.

As part of this, he tells them that in fact, they hadn’t chosen to follow him, but he chose them – that since before the beginning of time, God had chosen them.

This idea of having been chosen by God, instead of us having chosen to follow God, has always been a very big theological thing to us Presbyterians. It’s why you’ll never see a so-called “altar call,” asking people to “make a decision for Christ,” in a Presbyterian church. It’s why sometimes, making fun of our generally reserved nature, people will jokingly call us “The Frozen Chosen.” Thinking about this idea of having been chosen by God led John Calvin to refocus on the long-standing Christian doctrine of predestination, an idea that went at least back to Saint Augustine in the early 400s. And taking that idea to its logical conclusion led Calvin to a thought that even he himself admitted seemed repugnant: that if we say that people have been chosen by God before the beginning of time – that they had been “predestined” to be God’s people, long before they’d even been born – then it seemed to logically follow that there were also people who God *didn’t* choose; people who had been predestined to be condemned, without their having any recourse or anything to say about the matter.

It’s a pretty unsettling thought all the way around. On the one hand, how do you really know whether you’re among the chosen or the condemned? If you’re one of the condemned and there’s nothing you can do about it, that hardly seems fair, or any way that a loving, merciful, just God would act. And even if you are one of the chosen, it’s still a pretty grim thought – your whole life is apparently predetermined, all the ups and downs scripted out without any input from you, and no matter what you may try to do about them.

Are we just a bunch of involuntary players on a stage, performing in a play written and directed by God? Are we all just marionettes, with God pulling all the strings?

Well… what if Calvin and Augustine and all the other adherents of predestination got it wrong? What if Jesus meant something very different when he talked about having chosen people? What if he meant that God hadn’t chosen only the specific people sitting around him that night, but rather, that God had chosen human beings, period? What if the whole outrageous act of choosing to create human beings was God’s act of choosing us? When God created us and called us Tov Meod – “Very Good” – was that our having been chosen? What if Jesus was explaining to them that God’s choosing to enter into this world by being present in him, a human being, that this was evidence of God’s showing solidarity with us, of God’s having chosen the human race? There’s a funny T shirt that says in bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then in small print, it says “But then again, he loves everybody.” What if that T shirt was more profound than it intended? How might it change the way we understand God and ourselves, and what it means to be a follower of Christ, if all of our T shirts said “I’M ONE OF GOD’S CHOSEN” – “But then again, he chose everybody”?

In this gospel story, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means to be chosen – and what they’ve been chosen for, and those are important questions that a lot of people don’t think to ask; they just gloss over those points when they think about this whole chosen business. As he talks with his followers, Jesus explains what all this convoluted talk about vines and branches was all about: we’ve been chosen to be the agents, the conduits of God’s love in the world. We’ve been chosen to show what God’s love, and what God’s dwelling within us, looks like in concrete reality, in daily living. We’ve been chosen to show that both right belief and right practice of the faith are important, but when it comes right down to it, right practice – that is, extending love to the world, wrapping others in love – always trumps the details of right belief.

We’re given the strength and the boldness to live this way – to live as God’s chosen – by keeping ourselves connected to Christ, the vine, the very presence and definition of the divine in flesh and blood, the source of all life and love.

Those Friendship Quilts I was talking about earlier were made by the people who were staying put, and were given to the people who were leaving. In this story, it was the other way around. It was Jesus who was leaving, and when he does, he’ll give them two gifts. The first one is in this text. He tells his followers he won’t call them his servants any more, but now, they’re his friends. That’s a powerful thing. Most of us can remember some greatly respected mentor, maybe a teacher or a professor; and after we’ve graduated, these people we respect so much go from being, say, Mr. Burns, or Professor Langknecht, to just Stan, and Hank. There’s a very real difference in the interpersonal dynamic when that shift happens, and it happens with the disciples right here. The other thing Jesus is going to do is to leave those followers – his friends – with the gift of a Friendship Quilt of sorts of his own – the gift of God’s Spirit. He leaves it for them, and for us, too. Sometimes, often in the most intense moments of our lives, we’ll experience that Spirit. Maybe it will come directly, in the form of some special unexpected answer, in some intense personal and private moment of prayer. Maybe it will come more indirectly, in the form of a card or a letter; a kind word, or smile. Or a casserole after the funeral. Or maybe just a hug. However it comes, friends, recognize that it’s all the same thing. It’s Jesus’ Friendship Quilt, the very Spirit of God, encircling and wrapping around us, warming us, and always reminding us that we’re loved – that we’re chosen.

