Strawberry Social, June 21, 4:30-gone

Celebrate the longest day of the year with some strawberry dessert!

Our annual Strawberry Social will have the same delicious beef BBQ, hot dogs, salads and drink, plus of course plenty of delicious strawberry shortcake. (Plus other desserts if you prefer.) All this you can enjoy in our outdoor pavilion, right next to our beautiful prayer garden, which is blooming like crazy. Take out is available if you can’t stay.

Beef BBQ – $8 Hot dogs – $7
Desserts a la carte

This year’s proceeds go to support the Williamson Come-Unity Center:

Wayne County Rural Ministries has been serving all of Wayne County since 1949. Currently they offer food boxes from their food pantry, free lunches, clothing and household items through Common Cents Thrift store, and emergency financial assistance for heat, rent, and prescription medicines.

The pantry has a special need for canned peas and mixed vegetables to support the food pantry. Consider bringing donations of canned goods to the social.

Sermon: Living in God’s loving and welcoming kingdom (June 17, 2018)

Pentecost 4B
June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34


Last week we talked about how Mark’s Gospel is apocalyptic – it shows us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers, but rather, that the power of God will ultimately dominate over everything. We talked about how that word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to pull back the current reality to reveal to us a different way that is of God, a way that Jesus will today call “the kingdom of God.” For Mark, this applies especially to his readers’ reality that Roman domination seems to be winning, but Jesus is saying, “No, they are not the winners. God’s kingdom will ultimately win.”

In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus describes what that kingdom will look like, and he uses parables to do it. Anyone know what a parable is? It’s more than a story with a lesson, more than an analogy or allegory. It’s a story that places side-by-side two unrelated things to challenge our expectations and make us think more deeply about things we thought we knew. As one preacher writes, “Because [parables] call into question accepted ‘truths,’ they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.” So our first reading today presents an image of God’s kingdom that makes sense to us – majestic cedar trees – but the parables Jesus tells liken the kingdom of God to an ordinary seed with an ordinary crop, which we would not expect.

I also want to say a little something about that phrase, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom sounds like a place, right? In fact, what place do you usually think of? [Heaven.] But the Greek word there is more dynamic. It refers to something active, more like a reign or rule, not a static place. So, the kingdom of God is not a location, but a reality, in which God is the ruler, rather than earthly powers. And so, when we act as God would have us do, and treat people with the love of God, we are living in God’s reign or rule. Lutherans like to talk about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” – it hasn’t fully come to be (we know this because of how much pain still exists in the world), but already we can see glimpses of it, when we see people living according to God’s rule. As we will see in our parables, this reign is not something we can bring about nor prevent, but we can participate in it, live in that “already,” and in that participation, we just might make God’s reign more visible. Let’s see what we can learn.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Well, I’ll go ahead and say it: the parable of the growing seed is pretty boring. I mean look at it: “A sower plants a seed, does nothing, and it grows. Then he harvests it.” What could possibly be more ordinary? What could something so mundane possibly have to reveal to us about the mysterious and longed for kingdom of God?

And then he follows it with this mustard seed parable, which is again, kind of boring. Mustard bushes are not the majestic cedars of Lebanon. They are ordinary, and they are invasive, by no means unique. They are useful, yes, with many medicinal qualities, but they are not very interesting. Another mundane parable.

Of course, this is the beauty of Jesus’ parables. He takes entirely ordinary things, things we can understand because we have experience with them, and uses them to point us toward the incredible work of God, showing us the power that even mundane things have to reveal God to us.

So what are these ordinary things showing us about living as citizens in the kingdom of God? How is the living Word of God speaking to this time and place through this parable? And, an important question for Mark, how might the earthly kingdom in which we live (the one Mark is trying to apocalyptically pull away) look different from the reign of God (the new kind of reality that we find)?

Let’s start with that last question, by considering Mark’s context. The earthly kingdom in which they were living was one of oppression and persecution, in which fear and despair was their daily diet, in which Rome was the dominant power, and they abused that power. And so into that context, Jesus says to them, “I know you long for something different, for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom to tear down all that causes your anguish. But the kingdom of God isn’t like a military power, come to overthrow. No, the kingdom of God is like this: like a seed that is planted and grows quietly, even without you realizing. It is growing in just the way God intended for it to grow, and nothing you do can make it grow any faster, nor any slower. But it is growing, trust me! And one day it will sprout – you’ll see just the tips of green come up from the dirt. You’ll see life there that wasn’t there the day before. It will keep growing, bigger and stronger. And this seed, that little seed that you didn’t even see growing all that time, suddenly it will bear fruit! And then you will know that it is time for the harvest, the time when all of God’s plans will become clear to you.”

What a word of hope that is! In Mark’s time, people were anxious for such a word of hope, that God’s kingdom could persist even through the abusive power and oppression they were witnessing. They needed to hear that God’s kingdom could not be stifled by human nature or error, nor could it be hastened, but rather, that it would come in the way and time that God chooses. They needed to hear that trusting God would not be in vain.

But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. He goes on then to describe what that kingdom, that different kind of rule is like: “Do you want to know more about the nature of the kingdom of God?” he asks. “Here’s how I would describe it. It’s like a mustard seed. Yeah, that tiny little seed that seems like nothing compared to all the trials and tribulations of this world. Yet, it grows and grows and becomes a great big shrub. I know, I know, the mustard bush may not be the most impressive bush to look at, but look at what it has to offer: healing! And beyond that, shelter and safety for the animals. Yes, even the birds, who I know can be pests – they will be welcomed into the big branches of the kingdom of God. They will be safe there from the dangers of the world. They will raise their families there, and make a home in that kingdom. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, you see – it is a place that offers love, care, and welcome even for those creatures you may not think you want around. Perhaps most importantly – it cannot be stopped. My friends, the kingdom of God, this place of love and welcome, cannot be tamed. It can and will spread, and take over everything, welcoming the birds into its branches, and living under a rule of neighbor love. Rome cannot and will not do that for you. But, that tenacity and care is what you can expect from the kingdom of God.”

What an important and life-giving understanding of this parable, for their time and for ours. It offers us hope, and a lifeline out of despair, when we find ourselves living in a world in which governments disregard God’s rule of love, turn away from people in need, cause trauma rather than seek healing, and do all of this by falsely using God’s word to support it. The seed growing in secret promises that our faults and mistakes and ignorance cannot stop the kingdom of God from coming about – it will come regardless, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is. The mustard seed tells us that God cannot be beat, that God’s kingdom will always win over any human efforts to overpower it.

And while this doesn’t give us a particular job to do – planting seeds or whatever – it does inspire us to become a part of it. That is where faith comes in. We aspire to be a part of this growing kingdom, not because we must in order to be saved, but rather, because we already are, because we are so filled with faith and trust in God that we can’t NOT become a part of it. Participating in God’s kingdom springs out of our faith; it is a reflection of our true faith. Our faith in God’s promises compels us to be God’s actors and workers in this world, sharing the good news of God’s love by reaching out to the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, listening to the voices of those on the margins and borders, seeking healing for all the various forms of brokenness in this world, or even standing up against those worldly kingdoms that would try to stifle God’s work, and rule by anything other than love of neighbor.

When we do those things, we are already living in God’s kingdom, even as we still long for it to come to completion.

These kingdom parables show us that the death we experience in this world does not win. God always wins. Love and grace and justice always win. Trust in God… and then, compelled by faith, let’s make like a mustard bush, and get out there to spread this kingdom.

Let us pray… Resilient, invasive, and loving God, thank you that your kingdom comes no matter what we do or don’t do. Inspire us by your promises, that we would be compelled to actively participate in your kingdom, on earth as in heaven, by loving and caring for our neighbor as we would do for Christ himself. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Detectives in the apocalypse (June 10, 2018)

Pentecost 3B
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35


Last week when we began working through Mark, I talked about how Mark’s Gospel is a little rough around the edges because Mark is in such a great hurry to get this story out. This week I want to expand a bit on that. Part of his rush was that the world was in turmoil. Mark was writing right as the Great Revolt was coming to a close – the Jewish people had revolted against the oppressive Roman Empire. This Revolt culminated with the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple, which is right when Mark is writing. Because of his particular context, Mark has a very apocalyptic feel to it.

Now, usually when we say “apocalypse,” we think, “end of the world,” or “final judgment.” But the original meaning of that word, apocalypse, was, a big hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers: the message is, when empires fall and tyrants fade, God is still around. The word actually means a sort of pulling away of the known, to reveal what’s underneath.

And so when I say Mark is apocalyptic, I mean that Mark shows us how Jesus is pulling back the reality of the empires and oppressive systems in which we find ourselves, and showing us what is underneath, showing us that there is another way. For the first century Christians, this was good news, to hear that the bad guys wouldn’t win, that the terrifying situation in which they found themselves was not the final word. But for the powers that be, it was not such good news – and that is why they push against Jesus’ message, dismissing it and undermining it however they can.

In our first story today, we will hear about how from the beginning of time, people have been quick to point fingers and cast blame elsewhere, and about how this behavior damages even our most important relationships. In our Gospel reading, we will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare pull back what we have know to reveal something different. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by this that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. Let’s see how these stories can guide our lives of faith.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided.

It’s no wonder division has been a mark of human society from society’s very inception.

I have always loved this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I just see so much of my own experience in this story. Because don’t we all want to be safe? Physically safe, sure, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t want to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. And so we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.

The behavior is very obvious in the Adam and Eve story. But it’s pretty clear in our story from Mark, too. Jesus has been pretty busy, healing a lot of people, casting out demons, and most recently, appointing his twelve disciples. Now they are back to business, having headed to Jesus’ hometown. And people are watching. And they are getting nervous, because what Jesus is saying and doing these days is an affront to the powers that be, and does not jibe with their understanding of God. As I said in the introduction, Jesus’ message is an apocalyptic one, pulling back the cover and revealing the truth about how Roman rule is not ultimate rule, and that in fact God’s power is not revealed in domination, but rather in reaching out to and serving those on the fringes of society. They had expected the Messiah to be a military power, to overthrow the government by force, but here is this carpenter, reaching out to the fringes!

In response to this counter-cultural message, what do the religious authorities do? Do they thank him very much for directing their attention back to the God they love? No… Do they say, “Tell us more about that. It’s intriguing, and we realize we might be missing something in our understanding of the world.” No…. They do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever you need to do in order to protect your understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged.

Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.

And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We choose what does not bring life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, and clinging to false truths. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.

I keep going back to Mark as apocalyptic, about how Jesus’ ways and words pull back what we thought was true, and, if we are humble enough to see it, reveal to us a different way that is of God. What is that different way?

Our keynote speaker last week at Synod Assembly was Ruben Duran, who works out of the Churchwide office with new congregations throughout the ELCA. In his address, he talked about being “detectives of divinity” – willing to really look for God not only in our congregation, but out in the public arena. Sometimes this is pretty easy – whenever we see good happening, we assume God must be there! Where being detectives of divinity gets a lot harder is in those Adam and Eve moments, those Mark moments, when we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that everything we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right, and we are immediately inclined to blame, point fingers, name-call, discredit, dismiss, and continue to hold onto whatever view it is that makes us feel safe.

These are very human defense mechanisms. They are “safe.” But they are not life. And that, in the end, is what our faith is based on: it is a story that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which the government put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would silence this opposing and resistant power, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death. We can’t stop it!

So yes, recognizing we are wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something we held dear. It is a death I have experienced many times in my life! But what if instead of leaning into the death by jumping to the human tendencies to blame, discredit, and dismiss, what if we looked rather to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God pulling back to reveal to me in this? What belief of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to emerge here?”

If we did this, I wonder what would happen to our relationships with those from whom we feel divided? Because Jesus is right – a house divided cannot stand. Neither can a church divided, or a country divided, or a family divided. The breach must be healed. So let us seek to be “detectives of divinity,” brothers and sisters, finding God in one another. Let us, when we feel challenged, seek to find how God is working there, not to shame us, but to bring about new life. If we did that, we might find we are able to overcome division. We might even find ourselves to be a new sort of family, united by our shared desire to do the will of God

I think I’m willing to take the risk – even if someone thinks I’m out of my mind for it! Are you willing to take that risk with me?

Let us pray… Uniting God, we are prone to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to be detectives of divinity, always searching for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Jesus restores us for freedom (June 3, 2018)

Pentecost 2B
June 3, 2018
Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:26–3:6


Today we begin eight weeks working our way through the Gospel of Mark, so I wanted to give you a little overview of that Gospel. I’ll tell you more about some specific themes as we encounter them, but today we’ll start with a couple general things.

First, Mark’s Gospel is down-and-dirty. It is super fast-paced and has a sort of frenetic energy about it, like he’s just so excited to get this story out he can’t be bothered with things like smooth transitions or having all the theological pieces in place. Compare that to John, who is so diligent about how things fit together, and these long, beautiful, even poetic theological discourses – nope, not Mark. Mark’s Gospel is marked by rough edges, ineloquent transitions, and the use of the word “immediately,” which appears dozens of times. It is raw and energetic, enthusiastic and exciting.

Why is Mark so urgent and excited? It has to do with his context. His is the earliest Gospel to be written, right around the year 70. The first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus, has begun to die off, and there is a need now to write down this story. In addition, the world is in turmoil, with wars and threats and danger round every corner. Christianity is about 40 years old, and they have been waiting for what they thought was Jesus’ imminent return – but after 40 years he still hasn’t come, so surely all this turmoil means he is coming soon! So Mark is rushing to get this story out just as quickly as he can, to share this amazing good news with as many people as possible. Although all the resulting rough edges can be jarring and frustrating for a casual reader, they also provide ample opportunity for us to read ourselves into the story – and that is just what Mark intends for us to do: to see ourselves as one of the disciples, on this journey with Jesus.

Now, the story we hear today comes early in Jesus’ ministry, but Jesus has already begun to make a name for himself. By this point he has already performed many healings and people seek him out for help. But he’s also managed to upset a lot of people, and so he is being watched. After Jesus appears today to violate the Sabbath – twice – some of those people are so upset that they already begin to plot against him, and it’s only chapter 3!

But that question – about whether Jesus does, in fact, violate the Sabbath – is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. And so first we will hear what, in fact, the law says about the Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is from the 10 Commandments, and it is the explanation of why we are to keep the Sabbath. Then in the two stories in Mark, we see Jesus living out this law in a way that the keepers and interpreters of the law, the Pharisees, did not approve. Yet Jesus teaches us something very important about the place of Sabbath-keeping as people of faith. Let’s listen.


Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” It’s an important story for the Israelites: the story of how God’s people were slaves, brutally treated with no rest, and God sent Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and lead them all out, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. It’s no surprise that it holds such an important place in Jewish and also Christian faith. It is a story that shows us that our God is a God who wants us to be free, who hates slavery. Our God is a liberating God! Our God wants us to have life, and to be captive to nothing and no one – not a king, not a situation, not our sin – and will go to great lengths to show us that.

