Occam’s (Twin-Blade) Razor

(sermon 3/18/18)

my razor-resized

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


This is my razor. I bought it when I was 18 years old, just a week or two before I went off to Penn State for undergraduate studies. It’s followed along with me ever since, wherever I’ve gone, whatever I was doing. I’ve shaved with this razor pretty much every day for almost 40 years. I’ve never replaced it with some newer, better one because as far as I was concerned, it did its job just fine and it wasn’t broken. To some people in our society, for me to not have bought a number of fancier, upgraded razors in all those years makes me not just a little odd, and not just cheap, but a troublemaker. Not a team player. A rabble-rouser; a dissident. I am the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of shaving. Because since the end of World War II, our economy, our society, has been built on the concept of continuous consumption. We’re taught from almost every direction that we should always want more than we already have. And once we have it, we need to buy a nicer, newer version of it just a year or two later. We’re told – and more often than not, we internalize – that our own worth is dependent on our “stuff.” If we have the newest of technology, the nicest furniture, the most current clothing, then we matter; and if we don’t, we don’t.

This isn’t just my opinion; it’s reality, and it isn’t just coincidence that this is the way things are. It’s intentional. After World War II, when we had a huge workforce coming home from the war looking for work, and a massive industrial structure needing some new purpose, a well-known economic analyst named Victor Lebow advised the government and industry leaders that our enormously productive economy required that we make consumption a way of life – making buying and selling of goods our formative social rituals, the rituals that give shape and meaning to our lives. Society needed to be altered so that we sought our actual spiritual satisfaction in consumption. The government and industry were all too eager to implement this strategy to keep a robust economy going, and now, for many people, their sense of self-worth is entirely wrapped up in the stuff they possess.

And yet, despite having more and better and nicer stuff than any other society in the history of the world, we aren’t content. We aren’t spiritually satisfied at all. In fact, at the same time we’re the generation that has the most material stuff, we also have the most psychological stuff. Generally speaking, we are  the most spiritually unfulfilled, dissatisfied, depressed, anxiety-ridden generation in history. How can this be?

Well, I introduced you to my razor earlier; now I’ll mention a more famous one – Occam’s Razor; the philosophical principle that when you’re trying to determine the solution to a question or problem, the most likely answer is the simplest one; the one that relies on the fewest assumptions or what-ifs. In this case, the simplest answer to the question of why we’re so unhappy even with all this stuff, is that the whole idea that stuff can make us happy and fulfilled is wrong from the very outset. We *can’t* find happiness through obtaining stuff. We can’t derive a sense of self-worth through consumption. We’ll never find spiritual satisfaction through material goods.

Even though all of us sometimes fall victim to this big lie that our society tells, in our hearts, and especially as followers of Jesus, we know that stuff isn’t a real solution. We’re reminded throughout the scriptures, and throughout Jesus’ teaching as we heard in today’s reading, that God has a better idea for us – that our peace, our fulfillment, our happiness, comes entirely through God’s mercy and unending love for us, poured out on us every day.

Of course, we all need some stuff, in order to get by and enjoy our lives, but because of this covenant relationship that God has made us a part of, we don’t have to be enslaved by it. We don’t have to be emotionally and spiritually impoverished by the pursuit of more and more things. Because of our covenant relationship with God, we can relax. We don’t have to get caught up in the constant burdensome cycle of working harder to buy more stuff, and then throwing 99% of it all out within six months’ time and having to work harder to replace that stuff that was perfectly fine that you just got rid of.

And the problem here isn’t just physical stuff, either. Here, as the church, for example, we can fall victim to what I’ll call the “consumption of concerns.” There is just so much need in the world – so many projects to do this good thing, or to work to stop this other bad thing, or to help this person, or to support this group, and we can fall victim to the idea that we have to just keep doing more and more and more stuff in order to get God’s approval or to really show that we’re good Christians. And sometimes, it can all just become exhausting.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, all of those things are important expressions of faith that we all need to be involved in. But sometimes, we also need to slow down, and relax. To realize that Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and in me you will find rest.” He didn’t say “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I’ll pile some more on your shoulders.”

Some of the subjects during our Lenten series have called us to action in a number of good and important ways. Today’s focus is in a different direction. It isn’t a call to more, but rather, to less. To buy less, and yes, from time to time, to also do less, in order to refocus on God’s immense, unending love. To remember how loved we are by God, and how God wants us to be at peace. To have contentment and fulfillment. To remember that in Christ, we find our peace. In Christ, we have our contentment. In Christ, we recognize just how immense our value is in God’s eyes.

So if that’s true – and I believe it is  – then take time during Lent to focus on where, and how, you feel a closer, deeper connection with God, in order to build on that sense of contentment. Were and when do you feel most connected with God? Is it a particular place? Is it with particular people that you love? Is it being *away* from other people, enjoying solitude? Is it in times of prayer and meditation? Is it a particular time of day, or doing a particular activity? When you do think about wherever and however you feel most connected with God, you’ll likely recognize that that connection really isn’t dependent upon your “stuff” at all.