Thanks be to God.

Bifocal Lents (sermon 2/22/15)


Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17


In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:9-15


 We’ve been talking about Lent any number of ways lately. We’ve written newsletter articles about it, and blog posts, and Facebook updates and newspaper articles, and we’ve designed a new series of Wednesday worship services for it. Now we’re in the midst of it, beginning this past week with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, and now this, the first Sunday in Lent. These forty days of reflection, solitude, and penitence are symbolically connected to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which itself is symbolically connected to the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after they left Egypt, which also symbolically connected to the forty days of rain during the story of Noah and the flood. Each of these things has embedded within it a sense of being separated out; affording, maybe even demanding, a time of self-reflection, and especially causing an amplified focus and reliance on God.

The idea of observing Lent can be a hard sell for us today, for a number of reasons. To turn away from the distractions of our daily lives is a hard thing to do. It’s hard for us to stay focused on something for forty minutes, let alone forty days. Our lives move so much more quickly today than when people first thought about setting aside forty days for introspection and refocus. One of the things that was nice when I first went to Honduras about twelve years ago was that where we were going, there was no internet connection available. There was no cellphone coverage. To go to that orphanage meant that you were going to have to give up all the instant technology that you’d gotten so dependent upon, and I know that a number of us felt a kind of withdrawal for the first couple of days that we were there. But after getting through that, we began to really focus on what was really in front of us, and all around us. Getting to know and love the kids, the natural beauty, the very different culture. Coming to see the reality of corruption and civil unrest, and of poverty on a level never seen before. Letting these experiences speak to our hearts, and to change our hearts. We got to be in that experience, that “zone,” for less than a week, before heading back to the States, and our phones came back to life, and we were resubmerged in our own constantly on, constantly live, ultimately dispersed lives. Finding one’s self in that zone of intense focus, without the normal distractions, has been truly life-changing for hundreds of people who have gone through it, and that was just to experience it for less than a week. Imagine how a life could be transformed by truly experiencing it for forty days.

It is hard to consider sticking with a regimen of introspection and humbly turning ourselves over to God even more deeply for the whole period of Lent. But there’s another aspect of it that I think is even more significant.

When I was first studying preaching, we were supposed to prepare a sermon on a particular passage, and the most obvious message to draw out of the words, at least for most of us in the class, was that we need to be more giving of ourselves – we need to be less selfish and more emptying of ourselves to serve others, just as Christ emptied himself for us. That was all well and good, the instructor said, and maybe it’s a very relevant and important message that a lot of people need to hear. But if the person hearing your message is someone whose issue wasn’t too strong a sense of self, but rather, was too *weak* a one; if your message is heard by someone who’s given of themselves to others so much that there doesn’t seem to be any of her or him self actually surviving, then it’s a wrong and even dangerous message to encourage even more self-emptying and self-destruction in the name of serving others.

The instructor made a valid point. And Lent can face a similar problem. What Lent should mean to each of us can be very different, based on where we’re approaching it from. Yes, it’s probably true that for many, if not most of us, the struggle we need to deal with as we come into Lent is that of humbling ourselves in order to come into God’s presence and to hear God’s word for us, and to recommit our lives to God. We Americans don’t generally do “humble” well; in fact, humility is often held up as a sign of weakness or even moral failing. Whether we look at what our society tells us about what our personal lives, or our national and international posture should look like, being humble and not pressing ourselves onto others rarely rates very high on the charts. So if we find ourselves in that location, it’s good and important to see Lent through the lens of needing to humble ourselves in order to find God in this time.

