a job for christmas

IMG_1295A sermon written for Christmas in July Sunday.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:8-15

Link to recording. Link to bulletin.

I’m a self-professed West Wing nerd. I can admit my fixation.
The West Wing is the television show that defined my formative college and young adult years. I own all seven series on DVD which I periodically watch from start to finish. I own a copy of The West Wing Script Book written by the show’s creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin. I’m also guilty of proclaiming my intent to vote: Jedidiah Bartlet for President. And I’ve recently become a regular audience member for The West Wing Weekly podcast, an episode-by-episode discussion of the series hosted by a former cast member.

Through the podcast I was reminded of a fantastic episode in Season One: In Excelsis Deo, and I was also reminded that it’s time for me to watch the series from the start again. This Christmas-y episode authentically and emotionally presents to the audience several hot-button issues, including homelessness and veteran’s care.

I offer you the NBC episode guide:

“As Christmas Eve approaches, President Bartlet eagerly sneaks out of the White House for some last-minute Christmas shopping, while a haunted Toby learns more about a forgotten Korean War hero who died alone on the district’s cold streets wearing a coat that Toby once donated to charity. In other hushed corridors, Sam and Josh ignore Leo’s advice and consult Sam’s call-girl-friend concerning her confidential clientele when one political rival hints at exposing Leo’s previous drug problem. C.J. wonders aloud about the President’s public response to a notorious hate crime while her personal resolve weakens as persistent reporter continues to ask her out.”[1]

In short, Senior Staffer Toby Ziegler uses the President’s name to arrange a military honor guard and a funeral for a homeless Korean War veteran.

The artistic work in this particular episode beautifully juxtaposes:
the affluence of Capital Hill with poverty in the city,
the warmth of the White House Christmas celebrations with the bitter cold life on the streets,
concern over saving one job with failing to employ veterans,
the joy of holiday celebrations and the sadness of grief.

Similarly, our Lukan version of the annunciation is one full of juxtapositions. This is the story of the announcement of a royal birth… to the shepherds living in the fields.

Any birth is a celebration. A royal birth is an event.
When Duchess Kate and Prince William were expecting their children, international media had a field day for the nine months she was pregnant with each child, and they still clamor to share stories of the children as they grow.

A royal birth…it was not the same as the royal birth.

10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’”

Recently at Presbyterian Youth Triennium, Dr. Rodger Nishioka shared that we have a job to do. Our job, like the shepherds, is to pay attention. Our job is to witness the joys and troubles of others, and then go…
…go and see what is going on so that we can learn what we need to learn…
…go and see what is to be seen so that we can go and share with the world…
…go and witness miracles to bring light into someone’s darkness…
…go and witness plights of our neighbors in order to shine light on them for the world to know.

Our job, according to Dr. Nishioka, is “when we see something, we must say something.”

Isaiah wants us to see our neighbors.
I’m glad we’re exploring the birth of our Lord today outside of the Advent and Christmas season, because too often we’re wrapped up in the things that need to be done during that season to stop and praise God accordingly and be attuned to the darkness around as the prophets’ appeal to us.

Isaiah speaks the uncomfortable words that we don’t want to hear or face during the joy of the Christmas season.

“land of deep darkness”
“rod of his oppressor”
“trampling warrior”
“battle tumult”
“garments rolled in blood”

The reality of Scripture is this: God chose, “at the moment God appeared in human form,”[2] to be present in the middle of the muck. The story of God’s appearance to the lowly, dirty, filthy, stinky, isolated shepherds – that’s the Holy Family’s story.

This royal family’s story is not one of palaces,
rather it’s one of migration at the requirement of the government.

It’s not the story media outlets waited days outside a hospital to share,
rather it’s one of angels appearing in the middle of the field and telling the outcasts to go and tell the others.

This birth mom didn’t have a relaxing few days leading up to labor,
rather she was busy traveling with no time to rest or prepare before her son was born.

The word we get from Isaiah and Luke is of God who appears in the middle of everything to those who don’t have leisure time to sit and praise the way God should be praised. The story we get is that God came to us bringing good news for the defeated, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the uncomfortable – this is not an announcement for the privileged and the comfortable.

The Wonderful Counselor has come. Mighty God has born. Our Everlasting Father is here with us. The Prince of Peace is establishing a government of justice and righteousness and unending accord.

And the first ones to hear about it all: the shepherds. The fieldworkers. The unclean ones. Those who aren’t deserving. Because that’s where God chooses to be present. And when they learned of the birth, they said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this ting that has happened to us, which the Lord has made known to us.” And after that: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Scholar David Lose says this about our passages today:
“But note: when God decided to get personally involved, God didn’t come to punish, or frighten, or scold, or threaten, or any of the other things that are often attributed to God (sometimes even by people in the church!). Instead, God came to tell us that we are loved, deeply, truly, and forever.”[3]

I think that was Toby’s goal with the veteran: to show the respect, gratitude, appreciation, and even love that the man merited. Toby recognized that his position, his privilege, afforded him the ability to do something of significance for someone else. Sure, he was chastised for his choice to invoke the President’s name without authorization, but he stood firm in is resolve that he made the right decision.

When President Bartlet says to him,
“Toby, if we start pulling strings like this you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?,” he responds without hesitation “I can only hope, Sir.”

We have been employed through this birth narrative. We have been given a job for Christmas. We must open our eyes. We must open our ears. We must expect the unexpected to happen to us, or to someone else. And we must be prepared to go and say something.

Lose continues:
“When God surveyed humanity and realized how dark and difficult our days could be, how confused we get about our identity and place, how many painful things we do to each other out of that confusion and insecurity, God decided to do something about it. And so after giving the law and sending the prophets, God got involved. Personally, intimately involved with God’s fallen creation. And just to make sure we got the point, God first brought that message embodied in the flesh by Jesus to people the world was pretty sure weren’t particularly important or, for that matter, loved: no account shepherds, an unwed teenage mom, astrologers practicing a whole different religion. All of this to show that God wasn’t going to leave anyone behind. That God’s message of love was for all. As in everyone, whether the world thought you were important or lovable or not. And that’s still the way it is.”

Good or bad, when God appears in the middle of everything – in a night club in Florida, in a mass service in France, in an elementary school in Connecticut, at the birth of a child, in the gathering of superior athletes from across the globe for the Olympics, in the delight of a child playing – when God appears in the midst, it’s because God’s chosen to appear there and has chosen for us to bear witness.

We are expected to respond as faithfully as the shepherds.
When God gets involved, it’s time for us to get to work.
Where there is darkness, we must create spaces of light, trust and peace.
Where there is elation, we must magnify the good news with praise to our Creator for the joy.

But either way, we speak. We say something. We go, we share.
We proclaim. We protest.
We ingest the things which God has made known to us,
and we act…we do…we say something, accordingly.

To the God in our midst – the God of infants, exhausted moms and overwhelmed dads, frightened shepherds and elated angels – the God who came to bring us salvation and peace and love and hope, be all glory, honor, majesty, prayers, and praise.


