David Brooks. You probably know the name and the person attached to it. I guess you could call him a pundit—but he is also a journalist. Some of his articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, for example, and currently he is a columnist at the New York Times. He has written a few books, including his 2015, The Road to Character. In that book, he focuses on the values that should inform our lives--not values that lead to success, a big house, maybe, a fast car, but values that shape us so that we live good and wholesome and virtuous lives—in other words, values that shape our character. It’s a good read. Anyway, somewhere in the book, David Brooks writes something to the effect, “Find a cause to give yourself to, something that can’t, as in CAN NOT-- something that can’t be accomplished in your lifetime.”
That has really stuck with me—and not in a good way. It’s the gnat buzzing in my ear. It’s the splinter in my finger. I mean, doesn’t what he says, go against what we were raised to believe, and how we have been programmed to live—you know--to engage and conquer? To see, whatever it may be, through to the very end? To persevere until the job is accomplished so that one day, when you reach those pearly gates, God will say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done?’” Read More
Before we get into today’s text, we need to consider the frame of mind of the disciples before and immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion. So let us do a quick recap. In the early days of Jesus’ ministry, and up until the time of his death, the disciples had believed that Jesus had a special role to play in history. They entertained the notion that Jesus would assume political power at least equal to that of King David. Some of them though, even dared to consider that Jesus might be the long-hoped-for messiah.
But then, horror of horrors, Jesus was crucified?! The disciples were stunned, but that is too mild a word I think. Better, shocked and stupefied-- their dreams had been shattered, their worldview like paper, torn up into little pieces, and then stomped on. Read More
Joy. Today is all about joy!
Ages ago, I was sitting in a congregation listening to a pastor preach about joy. His message that Sunday was, “YOU should all be happy!” but his tone, said, “Bad, bad, people—God wants you to be happy and you’re not!” wagging a finger at us as it were—berating us for not being joyful. I won’t speak for the other listeners, but I slinked out of worship, head low.
On the other hand, I have a pastor friend, who reserves cannonball Sunday— this Sunday after Easter, a day when historically you can shoot a cannon ball through church walls and not hit one darn soul—he reserves THIS Sunday for joke telling.
How does he do that? Well, it’s a congregational effort. Talk about unity!—which is, if you were listening closely, you know, is the subject of today’s scripture passages. People in the congregation submit their best jokes to my pastor friend over the course of the entire year. On cannonball Sunday, he reads them out loud. A good time is had by all! Good way to raise attendance, I’d say. Read More
Triumph. That’s what Easter is supposed to be about. It’s trumpets, and hallelujahs, maybe even drums—at least at one church I served, we had drums, big kettle drums. This passage in Mark, though? Well, it doesn’t come close to eliciting feelings of joy and exultation. The story here relates how three fearful women flee the empty tomb, disobeying the angel’s explicit instructions. What instructions? To tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. We’re on the edge of our (cushioned?) pew seats expecting resolution, and it doesn’t come. And that creates in us a dis-ease. Instead of a sounding trumpet, we hear sucked-in breath, instead of loud hallelujahs, it’s whispers, and instead of the boom, boom, boom of kettle drums it’s the sound of light, fleeing footsteps on gravel.
For that reason, preachers, often eschew Mark 16:1-8 at Easter—even though every third year in the lectionary cycle, we are supposed to follow the gospel of Mark to its end. If we DO stick with the gospel of Mark for our Easter scripture reading, we rely on those helpful add-ons. You saw the add-ons at the end of the gospel of Mark if you were reading the scripture along with me a few minutes ago. You saw the short, 5 -line add-on. It was not written by the author of Mark. We know that. The writing style is just too different. Someone other than that author wrote a second ending. It’s way more emotionally satisfying. The author relates that the women do as they are told. They run tell the disciples about the empty tomb. After that, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and then delivers his message to the ends of the earth. TA DA! That’s triumph. Read More
Owen Gray is a young man I have worked with in our Presbytery. We both served on the Public Policy and Witness Purpose Group. When I worked with him, 3 or 4 years ago, he was a student at Union Seminary. Now he’s graduated. He’s an associate pastor at a Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. He and his wife have a new baby girl.
Owen shot me an e-mail a few months back. He filled me in on his life, and then he added a BTW, “By the way, would you be willing to speak at a NEXT Church conference in Baltimore about your work on gun violence prevention? The topic of the workshop I am leading is grassroots organizing.”
So what is NEXT? It’s “A network of church leaders—members, ruling elders, youth leaders, pastors, seminarians and professors across the PCUSA who have a vision for the church as more diverse, more collaborative, and more hopeful.” (I’m taking that off NEXT’s web page). These dedicated Presbyterians meet annually. The NEXT meeting this year was to be in Baltimore. Owen wanted me to speak at that. Read More
In today’s passage from chapter 1 of Mark, we are right at the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He has spent time in the wilderness, wrestling with the devil; he has called his first disciples, and now, beginning with Mark 1:29, we read that Jesus is preaching in the synagogue, maybe his first time ever preaching. During the service, a man with a demon interrupts him, and Jesus reveals that he has this extraordinary power—the power to heal.