And once you recognize how you connect more deeply with God, follow through with it. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to society’s big lie; become a bit of a countercultural dissident yourself – find your self-worth and your spiritual satisfaction with God, and not a gift card. Take that personal “quiet time” in your day. Carve out more time to be with whoever the special people are in your life. Make that trip to that wonderful, special place where you always intensely felt God’s presence. And when you go, remember to pack your razor.

Thanks be to God.

*For more detail about some of the things I refer to in this sermon, see “The Story of Stuff,” a wonderful short video, at https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/


This Sermon Approved by Number 37

cattle and calf

(sermon 3/11/18)

Genesis 1:28-31

God blessed the human beings, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good. 


Hannah, if I’ve done the math correctly, was about eight or nine years old when I first met her. She and her younger brother and her mother and father were members of the little southern Ohio church I first pastored. They lived on a farm, and they raised Angus cattle. Being a kid on a farm, you learn at a pretty young age that the livestock aren’t pets, and what their final destiny is going to be, so it isn’t wise to get too attached to any of them. They’re commodities, just identified by the number on the tags attached to their ears. But despite that, some animals do have a personality that makes them stand out from the others, and you do end up having favorites, and that was the case with Hannah this particular year and one of the herd. Well, time moved on, and the realities of raising Angus cattle continued, too. Sometime later that year, Hannah’s mother had made hamburgers for dinner, and Hannah got very upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she said “Oh, Mom – don’t tell me it’s Number 37!”

Hannah definitely had a good understanding of where her food came from – how it was produced, where it came from, every step of the process that led to it being on the dinner table. But most of us don’t have that kind of direct connection or understanding. At best, most of us have some vague assumptions about where our food comes from, and how it gets to us, but in most of our cases there are some pretty big gaps in our food awareness. There are a lot of details that we don’t know; and there are other things that we know enough to know that we don’t really want to know. Most of us, I suppose, have seen news stories or documentary films of the terrible conditions endured by calves, and chickens, and other animals in the mass production of our food. And we know that the people who grow, and pick, and process our food are often paid terribly, unsustainably low wages for what’s often backbreaking work. And we also know that these conditions exist in order for us, as consumers, to be able to buy our food at the absolute lowest cost possible – and really, who doesn’t like low prices?

Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us that according to the scriptures, our sacred story that shapes our faith and bonds us into a community, all of creation is God’s, not ours – and that God has instructed us, entrusted us, to care for it, and tend to it; to use it wisely to provide for us, and not to abuse or exploit it. I think it’s a shame that some people read that passage and latch on to those phrases to “subdue” and  to “have dominion over” creation, and mistakenly take it to mean that God told us we can do whatever we want with it – exploit it, trash it, even destroy it, because really, it doesn’t matter – when Jesus comes back he’ll set everything right again. It’s a shame, since this passage actually means the exact opposite of that.

We’ve been created by God in God’s own image, and that includes that part of God that creates, and cares for, and sustains. We discover another part of being created in God’s image just a little while later in Genesis, when we hear the story of Cain and Abel, and we’re told that according to God, yes, we are indeed expected to be our brother’s keeper, just as God is our keeper. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we were created to tend and care for one another, and to do whatever is in our power to see that all of God’s people are treated fairly and justly.

So today, when food is the topic in our “Tread Lightly” Lenten series, I invite us all to consider that all of the decisions we make about our food actually come together to become a kind of statement of faith. Those decisions reflect what we believe about having been created in God’s image. They reflect the way we understand our place in creation, and not just being in it, but being part of it.

You heard some things from the youth today about the boycott that the Presbyterian Church endorses in order to get Wendy’s to agree to fair payment to the tomato growers who provide their restaurants with produce, trying to get them to sign on to the same fair-pay agreement signed by most, if not all of their competitors. You heard about the “Meatless Monday” movement, which would result in significant environmental benefit. There’s a movement that I’m sure Number 37 could get behind.

Beyond those things, we can be more mindful in general about buying foods that are locally and sustainably produced, cutting down on fossil fuel use and pollution caused by long-distance transport and environmentally-unfriendly production methods.

We should consider doing all those things, not just because this happened to be a topic on our Lenten calendar, not because they’re trendy, not because they might be considered “politically correct.” We shouldn’t do them just to show everyone that we’re nice, socially conscious, responsible people, although hopefully, we are. The reason we’re talking about this subject during Lent, as we’re engaged in self-reflection as we approach the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, and the reason we should make wise decisions about our food, is because it goes right to the core of what we believe about incarnation. I don’t mean the kind of incarnation of God in Jesus, but, through Jesus, the kind of incarnation of God in us. God dwells within each of us, and because of that, and out of gratitude for it, we’re called to use the thoughtfulness and compassion that God created in us to be God’s agents in creation – to help establish healing, and wholeness, and justice, for creation, and for all people wherever it’s lacking. To be part of that Hebrew concept of tikkun olam; mending or repairing the brokenness in the world. That’s all a part of the charge that God gave us in Genesis.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the world, and warns us that salt is useless if it loses its flavor. Frankly, I think the bigger danger isn’t the salt losing its flavor, but rather, that the salt would just stay in the shaker and not seasoning anything, and just feeling proud of itself for being salt. So this Lent, let’s consider how we can be salt outside of the shaker. Let’s consider how making wise and ethical decisions about what food we will or won’t buy can be that salt, seasoning and adding flavor to the world, and to the lives of others.