Christians, of course, are all about the resurrection story, as we should be, and that is also a story about freedom, because on the cross, Jesus frees us from sins. But there is something so earthy and cool about that Exodus story, isn’t there? To literally march out of slavery, through a huge body of water as if being washed of all that used to bind them (just like a baptism, right?), even as that which would hold them captive still chases after them, and then for that same body of water to drown all the captors! Come on, it’s a great story!

It’s no wonder that God makes a whole commandment to help God’s people remember it. “Remember that you were slaves,” God says, “And now, because of me, you are not. So one day each week, don’t do any work, alright? And don’t make anyone else do any work either!” It’s as if God is saying, “I went to pretty great lengths to make sure you would be free from slavery, so don’t go and make yourselves into slaves by working all the time!”

You see, it is truly a grace-filled commandment, an insistence that we remember all that God has done for us, that ours is a God of freedom. This commandment is a gift to us. As Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, so don’t get confused and think that humankind was made to be anything but free on the Sabbath. Just take a day, one day, to remember that God wants for you to be free and to have life.

And yet, we do a pretty darn good job of breaking that commandment, don’t we? Oh, maybe you think, “Well I go to church, I pray, I’m doing fine!” But to think of the Sabbath only as “going to church” is a narrow understanding of it. While going to church is a great way to remember the Sabbath, it is so much bigger than that! To truly honor the Sabbath, is to celebrate our freedom, our life, and also to help others find that same freedom and life.

That’s what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading today. You see, the Pharisees have that narrow understanding of Sabbath. They stop at “you mustn’t work” and forget about why we mustn’t work – that is, so that we might celebrate our liberated life, and help others do the same. When Jesus sees a man with a withered hand, he sees someone who is unable truly to celebrate his freedom. He cannot work, he cannot participate in his community or support his family, and because of this, his culture sees him as less-than, as an unimportant, non-contributing member of society. When Jesus heals his withered hand, it is not so much about the hand. It is about him being restored socially, restored to wholeness and dignity.

In other words, the man receives life and liberation. It’s exactly the sort of “remembering the Sabbath” that glorifies God.

But I think we sometimes struggle with this just as much as the Pharisees… because we all find ourselves captive to something. Sometimes it is something physical, like an illness, or injury, or just the natural consequences of growing old. But I’m thinking more about the more spiritual captivities in which we find ourselves: the ones whose chains are made of our guilt, or doubt, or resentment, or anger, the ones whose shackles are an unwillingness to forgive, whose iron bars are the belief that we are somehow not worthy of God’s love and grace. Those are the captivities to which I think we are all prone to find ourselves. These feelings, they hold us back from fully celebrating the life we have been given in Jesus Christ, and the liberation that God wants for us.

We know that God wants freedom for us – if the Exodus event weren’t enough, we have the fact that God came to earth to dwell among us, then brought all of our sin with him to the cross, dying, and rising again so that we wouldn’t have to fear death and the devil. If God really wanted us to continue living in the captivity of our fears, guilt, anger, etc. then why would God go to such great lengths to give us otherwise, to show us another way?

God dearly wants us to remember the Sabbath, to remember that we were slaves, but no longer are because of the saving work of our almighty God – the God who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, and the God who died on a cross and rose again.

And that, actually, is why coming to worship is a great way to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Because when we gather here, we tell this story. We remember it together, with and for one another. We hear of God’s grace and unlimited love for us, love not because we are good, but because God is. And then, as Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, he says to us, “Come forward.” Come forward and receive this life-giving meal, this remembrance of God’s story and work. “Stretch out your hand,” he says, and receive this bread of life and wine of salvation. And in receiving this grace, we, the men and women with the withered souls, are restored.

Remember the Sabbath, brothers and sisters. Remember that you are free. Remember that no chains in this world are more powerful than God’s ability to break them. Remember that nothing you could say or do would put you out of the reach of God’s love and grace. Let us live this story, and seek to find ourselves in it.

Let us pray… Lord of the Sabbath, free us from all that would hold us back. Help us to remember to give thanks, on the Sabbath and every day, that you are a God who liberates us from sin and death. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Transformation is possible (May 27, 2018)

Trinity Sunday
May 29, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you believe that transformation is possible? Or is there any situation in which transformation is not possible?

I ask this because I think transformation is a pretty important part of Jesus’ mission, yet I think a lot of us live our lives as though some things are more powerful than God’s ability to change them. I hear it in statements like, “They are just evil,” or, “He’s never going to change,” or, “All of this certain kind of people [black, brown, gay, women, men, Muslim, immigrant] are that way.” But it goes even beyond the way we label others. I wonder if we also have convinced ourselves that we will never be different or better than we are. “I can’t do it. I’m not good enough, smart enough, brave enough. I will fail at that,” or, “I could never forgive that person,” or, “I will never forgive myself.” I get it – I have felt that way too, about myself and others – but I do wonder: have we convinced ourselves that there are some things in this world that are simply beyond God’s power to transform?

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that he must be born anew, born again, born of water and the spirit. Normally we associate this famous verse with baptism, or in some circles, re-baptism. But this week I’ve been thinking about it more broadly: when Jesus tells us that we are to be born anew, is he, in fact, telling us that transformation is and must be a part of a life of faith, whether that transformation is of ourselves, or of others, or our perception of others?

Furthermore, what, then, counts as a transformation? Only big things? Or even the mundane things of life? What brings about a transformation? Major life events or epiphanies? Or could something very small also be a sort of transformation, or a step on the path to one?

I’ve been thinking about this question this week, prompted by a number of stories and incidents I have come across. Allow me to share a few.

The first is right out of our scripture for today. A young man named Isaiah was a sinful man, from a sinful people. He lived in a time that seemed completely beyond restoration or redemption, in which people had turned from God and engaged in evil acts. Yet one day Isaiah has a vision. In that vision, he is in God’s Temple, and God is there, surrounded by heavenly beings. Stunned by the magnificence of this vision, Isaiah is moved to lament that he is sinful and unclean. In response, an angel touches his lips with a hot coal, and voila, Isaiah is made clean. He is forgiven. And so, forgiven, he is also transformed: when God asks whom he will send to bring an important message to God’s sinful people, Isaiah is able to say, “Send me.” And suddenly, Isaiah becomes God’s prophet.

If you have ever forgiven or been forgiven, you know, forgiveness brings about a change – change of heart, lightening of a spiritual load, and perhaps even a call into a new way of living. Because of forgiveness, you see, transformation is possible.

The next story is closer to home. Last weekend we had a wonderful conversation with Pastor Julie Cicora, who works with Rural Migrant Ministries, one of the recipients of our annual Christmas Stocking Program. She also pastors a church close to the city, and she was telling us about some of the youth programs they have there, aimed at children of the migrant workers. Many of these young people have endured significant trauma in their lives because of the harsh conditions under which their parents live and work. Some have seen their parents taken away in handcuffs and deported, some have hidden under beds during ICE raids, they’ve witnessed violence of various types, most live in abject poverty, itself a trauma. Enduring childhood trauma is a key risk factor for engaging in future violence. Pastor Julie said, almost off-handedly, “I think the church ought to be a healing place, so we focus our programs on helping these kids heal from the trauma they have experienced.”