But there are a lot of people in the world, in the country, in this city, in this congregation, who likely have another frame of reference. There are many people who don’t have any shortage of humility; who don’t think too highly of themselves. In fact, they think too little of themselves. Our communities and our families are full of people whose self-image, whose sense of self-worth has been completely battered to the point that it can be almost non-existent. That’s the point where humility becomes humiliation. They’re told in countless ways that they aren’t smart enough, or successful enough, or good-looking enough, or enough like the way society says they should be, and they live lives filled with the quiet despair of feeling they don’t measure up, feeling worthless, or at least worth little, and certainly less than God would ever want to love.

And if that’s the place you’re standing in, then the worst possible thing you can hear, especially from a pulpit, is that you need to humble yourself even further. To be told that you’ve got to humble and debase yourself even further is a distorted, fatiguing, and even harmful message to get out of Lent. If that’s your vantage point, then you need to see Lent through a different lens. Understand that the humility that’s called for during Lent isn’t an end to itself, but rather, it’s meant to help you truly come into God’s presence and to feel God’s love. And it’s hard to hear God speaking into your heart if you believe that God wouldn’t speak to you at all.

We aren’t going through this season in some sort of masochistic love of beating ourselves up and wallowing in suffering for its own sake, as if suffering itself reconciles us with God. The main purpose of Lent is to feel and experience God’s love for us – especially as we see it illustrated through Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross and beyond. In order to be able to reflect on that love more deeply, some of us need to humble ourselves. But some of us will need to actually lift ourselves up. Some of us will need to allow ourselves to accept that we are good, and lovable, and worthy of God’s embrace, before we can hear God’s voice this season. All of us need to recognize that what’s important about Lent isn’t the details of how we get to the end point, but rather, that we actually get to it. And the end point is this: Just as we heard in our first reading, in the story of the flood, God loves us so much as to establish an everlasting covenant of love with us – one that completely overarches us and covers over us, just like the rainbow in the story that God said is a symbol of that covenant. And for the record: if, by chance, you find yourself in a place where you think you’re so worthless, you’re such flawed, damaged goods that your failings and shortcomings are too great to stay covered over by that covenant of love; that you’re going to poke through that protective rainbow, as it were – know that if you break through that one, that just like in our window, there’s another one just beyond it ready to cover over you and keep you within God’s love and care. And beyond that one is another one. And another one. And another one. You can’t ever exceed or escape God’s love and compassion for you. That’s the ultimate message behind meditating on Jesus and the cross during Lent, regardless of where you start your journey, regardless of your vantage point, regardless of what lens you need to see it through.

Thanks be to God.

Silence! (sermon 2/1/15)

capernaum synagogue

The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, on a much sunnier day than when I visited it. This synagogue dates to the 4th century CE, after Jesus’ time, but is built on the foundations of the earlier synagogue, where Jesus would presumably have done what we read about in this gospel text.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. – Mark 1:21-28


When I was in seminary, I had a class where I had to translate a fairly lengthy portion of an Old Testament passage – a pronouncement from one of the prophets; I don’t remember which one – where, at one point in the translation in which God calls out “Silence!” And as I translated that, I couldn’t help but laugh because it made me think of something else. A lot of you are probably familiar with the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and his one character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. If you are, you know that this particular ventriloquist dummy, this character, is just a comical-looking skeleton with wild eyes, a turban, and a beard. Achmed was supposedly a suicide bomber who ended up dying in an accident as he was building his bomb, and part of the routine is Achmed telling a number of pretty off-the-wall, politically incorrect jokes – and his one recurring, trademark bits is getting angry at the audience and yelling in his put-on accent, “Silence!…… I keel you!”

And try as I might, I just couldn’t get that stupid line out of my head as I translated this passage from the Old Testament. When I did the translation work for the professor, I had even written that line into the translation as a joke, and it was only at the last moment that I deleted it, worried that the professor wouldn’t have as much of a sense of humor as I did, and realizing that things that seemed like a good idea at two in the morning don’t always look so good in the light of day.