Thanks be to God.

Make It So.

(sermon 2/18/18 – First Sunday in Lent – Scout Recognition Sunday)

Courier-Journal 2018-02-18

2 Corinthians 8:10-14

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.


If you saw the church’s email this week, you know that this Lenten season, our worship will be based on themes suggested by the 2018 Lenten Calendar issued by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Our Creation Care Ministry Team first brought the calendar up for discussion, and after looking it over, it seemed like a good resource for us all to focus on during Lent. The calendar is really very good. Each week, there’s a scriptural reference lifting up a particular theme – some issue of how we might live in ways to help create a more just world, not only in terms of creation care but other related areas of justice, as well. The rest of the days of the week offer thoughts and questions for reflection, easy action items to do, and other things that are related to the weekly scriptural text and theme. Each Sunday in Lent, the preaching text will be that weekly scripture passage from the calendar, so using this Lenten calendar will be an easy way to relate what we get into on Sunday, throughout the following week. I hope that you’ll make use of this calendar; Thursday’s email included a link to download a copy of it, and if you can’t make that work, if you call the church office we’ll make sure you get a copy of it.

This first week’s topic is giving. Helping to create a more just world, in all the ways we talk about justice, is at the core of how we show gratitude to God for God’s goodness. It’s at the core of how Jesus teaches us to be his followers. Short of worship itself, it’s the primary way that we express our love for God. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the actions that we take to create a more peaceful and just world for all of God’s people, and the creation that we’re part of, are themselves a form of worship.

In this part of Second Corinthians that we heard this morning, Paul points out that God wants us to give of ourselves, not out of a sense of burden – and certainly not out of some attempt to buy our salvation through good works – but rather, as an expression of our faith, and out of thanks for knowing that we’re already part of God’s beloved community. Paul lays out some fairly straightforward thoughts, that in this kind of giving out of thanks to God, it’s what’s in the heart that matters, not the actual numbers. He essentially says the same thing here that Jesus did when he pointed out the poor widow who dropped three pennies in the offering plate, saying that she’d given more than all the others who were better off – because they had all given only out of their surplus, but that she’d given all that she had.

When we think of giving, that’s usually what we picture – putting money in the plate. Mailing a check. Automatic Bill Pay. Maybe giving materials in kind. But there’s another way to think about our giving, too. How about the idea of giving to create a more just world, by buying the more expensive Equal Exchange coffee, or chocolate, that you know the producers are being paid fairly for? Or spending a bit more for produce that was grown without using dangerous pesticides that pollute the environment or wipe out the honey bee population, which all our agricultural industry depends on? Or making the upfront investment on energy-saving retrofits, to cut down on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? Or spending more for clothing or shoes that you know weren’t made by children working as slave labor? I know as well as anyone else that those lower prices are tempting, but it really is important to us, as followers of Christ, to live in ways, including the way we spend our money, that help to eliminate injustice and to care for our creation however we can. And if we don’t act in ways that eliminate or minimize those injustices, then we become complicit in them.

But there’s another kind of giving, as a component of our faith, that Paul talks about in this passage, that I think we have to think about this morning. It’s the giving of our full attention to something. Giving our commitment to see something through. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth that if they’d set out to do something, or had even thought about doing it, that now was the time to follow through and finish it. Stop all the talking. Make it so. I’ll bet that the scouts here today have been taught the same thing in their training – to have the perseverance to see something through to its conclusion. Even if it’s hard, even if you hit obstacles, if it’s the good thing, the right thing, then push through and complete it.

We’re in a time now where we have some major incomplete business in our society. We come here today with our hearts grieving over the most recent mass school shooting, in Florida. We haven’t even fully processed the last school shooting, the one here in Kentucky just a month ago, and now we’re dealing with another one.

You know, in a sense there really aren’t any new arguments to make about this issue. There aren’t any new insights that haven’t been offered, over, and over and over again. After every single one of these tragedies, one group calls for stricter gun control laws, and says that the problem is caused by too many guns being available, and points out that an eighteen-year old can’t buy alcohol because we don’t believe they’re mature enough to use it responsibly; but they can buy an AR-15. Another group says it isn’t a gun issue at all, it’s really a mental health issue – that there were plenty of guns when they were growing up, and every kid had a gun or two and even on occasion brought them to school to show off, and these kinds of shootings weren’t taking place. Another group says it’s all because we’ve lost our moral compass as a society, and that we’ve failed to instill in people an understanding of the value of human life and human dignity, and that the violence that bombards us continually on television and online and in video games has morally desensitized us. We have become morally numb, morally tone-deaf; and if you need any evidence of that, all you have to do is look at the front of today’s Citizen-Journal – the Sunday after this terrible mass murder, they don’t see how morally reprehensible it is to wrap their paper in a four-page wraparound ad for rifles and handguns.