My, people must have been surprised! And hopeful. If Jesus could cast out this one man’s demons, could he do it for others? And if he could cast out other peoples’ demons, too, could he also heal a person doubled over with back pain? Could he cure leprosy? Could he mend a withered hand? Maybe. Hope quickly diffuses throughout the gathering of worshipers and then beyond. We read that, “The news traveled fast all over Galilee.” After that first healing, when Jesus visits Peter’s house, hoards of people follow him. They line up at Peter’s front door—wanting, begging to be healed. Read More
In today’s sermon, I am going to be throwing at you a lot of Bible trivia. To get our brains thinking along those lines, I thought I’d start us off with some Bible trivia questions. You ready?
Trivia question number 1. What is the name of the disciple Jesus loved, as he is referred to in the gospel of John? Wink, wink.
Ok. Trivia question number 2. Who fit the battle of Jericho? (Ethan)
Trivia question number 3. Who is Melchizedek, whose name is mentioned in today’s scripture reading from Hebrews? I didn’t think so.
I didn’t know either until this week, Hey, do you expect me to know EVERYHING? Actually, after a week of research, I STILL don’t know much about this mysterious person. I am, though, a little further along in my understanding. At the beginning of this week, Melchizedek was a shadow, now he has an outline and there’s the suggestion, at least, of his flesh and bones. Read More
I had to reach, deep down into my heart to retrieve this true story. It’s from a time long, long ago, thirty years long ago, in a place far, far away—McLean, Virginia.
My youngest daughter, Paige, who married last year, was maybe four and a half years old. Christina, her friend, also four and half, lived just around the block. She was at our house for a playdate. Paige and Christina were sitting on the family room sofa. So have in your mind now, two little people. Their legs are outstretched in front of them, because, you know, their legs aren’t long enough to sit as grown ups do, with feet to the floor. Their legs are even too short to dangle. Read More
Covenant. That’s one of the themes of today’s passage. And actually it was the theme of last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, if you have been following that. In last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants to never again send a flood of the dimensions of that first flood, which as you know, wiped out almost everything on the planet. In this week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants with Abraham and Sarah that they will be fruitful and multiply and be forbearers of entire nations.
I use the word covenant a lot—since I officiate at a lot of weddings. When I officiate at a wedding, I ask the groom, “Knowing that God has created, ordered and blessed the covenant of marriage, is it your desire and intention to enter this covenant?“ After the groom says yes, and no one yet has said no, thank goodness! I ask the same of the bride, “is it YOUR desire and intention to enter this covenant?” Read More
Ok. So Jesus is at the Jordan as he is every year, this time, which is the beginning of Lent. He’s at the Jordan River. He has just been baptized by his cousin John, and as he rises from the water, a miraculous thing happens. God opens the cellar door of heaven; crouches down and in what I imagine is a voice like thunder, God says, “In YOU I am well pleased.” It’s miraculous but you’ve heard it so many times, that it’s probably become ho hum with you. Yeah, yeah yeah.
The poet Rumi says, when we really need to pay attention, “Close both ears and hear with the other eye.” I am asking you to do that now. So, close the ears on either side of your head, and open the ear that is inside your heart. Listen to God with that third ear and THIS time, think about God’s inflexion, as God crouches beside that cellar door of heaven. “In you I am well pleased.” Read More
For many years I was in charge of planning and participating in church sponsored mission trips. Usually our one mission trip was to Marlinton, West Virginia, although eventually we added other mission trips to our summer offerings--to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and one year to Nogales, Mexico. So, Marlinton, West Virginia. It was a super-depressed area. In Marlinton we worked with Habitat for Humanity. We never worked at building new homes in Marlinton, though. That was because the Habitat there didn’t have enough money for NEW homes—we worked at renovating old homes, many of them, old trailer homes. We worked in many a trailer park over the years, actually. Since many of the volunteers were high school and college age, we went on our trips when the youth were out of school, during the summer—and it was always, always hot. Read More
June, 1991. I was just finishing up another week, another year directing vacation bible school at my church. Sixty-seven kids participated that June, along with 15 volunteer teachers, crafts people, and snack planners, preparers. It had gone well. I was on a high, actually. Lots of good vibes on that last day of VBS.
Now at my church, Immanuel Presbyterian, in McLean Virginia, the sanctuary is removed from the classrooms and offices. Between the sanctuary and the classrooms and offices is a small courtyard. I was in that courtyard, walking from the sanctuary, where end-of-week VBS exercises had just taken place--toward the classrooms, to help with the-end-of-week clean up, when I felt it. That feeling was profound, overwhelming. I stopped walking and just stood there. You know the phrase, “time stood still?” Well, I suppose it did. I don’t remember hearing anything or seeing anything, although surely there were other people in that courtyard, talking, laughing. I was alone with my feelings, under a courtyard tree. Read More
Knowing that we would be having special guests with us today, to talk about Meals on Wheels; and realizing that this is a slow time in the church calendar—we are in that ho -hum liturgical stretch between Christmas and Lent, I have strayed from the lectionary today. But don’t tell Presbytery—no, I’m kidding. It’s really ok for me to do that.
TODAY, I thought I would have us read some scripture passages that have to do with food, and we did that, right? The scripture passage from the Psalms and the one from Acts? After that, I thought I would say something truly remarkable and insightful about food from a religious perspective, based on the passages I chose for today, and that would be a lead-in for Marilyn’s, Debbie’s and Leigh’s presentation. Read More
Like all of us, I guess, with this ping-pong weather we are experiencing, I have been worried that snow is just around the corner—that one of these days I may find myself snowed in, and/or having to call off church. I have a bag of rock salt and a snow shovel at the ready. Will that be enough? I don’t know! Snowstorms. Not wanting one but they do make for some good stories.
My great snowstorm story happened when I was 9 years old, in March, 1962. I was living in Richmond, Virginia with the rest of my family. My younger brother, who was seven, and I had taken the bus to our elementary school that day. That morning, waiting for the bus, there was already significant snow on the ground. I was still light-weight enough that I could walk on the snow’s ice crust and not leave boot prints. Remember those days? Read More
Our text for today reminds us that Jesus had a family. He had a mother and a father, or at least a step father, Joseph.. Jesus also belonged to another family—though—an extended family. That extended family was “the Jews.” For that reason, Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth. Circumcision for the Jews is sort of kind of like baptism for Christians—a demonstration that Jesus’ parents claimed their son’s Jewish ancestry. Ditto when in compliance with Jewish law and family tradition, they bring him to the temple so that they might offer the required sacrifices.
That Jesus’ parents were Jewish and that Jesus himself was a Jew has stuck in the craw of good Christians for as long as there have been Christians. That is because if Jesus was a Jew, that fact complicates our own relationship with Jews. They are certainly NOT part of OUR family, in the same way that our fellow church members are—But they ARE related to we who are Christians, religiously speaking, in a way that Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus are not. Read More
There’s no star in our scripture reading for today, but today I want to talk about a star anyway. I have always imagined a star hanging brightly over the barn in which Jesus, the shepherds, the holy family and the cows and donkeys, too, all congregated—even if the star didn’t really appear until sometime after. To add to my case, there ARE stars on Christmas trees—in fact there are stars on OUR church Christmas tree!
Today I want to talk about a star, because I, we all, think about stars at Christmas, and because it plays a significant role in the story I am about to tell you—which is a true Christmas story. Read More
I don’t much like Mary. There. I’ve said it. I know she is Jesus’ mother. I know she is meek and mild, an innocent child, Notre Dame, Queen of Heaven, Theokotos (a heavy sounding Greek word with theological meaning-- it means God bearer) and so on and on. But, I don’t like her. I don’t like her mainly because she betrays me, and all women, by holding herself up as the perfect woman. As a virgin and a mother, she is an impossible aspiration for us. Of course, it is not Mary’s fault, and I realize that, too. She never meant to betray us. She never imagined she would be that whom people have made her out to be. So maybe I should say that it’s not Mary, the flesh and blood person, I don’t like, but Mary’s image. I don’t appreciate the mythology Christians have created about Mary. She’s a siren, a female masthead; a mermaid, Super Woman— in other words, Mary is more than flesh and blood; she is a figment of peoples’ imaginations sometimes run amok, at least as far as I am concerned. Read More
If you were here last week, you heard me reel off a litany of awfulness perpetrated by human beings in the last year. Hard to believe, but it is true. There is a lot of sin going on—not petty sin, either. We’re talking wars, cruelty to people who are economically disadvantaged, or who have dark skin, or foreign accents, or are born in the “wrong” country. We’re talking sins perpetrated against animals and even children and infants. Then I followed that by sharing with you this truism —Just as you can’t change bad behavior until you acknowledge, it, you can’t acknowledge God’s redemption until you acknowledge what is fallen. Our culture, our society is fallen. Harder to admit, but equally true: each one of us is fallen. Especially in Advent we wait for God and God’s redemption of the world, and along with that, our own personal redemption.
It is coming—like molten, red hot volcanic rock, it is slowly creeping toward our cities and towns, yes, our houses, your school. The earth is quaking, we feel the lava’s heat—it’s just a matter of time till it is upon us in full force. Read More
On Friday morning in DC, where my newly married daughter and her husband Paul live-that is, after Thanksgiving Thursday, after Friday breakfast and after all the dishes had been unloaded from the dishwasher and returned to their cabinets-- my daughter and son-in-law and I took a morning stroll to the Dupont Underground. Where and what is the Dupont Underground? The Dupont Underground is as it suggests—it is at Dupont Circle, or the intersection of two busy streets—Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues. And it is underground, that is, under the heavily trod sidewalks of our nation’s capitol. Read More
ince today we are celebrating Thanksgiving with our church family, I thought my sermon should reflect that. Rather than start with scripture, I thought I would start us off by talking a little bit about our country’s very first Thanksgiving. Right away there is a problem, of course, As you are aware, it’s not clear where or when the first Thanksgiving actually happened. There are at least two different first Thanksgivings for us to consider: one is in Plymouth, New England and other is in Jamestown, Virginia. Actually there are THREE first Thanksgivings, if you count Berkeley 100—also in Virginia. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read More