[1] http://www.westwingepguide.com/S1/Episodes/10_IED.html
[2] Dr. Rodger Nishioka, Presbyterian Youth Triennium, July 19, 2016
[3] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/christmas-eveday-c-keep-it-simple/

let freedom ring



Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62


A recording is available here.


Just a few short weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting Mount Rushmore with my family. I’d never been to Mount Rushmore before and was told the lighting ceremony was something not-to-be-missed, so we arranged our plans for the kids and I to experience our first-ever visit just as the evening event started.

If you’ve not been for the lighting, I commend it to you.

The evening starts with a twenty-minute video sharing the history of the leaders depicted on the mountainside, and it includes the lighting as well as the flag retreat for the night.

The auditorium was brimming with people, nearly every seat filled, and yet it was silent enough to hear an owl hoot somewhere off in the distance of the park forest. I noticed the owl making noise and started relishing the night views of the natural surroundings to the human-created auditorium structure, and I lost track of the video somewhere around the closing remarks on George Washington.

But then I heard words that I’ve just not been able to shake. These words are so very familiar to us. They’ve been seared into our brains through history classes and even radio commercials as we approach our Independence Day tomorrow. I heard the words that Thomas Jefferson penned on July 2, 1776 that were adopted on July 4, 1776, The opening words to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence was the moment when we as Americans decided we wanted our freedom from Great Britain. Our Founding Fathers sought to break away from the fiscal, political and religious repression of their country of origin. They wanted freedom in their new land – our homeland. The words that Thomas Jefferson penned, particularly this opening statement, have long been considered a statement on human rights, those moral principles or norms, which describe certain standards of human behavior, and are regularly protected as legal rights.


Jesus is about to be “free” of his earthly body in today’s Luke text. The narrative begins with a reference to Jesus’ future ascension into heaven, readying the disciples for their ultimate mission following Pentecost. When Jesus departs, the disciples continue his ministry of bringing about freedom to all the world. They are hesitant. They are unprepared to be the leaders Christ has been training. The disciples don’t know how to respond when challenged.

“Temptations around the use of power will face the disciples in the future…The disciples have already been told that when they are rejected, they are simply to shake the dust from their feed and announce that the kingdom of God has come near. Retaliation of any kind is not an option for disciples.”[1]

Judgment belongs to God alone.
Retaliation is unacceptable.
Persecution eliminates freedom.

Jesus Christ rebukes his disciples for defaulting on vengeance and anger toward those who reject them or Christ. They will be rejected, we will be rejected, but in those instances we must offer grace over rage. The life of Jesus Christ models choosing not to punish those reluctant to support him, and instead inviting believers to journey alongside him. The disciples are instructed to keep focus on the mission by looking and pressing forward.

Following Christ, a life of freedom in Christ, is not easy. Proclaiming “I will follow you wherever you go” has major life implications – God’s call on our lives means that other loyalties are no longer first. A life of freedom in Jesus Christ means that family, community, tradition, and the like are no longer our top priority. God must come first, and from that everything else will flow…we will be free.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul introduces a gospel claim and a missional cause[2] in his opening to the fifth chapter:  Christ has set us free, so our lives and actions are to reveal that freedom. Jesus Christ preached freedom, lived freedom, and offered freedom to all. We have the opportunity to live into the freedom of Jesus Christ, and also the responsibility to work toward ensuring others live into their God-given freedom, as well.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all… are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”[3]

We need the courage to live into it.
Freedom is NOT the absence of encumbrances. “Entanglements are the means by which freedom becomes meaningful.”[4]

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel may have been free from concentration camps, but he was not without burden.  In his landmark story of the Holocaust, Night, he penned:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed …,” Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.”[5]

Although he survived the camps, and was technically free, liberated from imprisonment, Wiesel did not live a life of freedom. Any life where there is an experience which deprives an individual of a desire to live is not a life of freedom. Until he passed away this week, Elie Wiesel was in bondage to the memories of his time in hell on earth.

Paul tells the Galatians in verse 13 that freedom means love: “For you were called to freedom…only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Loving your neighbor as yourself seems an easy thing to do, except we must first learn to love ourselves. But, what does that mean? It means recognizing our sacred inner beauty given by our Creator and recognizing that also others possess a sacred inner beauty. Our call to freedom to love yourself and others is a call to receive from Christ first and offer to our neighbors with the very same receptive heart.

When Paul speaks about the spirit versus the flesh or the law, he’s showing us an alternative director for our lives. Allowing the Spirit of Freedom to guide our decision making doesn’t mean disobeying local laws, it means that we get to claim our identity as Children of God. Declaring this identity grants us chance to love others more than ourselves, and to work for their equality as God’s children.

Recognizing the sacredness of all of God’s children, Wiesel chose to speak out and become an activist. His stage was international, where he worked, to ensure that victims received freedom, in spite of his own long night imprisonment. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Wiesel stated:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere,” he said. “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”[6]

Freedom is not separation from relationships, rather it is a feature of relationships that becomes apparent as a result of our relationships with Jesus Christ. When we acknowledge our relationship with God by our very nature as the created of the Creator, and when we long to serve and be in relationship with Jesus Christ, we must ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen our relations with our neighbors and strangers. We are free when we give and receive love.

When we cast aside the desires of our flesh and impulse reactions to rejection in order to seek a life of Christ-like love, we become free ourselves to offer freedom beyond ourselves. Freely accepting God’s Spirit as the guide of our lives produces new fruit. Our lives change when we live into the freedom of God; we don’t have to work at being kind, it just comes effortlessly. The Spirit brings new motivations to our heart and we bear joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as it’s result. We don’t even have to strain because it’s natural. That’s real freedom.

Freedom is the presence of hope.

Dum Spiro Spero means While I breathe, I hope. The Provincial Congress of South Carolina adopted these words as the state motto in March 1776. In the year of Independence, the forefathers chose words of hope as their guide. A state ripe with controversy – secession, slavery, war, segregation, poverty, and racial issues – still resides in hope for the future.

I want to live in a world where hope prevails, because hope means there is care and concern for something beyond the current and present. I want us to anticipate a better tomorrow. Freedom demands we have great expectations.