I couldn’t help but remember that incident, and laugh all over again, when I read today’s gospel passage. I pictured Jesus, teaching there in the synagogue in Capernaum, and him calling out to the possessed man, “Silence!”…. and some smart alek calls out from a back pew in the synagogue, “… I keel you!” Well, not likely, I suppose. I need to say that I think it’s okay to allow ourselves to laugh about things like this; I believe that Jesus has a pretty well-developed sense of humor and I don’t think we’re going to be banished to hell for something in the Bible making us laugh, as long as we get through that layer and consider what’s really important, what’s really going on in this story and is there some significance for us in it?

This is the first story, the kickoff, of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel, and that makes it an important signal of where the gospel is going to go; what it’s primary point or message about Jesus is going to go. The people who wrote the gospels were telling a story and trying to convey a particular overarching message. Just like when I sit down to write a sermon, the first thing I determine is the one, single point that I want to make, and then I’ll try to shape everything I do in the sermon to illustrate that point, shaping the content and tone and the rhythm of the sermon all to best convey that message. I might weave around the point a bit to get there, but the idea is to never stray too far from that overarching point. The writers of the gospels worked in much the same way. They were all starting from the facts of Jesus’ life, but each one of the writers shaped the story in a particular way, to emphasize a particular point. They chose how to arrange the story, how to sequence it, how to pace it, what words to use or what stories to include or not include, or how to enhance or shorten the stories, all to help them in their goal. They were storytellers, in the best sense of that term, rather than historians or news anchors, each trying to convey a slightly different overarching point about Jesus and the importance of his life and teaching. That’s why we end up with places where the gospels disagree with one another, and sometimes in ways that can’t just be easily explained. When the early church fathers decided to include the four gospels we have as part of our scriptures, they weren’t idiots. They recognized the inconsistencies in the stories; but the point was that perfect historical accuracy wasn’t the important point – the point being emphasized in the particular gospel, about Jesus and his message and his significance was the important point.

So in that light, we can look at the first thing that each gospel writer focuses on at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and find a signal of where that writer is going to go with Jesus’ story; what their emphasis is going to be. In Matthew, the first major event is the Sermon on the Mount. In this gospel, Jesus is going to be portrayed as the Great Teacher. In Luke, the story of Jesus’ ministry starts with him preaching in his hometown synagogue, talking about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and outcast. In John, the story starts with Jesus miraculously turning water into wine, and a lot of it, as a sign that Jesus is the eternal God in the flesh. In each of these cases, that becomes the main theme of the gospel, the main point the author is driving at. Teacher, Friend of the Outcast, Cosmic God as Attested to by Miraculous Signs. And here, in Mark, Jesus’ first act is one that showcases his authority and power – power that changes in the entire world, power that shows God is a boundary-breaking God. Time and time again in this gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the incarnate God who breaks through every barrier set up for him, barriers that to Mark’s readers would seem to be impenetrable. The preacher Karoline Lewis has pointed out that through Jesus, God breaks through political, social, religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and as we can see in this exorcism, even the cosmic forces of good and evil. A key message of Mark is that God is present in and beyond all of those barriers. That’s Mark’s way of understanding what the good news, the gospel, that Christ brings into the world is all about. Jesus is the barrier-breaker, showing people that God is present, God is here, even in all those places behind those supposed barriers, the places supposedly beyond God’s help and power, those places supposedly controlled by powers other than God. Through the authority and power that he shows over and over again in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is God’s “No!”, God’s “Silence!”, to those other powers.

The good news for us is that God is still yelling this “Silence!” to all the powers that would control our lives, too. Those things that we could say “possess” us, and prevent us from living that fullness, that contentedness and “at-peacedness” of life that our Jewish brothers and sisters simply call shalom. Powers like loss. Grief. Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Illness. Disease. Mark’s message to us is that God is still here, with us, in the midst of all of those powers and more. God has not left us or forsaken us, and while sometimes it doesn’t seem true, we still can be reassured by Mark’s message that God is Here. God is Here. Walking with us, holding us up, and embracing us, through it all. And that God does have the power that some day, some way, all the pain and suffering that we all endure in our own ways will be wiped away, banished, exorcised by God. That was the hopeful way of explaining the gospel in this first gospel written, and it resonates to us even all these years later.

Thanks be to God.