The church ought to be a healing place – this has been ringing in my head ever since! And when healing, whether physical, spiritual or emotional, takes place, we are born anew. When our deepest pain is acknowledged, when our story is heard, when we find companions who will walk with us and love us, transformation is possible.

The last story I want to share today is the story of a young man who was a part of a college field trip through a program called Sankofa, in which 20 pairs of students, generally one black and one white, traveled to the south for what amounted to a tour of the history of racism. Their first stop was a plantation in Louisiana, where the cheerful guides went on about “happy slaves” who sang in the fields, who lived under good conditions and whose fingers never bled. At the end of the tour, the students all had a chance to pick some cotton out in the fields.

Back on the bus, the black students were angry and the white students were confused about why the black students were angry, dismissing their friends’ feelings and knowledge of their history in favor of the “expert” tour guides. Surely if the experts said they were happy, they were!

They went on to their next stop, a museum whose only exhibit was a history of lynching. Here they saw horrifying pictures and letters, reflecting some white people’s pride of this practice, pictures showing white families smiling in front of hanging bodies. The students walked silently, stunned, through the exhibit.

This time, back on the bus, the white students did their best to separate themselves from this history: “My family didn’t own slaves. I didn’t even know these sort of things happened. I’m not a part of this.” The black students were even more outraged by the white students’ unwillingness to own this history, or truly recognize their pain. The tension on the bus was palpable.

Then one white student stood up and changed the whole tone. She said, “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned. I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.” Then she added, “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” (Christian Century, “Talking about racism on a college bus trip.“)

Would she have been so changed if she had walked through the exhibit on her own? I doubt it. There was something about seeing and hearing the pain from friends and colleagues with whom she had just traveled hundreds of miles, that brought about that change. When we build relationships with one another, see and listen to one another, seek to understand and bear with one another in our pain, transformation is possible.

And this, this is a wonderful gateway into understanding the Trinity. Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the triune nature of God. It’s a difficult doctrine to understand – how God is three-in-one and one-in-three. So instead of trying to wrap our heads around it, think of this: God is, by God’s very nature, a relationship, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As our hymn of the day says, the Trinity is a sort of dance, always moving, working, impossible to be apart yet each its own. Our God is a relational God.

And when we are baptized, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we indeed join that dance of Trinity. Or as Paul says in our epistle reading today, we are adopted, we become a part of the loving, living, relationship that is our God.

So what does that mean for us? As a part of that divine relationship, we, too, are pulled into the transformative work of the Triune God: we love one another, we forgive one another, we walk with one another as companions, we bear with one another in pain as in joy.

And as we live out this life, as children adopted and baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are continually born anew, transformed. We are daily assured that transformation is possible – for ourselves, for our friends, and for our enemies – even when all hope seems to be lost.

Transformation is possible, brothers and sisters in Christ. Thanks be to God! Let us pray… Three-in-one, One-in-three, we give you thanks for pulling us into your joyous, transformative dance. When we have lost hope that anything will ever change, assure us that you are more powerful than anything that could bring us down, and as long as we are in relationship with you, transformation is possible. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pentecost sermon: A violent, surprising wind (May 20, 2018)

Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
May 20, 2018


Though we hear the story of Pentecost every year, the story of the Spirit of God coming down as wind and fire and birthing the church, our understanding of what’s going on here could really benefit from a bit of context. So first, what happened right before this story, is that Jesus ascended into heaven. After he rose from the dead back on Easter, he hung around Jerusalem with the disciples for 40 days. At the end of this 40 days, Jesus tells them that they must not under any circumstances leave Jerusalem yet, because they were, very soon, going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Excited, the disciples ask, “Oh, so now you are finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” If you know your Jewish history, you remember that several hundred years before Jesus came, the kingdom of Israel had split into Northern and Southern kingdoms, and had eventually fallen to the enemy, and Jews had been sent into exile all over the known world. Some had returned to Israel, but it remained that the former kingdom of Israel was severely fractured, both by location and belief. They had hoped and believed that the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was the whole purpose of the Messiah, and so here they are, still waiting for that.

But Jesus says, “That’s not for you to know. But what you will get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit comes, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.” And with that last promise/charge, Jesus floats in a cloud up to heaven.

Since then, 10 days have passed, and it is the day of Pentecost. This is a Jewish holy day that falls 50 days after the Passover. It’s more often called the Feast of Weeks (7 weeks and one day), and it’s a day when they celebrate the spring harvest. It was also a day, and this is significant, when Jews around the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to sacrifice their “first fruits” of the harvest at the Temple. Consequently, Jerusalem at this point is full of people from all over the place – and although they all identify as Jewish, they come from different sects of Judaism, and speak different languages.

So that’s the setting. About 120 Christians, including the 12 apostles (they had replaced Judas by now), are gathered in one place, wondering what the heck is going to happen next and when, and… well, let’s listen and see. Please rise to welcome the Spirit!


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How must the disciples have felt at the beginning of this story?

Ten days prior they watched Jesus float up into the sky on a cloud. They lost him once, he came back, and now he’s gone again. What an emotional yo-yo! Plus, all this time, they had been thinking Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, and they had yet to see it happen – in fact, things seemed worse now! Their deepest desire, to go back to this time when everything was hunky dory and everyone got along, seemed to float off into the sky right along with Jesus! Jesus said that really soon they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit – whatever that meant! – but already it had been 10 days, and nothing!

Not to mention their questions and fears about what would come next. Jesus had appeared to some 500 people after his resurrection, but now here they sat only 120 strong. With only 120 people, would this movement even last? Would they be able to grow their numbers? Would people believe this amazing story about a man who rose from the dead? They’d given up so much for this man and his message, but now – how would they even survive?

They are full of fears and questions. And honestly, theirs are all questions and concerns that we have today, as individuals, yes, but also as the church. We, too, long for the past, for a time when the world seemed better and safer, when our Sunday School was full and families weren’t so busy and we had a baseball team and went on camping trips with our church friends. It was a time that, if we’re being honest, may or may not have ever actually existed as we remember it, but which has nevertheless formed itself in our memories as something pretty great.

In the present, we are confused, wondering what we are supposed to do now, in our new normal, desperate for some guidance, or for someone to step up and take the torch from our tired leaders, so that we can continue to function as we always have.

And, we fear for the future – what will tomorrow bring? Will our church grow, or dwindle away? What do we do about the drop in giving – how will we pay the bills? Who are we if we aren’t what we have always been?

And into the Early Christians’ longing, distress, and fears, comes whooshing a violent wind and tongues of fire. Not, I suspect, the comforting presence they were hoping for! The text doesn’t say, “And like a cool breeze on a summer day, the Spirit nestled in among them.” No, the Spirit comes like a violent, rushing wind! Like fire! It makes me picture that wind storm we had last year that left trees and electric cables down all over town – violent wind is no comfort!

Now I think sometimes, the Spirit is very much a comfort. But this initial appearance after Jesus’ ascension is not one of those times. And, turns out, the Spirit is often not much of a comfort. It does not always provide the answer we were hoping for or expecting – more often, the Spirit pushes us in directions with which we are not comfortable, into new situations where we are not comfortable and don’t know how things will turn out. The Holy Spirit is much more likely to move us toward a reality we would never have imagined on our own.

Just look at when the disciples ask if Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel. He doesn’t say, “Yes, we’ll put everything back just as it was before.” In truth, “how it was before” wasn’t really even as good as they think; their memory of this great, united Israel – it never existed! Israel was always at war with someone. They had a string of bad kings, and even David, the greatest of all the kings, was a murderer and an adulterer. Plus, it was never Jesus’ mission to put things back the way they were – Jesus was always about newness of life, about reaching out in love to the outcast, the stranger, the poor and vulnerable, not about restoring the political power Israel once enjoyed.

And so he doesn’t promise them the nationalist glory of old that they crave. Instead, he promises them something much more powerful and effective for accomplishing his true mission: the Holy Spirit, he says, will empower them to become witnesses, to bring the good news of the Gospel to all people, to tell this story – about how life always wins over death – to tell it in a way, in a language, that people can truly understand.

In short, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings with it the power to participate in bringing about God’s hope for the world: a hope of peace, love, justice, reconciliation, redemption, mercy, grace, and above all, newness of life. That is the mission and message of Jesus Christ – not that we would return to some past, but that these things, this life, is possible, right now, and in the future… even though it might look different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Bringing about God’s hope for the world is the mission the Holy Spirit empowers us to live out – in our families, in our congregations, and in the world.

And that is the mission into which we will, in a moment, bring Audrey and Luci. It’s no small thing, being baptized. When we baptize a child, even one so small as these, we are calling upon the Holy Spirit to enter this child, and to encourage and empower her also to live out this mission we all share. There is some comfort in a baptism – the washing away of sins, the promise of forgiveness, the welcome into the community of faith – but a life of faith is not always one of comfort. It is also one of surprising inspiration. It is one in which we listen and respond to the urging of that whooshing, violent wind, still active in our hearts, blowing us toward sometimes Big, Scary Things that will change our lives or the lives of others, for the better. A baptized life of faith is one in which every day we look to fulfill Christ’s mission to love and serve, to reach out to the outcast with compassion, to forgive and reconcile, to feed the poor and hungry in body, mind and spirit, and to be gracious and merciful, just as God is to us.

And thanks be to God, a baptized life of faith is also one where that same Spirit accompanies us all along the way, offering all of those things also to us when we are in need, guiding us in right paths, and lifting us up when we are discouraged.

What a gift to be here today, not only to witness as these children of God is/are brought into the promises, hopes, and expectations of baptism, but also to remember that the Spirit moves also in us, blowing us toward new and sometimes scary ways of witnessing to and living out the mission we all share in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray… Spirit of God, descend upon our hearts. Move in us, breathe in us, and help us to listen as you urge us toward ways of being your church that may scare or surprise us. Make us always ready to trust your guidance. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: On emptying (May 13, 2018)

Easter 7 (NL4)
May 13, 2018
Philippians 2:1-13


Last week we started working through the book of Philippians, and I told you a bit about the Philippian congregation, telling you that Paul really loved them, and was grateful for them, and that they had actively supported him while he was imprisoned. In fact, the part of the letter to the Philippians that we read last week even takes time to commend the Philippian Christians for their faith and service. Yes, Paul loved the congregation in Philippi – but that doesn’t mean they were without their problems! The part of the letter we hear today speaks to that.

One thing I really like about Paul’s letters to the various Christian communities he starts is that they show us that the Early Christians had some of the very same challenges and spiritual and personal struggles that we have today. Every single Christian community since the beginning has had their challenges because every single Christian community has been a collection of sinful people in need of God’s grace. After all, that’s why we’re here, right?

In today’s portion of the letter, we see that the Philippians were struggling with some selfish behaviors, and Paul urges them to be more humble. Selfishness and a need for humility… I can think of a time or two when these issues have come up in my life, and yes, even in the life of the church – can you?

So listen to the advice that Paul gives to this fledgling Christian congregation. Think about when you have needed to hear that same advice. Listen to the beautiful hymn that Paul includes in this letter, about how God “emptied” himself to become like us, and why such a move would matter to the particular struggles the Philippian church faced – and the struggles we still face, as the church, as families, and as friends.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well it’s finally springtime, and with spring comes that itch to do some spring-cleaning! In particular, I always get the itch in springtime to do some de-cluttering – all this stuff I have been collecting over the winter… okay, over the past several years… I am motivated to get it out of my life!

But it never fails: no sooner have I decided, “Today is the day!” than I start looking at my stuff and thinking, “Oh, but I don’t want to get rid of that because… And I can’t rid of this… And this I might need, you just never know…” Sound familiar? This is a challenge for a lot of us, I think: even though we have a desire to get rid of the junk in our lives, it can be really hard to let go. We want to hold on tightly to what we know, to what is familiar.

I’ve been thinking about all this in the context of Paul’s words to the Philippians that we just heard. He starts by urging them toward humility, telling them to “do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” He says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” then quotes a beautiful, ancient hymn about how Christ obediently “emptied himself,” giving up all his godly glory to come down and be with us in the dirt and grime for a while, and, in the utterly selfless act of dying on the cross, brought us salvation.

This hymn Paul quotes is called the kenosis hymn, named for the Greek word meaning “empty.” As in, Christ’s self-giving humility was expressed when he “emptied himself.” So I started to wonder, is self-emptying the way for us, too, to find this humility that Paul encourages the Philippians to strive for? Is it a part of the Christian life?

Think again about that de-cluttering image. Getting rid of our physical stuff (emptying our closets, so to speak) is difficult, but even harder is letting go of the junk in our hearts – the emotional and spiritual stuff that bogs us down. Do you know what I mean by spiritual junk? Spiritual junk is… that thing that we just can’t forgive that someone did, or that thing we did to someone else for which we can’t forgive ourselves. It’s all those regrets we carry around with us – those things we missed the chance to do right. Spiritual junk is all the guilt – for not being a better parent, or son or daughter, or spouse, or friend, for the ways we’ve let down people that we care about, guilt for not being the Christian we think we ought to be.

Really, a lot of the spiritual junk we have crammed into our hearts comes down to one thing: pride. Pride is what keeps us from forgiving people – because we think as long as we can hold something over someone, we maintain some control over the situation, and keep ourselves safe from future pain. Pride is what makes us think that our actions or inactions are more powerful than God’s own mercy and grace. Pride is believing that God wouldn’t be able to take these broken vessels that we are, and use us to do extraordinary things in the world. Pride keeps us focused on ourselves – whether our best traits and moments, or our worst – and keeps us from turning our eyes toward God and toward the world to see God’s own marvelous hand at work.

What would it be like to de-clutter our hearts of all this spiritual junk? To kick pride to the curb?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Having thought about how hard it can be to empty ourselves – of both our physical and spiritual junk! – makes this statement all the more remarkable. Jesus had every reason to “grasp,” to hold tightly to all that he had. A seat at the right hand of God, a heavenly existence, pure bliss… yet he gave it all up, and for what? Us bunch of sinners?

Yes, us bunch of sinners! Even though we did nothing to deserve God’s self-giving love! This, God shows us, is what obedience, and humility, and above all, what love look like. This is what it looks like to live a Christian life: it looks like letting go of our judgments of others, our resentments, our regrets and guilt, all those things that would keep us from living a full and generous life. A Christian life looks like letting go of our assumptions about who deserves our help, love and generosity, and simply giving it, because that is what God commands of us. Being of the same mind as Christ Jesus means that we also practice self-emptying, doing our best to rid ourselves of all the pride that keeps us from kicking our junk to the curb. Once we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, there will be even more room then for us to receive Christ’s joy, to be filled up with that instead of with our pride.

But there’s another important part of the Christian life. Thanks be to God, that living a Christian life also means knowing and trusting that when we fail to do this – because try as we might, we will sometimes fail – God’s grace and mercy are bigger than our failures. It is absolutely worth the effort to clean out the closets (in our house and in our hearts!), but the reason we can even attempt this work with confidence is because we know that God is with us each step of the way, holding us up, empowering us, and forgiving us when we just can’t let go of some things quite yet.

God is at work in us, brothers and sisters, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Let us lay aside the junk that keeps us from living the fullness of a life in Christ, so that we might serve our neighbors without judgment, forgive without resentment, give without regret, and love without guilt. And let us be confident that in doing this, we are indeed confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Let us pray… Self-emptying God, we hold onto so much junk that doesn’t at all serve us, or our neighbor, or you. Help us to let go of it, to empty our hearts of all that would keep us from you, so that there would be room instead to receive your grace and your joy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Broken for you (May 6, 2018)

Easter 6 (NL4)
May 6, 2018
Philippians 1:1-18a


This week we move from Acts, which is more of a story, telling about Paul’s travels, to Philippians, which is a letter Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Such letters are what make up much of the New Testament – letters written, mostly by Paul, to Christian communities he encounters on his travels. To us, 2000 years later, they help us to understand more about the nature of God, how God’s work applies to our lives, how Christ’s ministry and essence formed the early church, and how the Spirit continues to work among us.

These writings, letters, are some of the most loved, known, and quotable bits of Scripture, but they can also be challenging to understand. They are more theological, reflective, and often more heady. Paul’s letters, especially, were carefully crafted, and meant to be read aloud by a trained orator – if not carefully read, they can be very difficult to follow!

They’re also challenging because the text alone does not always provide the backstory. If you read one email or letter between two people, but didn’t know their relationship, their history, the context, or the event they are discussing, you’d get something out of the letter, but not a lot – yet that is what we are trying to do with Paul’s letters. So it’s helpful, in trying to understand the text, to know some of that backstory.

So let me start by telling you a bit about the Philippian context generally, since we will spend the next three weeks in the letter to the Philippians. The city of Philippi was the first center of Christianity in Europe, located on a major trade route that led to Rome. Paul was masterful at planting the gospel in strategic locations like this. Philippi was designated as a Roman colony, so its citizens had the same status and rights as those living in Rome.

As for Paul’s relationship with the church in Philippi – it was good. He loved the Philippian church very much, and they cared for him. Paul, as we will find out, is writing this letter from prison, where he’d ended up again for preaching the Way of Jesus Christ. This message got him thrown in jail because it was a threat to the Roman Empire, since he was preaching Jesus as king, not Caesar. It was politically subversive. First century prisons were not like prisons today, where everyone’s needs are cared for from within the prison. Prisoners depended upon outside help for food and water and anything they would need. So one member of the Philippian congregation, Epaphroditus, was sent from Philippi to support Paul, bring him supplies. But he gets deathly ill along the way! The congregation back home heard about the illness, and that he had been unable to deliver the supplies, and they were quite distressed, not only for their buddy, but also because they loved Paul and feared for him. But in fact, Epaphroditus did make it to Paul, illness and all – true service in weakness! So Paul sent this letter back with him, not only assuring the congregation that he was just fine, even better than fine, and that God was using his circumstances for good, but also commending them for their great faith and their partnership in the gospel and in his mission to spread it. Ok, that’s the set up. Let’s hear the letter.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have to say, some of the most beautiful writings have come out of prison. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail comes to mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison is one of the works that made me fall in love with theology in college, and in love with him in particular. Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison helped to build a new South Africa. And of course, we have this letter Paul wrote to the Philippians – as well as several others letters he wrote from jail that are included in the Bible.

What is it about being imprisoned that produces such moving, marvelous and redemptive writings?

I’d venture to guess, it has to do with the inherent vulnerability of being in such a place as prison, where you are forced every day to face the brokenness of humanity. That is, prison is a place where one is hungry for some hope. I read a quote this week that speaks to this. It is from Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works to provide legal assistance to condemned prisoners. This is from his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He writes, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. [My work with prisoners] exposed my own brokenness… We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

What an astute and powerful reminder! One we could all benefit from. What could be more humbling than being in prison, to be daily confronted with your own brokenness? Though, I really admire Stevenson’s ability to recognize this – many of us might be tempted to look upon prisoners and be moved to self-righteousness, to think, “Well at least I’m not as bad as that guy. I’ve never done anything so bad as to land me here!” But Stevenson instead sees his experience as a mirror, an opportunity to see not how we are different or better or worse than one another, but rather, how we are the same. And seeing our common humanity – that is the first step toward powerful connection, even toward partnership.

I heard a guy on the NPR show “Here and Now” this week, talking about the advice he hears in graduation speeches that he doesn’t like. One piece of advice he dislikes is, “Always search for the good in people.” His argument is that people show you who they are pretty quickly, and if you don’t see good in them in the first few moments, then don’t waste your time looking for it. I don’t much like his argument, but it did make me wonder if searching for the good is really the best way to connect with people. To search for the good is to ask, “Are you good enough for me to spend my time with?” What if instead, we looked for the pain in people? Where are they hurting? Where do they need love and care? And then the key question: where have I felt a similar pain? Because when we see pain in someone, and can relate it to our own experience, that is when we are compelled to reach out compassionately and make a connection, to step into our common humanity together, to see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity – not as better or worse than one another. That is when we are on the same plane. That is where we can truly and mutually love one another – and not just for what the other person to offer us, or how good they are, or how good we are.

In his book, Stevenson reflects further. He mentions a Thomas Merton quote: “We are bodies of broken bones.” Then he goes on: “I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are shattered by things we never would have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. … But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”

I wonder if that is what Paul is getting at when he talks about partnership in the Gospel in his letter to the Philippian church? I wonder if that is the “overflowing love” he talks about – not the love that comes from seeing that someone is good like you, but the love that comes from seeing someone is broken like you. After all, our brokenness is all that truly unites all of humanity, regardless of our background or history. That brokenness is the reason God became one of us, to fully experience what it is like to be so broken, so that God could then be in the deepest and most vulnerable sort of relationship with us. It is because of that brokenness that Jesus died and rose again, to show us that death and despair don’t have the final word. It is to that brokenness that the gospel brings hope.

Love that comes out of the assurance of that mutual relationship is indeed overflowing. It is the love characterized by the Philippian church when they cared for Paul in prison, by Epaphroditus when he powered through illness to bring supplies to Paul, by Paul when he risked his life to plant churches and spread the gospel. And it is the love we live out whenever we seek to truly see people’s pain, connect with them, and reach out with compassion. May we always see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity, all of us in constant need of the love, grace and hope our God offers.

For my closing prayer, I will use Paul’s own prayer for the Philippian church, which worked so hard to live out a gospel of overflowing love. I believe you also work hard to live out that gospel, and so let’s let Paul’s prayer be also for us. Let us pray… Lord God, this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help us determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Holy annoyance (April 22, 2018)

Easter 4 (NL4)
April 22, 2018
Acts 16:16-34


A lot has happened since the story we heard last week, about Paul’s conversion. It’s been several years, and Paul is getting his bearings as an apostle and church planter. He has been affirmed by the Council at Jerusalem, as a legit apostle of Jesus Christ, and a witness, especially to the Gentiles. So now he’s off doing his thing. He had been traveling with Peter and Barnabas, but at some point along the way, they got in a fight and decided it would be best to go their separate ways (see, even apostles sometimes don’t get along!). The rest of Acts follows the path of Paul and Silas.

They had planned to go a couple places on their travels, but the Holy Spirit had advised them not to do that. So now, Paul and Silas find themselves without anywhere to go, and so they wander around until they get a vision about a man from Macedonia… so they take this as a message and head there, and find themselves in Philippi, which is where our story is set. And as they are wandering around, they are followed by this girl shouting fortunes at them. And that’s what kicks off our story. It’s a story with dramatic turns – a possessed girl, an angry mob, two men unjustly imprisoned, a dramatic breakout opportunity, and a whole family conversion. Let’s hear it.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“And Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to her, ‘I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”

It might be the only exorcism that came not out of a desire to heal someone in need, but out of sheer annoyance.

There is so much to love about this text, so many preaching possibilities. And yet every time I sat down with this text this week, I couldn’t get past this opening scene with the slave girl who has a spirit of divination, and the “very much annoyed” apostle, Paul.

When I can’t shake something like that in a biblical text, it usually means the Spirit is trying to tell me something, so I leaned into it, into this slave girl and Paul’s response to her, and this question arose: is there such a thing as “holy annoyance”? What might holy annoyance look like, and where might it lead us?

Maybe we start by describing annoyance in general. Is it something you’re familiar with? Yeah? How many of you have been annoyed? Who is annoyed by bad drivers? Who is annoyed by people not pulling their weight? Who here is annoyed by dishes or laundry being left around the house? Tell me – what are some other things that annoy you? [wait for answers]

There’s a real variety! And those things, those little annoyances – they eat away at us, right? They fester, they tear us (and possibly others) down, they frustrate us and maybe even paralyze us, keep us from wanting to do the good work we were made to do, at least do to it joyfully. Annoyances can really bog you down!

A friend of mine just wrote a piece about what she called “Two marriage hacks” – two tricks to have a happy and successful marriage. The first was to keep a running list of all the reasons you married that person in the first place, and all the moments that affirm that decision – and refer to it often. That one is fun, or can be. The second is much harder. It is to let go of the story you’re telling yourself. So when you come home from work and your spouse has once again left all their dirty dishes for you to wash, or won’t stop jabbering on about all the details about something you really don’t care about, or whatever your annoyance de jour is, you start telling yourself, “He doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t value my time as much as her own. He doesn’t keep my needs in mind. She is selfish” …That’s the story you need to let go of. And this goes beyond marriage, of course; it applies to any significant relationship. Those stories we tell ourselves about why people do annoying things are serving no one. They only tear away at your heart, at your relationship with that person, and maybe even your relationship with God.

That’s what annoyance can do. It can cause resentment, self-pity, self-righteousness, judgment. Annoyance can be mundane, or it can be very destructive, to our interactions with strangers as well as in our most important relationships.

So, if that’s annoyance… what on earth is “holy annoyance”?

Holy annoyance is the sort of annoyance that can serve as a catalyst for transformation. It snaps you out of whatever was keeping you focused on yourself, and moves you toward God’s will, toward life. It moves you out of your self-pity party, and ultimately leads to a conversion experience.

Just look at today’s story. Paul and Silas have been wandering around Philippi. The text tells us that this girl with the spirit of divination has been following them for many days – many days! – before Paul finally casts out that spirit. Can you think of any other story in which Jesus or an apostle goes days before attending to the needs of the people they encounter? I can’t! So Paul clearly had something else on his mind that he let this go so long. His attention was elsewhere, not where it needed to be. And it was that annoyance that finally snapped his attention back to the mission had been sent to do.

A colleague was just telling me his call to ministry was that way. His mind was elsewhere for many years, while God pestered him about his call to ministry. He kept shaking it off, doing his own thing, until finally he said, “Okay, fine! You win! I’ll go to seminary!” Had he not been so annoyed, he would have kept his eyes on his own will instead of God’s, and perhaps never answered that call. Holy annoyance.

Now we don’t all receive a call to ordained ministry. But for all of us, annoyance, whether mundane or severe, always has the power either to keep us distracted, or to set us on a godly course, if we’ll let it. Whether it sets you down the path of distraction, or the path of God’s will, is a matter of how you view it.

We’re pretty good at letting it nip at us and be destructive. To be continually distracted by it, you can keep telling yourself that same story of self-pity, self-righteousness, and judgment. (“Hang up and drive!” “Wash your dishes, would you??” “Stop tapping your fingernails like that, it’s driving me nuts!!”) But what is necessary for mere annoyance to become holy annoyance?

In my life, I have found that when I’m annoyed by something, or angered, or frustrated, it ultimately has very little to do with the thing annoying me, and more to do with the way that thing rubs up against something going on with me. Whatever is the irritant triggers something in my heart, or my past, or my belief system, and I react – I get annoyed. So there is the key by which to turn destructive annoyance into holy annoyance: figure out what is going on in you that’s causing your reaction, what value is being threatened, what belief is being challenged, what negative memory is being brought up. Dwell there for a little while, considering how that irritation might be pointing you toward a change, a conversion, in your heart.

And, like Paul, call upon the name of Jesus Christ to drive out the annoyance, and turn it into new life. I don’t mean, pray that the annoying thing would go away. I mean, ask Jesus to show to you how this revelation can be used to point you toward God’s work.

And then, trust God, even if you don’t see results right away. This event with the girl and the spirit really isn’t the point of this story. The real meat of the story is later – Paul and Silas get arrested for “disturbing the peace,” they are flogged and beaten, and they are imprisoned. This is not going well for them! But there they encounter other prisoners and bring the hope of Christ to them through song. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. That holy annoyance had sent them to prison to witness to those prisoners!

But wait, there’s more! An earthquake releases the captives, but devastates the jailer, who is about to kill himself for the shame of his failure. This prompts Paul to reach out to him, saying, “No, don’t do it! We are still here!” And through this encounter, the jailer comes to faith in Christ. He reaches out in love to these criminals, washes their wounds, feeds them a meal, and he and his whole family are baptized.

You see what happened? God needed Paul and Silas to be in jail at that particular time, so that they could witness to the jailer, so that they could be loved and cared for by their enemy, so that a whole family could come to faith through their witness. There is conversion in this story – of the jailer, his family, and I’d argue also for Paul and Silas – and that conversion started with an annoyance. A holy annoyance.

Who could have known that the annoying slave girl with the spirit of divination was exactly the tool God was using to bring the jailor to Christ?

I have been wondering all week whatever happened to that girl who had the spirit. What was her life like after Paul, in a fit of annoyance, cast out the spirit? We will never know, of course. And those who observed this might never have known the path that this event set these men upon, the way that the girl’s exorcism led to new life for a Roman jailor and his family, the way it brought hope to some prisoners, and the way it deepened the faith of a couple of apostles. We often don’t see the whole story of how God works.

And, sometimes we don’t see how an annoyance, if we take it seriously, and discern how that annoyance might be moving our hearts, ends up guiding us or placing us exactly where we need to be. Annoyance can certainly be a holy experience. Indeed, when we call upon the name of Jesus, it can bring about a conversion that leads to new life – for us and for the world.

Let us pray… Annoying God, you are always nagging us, urging us, prodding us to examine our hearts, and showing us how we might turn them toward you. Help us to see all those things that annoy us as entry points to discern your will for our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon: When faith is like a moonwalking bear (April 15, 2018)

Easter 3 (NL4)
April 15, 2018
Acts 9:1-19a
Luke 24:13-35


For the past four months, we have been reading John – today we jump over to the Gospel of Luke. The writer known as Luke also wrote the book of Acts, so sometimes they are together considered a two-volume book, with Luke focusing on the life of Jesus and Acts focusing on the Early Church and the work of the Apostle Paul to spread the Good News of Jesus to the world. Just as John’s Gospel has some distinct themes, so does Luke’s. I won’t get into all of them now, but two that we will see today are the power and importance of sharing a meal, and the action of the Holy Spirit, which empowers people for ministries they never thought possible.

We’re going to hear two stories today, one from Luke and one from Acts, and we’ll hear them in reverse chronological order, but I want to introduce them to you in the order they happened. So first, Luke: we go back to the evening of Easter. The women have announced what they learned at the tomb, but the disciples didn’t believe them. So now these guys are on their way to a town called Emmaus, still not really sure what just happened, and they are grieving and heartbroken. They are so heartbroken, in fact, that they don’t even notice Jesus walking right along with them! But notice what moment it is that they DO recognize him, and what implications that has for our own worship and life of faith.

The other story, the one we’ll hear first, happens a year or two later. Christianity is spreading, and comes to be known as “The Way.” The early Christians were a people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, cared for one another, were peaceful and law-abiding people, and spoke boldly about their faith – but they were harshly persecuted for their beliefs. A man named Saul, later known as Paul, was among the most famous persecutors of Christians. Yet it is this harsh critic of Christianity that Jesus calls to spread his name and gospel to all the nations. A good portion of the New Testament was written by this man, Paul, who once was the most unlikely to serve in Jesus’ name. Let’s hear the stories.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I saw a cute video a while back called “This is an Awareness Test.” [Watch it here before you read on!]

It starts off with two groups of four basketball players, one team in white, the other in black. The narrator says, “How many passes does the team in white make?” The eight players jump and swerve in and out amongst each other, passing the ball, and I carefully counted, thinking, “I’ve totally got this.” It stopped, and the narrator said, “The correct answer is 13.” Yes! Got it! I patted myself on the back. But he goes on, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?” Huh? The video rewinds and replays, and sure enough, now that I was watching for the bear, I saw him, moonwalking right through the middle of this game! How had I missed it?? It was so obvious now!

The answer is: I missed it because I wasn’t looking for him. I was too focused on counting passes. And why would I look for a moonwalking bear anyway? Who would expect that?

Both stories that we heard a moment ago are stories about blindness, about not seeing things that you simply aren’t expecting to see. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, and Saul of Tarsus, and even Ananias – none of them can see right away how God is working right before their very eyes, because their vision is blocked by their expectations, rather than being open to God’s surprising work.

First, let’s look at Saul (later, Paul). It is easy to see him as a pretty bad guy at the beginning of this text. Earlier in Acts, he was a part of the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But even if you didn’t know that, the first line, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against disciples of the Lord,” makes him sound so sinister, and gives you the sense that this is not a guy you want to cross.

Yet I want to be clear that Saul was actually a very devout Jew, from a fine family, with an excellent liberal arts education. He really felt he was doing the right thing, putting a stop to this Christian movement. He saw these Christians as going against the faith he knew and loved. Was killing Christians the best way to respond to this? Well, no, I don’t think so! But that’s what he thought was right.

And yet God uses this broken vessel as one of the most important instruments to spread the good news. Saul had seen his role as one thing, and God saw his role as something else entirely – in fact, as the exact opposite of what he was doing! When Ananias comes and prays over Saul, Luke tells us that “something like scales fell from his eyes.” He says his sight is restored – but really, it is more than restored, isn’t it? His sight is something new, for it is at this point that he is baptized and commissioned for this new task that Christ has set before him. His expectations give way for God’s expectations.

Isn’t that a wonderful image – “something like scales fell from his eyes”? Like, all the hatred and murderous threats that had blocked his vision and kept him from seeing the God of love manifest in Jesus Christ – it all just fell away. Suddenly he could see the moonwalking bear who was in front of him all along.

I’ve been thinking about that scales image this week – about the various times in my life when whatever was blocking my vision fell away, and I was able to see. Perhaps my assumptions fell away, or my self-doubt, or my preconceived notions or previously held beliefs… and when those scales fell away, I was able to see God’s love shining through, and showing me the path God had set before me.

Not to say it was always a path I wanted to walk down. In that way, I resonate with Ananias! Poor Ananias – what a job to be given! “Hey, Ananias, I need you to go talk to this guy who is a known murderer, this guy who is persecuting people like you. Oh, you’ve heard of him? Great, yes, that’s the guy. I need you to go to him. Tell him I sent you, and pray with him. Thanks!” Ananias is understandably hesitant! “Uh, you sure, God? That guy?”

I’ve been there! “You sure this is what you want me to do, God? Are you sure this is the right place? The right time? The right people? Really?” Oh yes, I’m sometimes full of suspicion about God’s plans for me, and I’ve got a host of excuses lined up! Especially when I’m pretty sure I know more about the situation and the people involved than God does.

A friend told me a story this week about a mission trip her church went on to build a house in Appalachia. There were some guys helping at the site who were volunteering in order to get out of their prison sentence. One guy in particular was extremely disrespectful to my friend. She had a horrible experience. The next year, she voted that they should not return there – those guys were awful, she said. But everyone else wanted to return, and so she went with them. When they arrived, that same, disrespectful man came out to greet her… with tears in his eyes. He went right up to her and said, “I didn’t think you’d ever come back.” People can surprise us, you see! You never know when a moonwalking bear might make its way into your assumptions! Even when we think we’ve got people all figured out, never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to change someone and use them for God’s work – or to change you! Never doubt that God might show up, even where you didn’t expect it.

That’s what happened with those guys on the road to Emmaus, too, right? They are heartbroken, grieving, confused – they’re so wrapped up in their own stuff that they don’t even see that it is Jesus walking right there along with them. It’s a recurring theme in these texts – our expectations or preoccupations block us from seeing how God comes to us, even when we least expect it. As the disciples walk with this “stranger” to Emmaus, he interprets the scriptures to them, and yet they still don’t know that it is their teacher and friend.

But one thing does finally opened their eyes and help them see the moonwalking bear – what is it? What makes them recognize Jesus? … It was in the breaking of bread. It was sharing the fellowship of a meal together. It was seeing Jesus once again give himself for them.

Yesterday I had the joy of spending the afternoon with some of our young people, learning about communion. Today they will receive communion for the first time, partake of this special meal that recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us, be a part of this place where Christ is made profoundly known to us. As a part of our class yesterday we looked at this story, the story of two disciples who were joined by Jesus as they walked to Emmaus, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. We talked about how even though when we come up here to communion, we don’t actually see the man Jesus, we still know that he is here, that he is with us. He is in, with and under this bread and cup. We know because he told us so! We know because we see his face in the people of this congregation. We know because we have heard his promises in scripture. Even when we are blinded by our expectations, our assumptions, and our preconceived notions, we know that Jesus comes to us, walks with us, lives with us, and moves in us, and that, when we open our hearts to receive him, we will come to see him more clearly in the world.

At the end of our class yesterday, I asked the parents to share with the kids if they pray during communion, and what they pray for. Today, I will tell you my prayer, and I hope you will join me in it: I will pray that, by this bread and cup, God would make the scales fall from my eyes, and that Christ would be made known to me, both here at the table, and as I leave this place and go out into the world. I will pray that my eyes would be opened to see Christ even when I didn’t expect to. In fact, let’s pray that prayer right now…

Ever-present God, open our eyes. Let the scales of our assumptions and expectations fall from our eyes, so that we might see your marvelous work before us. Help us to notice you at work, not only at your gracious meal, but also where we least expect to find you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.