While I breathe, I hope:

I hope that I can be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.
I hope to help my children know the depth of love God has for them.
I hope to adequately demonstrate what God expects of the beloved.
I hope I will display God to all whom I meet.
I hope to be courageous.
I hope I can forgive.
I hope I may love.
I hope everyone will experience equality.
I hope we’ll stop harming one another.
I hope that children will go to bed with full tummies.
I hope our veterans will receive the medical care they need.
I hope the Spirit will bend my will to match God’s will for me.
I hope that I can be kind.
I hope I will speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.
I hope to not hate.
I hope I live spreading joy.
I hope I care for our planet well.
I hope I will give back.
I hope I’m a strong leader.
I hope to welcome the stranger.
I hope I’m not selfish.
I hope I’ll one day pray without ceasing.
I hope I will never stop learning.
I hope to experience and respect other cultures.
I hope I exhibit empathy.
I hope for the day disparaging words no longer exist.
I hope we’ll stop oppressing one another.
I hope God will work through us.
I hope God will work in spite of us.
I hope we won’t be silent when we shouldn’t be.
I hope the world will experience peace…one day.
I hope we can look at people’s hearts rather than their skin.
I hope we will forget about gender and just love.
I hope that when we face evil, we will summon capacity for good.
I hope we all will act rather than just speak.
I hope we quit forgetting injustice.
I hope the world stops betraying her people.
I hope our focus becomes on the laughter of children.
I hope we create hope.
I hope we encourage compassion.
I hope we learn to show grace.

         …I could go on…

 While I breathe, I hope we may live into Christ’s freedom.
And, I hope we want to do the necessary work to enhance freedom for all of God’s children.

Jesus tells his new followers that they must choose when they say they want to follow him. We can’t live both in the current and also in the future Christ gives us. We must make the decision that will bring us life, love, and freedom. It’s a hard choice to make! It may mean leaving behind family, jobs, friends, or homes. It may be lonely, we may face betrayal, and we may suffer, but Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life, he promises us a free life.

Church, as we leave from this place celebrating our independence and national pride with cookouts, fireworks, parades, pool parties, and wearing our red, white and blue, I encourage us to consider how we define liberty. “Discerning what God has done in Christ and what Christ has done for us shapes the way we love our neighbors, and loving our neighbors helps us to see what God has done.”[7]

Freedom requires us to live so that all may be free. Christ’s freedom is not for one person, but for every person. We must go today into the world and fight for another. We need to let the world taste the unending love of Christ through loving your neighbor. Our missional cause begins with letting the Spirit change our motivations. We are called to live free, and labor for the freedom of others.

Let mercy flow.
Let compassion prevail.
Let hope abide.
Let freedom ring.


[1] Elaine A. Heath, Theological Perspective on Luke 9:51-62 in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, page 192.
[2] Mark Douglas, Theological Perspective on Galatians 5:1, 13-25 in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, page 184.
[3] Declaration of Independence, 1776.
[4] Douglas, 184.
[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/elie-wiesel-dead_us_57781653e4b0a629c1aa51bb
[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/remembering-elie-wiesel/489905/
[7] Douglas, 188.



Eastertide – May 8, 2016
Dunbar Presbyterian Church – Dunbar, NE
First United Presbyterian Church – Tecumseh, NE

Scriptural References: Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26

A link to the recording is available here.

Earlier this week my husband and I were out enjoying a rare date night when we came across advertisers for popcorn, lemonade, and henna application at a local yoga studio. We’d just finished eating so the food and drink didn’t appeal to me as much as the henna application opportunity. I’ve always been intrigued by henna. Henna artwork is beautiful, intricate, and it always seemed, to me, a deeply spiritual practice for other faith traditions. When presented the opportunity for a small henna design of my choice, I quickly jumped at the chance. Scanning the display-board for potential designs, my eyes landed on the one in the middle – the infinity symbol with a word of choice written into the lines. I chose the one on display exactly as it was shown. I’m now the proud wearer of henna artwork representing the infinite power of love. And you know what, the significance of the artwork I subconsciously chose didn’t hit me until I began to wear the ink on my arm. I paid close attention to the paste, checking closely to make sure I’d not accidentally smeared it during the hours of dry-time. The more frequently I looked at my arm to check the paste, the more I paid attention to the message.

We begin at the end today. We have reached the end of scripture in Revelation and also the very end of the book itself. Typically, one hopes for an ending to be soft, easy, and pleasing, however that’s not what we receive in the benediction to Revelation. As one scholar Christopher Rowland notes, “readers are faced with a challenge, a crisis, from beginning to end, even after they put the book down. Divine assurance of ultimate salvation is not part of the book of Revelation.”[i] What is included here conversely is instructions: as you wait, you are to concentrate on the tasks at hand and be about the work of cleansing the world, and here’s how you’ll go about it. Rowland continues, “Prophecy, witness, and the life of Christ are bound together in Revelation, reminding readers that here is a price to pay for such commitments and activities.” The benediction is a call to ministry. In part, we witness a conversation between Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the bride. Christ announces his return followed by a bidding to “come” from the bride and Spirit. This text tells us we cannot be passive listeners, rather we are active participants “asked to be prepared to enter into the community,” says Paul Johnson. “It is a reminder that being a Christian assumes an active disposition and an attitude of grace-filled practice within the community of faith. Revelation tells us that Christ is coming, and John’s text today tells us that Christ is leaving. Coming or going, we’ve been equipped as Christ’s disciples and we are commanded to live into the life of ministry to which we are called in our communities. We know that God left us with a task – to continue Christ’s ministry in all the world – and we know that Christ will return. If we bid Christ “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” we must ourselves be worthy of Christ’s greeting. And we must also extend Christ’s greeting to all of creation.

A podcast I follow, Sermon Brainwave, boldly claimed that the central theme of the Gospel of John is love. One of the commentators was challenged by another, but while fleshing out this idea together, they came to realize that it’s quite plausible for the central theme to be love, as long as we recognize that it’s not a romantic love or even a gentle love. The love exhibited in John’s gospel is, in my option, a challenging and transformative and overwhelming love. This love is divine love: self-sacrificial, creative, redemptive, restorative, identity-giving, community-building, status-quo-challenging, and self-limiting of God. The love in John’s gospel is not just the love that gave up a son’s life for our salvation, but a love that came down in order to reach us. God’s first act of love in John’s gospel is becoming human: “In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:1,14). The self-limiting love did, then, become self-sacrificial in the form of death on a cross (3:16), but that love also went so much farther, as well. God’s unfathomable love in Jesus Christ went to Samaria (John 4) to offer living water to a woman at the well. This woman is an adulteress and yet the Lord restores her to life in the community. Jesus Christ’s love reclaims her identity and offers her restoration. The love in John’s gospel is love that goes into the world, and says, “come” with unrestraint while demonstrating the vulnerability that exists with love.

