Sunday, March 11th, 2018 – A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. 

Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This might be strange for me to say, but I get a little nervous when people actually start reading their Bible. I have been reminded over and over again in the past few weeks how dangerous the Bible can be to how people see the world but also for how people see God.

We put a lot of pressure on the Bible – we seem to think that ever verse needs to have some message or morality tale for my life. Or that we need to understand what every verse means in order to be faithful believers. Or that we need to be able to explain and make sense of everything in the Bible in order for the Bible to still be the true Word of God.

It is like we have been taught to think of the Bible as linked chain that connects us with God. And every single verse in the Bible is a link in this chain – and if any verse is not factually true or if we disagree with a certain passage that link in the chain breaks and the entirety of Scripture collapses and we lose our connection with faith and with God.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on the Bible.

You’ve seen those black and read warning labels that say, “DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care”? I think we should put one of those labels on every single Bible we give out. DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care.

 This is my fear when a story like the one we heard from the book of Numbers is read in church. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness complaining about the length of this road trip and the quality and quantity of the food and in response, it says that God sends them poisonous snakes to nip at their heels and kill them until they say they are sorry, in which God gives the magic antidote of staring at a bronze serpent to heal the people of their poison.

A story like this…either it convinces you that God is a god who rewards the obedient and who sends poisonous snakes to the disobedient. Then we start thinking that everything happens for a reason (like cancer, or snow storms, or open parking spots close to the doors of Target) and from there your life of faith is founded on fear and superstition.

Or a story like this…convinces you that God is cruel, this whole thing is a sham, and you abandon the church all together.

That’s a lot of pressure resting on one text in this linked-chain of scripture. That is a lot of damage one text can do.

But Preacher and Professor David Lose suggests a different way of looking at the Bible. Rather than a linked-chain, where each passage, each verse, holds an equal amount of weight, he suggests that we see scripture as a series of concentric circles. At the center are the foundational texts of our faith. The ones we are clear and confident about what they say about God. For me, at the very center would be Romans 8 – nothing can separate you from the love of God. But then in the middle and outer circles, are the texts that are less clear. We aren’t sure what they mean. They are still important but they’ve had less influence on our faith.

This morning, we’ve heard three  of what I think are our central texts.

  • From the Psalm: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever
  • From Ephesians: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved useven when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved
  • From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Those are the big and steady rocks of our faith. We can carry those central beliefs about God – that God is good, full of great love for us, non-condemning – into the outer rings of Scripture like Numbers 21. We got out trusting that our firm foundation of faith is not reliant upon understanding this one confusing text.

But now that we have grounded ourselves in our central beliefs about God, I want to venture a bit into the story about the poisonous snakes because there is wisdom about God and about us that we can find there.

Now, let me just say this first, and I’ve said this before when preaching, and I know some of you are a bit uncomfortable with it, but I feel like I have pastoral responsibility to say it, so here goes: I do not know for sure what this text means. But there are parts that speak truth into my life and perhaps they will for you.

Briefly, a little context. The Israelites have been set free from slavery in Egypt and they’ve been wandering in the desert looking for the promised land for many years. And they have a tendency to complain.

They complain against Moses – their leader – that they don’t like the bitter water, so God shows Moses how to sweeten it. They complain against Moses about the lack of food, so God gave them manna – the bread from heaven. They complained against Moses that they were thirsty, so God commands Moses to strike a rock, and out comes gushing water. They complained against Moses that there was no meat – no protein. So the Lord sends quails their way.

And then today we hear again about their complaining. But this time – it is different. This time they don’t just complain against Moses. They complain against God.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 

Now that is pretty whiney. And did you notice that there complaints don’t even make sense? We have no food! And we detest this miserable food! Clearly something is going on here.

But I think there is more going on here than just Israelites who are hangry – to use Bruce Benson’s word from last week.

It isn’t just their stomachs growling and their throats parched – their hearts are turning to stone.

We detest this miserable food. You see they’ve begun to resent the manna – the food – that God gave them when they were hungry. It had been for them a physical sign of the grace and love of God that they once were thankful for, but now they have grown bored with it. They became ungrateful and started to resent the gifts of God that once sustained them. They have started to distrust that it was enough to get them through. They thought they would die in the wilderness, which is to say that they no longer trusted in the grace of God to get them through the wilderness.

In short, they find the grace of God boring and untrustworthy.

Years ago, I had the joy of getting to meet and hear Jay Bakker speak. Some of you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Well Jay is their son. With his whole life in the public eye as Jim and Tammy’s boy, much like his parents, his life went into a tailspin.  At 13 years old, he started drinking and doing drugs just to get away from the chaos that was his life. But now he has been sober for 18 years and is a pastor in the Cities and a well-known speaker and author.

But this is what Jay told us. He said that he was in church his entire life, but never discovered grace until he was 20 years old. Sure, he heard people talk and sing about grace, but it always sounded empty and meaningless. Instead, the message he was really taught was that God hated him and that he was bound for hell unless he could be a good enough person. Which is not grace, right?

But Jay said that grace, real grace, amazing grace, saved his life.[2] Because finally someone came along and told him – Jay, God loves you unconditionally exactly as you are. Whether you are drunk or sober. Whether you’ve got it together or whether you don’t. God loves you all the same.

 And then Jay told our group that when he was invited to speak to us, he was told not to spend too much time on grace, because we’ve all heard that before and the organizers didn’t want u getting bored and to start playing on our smart phones. And so Jay said, “Well, I know you guys know grace. But I’m afraid you’ve become bored with it. What you need to know is that there are thousands of people out there who have never heard about grace.”

The Israelites got bored with God’s grace, with God’s gracious manna from heaven, meant to sustain them. And here’s the truth: so do we.

Israelites stop trusting God will see them through the wilderness. And so do we.

Sometimes we stop trusting in that grace to actually have an impact on our lives and the lives around us.

And notice that in the story, it is then, in the very next sentence, that poisonous snakes show up.

I do not believe that God sends poisonous snakes to kill people but the Israelites thought there was a link. We complained against God, and now there are snakes. This must be God punishing us.

But could it be that the moment we stop trusting in a loving God, when we stop being grateful for the grace of God, when we stop trusting that God is here to save us and not condemn, when we stop believing that God sees us and all people as precious and beloved, when stop trusting that God will see us through the wilderness times of our life, that the moment we get bored with God’s grace, we get bitten by a snake. And then infected with a kind of venom of fear and resentment and ingratitude that hardens our hearts, and we die.

Now we need to be careful with death in the Bible because in the Bible you can be dead and still have a pulse. Did you hear the first line of Ephesians? You were dead in sin, but God who is rich in mercy has made you alive in Christ.

You can be dead and still have a pulse. Last Wednesday evening, during David Kelvie’s powerful message, he was telling us about his struggles in life, and his self-destructive decisions. And then he said these words (and David, I don’t know if you even remember this), he said, “Toward the end of my life…” and then he stop quickly and corrected himself, “Toward the end of my walk without God…” And I thought that moment was profound. I don’t think he misspoke. Because to some extent that was the end of his life – that life. He was dead back then. But then God made him alive again.

So, these Israelites have been infected with a poison and they are dying and they confess to Moses because they knew something was wrong and they pray for the snakes to go away. But notice that the snakes do not in fact go away. God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put on a pole so the people can look at it and be healed. We learn that God does not take poisonous things out of our life, but rather God gives us the courage to look them straight in the eye. And in fact, we will be healed when we can look at them and face the poisonous parts of our life.

This season of Lent seems to be designed to get us to face the poisonous snakes in our lives. And so I want to close with two questions.

One: how’s the sense of gratitude in your life?

Brain science research tells us that if we can find one thing to be grateful for everyday, our life will be more joyful. Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of you are living through your own wildernesses right now and it can be overly simple to say, “Just be thankful for what you have.” That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that there is manna in the wilderness and when we stop looking for it or we resent it, our hearts grow hard and we die.

My second question: where have the snakes snuck into to your life? What’s poisoning you right now? And how are you avoiding that truth? I promise you, if you act like it is not there, they will just continue to bite you. But if you can lift that snake up into the light and look at it – you just might be healed of its poisonous power.

So, in the remaining weeks of this season, I invite you into the spiritual practice of gratitude – finding one thing each day to be thankful for – and the spiritual practice of staring snakes in the face – being honest about your life.

And now receive a blessing – may the grace and love of God never lose it’s flavor in your life. May you never grow bored of it. May it never leave you empty and hungry. But may it fill you up and sustain you and may it guard your hearts and your minds through the wilderness now and always.



Sunday, February 25, 2018 – Jesus Will Ruin Your Life, a Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 8:31-38
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Years ago, pastor and preacher, Sam Wells, was the head of Duke University Chapel. One year, he was asked to speak with the entering class of students. He was asked to talk about the work of the chapel and the campus ministers, from all their different denominations. When the students arrived and when it was his turn to finally address them, he said this: “(All the denominations represented here in the chapel and the campus ministry) are different but we’ve got one thing in common. We’re here to ruin your life.”

All the other pep talks given that day told the students how to follow their dreams and how many facilities and support services there were to help them construct a successful, comfortable, well-regarded existence. But Sam thought he should be honest and acknowledge that if that’s what these students were looking for, faith would ruin their life. He wasn’t invited back.[1]

If you think Sam is joking about the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider the story of Shane Claiborne. In 2012, Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist spoke at the ELCA youth gathering and in his talk he shared a story about the ugly laws passed in Philadelphia against the homeless. Laws that made it illegal to sleep in public parks, illegal to lie down on the sidewalk. Illegal to ask for money, and eventually the mayor outlawed all public feeding of the homeless. Shane said that eventually there came a moment where he asked, “What’s a Christ follower to do? Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves.” One of the pastors said that if Jesus had tried to do the feeding of the 5000 in Philly, Jesus would’ve been arrested.” And so Shane and his friends started to think about and pray about what they should do. And in the end, they decided to throw a party that looks like the kingdom of God. They invited a bunch of their homeless friends and they gathered in the park. They brought their guitars and their drums and they sang worship songs. And then they did something sort of sneaky in one of those zones where it was illegal to give out food – they served communion.

All the police officers were like, “I’m not going to arrest anyone taking communion. I’m gonna have communion.” They continued the breaking of the bread by ordering in some pizzas. Which pushed it a bit. And then they slept in the park with their homeless friends even though it was illegal. And eventually, they were arrested.

In the end the charges were dropped because the judge realized the ridiculousness of charging these folks with a crime for feeding the homeless and sleeping in the park. But then Shane made his point very clear: before he became a Christian, his life was pretty well put together, but then he met Jesus and Jesus messed his life up. “I was never arrested until I became a Christian,” he said.

If that just sounds like a new age, hippie-liberal view of the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider this.

Recently, I learned about a letter that was found written by a person in public office to his brother. In the letter, he talks about his son who is doing well in his studies. He is set for a military career that could be followed by a career in politics and a settled family life that would make his father proud. But this letter goes on to talk about how this boy has gone astray. He seems to have joined some kind of a sect and he’s refusing to join the army because he says he won’t fight. And he says he won’t marry because there are things more important than having a family. And all his values have been turned upside down, the letter says.

The letter is an archeological find from the 3rd century. It is written by a Roman Senator. He’s talking about his son’s conversion to Christianity.[2]

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

I wonder if you are getting the point yet.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life. It’s not a great sales pitch, I know. And it is not a highly sought after church mission statement. But it’s true.

Sometimes, I wish I could watch someone read Scripture for the first time. From a blank slate – just to see what their reaction to the story is. There are certain stories where the first reaction might be informative to those of us who take these stories for granted.

As Pastor Pam pointed out last week, the story of Noah and the flood isn’t exactly the children’s story we’ve made it to be. Years ago, my sister-in-law was reading the Spark story bible with her daughter. It was one of their first times diving into the stories of Scripture. It was this beautiful, faithful, moment. A mother and daughter, reading the bible together. And then they read the story of Noah. And in the end, my 5-year-old niece looked up and said, “You mean they all die!??!”.

If we could watch someone read the gospel of Mark for the first time, chapter 8 would be the moment when everything turns. We’ve had 7 chapters of Jesus’ ministry – of healings and casting out of demons, caring for the outcast and the suffering, and Jesus being identified as God’s son. In fact, just before this passage, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter gets the answer right.  You are the Messiah, he says. The anointed one of God come to make the world right again. The One who defeats the Roman empire once and for all.

So far, so good.

But then Jesus begins to teach them. That the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and killed, and after three days rise again. 

“You mean he dies?!?” both Peter and the first-time reader ask.

Peter couldn’t believe it.

And Peter’s life and hope are ruined.

Like anyone hearing something they don’t want to hear, Peter rebukes Jesus. He takes Jesus off to the side, privately and scolds him. Trying to contain this, in any way he can. But Jesus will have none of it.

And Jesus, looking around at the other disciples, says “Peter, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Get behind me, Satan!”

And then almost to heighten the tension and up the ante, Jesus gathers everyone around and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

 Jesus has just revealed that his way of life leads to suffering, rejection, and even death. And now he has just asked for followers. In other words, “Come. Follow me. I’m here to ruin your life.”

Because, you see, that phrase – take up your cross – every one of Mark’s original hearers would have known what that meant.  It’s the first time the cross is mentioned in the entire gospel but for the 1st century readers, it would mean one thing – Roman political and military punishment. It was a humiliating and disgraceful death for those who resisted and did not follow in the ways of the empire.

The Roman Empire says, “Follow me, or you get the cross.”

Jesus says, “Go get your cross and follow me.”