To be perfectly honest, each one of those issues has contributed to the situation. The problem is complex; there isn’t any one single fix – but in the middle of the bickering and arguing, *none* of the problems get addressed. Not only are our gun control laws not reasonably adjusted for better safety and protection of us all, some of the laws already in place have been cut back. And there really is no adequate mental health care delivery system in this country, but in the wake of any shooting-of-the-moment, no one seriously proposes any legislation to fix that problem.  So lines get drawn, and all the ugly stereotypes get dragged out. Gun owners are all a bunch of stupid redneck hillbillies who just want to go around shooting up stuff and don’t care about innocent lives being lost. People calling for better gun regulation are all a bunch of wussified libtards who don’t understand guns, who hate guns, or are afraid of guns, and who want to take away everyone’s guns and get rid of the Second Amendment. And in the end, everyone just gets mad at each other, and everyone keeps talking across one another, and not a single blessed thing gets done.

Stepping into that, you know that tonight we’re hosting a Community Conversation on Guns and Gun Violence – not  because we think we’re going to come up with some new argument, or some easy one-step-fixes-everything solution. We’re doing it so that all of us, who come to this problem from different vantage points, different beliefs, different backgrounds, can have a civil conversation. So we can grant good, noble intentions of the other. So we can honestly hear one another, and maybe, just maybe, as we see the goodness and good intentions and humanity of one another, we can find some common ground, and find some way to move the conversation forward.

Because it’s time – no, it’s way past time, that we come together as God’s people to demand an end to this craziness. This is not a partisan political issue; it’s a matter of being God’s agents of love in this world. It’s a matter of faith. And as a matter of faith, all of us have to demand that our leaders enact sensible legislation that addresses all sides of this complex problem – because the problem has to be solved. Close loopholes and fix problems in the current gun laws. Enact national policy that establishes adequate, affordable, accessible mental health care, and that most definitely makes it impossible for the dangerously mentally ill to have access to guns. As Paul advised the Corinthians, it’s time for our leaders, and for us as people of God, and the people who put those leaders in place, to finish doing this good, this right, this important thing. And Church, if our society is in a state of moral failing, it’s on us – not the government – to reinstill that respect for human dignity and human life, and helping people to see how we’re all created in God’s image, and worthy of love. So if you think the answer is better gun legislation, contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on it. Make it so. And if you believe that this is a mental health problem, then contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on that. We need to do this, because just as with other forms of our giving, if we can do something to help end an injustice, and we don’t do it, we become complicit in it.

God calls us, God leads us, God is begging us to do this – because just as every time one of these tragedies happen, and our hearts break, God’s heart breaks, too.

We need to work toward a time when people remember “active shooter drills” in schools as some odd thing from the past, the same way that we now think of the “duck and cover drills” that came before them. In the name of Christ, whose name we carry, we need to work to make the kind of peaceful and just society where the biggest thing these scouts have to worry about is who’s going to win the Pinewood Derby.  It’s time, and it’s our calling, to make it so.

Thanks be to God.


The Healing Faith

(sermon 2/4/18)

An ancient depiction of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


Last week, we heard about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. This week, we heard about him doing more of that, along with more run-of-the-mill healings while they were visiting Peter’s home, and starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law. I once heard a feminist theologian offer a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of that part of this passage, wondering if Peter was really worried about his mother-in-law at all, or if he was just hungry and wanted her to get into the kitchen to make them all sandwiches. I laughed when I heard her say it, and reading the text I can see how she could get that perception. In the end, though, even though I read the exact same words, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I want to believe that Peter did genuinely care about his mother-in-law’s well-being, and even if he didn’t, Jesus did, and he would have healed her anyway, any thoughts of sandwiches notwithstanding. I know the theologian was joking – at least a little bit – but despite that, the fact remains that we were both reading the same exact text, and were different perceptions were coming to both of us, largely because we were unavoidably reading the words through different-colored glasses – glasses that were crafted by our very different, but both very real, life’s experiences.

Beyond Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole issue of healing is all through the gospels and beyond, through scripture. In fact, the whole idea of healing, in different ways, is at the core of the establishment of the church itself. Healing is one of our core reasons for being: Healing spiritual hurts and wounds. Healing physical illnesses, injuries, birth defects, and other physical ailments through the church’s caring ministries. In fact, do you know that the very concept of a hospital, as we understand it today, was the outgrowth of Christian ministries to the sick? There are other aspects of healing that the church is all about, too. Healing social ills by working to change unjust conditions and systems in society. Healing broken relationships.

Healing is a part of the very DNA of the faith, and the church. We were established by Christ, in large part, to be seen as an alternative model over against the way much of the world exists, which in many ways can be anything but healing.

We’re supposed to be a model for healing kinds of relationships, people being in caring, loving relationships who are from across a broad spectrum of who we are – just as the feminist theologian and I saw things through unavoidably different-colored glasses just based on our own life experiences, neither necessarily being totally right or wrong, and both likely having many common points but some differences. We, the church, are called to be this alternative model of being a loving community made up of people with all those different-colored glasses.

That fact is something that any pastor sitting down to prepare a sermon is keenly aware of. Every pastor stepping into a pulpit knows that there’s a fine line between hearing a sermon and a hostage situation – that no matter how many people are in church on any Sunday morning, there’s likely only one with a microphone. It’s a very sobering thought, a sobering responsibility that, I promise you, I think about and pray about every single week: how do I preach a message based on a given text that will be heard and experienced through glasses of as many different colors and prescriptions as there are people present?