I asked the henna artist to tell me a bit more about henna’s significance as she applied. It turns out that for her, the significance is the art and beauty. Curious, I researched further where I learned that henna is regarded as having barakah, blessings, and is applied at wedding festivals to offer luck and joy to the bride and groom. “In Islam, barakah is a kind of continuity of spiritual presence and revelation that begins with God and flows through that and those closest to God. Barakah can be found within physical objects, places, and people, as chosen by God. This force begins by flowing directly from God into creation that is worthy of barakah. These creations endowed with barakah can then transmit the flow of barakah to the other creations of God through physical proximity or through the adherence to spiritual practices. God is the sole source of barakah and has the power to grant and withhold barakah.”[ii] Jesus’s prayer in John 17 is a barakah of sorts. This prayer is an offering of blessing to Jesus’ disciples and a reminder that the presence of God flows through the Son and into the world. Barakah, a continuation of the spiritual presence of God, through prayer: “…the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

John 17 is the farewell discourse. Today’s verses, while situated in the midst of the crucifixion story, are verses of resurrection that impeccably close out our celebration of the Easter season. Jesus is praying for his disciples, with his disciples, and it’s the first time he’s not excused himself from their presence to pray. Right now, Christ wants his disciples to hear the words he’s offering to God on their behalf. Considered the “High Priestly Prayer,” these are the last words that Jesus Christ says before he and his disciples depart for the Kidron valley, where he would be arrested. The last six verses of chapter 17, the six verses of our gospel lesson today, are the last verses of the priestly prayer of Christ and he wanted his disciples to hear every. single. word. he was asking God about them: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  Through his prayer, Jesus Christ promises the disciples inseparable unity. We, as the risen Christ’s Easter people, are living into the fullness of this promise.

What does this inseparable unity look like? What does that depth of love, the love of God who formed us in creation and chose not to destroy us not once, but twice, look like? It’s demonstrated by God first – through restoring the Samaritan woman to her community, through visiting the tax collector’s home, through dining for his last meal with the person who’d betray him and the person who’d deny him, and through instructing Noah to build an ark for his family and two of every species in creation. Inseparable unity looks like a God who goes out into the world to show us that love is sometimes painful, and that love makes us vulnerable, and that love leaves us open to attack. Inseparable unity looks like doing whatever it takes – Christ preached on the Sabbath, for example – to bring everyone on the fringes back into their right place in community. Inseparable unity means restoring identity.

In a few minutes we’ll say together what we believe as Children of God using some different language – being mindful that it is Mother’s Day, but also reminding ourselves that we believe in a God who stands in community and unity and solidarity and empathy with persons who we might consider the other. We’ll affirm our faith in a God who can restore hurting individuals. We’ll vocalize our love – our God-like love – for who’ve had to make hard decisions with which every fiber of our being may disagree, like adoption or abortion or abuse, but we’ll do so because we recognize that God’s very first act of love was to come to us and restore us to life and community. We will affirm our faith today in a God who’s love in all the time unfathomable to us, and yet so very near and comforting to us, too. And we’ll affirm our call to be the bearers, the barakahs of that love in our Creator’s world.

Our texts from Revelation and John declare to us a love that means welcome and hospitality. In Revelation we read, The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come.” In John we hear Christ saying, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” We experience an offering and a request in these passages, both intended to bless someone other than the one making the offering or the request – intended to bless an “other.” A reflection on Revelation’s offering says, “Everyone who is thirsty is told to come. No qualifications or prerequisites are given, outside of the request…No limitations are posted regarding who is allowed to enjoy the drink of salvation…It creates a marvelous cinematic image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, classes, and so forth drawing out water that is freely given as a gift.”[iii] Everyone who wants some can come. Likewise, Christ petitions God not just for those who currently believe, but also for those who would in the future come to believe through the belief, life, and faithful witness of those present. What Christ is doing is not easy, as he is praying for, essentially, non-believers with the same love he has for his closest disciples. Heading to his death, Christ unfailingly demonstrates hospitality. A welcome, an openness, a desire for companionship and unity that comes from the heart of a God rich and ripe with love.

Love is never-ending, even when I am less than lovable.
Love is unstoppable, even when I refuse to pass it on.

I know that the henna stain will fade over the next few weeks, but I sincerely hope that the mental impression won’t wither, too. I catch myself frequently stealing a glance at my forearm, staring at the four letters of the word love surrounded by the infinity symbol.Love is never-ending, even when I am less than lovable. Love is unstoppable, even when I refuse to pass it on. I’m particularly challenged by the contrast of this text with our headlines lately. Individuals are barred by government law in North Carolina from using particular bathrooms. Skin types are pulled from airplanes because they look differently, thus suspicious, and because their languages differ from ours. Politicians and their respective parties spew hate-filled words at one another and those who think like their opponents. Children are stolen from their homelands in Ethiopia and South Sudan for sex trafficking. We are human, which means we are…hurting, we are broken, we are sinful. But we are invited, we are bid, “come” and commanded, “do.” The responsibility has prayerfully been handed over to us to continue to share God’s love in the world. Our ministry call is to pass on the invitation to everyone who hears, whether they be happy, anxious, joyful, timid, abused, hurting, sad, depressed, broken, and so on. Theologian Caroline Lewis says, “Love is primarily experienced and seen in relationship and in community.”[iv] We see that firsthand from God, and we are reminded of it through Christ’s prayer for us. In anticipation of Christ’s return and in faithfulness to God’s ministry call on our lives, my prayer is that we won’t shy away from the opportunities we’re given to live vulnerably in the bold, hospitable, radical love of our Creator. Come, Lord Jesus!

Let us pray:
Holy One, our sole source of barakah, infinitely fill us with your continuous spiritual presence, and embolden us to share the power of your unbounded love. Amen and Amen.

[i] Christopher Rowland, “Theological Perspective on Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year 2, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 537.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barakah

[iii] Paul Johnson, “Pastoral Perspective on Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year 2, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 536.

[iv] Caroline Lewis from the Sermon Brainwave podcast, SB482: Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2016.

ash wednesday homily


Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
Lincoln, NE

Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A recording is available here.

Tonight we will depart this place looking visibly different. We will enter clean faced and we will leave with dirt on our faces. This is not typically what we imagine when we think of coming to church. We expect that when we confess and ask for forgiveness, we are wiped clean and our transgressions have departed us. That is not the case this evening.

My childhood neighbors were good Catholics. This was a bit of an odd thing for me where I grew up – the Bible Belt is primarily made up of protestants of the Southern Baptist variety. My neighbors attended mass on Saturday nights, the kids grew up in Catholic school, and they threw one heck of a Mardi Gras party. (They hailed from New Orleans, so it was in their DNA.) My dad and Mr. Duhe used to always get together and joke about the isocracies of their church belief systems, and my dad was enthralled with the idea of confession. I remember overhearing a conversation that included phrases like: “Just go into the booth and come out forgiven,” and “So I can do it on Friday, go tell a guy, say a few prayers, and do it all over again next week?” They discussed how during most of the year, football season aside, church on Saturday night was so much better than church on Sunday morning. And they’d talk about the eating meat on Fridays, thing. Mr. Duhe loved a good joke, so he used to share this joke with anyone and everyone in earshot at parties:

John Smith was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday of Lent. On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John, he was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to try and convert John to Catholicism. They went over and talked to him and were so happy that he decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic. They took him to Church, and the Priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic.” The men were so relieved–now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved. The next year’s Lenten season rolled around. The first Friday of Lent came, and just at supper time, when the neighborhood was setting down to their tuna fish dinner, came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! They called each other up and decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent? The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”

The joke makes us laugh. But does it also make us stop and think?