It can be easy to underestimate what that word means for us today.

We’ve used those words, “Take up your cross” and trivialized them into crosses of annoyance – like that co-worker you just can’t stand but have to work with. Or into a cross of unnecessary suffering – like a cancer diagnoses. Again. Or into a cross of self-defeat – like staying with an abusive spouse.

This is just my cross to bear, we say.

But is that really what Jesus is saying? He’s just spent the past 7 chapters ending useless suffering and oppression. Why would he endorse it now?[3]

This isn’t divine permission to be a doormat to the world – letting whoever stumbles your way walk all over you.

But it is a call to action. A risky call to action. “To face the evil, sin and death of the world with goodness, courage, and love.” [4] And when one follows Jesus like that – the cross is the inevitable result. When you stand up to evil in your life and in the world, there will be suffering and rejection. And even death.

It’s like Jesus saying to the transgender kid, “Take up your parent’s rejection of you and follow me…into belonging and wholeness for the beautiful person you are.”

It is like Jesus saying to the politician, “Take up losing your campaign finances and re-election bid and follow me…into truth and integrity and justice and love of neighbor.”

It’s like Jesus saying to the high school students in Florida and across the country, “Take up the Facebook comments that diminish you as an entitled and lazy generation, and following me all the way to Washington.”

To take up the cross means to give up your life in order to stand against the powers of evil in this world the prevent the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.[5]

As Bonhoeffer said, there is a cost to discipleship. It will ruin your life. It will ask you to stand up for those in need. It will ask you to stand up for yourself. It will ask you to listen when one stands up to you. It will ask you to set your mind on divine things over human things. It will ask you to offer forgiveness over retribution, and grace over judgment, and justice over your own personal comforts.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life.

I wonder how that sits with you.

Are you rethinking your membership here at St. John’s?

Are you affirmed, knowing the cost this life of faith has had on you and your life, and knowing that it is true: by letting go of life and following Jesus through the streets of suffering, pain, hardship, and death…you actually can find your life once again.

Are you inspired to follow Jesus in a new way – not just with your Sunday mornings and your Wednesday evenings, but with your whole life?

If our faith costs us nothing, then we have wonder if we are really following Jesus.

I don’t know exactly what this means for all of us – to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Or what it looks like in your life. Only you can figure that out. But I do know that on this road of faith, we are not alone. There is One walking ahead of us. One who knows the way. Whose been down this road before. It will lead us someone where. We won’t know today. We maybe won’t know next week. That’s why we call it a life of faith, not a moment of faith. We will lose our lives. But we also just might find them.

May it be so.

[1] Sam Wells,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew Skinner,

[4] Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, pg. 35.

[5] Matthew Skinner,

February 14th, 2018 – When Hearts and Ashes Collide, an Ash Wednesday Sermon on Valentine’s Day.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 Years ago, I was working at a congregation and we had a traditional Ash Wednesday service, with the imposition of ashes. It was a typical Ash Wednesday. The church gathered at noon and in the evening for the somber service that begins the season of Lent. Those of us who were at the noon service wrestled with that annual internal crisis – do I wash off my ashes or do I leave them on all afternoon? In the evening, we all ate soup together and we went home in silence.

It was a normal Ash Wednesday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.

And then Sunday rolled around. The church started to gather like it always did for Sunday worship. People arrived in their Sunday attire – some in a suit or a dress, others in jeans and untucked collared shirt. The pastors put on their robes, the acolytes struggled to tie that knot that goes around their waste.

It was a normal Sunday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.

Until Richard walked in.

Richard was an ordinary man who faithfully showed up to all the church worship services. He never said much, but his presence was predictable. He was at the Ash Wednesday service. And here he was, back in church on Sunday morning. Only this time there was something noticeably different about him.

You see it was Sunday morning, but Richard still had on his ashes.

Now, you could tell that they were ashes that had lived through about four days of life – a couple of wardrobe changes, a handful of nights on a pillow, maybe a scratch of the forehead or two. But one thing was clear…those were Ash Wednesday ashes still marking Richard’s forehead on Sunday.

And many of us couldn’t help but chuckle silently in embarrassment for Richard. Had Richard not showered since Wednesday? Had he not looked in a mirror? What’s going on here? Do we say anything to him? We all were just a little uncomfortable with this.

You see, Richard’s imposition of ashes had become an imposition to us and our Sunday routine.

Imposition. It is an interesting word we use on Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? The imposition of ashes.

Think about it for a moment. We don’t say, “The Anointing of Ashes” like we would with oil. We don’t say, “Blessing of Ashes” like we might with water at the font or sign of the cross at communion.

No, we say, “The Imposition of Ashes.”

Because that’s what this is. An imposition.

Meaning an action that demands someone’s attention.  An action that puts in place something that is an unfair or unwelcome demand or burden.

Imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.

More often than not, and by design this imposition demands attention. Specifically, your attention. The one upon whom this cross is placed. But it grabs the attention of those who can see it too. Wear your ashes down the sidewalk or to the grocery store and it will demand someone’s attention. But this imposition of ashes is also a burden. Place an ashy cross on the forehead a young child, and it will very much feel like putting in place something that is unwelcome and a burden. The burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.

As a kid, this smudged cross was always more attention grabbing than burden. I can remember each year rushing to the nearest mirror as soon as we got home from church just to look at my ashes. How was Pastor Carol’s smearing this year? My siblings and I would sort of giggle at the sight of each other’s crosses made of ash. Some looked like they were applied with a q-tip and others with a paint brush. No two look exactly the same, but they represent the same thing.

Now as an adult, it is more burden. It startles me when I look up from washing my hands in the bathroom. Or when I glance in the rearview mirror on my way home. Or when I peak in on my sleeping children and see that smudge on their resting foreheads.

The attention grabbing, burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.

And it is the burden of truth we work so hard to hide. We hide it when we refuse to use a walker after a fall, because, c’mon, don’t be ridiculous, I’m just fine thank you very much. We hide it when we conveniently forget to make our annual doctor’s appointment two years in a row. My health is fine, we say. It’s a truth we hide when we keep children home from funerals or when we say, “Jessica passed away” rather than “Jessica died.”

And yet, on a day like today, it is a truth that cannot hide. The secret is out. We are dying. All of us.

In our gospel reading, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus encourage so much secrecy on a day like today. Like giving alms with your right hand in such a way that your left hand has no idea. Shhh…it’s a secret. Or when you pray, go into a room and close the door. Shh…it’s a secret. Or when you fast, wash your face, put on some make up – don’t make it look like you’re fasting. Shhh…it’s a secret. I don’t understand Jesus’ effort at secrecy in faith on a day like today when the biggest secret is let out. When our mortality and our faith are on display like no other day of the year.

But there is one thing that Jesus says today that rings true.  Jesus’ concern about the honesty of our faith. Don’t be hypocrites, he says. Which in some ways is the worst thing you can be in our society, it seems. Someone who says one thing and does another.