Is this week’s text, laid up against the news of the week and the realities of our time, calling for a message that’s more “pastoral” and calming and peaceful? Or is it calling for a more “prophetic” approach, speaking out against some situation in the world that’s contrary to the core teachings of our faith, and that we need to work to correct, but for whatever reason, we’ve grown comfortable with? And whichever of those routes I feel God is leading toward – how do I even really know that my take on it is right? And how do I proceed from there, being aware of  all those different-colored glasses – and realizing that even faster than sugar turns to fat in our bodies, the theological becomes the political?

Well, that’s always been the pastor’s dilemma, but it’s become a more difficult tightrope to walk in current times – when our society has become so polarized, so hardened, on both the left and the right. We’ve allowed ourselves to become tribalized – we only associate with people who are like us – who look like us, who think like us, who vote like us, who basically live in the same area as us, who make about the same amount of money as us. We only read the websites that agree with us. We’ll only watch MSNBC but never Fox News; or we’ll always watch Fox News but never CNN. Friends, the church is called to be the “anti-tribe.” We’re called to be an intentional community, a family, that doesn’t pretend those differences don’t exist, but that forms a loving, healing community across all those lines, all those different-colored glasses. And preachers are called to proclaim the gospel to that diverse community – that diverse family. Sometimes, that will be calming and comforting. And sometimes, it has to be challenging.

That “preacher’s tightrope” is something that I’ve tried my level best to walk ever since I began pastoring. And believe it or not, in the past eleven years that I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday, I can tell you that hardly a month has gone by that I haven’t gotten complaints both that I said something too liberal, and that I said something too conservative – and a few of those times, these complaints were about the exact same comment I’d made.

When I was at that little church I mentioned last week, and wanting to break that “hostage situation” where only I had a microphone, I started something new – an “open mic time” right after every sermon. I invited people to offer immediate feedback to what I’d just said. People could ask for some clarification about something I’d said. Or they could say that something I’d said made them think of something they read in a devotional that week that they thought would be good to share with everyone. And sometimes – and I encouraged it – someone would say “You know, you said X – but I don’t really agree with that. I think that’s completely wrong.” And while we couldn’t take the time right then and there to get into it, we would set up a time to get together to discuss it over a cup of coffee or a meal, or it would spin into a topic for a future Sunday School class.

Some of my pastoral colleagues said my open mic time idea was stupid and crazy. I prefer to think it was gutsy and creative. Maybe it was all of those things at the same time, but in any case, it led to some of the most wonderful and remarkable and memorable conversations, for the people in the church, and for me, too.

The upshot of all this is just to say that it’s inevitable that whoever you are, whatever your theology – and therefore, whatever your politics – and no matter how hard I try to walk that tightrope, some Sundays you’ll hear me say things you disagree with. Maybe even something that makes you mad. And if you haven’t yet, I promise, your turn is coming; I’ll get to you. I’ll eventually manage to tick off everyone at some time or another. And when it happens to you, know that I love you, and I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just trying to go where I sense God is leading me on that given Sunday. And also remember that at the end of the day, no matter how hard I’m trying to say and do the right thing, I’m still just a flawed, imperfect human being, and sometimes, I just blow it. I ask for your prayers that those times will be few and far between.

That “open mic time” wouldn’t be a good idea here for a few reasons. But I still want that kind of feedback. I still want to share that coffee with you. I still want to have, I still welcome, those kinds of conversations, especially if I’ve said something that troubles you. Maybe sometimes, after listening to you, I’ll say “You know what, you’re right – I went off the rails with that comment. I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And maybe the outcome of the conversation will be for the two of us to share our different takes, and we’ll share a prayer and just agree to disagree, but we’ll each have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s different-colored glasses. And most importantly, maybe together, we can come up with a way to show how, with God’s help, people with different-colored glasses can be that alternative model for the world – because friends,  if we can’t, who can?

Thanks be to God.




(sermon 1/28/18)

baptismal font-resized

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he 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


It happened more than ten years ago. I had just started pastoring this little country church about an hour south of Columbus, a brand-new Commissioned Lay Pastor, on the job for about a month, maybe two, ready to set the world on fire and do the very best I could for this wonderful little congregation. On this particular Sunday morning, I’d just taught an Adult Sunday School class, part of a series, about how the Bible came to be, and what the best available scholarship could tell us about who may have written various parts, and when, and why. When the class was over, as we moved into the sanctuary just before the service began, we noticed that we had visitors. They weren’t hard to notice, sitting in the sanctuary that held maybe forty or forty-five people on a normal Sunday. Four visitors, actually – a husband and wife, and a son, maybe 13, and a daughter, maybe 12. In other words, the supposed demographic gold mine for churches looking for visitors and potentially new members, especially for a congregation that hadn’t likely seen a new member in a number of years, and we were all pleased and excited to see them. They sat there in a nice row, each of them with their very own personal copy of the King James Version of the Bible with matching brown leatherette zip-up covers. The preaching text that morning was from the Second Letter to Timothy – and wanting to make some connection between the sermon and the Sunday School class, I’d wanted to say that even though the text of the letter says it was written by Paul, most scholars today agree that it wasn’t actually written by Paul, but rather, it was likely written by one of Paul’s followers, but ultimately that wasn’t important; what mattered was the content, the point that the words were making.

That was what I’d intended to say, anyway, but I never quite got all that out. As soon as I said that Paul likely hadn’t written the letter, the husband in this family jumped up out of his seat – it was so fast, so instantaneous, that you’d have thought the pew was spring-loaded and he’d just been ejected into the air. And within a split second, the three others sprung up, too. And the man started pushing his family out into the aisle while waving his finger at me and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Shame on you! Shame! Blasphemy! This is the Word of God! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t! Shame on you! Shame! You’re a blasphemer!!!!” And he kept right on yelling as he marched his family up the aisle, and out the door, and SLAM! They were gone.

Well, my CLP training had prepared me for a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. I vaguely remember standing there in the pulpit looking as shocked and surprised as everyone else, but then, after a moment of fumbling around both verbally and physically, I regained my stride and we went on with the service.

Well, the following Sunday, the loud, spring-loaded visitors were still on everyone’s mind. Now in this church, there was a sturdy old oak office chair that sat along the back wall of the sanctuary, just inside the main entry vestibule. And every Sunday, a man named Joe, who was sort of the unofficial head usher, sat in that chair. So this Sunday, with people wondering what I might say about the events of the week before, I stepped into the pulpit, cleared my throat, and I looked to the back of the sanctuary and said, “Um, Joe, would you lock the door?” And we all laughed, and life went on.

In today’s gospel text, we heard about a similar kind of unexpected disruption and challenge to Jesus as he was teaching in a synagogue very early in his ministry. Of course, he handled his situation more decisively and with more authority than I handled mine, but, you know, that makes sense because he’s Jesus and I’m not. But just picture that scene. There’s Jesus, preaching and teaching and the people are amazed at what they were hearing, until Jesus is interrupted by this man that Mark tells us was possessed by an “unclean spirit.”

If you’re like me, you get a little uncomfortable with scriptural stories of spirit-possessed people. I mean, we’re living in an age of advanced knowledge of all sorts, and we also know that any number of perfectly understandable, non-supernatural mental illnesses were described in the pre-scientific culture of Jesus’ time as having been possessed by an unclean spirit. On the other hand, we know that we are beings of both body and spirit,  inherently, as part of our being human. We know that there is certainly a spiritual realm to the universe. So what was really going on with this disturbed man in this story?

I guess to me, the question of whether the man was possessed or suffering a mental or emotional illness is as unimportant as whether Paul wrote Second Timothy or not. The important point, to me, is the agony, the despair, that the man was feeling – and that he was apparently feeling it because of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s love for all people. He was proclaiming the arrival of God’s good news for the poor, the sick, the lame, the hungry, the widow and the orphan and all those who have been pushed aside in this world.

And somehow, this was apparently bad news for the man. Clearly, whatever the details of his condition, he was miserable, but at least there was familiarity and comfort in his misery. He knew what he could count on, and what he couldn’t. But now, this new message from God, delivered with power and authority, meant that all that the man had come to depend on was being tossed out. Now there would be new rules, and undoubtedly change, and uncertainty; and for him, that wasn’t seen as gospel, good news, at all, but rather, it was very bad news, even with the love that the message came embedded in.

In response, Jesus speaks powerfully to the man; harshly, even. This actually becomes a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel, Jesus from time to time speaking with real harshness,  even anger, and virtually every time it happens, it’s a case like this – where Jesus is essentially rebuking someone or something in this world that was working to keep people from experiencing the full, abundant, loving, and yes, risk-taking, life that God intends for all of us. In this story, whether the man is literally possessed or not, Jesus is essentially “repossessing” him, whether he likes it or not; reclaiming him from being a child of misery and hopelessness, and reclaiming him as a child of God, belonging to God and God alone, and deserving of so much more than the limited, and limiting, way of living that the man had become accustomed to.

In just a little while, we’ll be baptizing Matilda. In a way, baptism is a sign of this kind of repossession that’s occurring in this story – this idea of God clearly, decisively, and with power and authority claiming a person as belonging to God, and being a part of God’s covenant, and deserving of that same full, abundant life that Jesus wanted for the man in this story.

On this day, when we celebrate this new baptism, let’s think about our own baptism, and what it means to us – both the grace, the love, the acceptance; as well as the challenge and the responsibility, because in the realm of God we never get one without the other.

As far as yelling and shouting, if there’s to be any yelling today, let it be shouts of  joy and gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives, and that God promises to do in Matilda’s life. If there’s to be any jumping out of seats today, let it be to jump up and give Matilda a standing ovation as a sign of God’s love, and of ours.

Thanks be to God.



The Not-So-Excellent Adventure

(sermon 1/21/18)

cow in sackcloth

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that they were to have brought upon them; and God did not do it.


The Book of Jonah is short, but powerful. It’s only some forty-odd verses long, but in its few short words, it manages to give us some of the most memorable imagery in the entire Bible. Each one of its four short chapters tells what could be a fascinating little story on its own, while still weaving together to form the whole.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book, but part of what we do know is that it was intended to be a response against an extreme, exclusionary, nativist mindset that had taken hold in society, and that had caused great turmoil by causing the forced breakup of families, where Jews had married foreign non-Jews, and requiring that all people from different places and who had different religions had to leave. The Book of Jonah is meant as a protest against all that, by telling a story to emphasize that God is the God of all people, and the God loves and cares for all people – even, the story makes clear, the despised Assyrians living in the enemy’s capital city of Nineveh.

The book makes its point by telling a story of this poor shlub, Jonah, who really just wanted to be left alone, who didn’t want any part of what God was telling him to do, and as we know, who was willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to run away from it. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he’s afraid that as soon as he’d enter the city and start proclaiming their impending doom, the Ninevites would attack him, or throw him in prison, or worse. And near the end of Jonah’s story, in the last chapter, we also learn that he didn’t want to do it because he suspected that after Jonah put his own life and reputation on the line, foretelling the Ninevites’ doom, before that would happen, God would go all wobbly on him, and have mercy and compassion on them, and not wipe them out, leaving his enemies off the hook and leaving Jonah to look like a fool on top of it. Jonah wants God to take a harder line against his enemies than he trusts God will actually take.

Of course, for his part in this protest story, Jonah represents the political and religious leaders of the time, who, the author is saying, want to take a harder line about who are supposedly the people of God, and who aren’t, than God would take.

So we do have this social/political commentary going on in Jonah, along with all of the great imagery, and even some comic aspects. Just imagine: smelly, seaweed- and gastric-juice-covered Jonah getting barfed up onto the beach, much to the surprise of the fisherman and the sunbathers. The Ninevites being so convicted of their sin, and being so repentant, that they don’t just cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes in the traditional sign of repentance, but they have all of their livestock do the same – which wasn’t some quaint religious tradition of the time; it would have seemed as bizarre and comical to see back then as it would be today. Taken together, it all makes Jonah one of the truly amazing books of the Bible.

But what does it mean for us today? What about it speaks to us, in our own lives? Well, it does pretty clearly offer a word of protest against the similar kind of extreme anti-foreigner, nationalist mindset seen in so much of our current government policies and in the words of so many people. It’s important to know that, and to take that message to heart, but honestly, that’s another day’s sermon. Today, I want to think more about how Jonah’s story resonates with our own personal lives – how we personally hear and respond to God’s call.

Last Sunday, and again today, we heard gospel accounts of disciples who essentially dropped whatever they were doing and immediately followed Jesus, seemingly without question or hesitation. Jonah is the opposite of that. He hears God’s call, and is worried and afraid and not at all happy about where he sees it all going, and he tries to run away from it all. Even when he finally gives in, and he sets off on his not-so-excellent adventure, he enters Nineveh, but he still only does it in half-measures. The author of the story tells us Nineveh was a three-day walk from one end to the other – but Jonah packs it in and leaves town after going just one day’s distance into it.

I know that I’m supposed to be more like Jesus’ trusting and unquestioning disciples. But the truth is, I see much more of myself in Jonah, and the way he responds to God’s call. In all of his crankiness and doubt and self-interest and his wanting God to hate all the same people he hated, I have to say that Jonah seems much more human, much more real, to me, personally, than those disciples who seem to have just dropped their nets and walked away with Jesus without even asking if the job came with health insurance and a dental plan.

Jonah’s relationship with God is messy, and that resonates with me because I know that my own relationship with God can sometimes be messy. I’ve been known to be a pretty reluctant follower of where God seemed to be calling me. Just as was the case with Jonah, part of that reluctance was that I wasn’t sure I liked what the likely outcome would be for myself. Also like Jonah, I’ve tried to run away from God’s call, and also like him, I’ve found myself in the belly of the whale, as it were, before I learned that there really wasn’t much future in trying to run away from God. Thankfully, I also eventually learned that by following where God was leading, even with doubt and reluctance, God always had something better in store that I could have ever imagined.

Maybe some of you have felt the same kind of feelings as Jonah, too. Have you? Have you ever sensed that God was drawing you to do something that you were less than enthusiastic about? Maybe you’re even experiencing something like that now. Do you sense God drawing you to make some change in your life? To take a turn in some new and unexpected direction, maybe one that promised to take you well out of your comfort zone? Maybe it was, or is, a school choice or a job choice. Maybe it’s some family or business decision that promises to take you into new, uncharted waters. Maybe it’s starting, or breaking off, a relationship. Maybe it involves a change in where you call home. Maybe it’s being called to some new understanding, something that’s different from what you’d always been taught before, something that opens up some new understanding about God that isn’t necessarily in line with what you’ve thought and believed up till now, as was the case with Jonah. The possibilities are endless where and how God may be calling you.

But if you do find yourself being called by God to something new, called to follow God in some different direction you didn’t really expect and frankly may not be excited about, remember Jonah’s story. Even though he went into Nineveh giving it only partial effort, God made something amazing happen. Even with Jonah’s doubt-filled and half-hearted willingness to follow, God still blessed those actions, and through Jonah, God’s will was achieved. And through all of it, if you know how the Book of Jonah ends, you also know that God kept looking out for Jonah – grumbling, self-centered Jonah, the same Jonah with all the doubts and fears and presuppositions and stubborn, bull-headed stances that only end up hurting himself. Until the very end of the story, God continued to work on Jonah’s heart so he could see and understand God in a richer, fuller, truer way – and in the process, so Jonah could see and understand more about himself in a richer, fuller, truer way.

Jonah is you. Jonah is me. And because we worship, and sometimes follow, a God who loves the Jonahs, we can all say

Thanks be to God.


“Can Anything Good Come Out of…?”

(sermon 1/14/18)


John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


In this part of John’s gospel, we’re picking up in midstream the story of Jesus beginning to call his first disciples. The day before, Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist, had become a follower, along with his brother Simon. Now on this particular day, Jesus was out and about, and somewhere along the way he met Philip, and they struck up a conversation, and Jesus ultimately invited him to come follow him. Philip was intrigued and excited about Jesus and what he was saying – so much so that he tracked down his friend Nathanael and told him that he was convinced that he’d found the messiah, the specially anointed one sent by God, and foretold by Moses and the prophets, and it was none other than this Jesus, from Nazareth.

But apparently, Nathanael had the same opinion of Nazareth as the president has of Haiti, and you can almost hear the sneer, and see the can of his lip as he snorts, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of that place?” That crummy little crossroads filled with nobodies; that miserable, poverty-stricken place that’s only managed to survive, and just barely at that, because it’s just an hour and a half’s walk from the jobs and work in the large, wealthy city of Sepphoris? I’m supposed to believe *anyone* any good, let alone the messiah, could come from a hole like that?

In the end, though, when Jesus and Nathanael meet, Nathanael learns how wrong, how mistaken, he was.

This story offers us two ideas to consider – two parts of God’s good news for us, to hold up together and think about how they might be related. The first part is that lesson that Nathanael had to learn, and, as we’ve been reminded of by the past few days’ news stories, that many people still have to learn: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Out of Haiti? Out of West Louisville? This is the lesson that a person’s place of birth, or any other factor outside their control, doen’t determine their significance, their intelligence, their character, their status as an important and beloved child of God. This great gospel truth was validated by the fact that God chose to dwell among us as a nobody with a Nazareth mailing address, ZIP Code 9021nowhere.

The second thing is this whole idea of being called to follow Christ, and to live as one of his disciples – Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael, us.

It’s a bit ironic, actually, that the president’s outrageous thoughts and comments about the people of Haiti, Latin America, and Africa, which we’ve all heard ad nauseum at this point, were uttered just on the eve of this Sunday, when the Lectionary texts included Nathanael’s similar misguided dismissiveness and insult. You can bet that preachers all over the country are having a field day with that coincidence this morning. But it’s even more ironic, in that it also coincides with the day that we celebrate the life, the prophetic vision, and the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was clearly someone who had been called to speak gospel truth, even when it was discomforting and dangerous truth, about equality – and that that equality demands justice – in the courts, in schools, in the workplace, in places of business, regardless of whatever bigoted or discriminatory religious beliefs someone may have, and no matter how sincerely they hold them.

Dr. King spoke the gospel truth that God calls us to lift up and help the poor, not to abuse them by making their situation worse just to give a tax break to the wealthiest of the wealthy. He spoke gospel truth to the insanity of war, and sending people off to die for the sake of not losing face, or to protect business interests, or to rack up profits for arms manufacturers.

He sensed, on a deeply personal level, the significance of God’s call to him to speak boldly, and to act boldly, about these issues. Even at times when he didn’t want to see it through, when he’d have much rather just gone off and lived a quiet, comfortable, safe life out of the limelight with his family, he heard that call, “Come, follow me.” And we’re a better society, and a better church, and better followers of Jesus ourselves, because he did.

But while we’re better Christians because of the witness and prophetic voice of Dr. King, there’s still a lot to learn, a lot to do. Racism, and bigotry, and ignorance, and injustice, and homophobia, and poverty, and economic disparity, and homelessness, and hunger, all still exist, and we, the church, still need to boldly call them all out as being inconsistent with the God that we worship and the gospel we proclaim.

We’ve all been called to do that, in some way. Today, we’re recognizing people who will be ordained or installed to do it in a particular way – to be servant leaders of this congregation, helping to shape the way that we answer Christ’s call to follow him, in both our work and worship. To those of you being ordained or installed, I remind you that this isn’t like being elected the Treasurer of the Rotary Club – your ordination and installation reflects this congregation recognizing particular gifts that you have for leadership, and sensing that God is calling you to this particular type of service and ministry. Each of you will be an important part of how this congregation moves forward, and keeps focused on its mission to advance this gospel truth of God’s desire for love, and compassion, and equality, and justice for all of God’s people. I invite you to take this commitment seriously. When you kneel and receive the laying on of hands, you will be continuing a tradition that goes back to the very earliest days of the church. When you feel those hands on you, imagine the love and support and the prayers for God’s guidance for you, that they represent.

I remember before my own ordination as an elder, I worried that maybe I wasn’t worthy of that. Maybe there’s something about you that makes you have that same uncertainty about this call. Something that causes you to wonder if you’re a big enough spiritual somebody to be ordained. maybe there’s something about you that people have sneered at in the past and said, “Can anything good come out of that? Can anyone like that be good?” If that’s the case, rest assured that you can tell those nay-sayers – even if the nay-sayer is you, yourself – “Yes, that’s true – but God knew that about me, long before I was born, and still, Jesus held out his hand to me, and smiled, and said, “Come, Follow me!” Today, in a new and special way, you will.

Thanks be to God.