Lent is a time of self-reflection and penitence. It’s a time for us to acknowledge our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. We rely upon God’s mercy in Jesus Christ because we are broken, selfish, steak-eating-when-we-know-better offenders. Often we hear stories of people giving up things for lent, in an effort to mirror the fasting and temptations of Christ in Scripture. The new trend is to “take on” rather than “give up” in an effort to incorporate a new spiritual practice for these 40 days. I saw this week a “40 bags for 40 days” practice that encourages one to fill a bag a day of junk and unused stuff from the house to either throw away or give away. In a self-satisfying, self-gratifying world, we have a really hard time accepting that we’re less than perfect and we need to spend time in penitence.

“On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to enter a period of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial in preparation for Easter. We are called to use these 40 days as a time of reflection on our sins, the ways we separate ourselves from God and from one another.”[i] My fear, however, is that we’ve become a society that looks to Lent as another time to plan for the bigger holiday of Easter. It’s a time where we anticipate the melting of the snow, the spring break trips, the baskets the Easter Bunny will deliver, and oh, giving up chocolate, too, because when we can’t have that cupcake it will remind us of the sacrifice that Christ made in giving up his life.

Our scripture tonight is snippets of larger stories in both Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew. Isaiah’s words are a small portion of a three-chapter theme “the prerequisite for divine deliverance is that the people maintain righteous and just lives.” These verses “stand in the middle of this longer section stressing the need for the proper, inward repentance that leads to acceptable outward action.” Matthew’s text is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ names the “disciplines and practices” that help to prepare one for the events of Holy Week and Easter. Christ names specific examples – charitable giving, prayer, and fasting – as standard actions that would have been deemed worthy of praise in both Jewish and Gentile society. Jesus, however, warns that his followers not participate in the practices for praise, but rather address their motives and manners in which they carried out these typical disciplines.

Isaiah pointedly condemns any quest for righteousness before God that overlooks the plight of the poor and contrasts such an unfaithful “fast” to God for loosening the “bonds of injustice” and letting the oppressed go free. He reminds us that the fast God chooses is radically self-forgetful. “The form of fasting that God chooses – in both testaments – is strangely free of the desire to save oneself. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely the object of pity or duty, but as a gift.”[ii]

As we depart here tonight, faces smudged with dirt, let us remember the celebration from whence they came. The ash tonight is the palm of last year – the day we celebrated the entry of a man heading into a town toward his death. We do not leave church tonight free of our transgressions just so that we can go and do them again. We leave tonight with the visible mark upon our forehead of our lives, lived only for ourselves, that caused our God to sacrifice a child for us. We leave remembering that it is only through the full grace and unending mercy of God that we have everlasting life. We came into church tonight with heads cleaned by the waters of baptism, and we depart with dirt on our faces to remind us of our mortality. Let us not forget, as the sign of the cross is made on our heads, that we are children of God, beloved, who are in communion with our brothers and sisters through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Sacrifice is not easy; it cost a man, our God, his life. But may we enter into this Lenten season with vigorous hope in the resurrection, eager to recognize God’s grace and make changes that are permanent.

       Holy God, hear our prayers. Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Word: Lenten Companion
[ii] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 – Tom Currie

down the mountain

transfiguration - 2.7.16

Transfiguration Sunday – February 7, 2016
Dunbar Presbyterian Church – Dunbar, NE
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church – Lincoln, NE

Scriptural References: Exodus 34:29-25, Luke 9:28-44

A link to the recording is available here.

One of America’s most famous and influential outdoor enthusiasts and a father of our national parks, John Muir is probably most well known for penning the phrase, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” The quote is often used and adapted by enthusiasts to express a love of places of deep heart desires, and the irresistible pull of wild places.[1] I contend that mountains are magical – maybe it’s the thinner air, possibly the slower pace of life or the abundant vegetation and wildlife, but most likely it’s the place I feel closer to God. Whatever the reason, there is something breathtaking, relaxing, and peaceful about mountains. One might even describe mountains as glorious. And that’s where we begin our stories today – at the base of the mountain, full of God’s glory.

The mountains are calling and I must go. As we transition from Epiphany into Lent, we have time to spend in the midst of God’s glory revealed through those whom the Spirit has picked for the role of bearing God’s Word to the world. Moses and Jesus both have transformative encounters with God in the mountains and in both encounters the glory of God shines. The transfiguration of Jesus presents a glimpse of what is possible for all of humanity, and bears witness to the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. Lent is a time of self-reflection when we acknowledge our need for God and our reliance on God’s mercy. Christ’s transfiguration story literally shines a light on how unprepared are we for bearing God in the world. Witnessing the splendor of God shining confounded Christ’s closest disciples – the ones who learned first-hand from him – so surely we can’t be expected to fully understand what took place and how to move forward. Oh contraire.

Moses was called to the mountain more than once, and each time he traveled down to serve as mediator between the people and their God. Moses presents the covenant of God with Israel and every time he is aglow with the light of God. The people couldn’t bear the splendor of God then, either. “Perhaps, this glory silences our religious chatter and renders us blinking and confused in it’s light… This splendor shines with the terrible light of God’s reflected presence, a light that illumines God’s word and renders God’s people conspicuous, marking them as witnesses to the Lord of life.”[2] Today our dependence on God comes to light so that tomorrow we may do whatever we are each called to do when we receive it at the base of the mountain. “Often we do not think of God’s word as all that glorious or God’s people as shining all that conspicuously. Scripture is a text to be studied, a word to be proclaimed to a gathering of not even very ambitious sinners. There is nothing self-evidently glorious about most local congregations. Yet, Moses’ face shone. Jesus’ figure became dazzling bright. This glory…far from being an abstraction, brings us to the disturbing events of Easter morning, where the disciples’ bafflement and joy and even terror come face to face with the risen Lord, whose splendor dispels the gloom of death itself.”[3]

The mountains are calling and I must go. But it’s what happens at the base of the mountain, after we’ve ascended and descended, that is of primary importance. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is one who rebukes unclean spirits. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one who brings life and healing to a boy – to us all. The Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one who will cause everyone to be astounded by the greatness of God. The Jesus who comes down the mountain will be betrayed into human hands – but, the Jesus who comes down the mountain is the one in whom there is healing, resurrection, and sustaining power. At the peak of the mountain God’s glory shines, and at the base of the mountain God’s greatness astounds. But also, at the base of the mountain God’s salvation speaks words of life for the whole world.

We believe in and serve a God of encounters. Moses met frequently face-to-face with God and served as his word-bearer to the people. Israel encountered God through Moses’ relationship with YHWH and there learned the intimacy of faith and closeness to God. In his commentary on the text, Andover Newton Theological School President Nick Carter states: “Two critical points are definitive for the people of Israel and for all people of faith. The first is that this concept of proximity has at its base a moral and spiritual idea that shapes our very being. Our closeness to God molds who we are. The second is that while one of the most defining obligations of all Jews is to do justice, the enduring message of Moses’ encounter is that they are called to be in the presence of God.”[4] Moses gathered the leaders of the congregations to share with them personally what God had commanded him. And this happened more than once, as Moses was in God’s presence 40 days. The God of encounters birthed a child to live in proximity to us. Every bit Christ’s life is about a God who desires closeness with us. His birth included the lowliest first. His epiphany is a celebration of Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles (and thus the world). His ministry was about touch and words and presence. Even his transfiguration story became personal as he included his disciples Peter, James and John. And let us not forget the passion of our encountering God: “Forgive them Father…” our Savior spoke to God on our behalf.