But there is a deeper meaning to that word I think, both for Jesus and for us. The word hypocrite comes from theater. It was a word that described actors who hide who they really are behind a dramatic theatrical mask.[1]

Don’t be a hypocrite, Jesus says. Don’t hide behind the mask. Come out as you really are.

Which is a fitting message for today. On this Ash Wednesday, Jesus asks us to let down our masks and look at who we really are – vulnerable, fragile and frail creatures whose time is limited.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we take off the mask. When we stop being hypocrites, when we stop pretending, even if just for a moment. Because sometimes a moment, a glance at this shadowy cross imposed on us and our beloveds is all we can bear.

Back to Richard and his Sunday ashes.

I wonder if seeing those Ash Wednesday ashes on Sunday wasn’t as embarrassing as it was disturbing. You see, in some ways, Richard that morning  had become a walking preacher, prophet, parable of truth that we really didn’t want to think about. We had done the dying thing. On Wednesday. Couldn’t it stay there? Why did he have to remind us that we are fragile on all days of the year. That the mark of death will be as true this Sunday as it is today.

The imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.

And that’s the link to today as Valentine’s Day as well. Valentine’s Day, like Ash Wednesday, is an incredibly vulnerable day too. On a day when some will profess their undying love for their beloved. On a day when the young one’s among us sign box after box of Nerds candy or fold their Transformer valentines for each one of their classmates, hoping that their brown paper bag will overflow with Valentine’s too. On a day when we pray that the box of chocolates and flowers will be a sign of love that is true. On a day when we rely on that the card, the email, the text, the spoken word to jump our heart back to beating again. On a day that we pray that there is love out there to be found – whether in a lover or a friend, a playmate or a neighbor, we are reminded just how vulnerable we are.

Our fragility in love and our fragility in death are about as human as it gets, and both are on display today.

And it is in the midst of all of that, on this day when hearts and ashes collide in a bizarre and yet somewhat fitting event, we learn this: that we are marked by God’s love. Even unto death. Because that mark on your forehead, it is not just ash. It is not just a scar across a human life. It is ash with shape to it. In the form of a cross. The cross, that place where God’s beloved died because of his very big heart. That shadowy cross, now mark on you in the very same place we mark oil in baptism. In the same place we mark with water in blessing. All in remembrance of your belovedness.

Hymn write, Thomas Dorsey know that deep promise of belovednesss. Hear now his story. A story where the fragility of love and the fragility of death collide, and amongst the rumble is the enduring promises of God.

In 1932, as Thomas Dorsey was leading a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago, a man came on to the platform and handed him a telegram that said, ‘Your wife Nettie has died giving birth.’ He rushed home, only to find the baby also died shortly afterwards. In this moment, Thomas was living a nightmare. He was hanging on to faith, and sanity, by a thread. Sitting in a friend’s house a few days later, he experienced a peace the world cannot give. He began to sing words that could have only come from the Holy Spirit.

“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”[2]

 And suddenly a hymn was born. And a heart was saved.

Even in the face of death, a faith and a peace that surpasses all understanding can be found in this promise: You will be cared for with the love of God. Always.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics.

[2] Adapted from a telling by Sam Wells in Hanging By A Thread, pg. 36.

Sunday, February 4th, 2018 – My Life is (Not) Over – A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

Audio will be posted.


Mark 1:29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

My life is over.

My life is over.

I wonder if you have ever said those words.

Perhaps when a loved one died suddenly.
Or maybe it was the moment you were arrested.

Perhaps the moment you lost the big game.
Or maybe when your high school girlfriend broke up with you. And did so using AOL Instant messenger of all things.

Perhaps it was the moment you took that new job or retired to a new town and just wasn’t what it seemed.

Perhaps it was when a marriage ended because of something you did. Or something that was done to you.
Or maybe it was the moment the doctor came in with that shaken look in her eyes.

My life is over. I suspect we all have said or thought those words at some point. We have a tendency to invest our hearts and our souls…and reputations in fragile bodies and fragile people, high achievements, precarious jobs, and fear of failure.[1] And when one of those collapses, it can feel like our whole life is collapsing too.

It’s a moment we all recognize.

I wonder if Simon’s mother-in-law ever said those words. My life is over. It’s not hard to imagine how dire her situation was. We don’t know much about her – not even her name. But she’s worth a name. Let’s call her Sophia. All we know about her is that she is Simon’s mother-in-law. Was she married? Probably. Widowed? Most likely, if she’s living in her son-in-law’s house. Where is her daughter? We don’t know. She is nowhere to be found. With just those observations alone, we can imagine she has experienced immense suffering and loss in her life. Times when surely she might have said, “My life is over.”  And in case we missed it, the only people seemingly left in her life, Simon and Andrew, have just been called as disciples and would be hitting the road with Jesus. In some ways, it could seem like Jesus has ruined her life, leaving her to fend for herself.

And now, she’s sick with a fever in a bed, a potentially fatal condition in a world without antibiotics. My life is over, she whispers.

Then there is a knock at the door. “It’s me,” Simon Peter says. And through her sweat stained eyes, she can barely make out the shape of his body.

“I’ve brought him with me,” he says. Just then, Jesus steps into the room. Have they met before? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes her by the cold hand and something happens. The fever breaks. Her forehead dries. And Sophia was lifted up in both body and spirit.

For the gospel of Mark, which moves at rapid speed, there is a specificity here that is tender. Jesus took her by the hand. I wonder why Mark takes the time to include that detail.

It reminds me of the power of touch, of simply holding someone’s hand and how healing it can be. When was the last time you held someone’s hand? There is something sacred about it. And I think we know that.

You know, I hold my sons’ hand all the time. At home when we are playing or going to sleep. When we are walking down the street. And sometimes for no reason at all. And then it dawned on me – when did my dad and I stop holding each other’s hands? I can’t remember, but it was a long time ago. What a shame.

Jesus takes Sophia by the hand and she is lifted up. Restored to good health.

And then there is that troublesome text. “And she began to serve them.”

More than enough jokes will be made in pulpits today about how she was healed so that she could make the taco dip for the big game. And surely there are some disparaging jokes being made at this moment about mother-in-laws.

But this text is worth not making light of.

You see it is this kind of text and its misreading and its cheap jokes that still do damage today in how women are viewed not only in society but also in ministry. As if a woman’s God given purpose in life is to serve the men. If your tired of this topic and think it is a non-issue, consider this. A very well-known leading public theologian, who has the ear of many young Christians, recently put out a blog post about how women shouldn’t be allowed to teach in the seminary, because how could they know how to train the men whom God has called to lead God’s churches.[2]

It’s out there, folks. And those of us who stand against such lies – we need to be louder.

And so, what can we do with this small little line, that Sophia was healed and began to serve them.

We can make it about Jesus and say that’s just how good he is at healing – no recuperation time needed. What a miracle!

Or we could make it about the culture – it would have shameful and embarrassing for her not to be able to host her guests. She would have been quite glad she had the opportunity to do so when she was healed.

Or we could make it about good manners – this was just her way of saying thank you for being healed by Jesus.[3]

But all of those answers close the book on this woman’s story. A woman was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them. The end. And then we can forget about her and move on.

But Mark? Mark won’t let us forget about her. All because of that word “serve.” It is a troublesome word to us, but for Mark it is used like a trail of breadcrumbs in the gospel that keeps leading us back to Sophia.

The Greek word there meaning to serve is diakoneo. So, Sophia’s fever left and immediately she got up to diakoneo. Well, in about 10 chapters, Mark drops a breadcrumb when Jesus goes to tell his disciples that he has come not to be served, but to serve – diakoneo. (Mark 10:45). He has come to do what Sophia did – to diakoneo – to serve.[4] Maybe our bracelets should say WWSD – What would Sophia do?

And then a couple chapters later, Mark drops another bread crumb when Jesus is hanging on a cross, and when all of the other disciples (ahem… the men) have abandoned him, we learn that there was a group of women who watched from a distance. A group of mostly unnamed women who, as the text says, “provided for him in Galilee.” And the word there for “provided for”? Diakoneo. Here was a group of women who had diakoneoed , served, with Jesus. Which means maybe… just maybe… one of those women who has gone all the way to the cross with Jesus…was Sophia.

Just when we thought her story was over way back in chapter one, here we learn that in some ways, that was just the beginning for her. She was more than a blip on Jesus’ healing list. More than a tossed-aside example of thankfulness and hospitality. She was a disciple. With a new family of followers alongside her. And as a disciple, one who held the secret of the kingdom of God. That it has come near.

My life is over, she might have said. But it wasn’t. Her fever left her and immediately, she diakoneoed. She served. Whatever Sophia did after she was healed from her fever – well, it wasn’t what we might think as forgettable or menial work. It was divine work. She became a disciple of Jesus. And as one preacher put it, this isn’t just a healing story. It’s a call story. Sophia became an image of the kingdom of God come near. A model of discipleship from whom Jesus would shape his own ministry. She becomes the first of the resurrected people who belong to Jesus’ revolution of the kingdom of God that is dawning.[5]

So, let’s bring this home. How does any of this matter to us today?

I guess as I think back upon this past week and all the painful stories of life trajectories that have been thrown off course by the asteroids of disappointment and cancer and isolation and aneurysms and Olympic level doctors wreaking havoc on female bodies, I can imagine many people crying out, “My life is over.” And yet in this story, the story of Sophia, the Gospel says…no it isn’t.

We say, “My life is over.” And God takes us by the hand and says, “I know it feels that way. I know it feels over and ruined, but it isn’t. I am still with you.”

It is one of the Bible’s favorite stories to tell. God calls people whose lives are in the proverbial trash can, nearly dead and over, and raises it to new life.

Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant, and mother to Ishmael, is discarded to die in the wilderness. My life is over, she says. She then is granted her very own one-on-one conversation with God, who promises to make her and her son a great nation. And she is given exclusive naming rights over God – El Roi. The One who sees me.

Ruth, the Moabite, the outsider who has lost her husband and her father-in-law, bravely goes to care for her mother-in-law, Naomi, in a foreign land. My life is over, she says. And yet in the end, she lands herself on a branch of the ancestry tree for Jesus the Son of God.

My life is over, we say. And God’s favorite response is: No, it isn’t.

If we can step off the pages of Scripture and into our own context, and if you can bear reading any of the testimonies from the victims of Larry Nassar, what stands out to me is the fierce bravery of these young women to keep on living, despite what has happened to them. They recognize the destruction that was done to their life, the many ways in which life felt like it was numb and over. But then they defiantly declare that their life isn’t over.

Jade Capua said to her accuser, “You broke and shattered a lot of girls…but I am no longer broken by you. I am a survivor.”

Madeline Jones said, “I now understand that I lived because I’m meant to live.”

Kyle Stephens said, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women.”

There may have been a time when these young women felt like their lives were over. But if you listen to them now, they’re far from it.

My life is over, we say. No, it isn’t, God says. When the kingdom of God is near, there is always possibility of new life.

That’s Jesus’ message embodied in the story of Sophia – that the kingdom of God has come near and things are not as they seem. For Jesus, no one’s life is ever over. There is always possibility. If the kingdom of God can come near in the midst of the Roman Empire. Nothing is over. Nothing is sealed. Nothing is beyond God’s reach and repair. That is Sophia’s story. That is our story.

And in the end, it’s God’s story too. Just when we think that God’s life is over on the cross, in the empty tomb, we see – no it isn’t.

Not for God. Not for us.

May you and all the ways you take up the divine work of diakneo in your life be signs of that hope in the dark.


[1] Inspired by a sermon from Sam Wells,

[2] I read this from Karoline Lewis, found here:

[3] Matt Skinner

[4] Grateful to Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner for their remarkable commentaries on this text.

[5] Dan Gonzalez Ortega,

Sunday, January 7th – 24: A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A few years ago, when our family lived in Owatonna, there was a child, about 5 or 6 years old, who lived across the street from us who….how shall I put this…she invaded our life.

With this incredible ability to sneak up on you, she was just around…all the time. You open your front door at 8am on a Saturday morning, and *bam*, there she is waiting on your front step. Staring at you. You go out to the mailbox, you turn around, and she’s there.

You go out into your garage, you put your shoes on, and suddenly, from behind the freezer in our garage… her little head pops out. Or you’re out mowing the lawn, and you can just feel these eyes on you. You glance down the street and there she is, behind a tree… staring at you. And you know it is only a matter of time before she comes over.

Now, it wasn’t so much her presence that was annoying, it was the intruding. Always coming around at the wrong time. Always in the way. Always lingering around with persistent questions: What are you doing? Can I do it? What is this? Can I have it? Do you have something to drink? I’m thirsty. I was wondering, do you have a popsicle?

Needless to say, she could feel like a pest, invading our space. But then, we learned something about her we didn’t know – she loved spending time with children younger than her. And not only that, she was really good at it.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon, early summer. I was in and out with errands. Lauren was desperately trying to plant her garden before the weekend was over. And you can image how it is trying to do anything productive with a 2-year old to constant monitor.

Well, just like every time we’re outside, our little intruder showed up. Only this time, she was not a pest. But more of a Godsend. She took Elliot off of Lauren’s hands and played with him. Soccer, tag, rolling around in the grass. And as they played, one thing became clear: Elliot. Loved. Her. Not in the boy meets girl, kind of way, but in that young kid looking up to the older kid who is willing to play with him.

Something happened to me that day that I can only describe as a heart transplant. Because ever since that day, the neighborhood girl has been an image of the Holy Spirit for me.

Don’t get me wrong – she was still annoyingly intrusive after that. But it felt more like a divine intrusion than anything else.

You see, sometimes God comes to us a compassionate and welcomed friend, offering words of comfort and grace. And other times? Other times, God comes to us as an intruder. Here to mess with our stuff. Here to disrupt our lives a bit. Our well-laid plans, our long-held beliefs, our self-righteous politics, our comfortable retirement. But God intrudes not to hurt us – but to heal us. To give us the heart transplants that we need.

We can see this in our gospel reading for today. Though we may have to squint a bit. Too often we, myself included, are blinded a bit by the niceties of baptism. I find myself thinking of wiggly babies, beautiful white gowns (worn by every child in the family for the past 6 generations), three handful of water, gently poured over the head. Candles and blessing and welcome and oil.

But because of that, we hear this story of Jesus’ baptism and our eyes are drawn to certain parts. The comfort of the heavens opening. The beauty of a white dove calmly floating down onto Jesus. And the sweetness of that divine Morgan Freeman like voice saying, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

But all of these things obscure and domesticate what’s really going on – the divine intrusion that this moment really is.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.

 Torn. The heavens were torn. Not opened. Not sliced cleanly with a scalpel. But torn. And to tear through something takes speed, passion, desire. Just look at children on Christmas morning – tearing through wrapping paper. Or consider a football team with paper wall bearing their team name and mascot , held up by cheerleaders, between them and the field.  Those players don’t calmly crawl under the paper wall to preserve it. They don’t take a sharp pair of scissors and cleanly cut the paper in two. No – they tear through it. To show their fans and their opponents that they are not entering the field, they are invading it.

The curtain, the veil between heaven and earth, between God and God’s people is torn. Meaning jagged edges and tatters. Meaning never to be closed again.

This is a divine break-in. Nothing will be the same.

And then there is the image of the dove.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

 Isn’t that beautiful? Perfect material for a Hallmark Card on Confirmation Day.

Only that’s not what it really says. For whatever reason, this translation makes a critical error. The Greek says, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him.

The Spirit of God goes into Jesus. Which means this descending dove is probably less like a picturesque gliding down, and “more like a dive-bombing pigeon”[1] with quite an impact. This is divine intrusion. Jesus becomes invaded by the Spirit of God.

And then there are those words. Those precious, naming and claiming words, “You are my child – my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” Words I believe belong to each one of us.

While I have often heard this as blessing. As gift. But this week I heard it as divine burden. You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” In other words, I choose you. God isn’t just claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son. God is endorsing Jesus as God’s transformative agent in the world. And I believe that means us too. You are my child. My beloved. I am pleased with you. So, I choose you. I choose to partner with you in blessing this world.

And that kind of calling, that kind of endorsement, that kind of challenge can really mess with your plans. Because to do that – to bless the world, to bless your community, your neighbor, it will demand that we have the courage to pull back the curtain and expose that which is not blessing this world, but in fact diminishing it.

Throughout the gospel of Mark, we will see that this incarnation of God in Jesus isn’t so much that Jesus has come to be with us, to hang out like a friend on a Friday night, but more like an annoying neighbor who invades your space, who asks for your help, and who just won’t leave you alone. We will see as Jesus intrudes on previously held boundaries between the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy.  We will see the presence of God presented as a divine intrusion. Of a God breaking into a world to reclaim it from the false and fabricated powers built on fear and control. And those false powers and promises will try to hide and disguise themselves from this God who has come to steal them away. It will be a struggle.

But the promise of this gospel, the promise of Jesus’ story in Mark, is that there is no going back. The curtain is torn. It will not close again. God will not let this world go.

God is committed to this place. To reclaiming this world for God’s good purposes. And in baptism we lift up the promise that God will do this. God will live this out in the bodies and communities of real people.

Which means we need to ask, How is God invading our world now and today? How is God invading us, this community rooted in that promise of baptism? How is God invading your life?

I offer one example, among many.

God has intruded on my life recently with a number. 24.

24. That number. It just keeps showing up in my thoughts. Peeking around corners. Knocking on my door. Asking for help. It lingers. It bothers. It annoys. It haunts.

24. That’s the number of homeless youth on any given night in Northfield. Many of whom we cannot see because they are sleeping on couches. Some even exchanging sexual favors in order to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Scott Wapota, the director of the Key, the substance-free Youth Center here in town, who shared this haunting statistic. Because he knows. Because he sees it every day, as he encounters students from Northfield who don’t know where they are sleeping that night.

I often hear Northfield referred to as a quaint, cute town that is great to visit, great to move to, great to retire in. And I have to be honest, I wince when I hear that. While that may be true, it is not the whole truth. At best it is a half-truth, dare I even say a false truth. Why? Because 24. A number which God has come to expose.

That intrudes my life. And I do not want it there. And yet I believe the Holy Spirit is intruding into and baptizing the hearers of such news to do something about it.

And the Key is trying to do something about it. The Key has received a grant to start a program where members from the Northfield will be invited to open their doors to these youth as host homes. To take them in.

I hope you’ll hear more about that. But I share it today because I want to get the word out. I believe God wants to get the word out. And I wonder if any of us might be called and equipped for such ministry. Because Northfield isn’t a quaint, cute town to live in or a great place to retire because people will leave you alone – but rather I see Northfield as a brave and passionate town, full of people who love service and generosity and who step up when there is a need.

Well. Beloved people with whom God is well pleased. There is a need. 24.

God won’t let us forget it. Because the heavens are torn open. God has invaded the neighborhood. And not just the neighborhood, but your life and mine. God won’t leave us alone. Keep your eyes for that pesky little kid to show up. Again and again again.

And for that I hesitantly say…

thanks be to God.


[1] Matt Skinner, Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave, 2018.

Monday, December 25th, 2017 – Breaking the 4th Wall, a Christmas Sermon on John 1:1-14

John 1:1-14
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 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.
Merry Christmas!

It’s good to be with you all this morning. A time my friend likes to call “the moment after.” You know that moment, the moment after?

It’s the moment after you’ve opened all the presents and the wrapping paper litters the floor, and that moment of excitement and energy and anticipation has…passed. That’s the moment after.

It’s the ordinary morning the day after you’ve gotten married. That’s the moment after.

It’s the startlingly quiet moment when you arrive home from your husband’s funeral and there’s nothing to do anymore. That’s the moment after.

It’s the evening dishes after everyone’s gone home from Christmas dinner. That’s the moment after.

It’s not necessarily good or bad. It just is.

In many ways today feels like that. Like the moment after. We all are just a little quieter. Some of the excitement is gone. Some of the crowds have gone home. It’s not good or bad. It just is. And it’s good to be together.

Over the past couple of years, I have been watching the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And I’ve learned that people either love it or they hate it. There isn’t much in-between. But if you haven’t seen it, it is a show set in Washington, D.C., and it is all about politics. The show follows Congressman Frank Underwood and his thirst for political power. Now headed into its sixth and final season, this show is known for many things.

It is known for being one of the first hit online-only TV shows.
It is known for its political timeliness, in showing us a close up look at the dysfunction and manipulation and cruelty of politics.
And more recently, it is known for the necessary down fall of its lead actor, Kevin Spacey.

But before all that, House of Cards became known for something else – how it tells a story.

From the opening scene of the first episode, you hear the sound of screeching tires and *crash*. Frank Underwood comes out of his house to, sadly, find a dog that has been struck by the car.

As Frank kneels beside this wounded creature, he looks around and he begins to talk to himself. “There are two kinds of pain,” he says. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that is only suffering.”

And then, in a split second, he stops looking around and he turns his eyes directly into the camera, and with this overwhelming sense that he is speaking personally and directly to you – the one on the couch – he says with these evil eyes, “I have no patience for useless things.” And he hauntingly ends the dogs useless suffering.

In that one moment, we learn two things. One – how cruel, cold, and evil Frank Underwood can be. But also, that we the audience are a character in the show. In fact, as one TV critic said, we are the most interesting character in the show. We are the only one Frank can be honest with.

This technique in story-telling is called “breaking the fourth wall”, a moment when the audience is addressed directly. And it is often discouraged in acting.

Directors will say, “Don’t look at the camera.” A theater director will say to her actors, “Pay no attention to the audience. Act as if they are not there.”

As an actor on stage you are to pretend as if there is a fourth wall on stage, between you and the audience, so that you can focus entirely on the drama of the story. Which means you don’t stop singing when the fire alarm goes off during your opening song. You don’t turn and scowl at the person whose cell phone just went off during the first act. And you certainly don’t apologize to the audience when you forget your lines.

To do so can shatter the experience for the audience. The experience of watching a story unfold before your very eyes as if it were a real event.

Don’t break the fourth wall, they say.

But other playwrights, directors, movie makers have learned to bend and break the fourth wall in their story-telling because it can actually add to the drama or create some much-needed comic relief or even draw the audience deeper into a story that had previous been at arm’s length.

A couple of years ago, on a Sunday morning, my son was sick and so I needed to stay home from worship. And so there we were eating breakfast in the kitchen, in our pajamas, listening to the 8:30am worship service, when right there over the radio Pastor Pam broke the fourth wall.

Good morning and welcome to worship here at St. John’s. Welcome to those of you visiting with us and those of you joining us on the radio. Especially, you, Pastor Jonathan, who is at home with a sick child.

I about spit out my coffee. And at the same time, I felt more welcomed, more drawn in to the story and drama of worship that morning in a way I never had before listening on the radio. Like I was still part of it – even from afar.

Breaking the fourth wall -this is not a new technique in story-telling. In fact, some say it can be seen in Shakespeare’s soliloquies. I think it might be a technique that is even older than that. As old as the gospel of John.

Did you catch it? The moment when the gospel broke the fourth wall? The moment it went from performance to personal? From the transcendent to the very close. The moment the gospel writer is gazing off into the clouds to the moment he’s looking directly into the camera and speaking…to you, the one listening?

[Up on stage, big lofty voice] 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 

[Down in the aisle, looking people in the eye] 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. 

For the first 13 verses, the gospel writer speaks in the third person. He speaks of the Word, of God, of the beginning of all creation. He speaks of an eternal light shining in a deep darkness. He speaks of a man named John. A man who testified to this light coming into the world. He even speaks of the people who received this Word and who believed in his name.

But then. But then, in verse 14, he clips an anchor to his high and lofty thoughts and sends everything straight to the ground. The Word becomes flesh. And all the third person characters out there, become the first-person characters. Right here. The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory.

He addresses the audience in first person. He breaks the fourth wall. He looks up from his parchment paper and speaks directly to the audience, drawing his people into the story of God that has room for them.

And not only does the gospel writer break the fourth wall, but he breaks it because God was the first one break the fourth wall. When God stepped down from the stage of heaven to become fragile flesh and dwell with the people. To live among us in Jesus. Or as one translator puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

God has broken the fourth wall. Addressing directly the people of God who are not passive observers of God’s story, but critical characters within it. Each one of you.

God has broken the fourth wall to be with us. The gospel writer has broken the fourth wall to tell us this good news. But if there is anything I’ve come to learn over the years, is that rarely do we break the fourth wall between ourselves. So often we are just actors on a stage. Trying to be believable. Protecting ourselves from vulnerable love.

And yet God becomes vulnerable love to break down the walls between us.

So maybe as an act of faith, on the Christmas morning, we can break the fourth wall a bit. To be personally drawn into this story of God that has room for us and to draw others into our story.

(With a person in the congregation) Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your neighborhood.

Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your.

So we’ve just broken the fourth wall between us a bit. Now, let’s break the fourth wall of the radio, like Pastor Pam did.

Dear people on the radio. I know you’re out there. And I know that some of you are at home with very young children because it makes for a saner morning. I know some of you are listening beside your friends in the nursing home. I know a man in his 90s named Walt who might be listening on his ipad. Hi Walt. I know there might be some of you who are listening to us in the car on the way to a Christmas holiday you are either very excited about or not excited about at all. And I know that one of you is a radio host sitting at a desk on Christmas morning so that this broadcast can be possible. Know that we here at St. John’s are thinking of you and sending our love out to you. And together, we want to wish you a Merry Christmas.

On Three. 1, 2, 3…..Merry Christmas!

We’ve broken down the fourth wall between us a bit. We’ve broken down the radio fourth wall a bit. And there is one more I want to address today.

A couple of days ago, I was picking up some groceries at Econo, and I was the guy on his cell phone while waiting in the check-out line. Every one’s favorite guy, I know. And then when it was almost my turn to check out, I finally (for once) had the good sense to tell my friend to hold on, while I check out. And I put my phone down and in my back pocket. And immediately, immediately, the person who was checking out my groceries stopped what she was doing, look at me straight on with these exhausted and honest eyes, and she said, “Thank you for putting your phone down.”

I had this overwhelming sense that people look past her, and any other check-out clerk, all day long. Such that a pretty benign act as not talking on the phone while you check out is felt as a significant act.

We have so many walls between us and people beyond these walls. And in the moment after this, some of us will step into St. John’s Hall to have a Christmas meal with a such wide cross section of our community, that I guarantee there will be walls. They will even taller and thicker. And for some those walls will feel insurmountable. But I wonder on this Christmas Day…in the moment after we celebrate God in Jesus Christ breaking down the fourth wall to be with us…. and in the moment after we heard The gospel of John break down the fourth wall to tell us this truth… in this moment after, As a Christmas gift to ourselves and to others, let’s break down the walls between us.