Our closeness to God molds who we are. If the transfiguration stories teach us anything, it’s that a life of proximity to God is transforming. When we dare to be the bearers of the Word to the world, the glory of God will radiate through our faces. Our hands, outstretched to serve in love as we have been commanded, will be the hands of God. In her book Jesus Freak, author Sara Miles tells us that “…Jesus said we can go ahead and heal the sick, that we don’t have to wait for authorization from our bishops to raise the dead…”[5] She paraphrases Christ’s resurrection visit with his disciples like this: “Then one night, Jesus walks through a wall and simply appears in a locked room where his terrified disciples have been hiding from the religious authorities… ‘Peace be upon you,’ Jesus says, and shows them his still-bloody hands and side. And then, for the final time, he tells his followers what he’s been telling them all along: that they, too, are children of God, and that they are to continue doing Jesus’ work…Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.”[6]

Over these next several weeks of the Lenten season we have the opportunity to reflect. When the mountains beckon you, question why. Inquire within yourself why your heart longs for the irresistible pull of the long places. Is it to escape the pace and trajectory of your life today? Is it to rest your weary body in a quieter place? Is it to reconnect with yourself and discern your next steps? Is it to commune with God in a place where heaven and earth seem inseparable? Once you determine the heart’s desires to temporarily depart from today’s routine, reflect on your proximity to God at present. Are you close enough to the Lord that when you return all will be astounded by the shine on the skin of your face? Or do you have a few more steps to take in order to reach is face-to-face presence?

The mountains are calling each of us. We must go. Because in going, we will be in proximity to God that is a necessary and defining first step for an encounter. Proximity allows encounters to evolve into relationship. And in relationship we “embody and radiate God’s love to the world” when we come back down the mountain. “It is the closeness that calls us and sustains us.”[7] The mountains are calling and we must go. For the world is dark and broken and sinful and unjust and disaster-prone. We want to experience the light of God in Christ. We must see it. The world needs you to bear it. You must be the one to say, “Look! Here shines the one in whom there is power to overcome death.”[8]

In the name of God the Creator,
Christ the Redeemer,
and the Spirit the Sustainer, Amen.

Let us pray:
Holy God, present in our midst yet beyond all comprehension, by your light, we see light; by your healing, we are made whole; by your mercy, we know your greatness. Turn your gaze upon our weakness and show us the way of your love that we may live with unveiled faces, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 [1] http://www.toplinemagazine.com/2014/06/01/the-story-behind-muirs-famous-the-mountains-are-calling-quote/
[2] Currie, 436.
[3] Thomas W. Currie, “Theological Perspective on Exodus 34:29-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436, 438.
[4] Nick Carter, “Homiletical Perspective on Exodus 34:29-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 439.
[5] Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. (San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 163.
[6] Ibid, x-xi.
[7] Carter, 439.
[8] Kimberly Miller Van Driel, “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 455.

(what is) love

Love makes us practitioners of life.Dunbar
Presbyterian Church &
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30

A recording is available here.


The Revised Common Lectionary readings for today offers us an additionally New Testament text; a familiar passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Hear now the words from Paul’s letter, commonly entitled “The Gift of Love”:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Most often we hear this passage read at weddings; it’s occasionally read at funerals; and it probably graces the cover of entirely too many Hallmark Valentine’s cards. These words about love are profound, and they become more so when we remember that they were not about a couple pledging their lives to one another in front of family and friends. Rather, these words are profound because they “arose out of a pastoral crisis in the Corinthian church.” Rev. Dr. Lewis Galloway reminds us that, “The Corinthian Christians are abusing their freedom, refusing to share, scorning their neighbors’ spiritual gifts, boasting in their own gifts, seeking recognition for themselves, and jockeying for position in the church.”[1] Our familiarity with the Corinthians text poses a challenge for us as we examine these words in the varied contexts presented by the lectionary today: a call story, a pastoral crisis, and a rebellious sermon.

Alas, the day of looooooooovvvvveee is quickly arriving.

No sooner had the big-box stores removed Halloween and discounted Christmas merchandise than the pink, red, and silver heart merchandise began to appear en masse. In 2013, Hallmark customers sent 144 million Valentine’s Day Cards. In comparison, Mother’s Day was 133 million, Father’s Day came in at 94 million, and Easter scored 57 million cards purchased. Jewelry companies tell men they are bad partners if they don’t buy diamonds for their ladies. Chocolate sales peak, and poor red rose bushes all across the globe are suddenly naked. Somehow as a society we’ve deemed it alright or acceptable to materialistically recognize our affections for others one or two days out of the year, instead of living and breathing them every day of the year.

I did a little research of a few internet definitions of love to share:

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep
because reality is finally better than your dreams.”[2]

“I love you like a fat kid loves cake.”[3]

“Love thy neighbor —
and if he happens to be tall, debonair and devastating, it will be that much easier.”[4]

“Happiness is the china shop; love is the bull.”

“The sincerest love is the love of food.”

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”[5]

Or, how about this one?:

“Love is not another spiritual gift,
but the way in which God intends us to practice all of our gifts.”[6]

But what about, this one?:

“Love, I’ve come to understand is more than three words mumbled before bedtime.”[7]

“Love, I’ve come to understand is more than three words mumbled before bedtime.”[8] Love is so much more than three words uttered before we place our heads on the pillow for the night, or peck our kids and spouse goodbye in the morning. Love is in not just an emotion. Love is a way of life. Love is primary in life, love has character, and love endures. Love does.

The Gospel message from Luke today is a continuation of the passage from last week. In fact, verse 21 overlaps in the readings. “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Christ has returned home to Nazareth and dares to be bold in the presence of his family, friends, and home congregation. Jesus dares to speak words that demand action; words that command love; words that incite a revolt. And he does so with a “just passing through” attitude. Jesus knows that he’s too close to the people who’ve gathered to hear him preach, so he doesn’t try to get through to them as he knows it’s impractical: there is no talking to his Nazarene mates and them suddenly realizing their exclusivity and desiring immediate change.

No, Jesus was coming to challenge the status quo and demolish existing stereotypes, and he knew he would not be well received. Thus, speaking truth to them, he allowed the ancient scrolls of Isaiah’s words to stand on their own, and once he’d gotten the attention (and admiration) of the synagogue, he used the actions of other prophets Elijah and Elisha to call attention to inaction. “Love…does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” The truth (aletheia) was this: Israel as full of widows and lepers, “yet Jesus stated that ‘none of them’ (none of the hometown Israelites) received assistance from Elijah or Elisha.” Repetition of this phrase ‘none of them’ and referencing the ancient prophets provoked the crowd.”[9] They suddenly realized that Jesus wasn’t preaching an approval, but rather bringing to light their wrongdoings and mistreatment of others. They quickly moved from a mood of astonishment and pride over their hometown hero, to disdain, disgust, anguish, and enough anger to want to drive Jesus out of town.

I recently learned of an interfaith organization called The Night Ministry which works to provide food, shelter, basic healthcare, and humanity to the homeless populations in and around Chicago. The ministry makes every effort to be a reliable presence in impoverished areas, as many who receive care depend on the care, meals and companionship on a daily basis. In short, “The Night Ministry is a Chicago-based organization that works to provide housing, health care and human connection to members of our community struggling with poverty or homelessness. With an open heart and an open mind, …[they] accept people as they are and work to address their immediate physical, emotional and social needs while affirming their sense of humanity. Through The Night Ministry’s Health Outreach Bus, Youth Outreach Van and Youth Shelter Network, each year …[they] provide services to 5,200 adults, teens, pregnant and new moms who have nowhere else to go.”[10] How dare that Jesus challenge the status quo! No wonder the Nazarenes wanted him gone! “Love…does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

When God moves through the Holy Spirit in our lives to solidify our callings, it’s terrifying, unsettling, and daunting. Jeremiah’s reaction to his call is no exception. He fears he doesn’t know the words and is too young, but God disagrees and strongly encourages Jeremiah to trust in the goodness and guidance of the LORD. This fear of inadequacy, and therefore ours, is irrelevant. God has called him for a purpose and Jeremiah is to live into his calling. Theologian George Martin notes a few pertinent items for our understanding: “The prophet Jeremiah speaks to something many of us know; we do not choose God; God somehow mysteriously and even against our will chooses us.”[11] God chose Jeremiah, so therefore God happened to Jeremiah. The God of love takes action in, through, and with us so that we may in turn, with God, do love.

Martin continues, saying, “Acceptance or resignation usually happens only after struggle, and that is true in …[Jeremiah’s] story. Jeremiah is not easily cornered, especially not after being as to be a prophet to all the nations, a terrifying idea at any time. The Hebrew word for nations, goyim, referred in the natural discourse of that day to the enemies of Israel to those who sought it’s destruction.”[12] God’s vision was incomprehensible. And Jeremiah was just a boy. This prophet would forewarn the destruction of Jerusalem, including proclamation that the nation of Israel face famine, be plundered, and be captured by foreigners who would exile them to a foreign land. Known as the weeping prophet, Jeremiah would face increased persecution, but the Lord would protect his life. “Love…believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This calling for Jeremiah meant existing in God’s truth and a life of service to the Almighty.

Brittaney is a young adult who recently took back her life after ridicule, degradation, and mental abuse by a boyfriend. According to the article, she was “in a relationship with someone who pointed out her every flaw…yet Brittaney couldn’t find the strength to leave the relationship behind.” Finally, after months of self-blame and low self-confidence, Brittaney reclaimed her life by sharing this on social media:

You always told me I didn’t look good with long hair and that you preferred girls with short hair. So I kept my hair cut above my shoulders at all times. You laughed at me and told me I looked ridiculous when I dyed my hair red when we were together. So a week later I dyed it back blonde. You would always point out if I was wearing too much makeup. So I just stopped wearing it. You told me tattoos and piercings were tacky and ugly. And would try to take out my belly button ring every time you saw it. So I took out my piercings and didn’t get any more tattoos. You pointed out my stretch marks every chance you got. So I did my best to keep them hidden. You pointed out every time I looked like I had gained weight. So I started eating less every day. You pointed out every single flaw I had. So I lost every bit of confidence I had. I did everything I could to be what you wanted. I did everything you told me to do. It still wasn’t good enough. You left me for a younger prettier girl. Someone you could mold and shape into what you wanted. Like you tried to do with me. And up until a few months ago I blamed myself for everything that happened. You blamed me too. But finally I started to see the truth. You weren’t out of my league. I was out of yours. I wasn’t the one who wasn’t good enough for you. You were the one who wasn’t good enough for me. You couldn’t accept me for who I was. When I took you the way you were. So now here I am… My hair is past my shoulders…[and] bright red. I’ve got a new tattoo. New piercings. Started wearing makeup again. I eat whatever I want whenever I want and weigh 135 pounds. I still have my stretch marks. And I’ve finally gotten my confidence back. I finally see myself looking back at me when I look in the mirror.[13]

This young woman understands the truth: she is a beloved, beautiful, created child of God. To me, the Lord said to her ‘before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’ And then  God called her to love herself while encouraging other abused women to self-love, also. “Love…believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

“God calls every Christian to live the radical gospel of Christ through faithful obedience in the world.” Professor James Calvin Davis says, “For some, that faithful obedience may require grand utterance, heroic measures, or world-changing actions. For others of us, it is in fulfilling the tasks of our social, political, and familial roles that we stand as prophets in the cultural wilderness, testifying to God’s intentions for the world in the way we live our lives.”[14] Love does. Love lives. Love is an action verb, not a noun or adjective describing a feeling. Dr. Eugene Peterson paraphrases love in The Message this way:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.

This thing called love is so much more than three little words. It’s a person who was born to die. It’s a parent who gave a child for another. It’s the concern for a congregation in pastoral crisis. It’s the call to life in ministry and service to Christ. It’s the challenging words of reality spoken to an exclusive nation. Love is living. Love is breathing. Love is reminding created beings of their beauty and worth. It’s showing up regularly to provide a meal and medical assistance. {It’s wrapping the pastor and her family in prayer as they celebrate new life.}

Love makes us practitioners of life.
Thanks be to God! Amen.


[1] Lewis F. Galloway, “Pastoral Perspective on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 302.
[2] Dr. Seuss
[3] Scott Adams
[4] Mae West
[5] Stephen Chobsky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
[6] Galloway, 302.
[7] Nicholas Sparks
[8] ibid.
[9] Gay L. Byron, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 313.
[10] http://thenightministry.org/
[11] George H. Martin, “Pastoral Perspective on Jeremiah 1:4-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.
[12] ibid.
[13] http://www.littlethings.com/brittaney-facebook-self-love?utm_medium=Facebook
[14] James Calvin Davis, “Theological Perspective on Jeremiah 1:4-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 290.


Dunbar Presbyterian Churchscrolls - 1.24
Dunbar, Nebraska
Sunday, January 24, 2016

Scripture Lessons:
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21

A recording is available here.