Be of good courage this season. Reach out a hand. Speak out with your voice. Meet a stranger. Greet a neighbor. Say I’m sorry. Forgive a friend. But in all of these things, pour out your love on the one’s your with, in the same way God has for us. For God has broken down the dividing wall. The Word became flesh and lives among us.


Sunday, December 10th, 2017 – What Should I Preach?! A Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Audio will be added shortly.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Over the past 48 hours, I have been drawn to the words in verse 6 from our Isaiah reading. There is a conversation happening here. There a voice – maybe it is the voice of God, or an angel – speaking with the prophet Isaiah.

A voice says, “Cry out!”

Or a better translation is, “Preach!”

And Isaiah said, “What should I preach?”

I can relate with this.

That’s the same conversation I’ve been having with God the past few days.

God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “Yeah, I know, but what should I preach?”

And God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “No seriously, it’s Saturday…what should I preach!??”

I’ll just come out with it – this was a hard one folks.

There are strange days. It’s hard to know what to say. Hard to know what to preach. The goal is always good news, but it can be hard to know which direction to turn to find it.

First and foremost, there is simply the state of the nation and this sense that something really important is happening. On NPR on Thursday, there was a debate about whether this time we are living in is just a moment or is it a movement. Is what’s happening just fleeting or will it actually enact some real change? Three congressmen resigned this week. And a little notification popped up on my phone this weekend that said the last time this happened, it was over slavery. Something really important is happening right now.

Maybe I should preach about that?

As Pastor Pam said last week, things are being revealed. Which is both terrifying but also exciting because maybe these are the beginning of the birth pangs. It’s painful, it’s hard, but perhaps it leads to new life.

To put it in the words from Isaiah this morning, perhaps all of this is preparing a way for the Lord to come to us. As we heard in Isaiah, when the Lord comes, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain will be made low. Which for so long has sounded like a beautiful balancing of the scales. That the lowly would be lifted up out of their valley, and the mighty would be brought down from their mountainous thrones. Surely pointing to the marvelous song we will hear from Mary in just a few weeks.

But there is another understanding I’ve been thinking about – you see when valleys are filled in and mountains are brought down, there is nowhere to hide anymore. When the Lord arrives there is nowhere to hide. Which is both good news and bad news. We all long to be found. We just don’t want to be found out.

Remember in the garden of Eden, one of the first things Adam and Eve do after they eat the fruit from the tree – is they start to hide themselves from each other and from God. And when God comes into the garden, God’s first words are, “Where are you?” This is a question of judgement, it is a question of location. Where are you? When we hide ourselves, our truth, God comes to find us.

I’m not sure how to make sense of what is happening these days but I pray that it will lead to a future that is more honest, more transparent, more loving.

My wife said that one of the most profound things about giving birth is that there comes a moment when you feel like you are dying. Perhaps this movement in time, is the movement of the Spirit finding us as we really are and it is terrifying and in many ways it can feel like things are dying but it just might be the very contractions for life.

God said, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

Do I preach that – about the politics of our time? About how the grass beneath our feet, our very foundation feeling like it is withering and what all of this could mean? I don’t know.

Because at the same time I know that for so many of us, there is simply the day to day stuff that brings plenty of worry for one day. Who needs another liberal rant about politics when you can barely see past your family and your front yard.

Some of us are wondering simply how to be faithful children to our parents as they age. Some of us wonder how to be a good spouse or a good parent. We carry grief that is fresh and grief made of scars and we long to have God speak tenderly to those places of our soul.

Yet we live in a time when our ability and willingness to be publicly vulnerable is so unencouraged, it can lead to silent suffering and isolation. And I think that is really important too.

Maybe I should preach about that.

The Bible has a word for times like these – wilderness. A time when you look around and nothing looks familiar and there are no well-worn paths that lead to a clear way out.

The Israelites in the book of Isaiah knew what it was like to live in the wilderness.

When Isaiah 40 was written down, the Israelites had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Meaning taken from their homes, from their families with nothing but a burning Jerusalem and a destroyed temple – the place where God could be found – in their rearview mirror. In fact they had everything taken away from them they didn’t even have a song to sing. We hear in Psalm 137 these words, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept….we hung up our harps on the willow trees. How could we sing the Lord’s song in this land…this exile…this wilderness?”

Now the Israelites are no strangers to exile. They’ve lived in the wilderness land of loss before – when they were taken into slavery in Egypt. But this time it was different.

This time – they had it coming to them. They had broken the covenant with God. They had mistreated those who were in need. They had turned their backs on the way of God that leads to life. In short, they had just made a mess of everything.

Have you ever made a mess of everything? And caused damage in someone’s life?

They knew that God was faithful to them when exile wasn’t their fault. But would God be faithful to them when it was? Would God rescue them from this wilderness? Or would God desert them in the desert of Babylon?

And then like a thief in the night, God speaks to them. Nothing in the previous 39 chapters prepares these despairing ones for the words that arrive in verse one. “Comfort, comfort my people…tell them they’ve done their time. In the wilderness prepare a way, for I the Lord am coming to them. The mountains will come down, the valleys will come up…nothing will get in the way of me reaching them.”

Can you imagine how those words would’ve sounded to people who had really made a mess of things? To hear that God is faithful. Even when we are not. To hear that God would do what they thought was impossible – that God would come to find them in this place – this place of wilderness.

Whether it’s our fault or not, God makes a way in the wilderness. Not a way for you to come to God. A way for God to come to you. And be with you there. In the very place of your fear and your pain and your despair.

God said to me, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

Do I preach that – about the wildernesses of this life. The places where it feels like the flowers that give color and beauty and aroma to this life fade away, leaving us cold and alone, and what could that mean? I don’t know.

And then I finally saw it. There in verse 8 and 9.

That voice. It finally gets fed up with Isaiah. It gets tired of his late-Saturday night delaying that the voice finally just gives Isaiah the sermon.

It says, “Yes, the grass withers, and the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,….(wait for it)…… “Here is your God!”

That’s the sermon. Here is your God.

Here is your God. Here is your God….Just tell them that their God is here.


A God who comes with might – because somethings need to change. Mountains needs to come down; valleys need to come up. But a God who also gathers into Her chest the lambs for whom She has searched.

One of the greatest moments of watching Lauren be a mom is seeing how she so naturally cares for our boys whenever they are hurt or despairing. She just holds them. Close to her chest. Sometimes they bury their face in her out of embarrassment for something they’ve done. And she just holds them. And leans over and whispers in their ear, “I got you. I got you. I got you.”

I don’t know where each of you are on this second Sunday in Advent. I’m not sure what’s happening in your life but this season points to one promise. One thing for all of us to preach – here is your God. Your God is here. It is the fulfillment of God’s deepest need, God’s deepest desire: To be with us. The promise that God would go the farthest distance to find you – God becomes a human being. To be with you. To speak tenderly to you. To hold you close to the chest and say, “I got you. I got you. I got you.”