Well-known mystery/law-based author John Grisham switched genres many years ago with his novel Skipping Christmas, the story of Luther and Nora Krank who decide to forget all of the normal trappings of the commercialized holiday season by takin a Caribbean for a Christmas cruise – just the two of them. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if the Krank’s weren’t famous in town for over-the-top house decorations and a much-anticipated Christmas party, but given their legacy, the decision to skip Christmas was not well received. Things become even more troublesome for the couple when their daughter phones at the last minute to announce a surprise trip home. Needless to say, their plans to buck tradition didn’t go as they’d desired, but the Christmas they had became one of their best.

I resonate with this book as both a John Grisham fan, and because I struggle with tradition changes. As much as I enjoy adult freedoms and making my “new” family traditions, I appreciate the familiarity, comfort, and joy of older traditions. Much like Luther and Nora, though, we tend to grow used to things being the way that they’ve always been because we struggle to deviate from what’s known or the norm. Traditions are a tricky beast to navigate, and for those of us who enjoy them, sometimes it’s hard (and even painful) to recognize the grace and beauty in the freedom of creating new traditions as life evolves.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,
he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”

Both of our scriptures today speak to the importance of religious customs for the hearing and understanding of God’s Word, and for worship. We begin with Ezra bringing for the book of the Law and reading from it to his congregation. We then move to Christ’s first teaching in the synagogue where he essentially stands up, reads, and “drops the mic”, so to speak, before sitting back down. Each of these scenarios is punctuated by the hearing and receiving of Scripture, as was the custom. Rev. Jill Duffield adds “I would argue for some key words that represent God’s movement toward us since creation: Spirit, Synagogues, Sabbath, Scroll/Scripture.”[1]

The Jewish Festival of Booths ends on the last day with the celebration of Simchat Torah, or Rejoicing in the Torah. “That day ends the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, and the people read the opening of the book of Genesis to begin the process again.”[2] The Simchat Torah reflects the joy of the Israelites that God has revealed the law to Israel; a celebration that the law is a gift from God. Ezra proudly reestablishes the Torah to its prominence in Israel following exile, therefore reestablishing instructions for the people living as God’s covenant community. One pertinent thing that we’ll notice is the amount of time the congregation assembled for the revelation of the law: “He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” The people gathered in celebration of the scriptures for hours, and at the conclusion of the ceremony, “all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen.”

The law of the Torah, while not as relevant to us Christians as it should be, is as much a Spirit-filled, living and breathing testimony of God as our Gospel messages. We tend to believe that the Gospel supersedes the law, but such thinking then ignores the deep ritualistic importance and strong religious identity God bestowed through the reading and hearing of the law. The Law of Moses, and here the law being reestablished by Ezra, guides the Israelites in their identity as worshippers of God. Much like in the gospel message for us, the Spirit is present in the reading of the Law, and it requires interpretation, updating, and understanding in light of new situations for the readers. Torah reading, while adhering to orthodoxy of the past, also encourages readers to meet God anew in their present and ever-changing times.[3]

In the gospel of Luke, we encounter Jesus teaching in the synagogue for the first time. While we can assume to know this story from the other gospels since it appears in Matthew and Mark, Luke does a fantastic job of stopping the reader from assuming too much. Luke omits the “back story” of this event, jumping straight to the heart of the matter before sharing the aftermath (like the others Gospels). Referring to this text, Fred Craddock notes, “Luke places the Nazareth visit first because it is first, not chronologically, but programmatically. This is to say that this even announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response to both Jesus and the church.”[4]

A mere forty or so days after his Baptism, including the time of his temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee and news of his teaching spreads quickly. Jesus is labeled didaskalos, teacher, as he visits various synagogues around Galilee. Luke is clear to label Jesus as both spirit-filled and a teacher in order to emphasize the primary purpose of his ministry. As Jesus moves onto Nazareth, a customary day worshipping in the synagogue becomes extraordinary. The congregation gathered with certain expectations of the worship service – according to custom and tradition – and Christ didn’t deliver. In fact, Christ kept the custom of worship, but ignored tradition altogether. Traditionally, the service contained all or most of the following: “(1) recitation of the shema; (2) praying while facing Jerusalem; (3) the “amen” response from the gathered congregation; (4) reading from sections of the scrolls of the Torah and of the Prophets; (5) a sermon; and (6) benediction.”[5] That’s not what they got from Jesus, however…

He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

The message Scripture itself is what Jesus wants us to hear and remember. Too often we bring our biases to each encounter with Gospel texts. Jesus, being the radical teacher that he is, realizes this about his congregation and ours, so he disturbs us by not delivering a sermon to interpret the Prophet. ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ he offers to a stunned congregation. Jesus has kept with the tradition of attending worship, especially in his hometown, and he’s kept with the tradition of reading from the scrolls when asked. But rather than sermonizing, Jesus maintains the important thing is that we relish in the hearing of the scriptures. A Spirit-filled preacher meets the congregation and preaches using only the words of the ancient texts.

Lectio Divina is a Latin term meaning “divine reading” that describes a way of reading the Scriptures whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. Lectio Divina is what Christ offered to his congregation in Nazareth when he read the scriptures and sat down. Lectio Divina is similar to the Jewish tradition of reading through the Law of Moses in a year and repeating the process upon completion – in aeternum. In the twelth century a Carthusian monk named Guigo developed a list of steps that he considered important for the internalizing of Scripture through lectio divina. While the process is a fluid one, and a process that is ideally led by the Holy Spirit, the steps Guigo offers are a good guide for those new to the practice.

The steps are as follows:

  1. lectio – reading the Word of God
  2. meditatio – ruminating on the text to ascertain what God is offering us
  3. oratio – response, laying aside our thoughts to let our hearts speak to God
  4. contemplatio – resting, letting go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations, but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God.

In lectio divina, we listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within. Hopefully, this transformation will have a profound effect on the way we actually live and the way we live is the test of the authenticity of our prayer as we take what we read in the Word of God into our daily lives. Lectio divina’s natural movement is towards greater simplicity, with less and less talking and more listening. Gradually the words of Scripture begin to dissolve and the Word is revealed before the eyes of our heart.[6]

To honor today’s texts, where hearing the scrolls read aloud in worship lead to celebration, rejoicing, and the Spirit fulfilling the scripture in our hearing, I offer these next few minutes to us for lectio divina. Everyone is invited to take a scroll (and a crayon, if you’d like) from the basket. As I read the words aloud repeatedly for the next few moments, unroll your scroll and meditate on the words you hear. When you have your scroll in hand, begin reading the words aloud with me. When I stop reading, we will all enter into a time of silent reflection to allow the message of the text to speak to us today.

Christ deemed these words more important for us to hear than a sermon, so I encourage each of us to listen to them, ruminate on them, respond to them, and allow the Spirit to transform our hearts to a resting place with God over these words.

18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

How will you respond?

[1] http://pres-outlook.org/2016/01/3rd-sunday-in-ordinary-time-january-24-2016/
[2] Rick Nutt, “Theological Perspective on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 266.
[3] Portions from Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 271.
[4] Fred Craddock, Luke (Lousiville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 61.
[5] E. Yamauchi, “Synagogue” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 782.
[6] http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina