Sunday’s sermon: Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Diversity

Text used – Genesis 11:1-9

  • I have a children’s books in my office. Okay, let’s be honest, I have a lot of children’s books in my office … but there’s a particular book that I want to tell you about this morning!
    • Written by Jennifer Grant and illustrated by Benjamin Schipper: Maybe God is Like That Too[1]
      • Story about a little boy → first 2 pages: “I live in the city, where the sidewalks and subway cars and buildings and buses are packed with people – but I’ve never seen God before. ‘Grandma, does God live in the city?’ I asked one morning at breakfast. ‘Yes, God is here,’ she says. ‘You just need to know where to look.’”
        • Grandma tells the boy about the fruits of the spirit: patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control → “Wherever you see these, God is there, too.”
      • Boy proceeds to go through his day noticing the places in his city and in his life where those things are present
        • All sorts of different people
        • All sorts of different places
        • All sorts of different situations
      • Last page (as the boy is going to sleep for the night): “I don’t see God the way I see my friends or the streetlights or the river, but I see signs of God’s Spirit all around me, right here in the city. I know what God is like. Maybe I can be like that, too.”
      • Book all about noticing and giving thanks for all the many and varied ways God shows up in the world around us → the diversity of God’s presence in our lives and in our world
  • As we continue to make our way through our National Parks on our road trip summer sermon series (using Brad Lyons’ and Bruce Barkhauer’s book America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks[2]), today we’re visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we’re visiting this park with the theme of diversity in mind.
    • Makes a lot of sense – Great Smoky Mtns (which straddles the state line between NC and TN) = most visited of all 61 National Parks[3] → This park sees the incredible diversity of 11 million visitors every year. But it’s not just the vast variety of visitors that has us reflecting on this park through the lens of diversity.
      • [READ “Great Smoky Mountains,” pp.119-121] → Truly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems to be one of the most perfect places in the United States to celebrate the beauty and breathtaking nature of diversity in the world around us.
        • Diversity in the natural world – plant life, animals, bugs
        • Diversity in the terrain – mountains and forests, city life butting right up to the edge of wilderness
        • Diversity of seasons – the stunning differences between summer and winter (well-known for those of us around here but on the most beautiful summer day or the most breathtaking winter morning, it’s a diversity that still makes us stop and pause and appreciate, doesn’t it?)
  • And with all this talk about the power and significance and allure of diversity that God created in the natural world around us, how can we not turn our minds to the power and significance and allure of diversity that God created within the human family? à where our Scripture reading comes into play this morning: the story of the Tower of Babel
    • Crazy little story nestled in the beginning of the First Testament btwn the stories of Noah and the flood and Abraham and the covenant
    • Main problem in the story = hinted at in the very 1st verse: All people on the earth had one language and the same words.[4]
      • Heb. here is very telling, even though it sounds basically the same in our English translation[5]
        • “one language” = “one” + “lip, edge, border” → That second word is a word used to describe a boundary, a point of separation – a way to tell the difference between this and that, between you and me, between similar and other.
        • “same words” = “one” (yup, same word) + “words” → But the Hebrew here is broader than just words like the things that we read and hear and speak. This is one of those Hebrew words that contains an abundance of meaning. It’s the Hebrew word for speech, matter, message, promise, purpose, request. It’s a word that implies a wide array of things that can be spoken. So the Hebrew here gives the impression of a people without much diversity. Not only are the people of Babel of the same language, they’re also at least in majority agreement on the larger issues of being a society together.
      • Great description of Babel from scholar: In Genesis, the story is that people were multiplying at a great rate. They were a fine and wonderful people, but they were also a scared people. They were afraid of being scattered to the farthest reaches of the known world. So they decided to build a huge city, a fortress for themselves and for their God. God say that they were one people and had only one language. God was concerned about the possibility of the people not learning anything new, since they already seemed to be a nice homogenous community. God was concerned about the hubris of the people speaking for God. So God decided to add diversity to the mix.[6] → I love this description because it makes it clear that diversity is an intentional gift from God. God created diversity. God gave humanity diversity for our own benefit and the benefit of the world. So often today, diversity gets treated as a burden or as a box that needs to be checked or as a step in a training process or as something that needs to be fought against. But the first and most important lesson that we have to take away from the story of the Tower of Babel is that diversity is a gift from God.
    • Flip side: story of the Tower of Babel = also cautionary tale – text: [The people] said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.”[7] → This is a difficult part of the story, especially when we read this translation: “This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” I mean, when we first read it, we think, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t God want people to be successful? Doesn’t God want people to be able to learn and do great things? Doesn’t God want people to be great?” And the answer is yes … to a point. Let’s dig into that a little further.
      • Another translation of this passage (from pew Bibles): Then [the people] said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”[8]
        • First hint at trouble = people’s declaration: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” → They are not building this tower to honor God or to bring them closer to God. They’re building it for recognition … for exhibition … for their own glory. Actually, if you read the whole passage carefully, never once do the people even mention God. Only themselves.
        • See the recognition of this in God’s response: Heb. “this is only the beginning” (or “this is what they have begun to do”) = not a pleasant phrase[9]
          • Implies something that pierces, something that opens a wound → connotations of something irreverent or profane, of breaking one’s word (a great cultural dishonor)
          • In their act of building this tower for their own glory and gain, God could see that the people were on the precipice. They were teetering on the edge of reverting back to the vanity and greed and spiritual neglect that brought them to the point of Noah and the flood only a generation or so before. And since God had already promised Noah that God would never cause a great flood to wipe out the population again, God had to change course.
      • Scholar: Babel has come to represent individualism. … Our Babel component is our First-Worldness, our materialism, our economic and military domination. Our Babel component is everything that built up the Berlin wall, the Israel/Palestine wall, the U.S./Mexico wall, the disputes between Pakistan and India, the former rifts in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the plethora of denominations that seek unity only by throwing others out. Our Babel component is the fact that most Americans can only speak one language and we expect others to learn ours. We are addicted to Babel. … But Babel is also what makes injustice thrive. Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes people think they can condemn other people. Babel is what makes enemies. Babel is what makes wars to happen. Babel is often lived out in individual and corporate sin, because we tend not to look to God, but to ourselves for the ultimate answers. And what we end up with is confusion. None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.[10]
        • Late Jonathan Sacks, British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, and author: The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing [God] to remake me in [God’s image]. → When our faith … no, not “faith” because “faith” implies a relationship and a trust, something personal and life-giving, something that brings wholeness. When our religiosity becomes about deciding who’s in and who’s out … when our religiosity becomes about excluding others from the love and saving grace of God instead of embodying that love and grace for all people … when our religiosity becomes about who can shout the loudest and who can sound the angriest about the growing diversity in the body of Christ – a diversity that is a gift from the God who created us all – then our religiosity has become a problem. Our religiosity has become our Babel. And it is time for God to reach down among us and shake things up.
          • Questions from our reflection this morning: In what ways do you notice and celebrate diversity in your life? How has coming up against something (or someone) different from you made your life richer? How will you help others see the beauty in the diversity of the human family?[11] Amen.

[1] Jennifer Grant. Maybe God is Like That Too. (Minneapolis: Sparkhouse Family), 2017.

[2] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2019.


[4] Gen 11:1.

[5] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy:

[6] Douglas M. Donley. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 2.

[7] Gen 11:4-6.

[8] Gen 11:4-6 (NRSV).

[9] Levy exegesis.

[10] Donley, 2, 4.

[11] Lyons and Barkhauer, 121.

Sunday’s sermon: Glacier National Park – Consequences

Text used – 2 Samuel 12:1-15

  • When we’re young, the word “consequences” doesn’t tend to be a positive one. Consequences usually mean what comes after a mistake we’ve made – intentional missteps as well as unintentional ones.
    • Consequence of our baseball breaking that window = us paying to replace the window out of our meager allowance
    • Consequence of falling off our bikes = skinned knees, scraped elbows, maybe even a broken bone
    • Consequences of trampolines very frequently involve broken bones!
    • Consequence of neglecting to study for a test or to do any of your homework = failing a class
    • Consequence of spending more than 90 minutes on the phone with your best friend in the middle of the day while you play through the same Free Cell game together on your computers while your mom is trying to call you and getting a busy signal the whole time = getting grounded from the phone for a week … just take my word on that one.
    • It’s just a simple fact that the actions we take and the choices we make are going to bring about other actions. They’re going to necessitate other choices – some that we want to make … and some that we don’t. They’re going to have an affect on future actions, future opportunities, future decisions, future relationships. They’re like the ripples in a pond – continuing to grow and expand and disturb the surface of the water farther and farther and farther out. And while there are times when we can do something to shape and influence the direction of those consequences, there are plenty of times when whatever they’ve set in motion swiftly becomes something we have no control over.
      • Similar to the geological consequences of the constant shifting of the earth under our feet → geological shifting that has caused some of the most beautiful places here on earth
        • Not sudden, immediate consequences → think of the centuries it took for the Colorado River to carve the Grand Canyon as a consequence of its current
        • Not consequences that can be undone → certainly can’t put the mountains back into the earth once they’ve been pushed up! That only happens in Looney Tunes cartoons.
        • Geological consequences create chain of events, chain of consequences → one event causes another causes another causes another
        • READ “Glacier National Park,” pt. 1, pp. 96-99[1]
  • This reflection on Glacier National Park brings up something really important about consequences: the truth that we can never foresee or grasp the full consequences of our decision and our actions in the moment that we make them. Sure, sometimes we can understand some of the things that may result from our decision and our actions – especially some of the most immediate consequences – but the far-reaching consequences are often beyond our perception.
    • Climate effects on Glacier National Park = perfect e.g. → The consequences of our overuse of and reliance on fossil fuels throughout the last 100 yrs. or so are certainly not something that people understood when they became such a staple in our economy and our day-to-day lives. But those consequences have come into sharp and distressing focus, especially in the last 10 yrs. or so.
      • Ripples in the pond:
        • Consequences that cannot be halted
        • Consequences that cannot be reversed
        • Consequences that we need to learn to navigate and mitigate
        • Consequences that will hopefully affect future decisions and actions → consequences that turn into lessons (if we’re humble and aware enough to learn them)
  • Scripture passage this morning = King David’s “consequences to lessons” moment → And it’s definitely not the most comfortable moment that we observe in Scripture.
    • What’s gotten David to this point[2]:
      • Saw Bathsheba from afar → captivated by her beauty
      • Learned that Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers in David’s army
      • Invited Bathsheba to the palace → got Bathsheba pregnant
      • Tried unsuccessfully to orchestrate it so that Bathsheba’s child could be passed off as Uriah’s
      • Decided instead to orchestrate Uriah’s death so that David could be free to marry Bathsheba à had Uriah sent to the area with the fiercest fighting → Uriah is killed in battle against the Ammonites
      • David indeed took Bathsheba as his wife
    • And in today’s passage, David has his eyes opened to the consequences of his actions by Nathan, one of God’s prophets.
      • God sends Nathan to David
      • Nathan tells David a story (a parable) about a rich man with many sheep who steals the one and only beloved lamb of a poor man just so the rich man could serve it to his guests as a feast → David is enraged by the injustice of this story – text: David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”[3]
        • Heb. = really interesting – phrase translated as “demonic” can also mean “as good as dead” → speaks to both the way David feels about this hypothetical man’s act as well as David’s judgment of the man’s character → It’s a pretty strong reaction from David! There’s no hedging or holding back here. Clearly, David is beyond angry.
      • Nathan’s revelation to David: “You are that man!”[4]
        • Goes on to detail how God anointed David king after Saul
        • How David was given power and wealth and blessings beyond measure by God
        • How David already had many wives
        • Even goes so far as to say that, if David felt he needed more, God would have provided – text: If that was too little, I would have given even more.[5]
        • Then goes on to lay out exactly what David did to obtain Bathsheba as his wife
        • Finally lays out David’s consequences from his actions
      • The realization of those consequences hits David and causes him to repent
        • Today’s text = simple declaration: “I’ve sinned against the Lord!” David said to Nathan.[6]
        • Tradition = Psalm 51 was written by David as he processed this situation
  • The consequences of David’s actions were inescapable as consequences always area. There is no getting around them. There is no avoiding them. Consequences are a part of life because every decision we make – every act and every word, even every absence of an act and every intentional silence – causes other words, other actions, other repercussions.
    • Australian author and poet Julie Gittus speaks to the power and inescapable nature of consequences: People say that it’s the big decisions that are important … that these are the type of issues worthy of prolonged consideration. But no one ever explains how it’s the little choices that send your life careening in another direction.
    • And while our Scripture story for this morning is certainly a serious example of such consequences, we also have to acknowledge that consequences aren’t always There can be good consequences, too.
      • Consequence of Nathan forcing David to confront his decisions and his sins = David repenting and returning to God → And while the actions that brought David to that point were painful and difficult and even lamentable, the actual act of returning to God is never a bad thing.
      • READ “Glacier National Park,” pt. 2, p. 99[7]
    • And friends, today is a perfect example of a good consequence – this day on which we celebrate 150 years of life and work and mission and ministry here at the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco. We are here today as consequences of the decision and acts and words and faith of 150 years of people working and worshiping here in this space.
      • Our faith = consequence of their faith
      • Our worship = consequence of their worship
      • Our lives = consequences of their lives
      • Decisions that have been made throughout the life of this congregation that have brought us to where we are today. I know they weren’t all easy decisions. I know they weren’t all unanimous decisions. I know that sometimes the consequences of those decisions have included hurt feelings and misunderstandings – even to the point of causing some to choose to leave. But all of those decisions have shaped and influenced a rich, strong, blessed history here at the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco.
    • Also have to consider the consequences in our own lives that have brought us to this place → the ways that our own ripples have intersected with the ripples of this congregation to create a pattern that is entirely unique → ripples that are creating something new even as we speak
  • So as we move forward into our lives … into our worship … into the future as a congregation – into our next 150 years together – I want to pose for you the questions at the end of our Glacier National Park reflection today, questions that address both the challenge and the blessing in consequences: What unexpected consequence has brought you the most harm? Which brought you the most good? Is there a decision to be made in your life that could make a bigger impact than you expect? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019), 96-99.

[2] 2 Sam 11.

[3] 2 Sam 12:5-6.

[4] 2 Sam 12:7a.

[5] 2 Sam 12:8c.

[6] 2 Sam 12:13a.

[7] Lyons and Barkhauer, 99.

Sunday’s sermon: Capitol Reef National Park – Reconciliation

Text used – Matthew 18:21-35

  • There’s a classic children’s book that’s currently in the rotation at my house. It’s a book that my mom read to me when I was a kid, and now, I’m reading it to my kids. In fact, it’s one of Julia’s current favorites. It’s a book by Margaret Wise Brown called The Runaway Bunny.[1]
    • Story about a little bunny who tells his mother he’s going to run away from her
      • Begins with bunny saying, “I am running away.” → his mother’s response: “If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
      • Tells her he’s going to run away to someplace else or to be something else
      • Every time he comes up with a new scenario, his mother comes up with a way to find him in that scenario
        • “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” → “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
        • “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” → “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”
        • And so on and so on. The little bunny tells his mother he will become a crocus in garden, a bird in the sky, a boat sailing on the ocean, even a little boy running into a house. And every time, his mother comes up with a way to find him again until finally the little bunny gives up and decides that staying home with his mother isn’t so bad after all.
    • And as I was reading this book to Julia a few days ago, I was thinking about it in terms of this week’s theme – reconciliation. The restoring of relationships. Making one thing – one person, one life, one action, one belief – compatible with another again. You see, know matter how hard that little bunny tried to run away from his mother, she was always ready to reconcile – the find him and help him and be with him and protect him and love him. And it made me wonder what it would be like if we pursued reconciliation in the way that that mother bunny does. What if we sought out restored relationships with that kind of determination? What if we were that focused on putting things back together again?
  • Sermon series this summer = road trip through the beauty and grandeur and spiritual inspiration of a number of National Parks using America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer[2] → today’s travels take us through reconciliation as viewed through the lens of Capitol Reef National Park
    • [READ 1ST PART OF REFLECTION – pp. 56-59]
    • Image on the front of the bulletin = some of the cliffs surrounding the Waterpocket Fold → you can see some of the different stripes of rock formations along the ridge … some of that “sleeping rainbow” as it arcs its way through the rock. And as you look at those different layers of rock and how persistent they are from one formation to the next despite such minor interruptions as millennia of erosion and geological shifting, I can see reconciliation in that.
      • Reconciliation = not about make things perfect again … not about making things exactly as they were → Reconciliation is about putting things back together in a way that both honors and heals the separation and brokenness of the past. To use a slightly altered version of a common phrase, reconciliation is about forgiving but very deliberately not
        • Forgetting implies that whatever caused that break, that rift, that separation was unimportant → But by the very fact that it caused the rift in the first place, that makes it important. So forgetting is not only impossible but also disingenuous. Unless you undergo some sort of memory wipe like something out of science fiction movies, you’re not going to forget.
        • Forgetting = also counterproductive → It’s from our mistakes and our missteps and our broken places that we learn. We learn what not to do and say. We learn how not to be. We learn about the ways that our actions or inactions, our words or our painful silences affect other people. If we say we’re going to forget, then we’re erasing the lesson. We’re erasing whatever path to reconciliation has already been forged.
        • Forgiving requires remembering → But it requires a remembering colored not by resentment and anger and misunderstanding but remembering colored by repentance and communication and understanding. Forgiveness requires remembering colored by reconciliation.
          • Scholar: Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, tell ourselves that it was not really that bad, we cannot really forgive. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives.[3]
  • See this played out in our Scripture reading this morning → Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant
    • Story Jesus tells in response to Peter’s question about how many times he’s supposed to forgive – text: Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”[4]
      • Part of larger portion of Mt’s gospel that seems aimed at humility
        • Jesus asking the disciples who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven → answering his own question by bringing a child into the disciples’ midst as the e.g. of how to be in order to enter heaven[5]
        • Jesus’ warning to the disciples about their actions causing others to sin[6]
        • Parable of the lost sheep → leaving the 99 to seek after the 1 and rejoicing in finding that one again[7]
        • Jesus’ lesson about how to handle a sibling in faith who sins against you → speaking to them first in private, then with a few others if they refuse to hear you, finally before the whole church[8]
      • And into this discussion of humility and lostness and sinning and forgiveness, Peter asks his question. “But how many times, Jesus? A whole seven times?” And I can’t help but imagine Peter both exasperated and a little self-righteous in this passage.
        • 1st part = exasperated (“Sure, Jesus. I can forgive. Once or twice. But where’s the cutoff point here? I mean, how many times am I supposed to keep on forgiving??”)
        • 2nd part = self-righteously magnanimous → I just envision Peter asking this thinking, “Wow, I’m going to impress Jesus with such a high number! Wait for it! ………… Okay, Jesus, how about I forgive seven whole times?” Impressive, right?
    • But instead of congratulating Peter on his forgiving-ness, Jesus humbles him all the more: “No, Peter. Not just seven times. Seventy-seven times. At least, that’s a good start.” And to drive his point home (as he so often does), Jesus tells Peter and the rest of the disciples a parable.
      • Story of a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants, wanted to clear his ledger
      • In this process of settling accounts, one of his servants is brought before him → owed him an astronomical amount of money – text: they brought to [the king] a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[9]
        • Gr. = “ten thousand talents” → But even this isn’t really an actual measure – scholar: Ten thousand talents does not mean just ten thousand talents, since both “ten thousand” and “talents” serve in Greek as the largest possible number. The amount is so striking that some early Greek manuscripts reduce the number. However, the absurdity of the amount is crucial to the story.[10] → Suffice to say this servant owed the king a mind-boggling among of money – so much money that he would never, ever, ever be able to pay it back.
      • King’s first order is to sell the servant and his whole family and everything he had → Which sounds like a harsh and uncomfortable suggestion … maybe even more so because we hold in our minds the knowledge of our own nation’s history and how so much of our society and economy today was built on thousands upon thousand of just such barbaric and heartless transactions – slave families bought and sold and separated with no regard to their cries and pleas nor to the lives they had already established together.
      • This king = compassionate à hears the pleas of his servant to spare his family and not only decides not to sell them but forgives the servant’s debt entirely à This is a really important point. The king doesn’t just say to the servant, “Okay, you and your family can stay … but you still owe me this money, so start working on paying it back.” He doesn’t even say, “You and your family can stay … but you still owe me a portion of this money, so start working on paying just 5% or 10% or 25% of it back.” This king forgave the debt. Period.
        • Gr. is clear → “forgave” = cancelled, released, abandoned → This servant’s massive debt no longer exists. Not a single penny of it.
      • Instead of rejoicing, servant goes out to find a fellow servant who owes him a mere fraction of what he himself owed the king not 10 minutes ago – text: He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’[11] → when fellow servant can’t pay him back, he uses the exact same phrase that the first servant just used with the king in regards to his own massive debt – ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ → first servant refuses and has his fellow servant thrown in prison until debt can be repaid
      • King finds out about this egregious injustice, becomes outraged by the fact that, despite the mercy shown to him, the first servant refused to show such mercy to another in return, and king has the first servant thrown in jail until he paid off his entire debt
  • It’s a difficult story to hear, especially in the context of the gospel – the good news that proclaims to us the love and grace and mercy given to us by God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I think this is also one of the truest-sounding parables that Jesus tells. As painful as it is, we can imagine this happening today, can’t we?
    • Imagine one person’s struggle to reciprocate forgiveness given to them by another à bring to mind times in our lives when we’ve been every person in that chain
      • Been the king: giving out the forgiveness
      • Been the first servant: recipient of forgiveness who couldn’t manage to give it to another
      • Been the second servant: one pleading for forgiveness that isn’t given
    • [READ 2ND PART OF REFLECTION – p. 59] → There’s an important point that I want to make here. This reflection talks about reconciliation – about rifts mending and wounds healing. And our gospel passage this morning talks about the importance of forgiveness. But in all of that, it needs to be said that first and foremost, the reconciliation and healing and forgiveness need to happen within yourself, and sometimes, that’s the only place where that reconciliation and that healing and that forgiveness will happen. And that’s okay. (touched on this last week, too, but it bears repeating)
      • Some relationships are too broken or too unhealth to mend
      • Some wounds, once healed, will still leave a scar – will leave us forever altered
      • Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you are beholden to opening yourself up to pain again
        • Forgiveness doesn’t have to come with full trust
        • Forgiveness doesn’t necessitate a relationship again
        • You can forgive someone and still walk away if that’s what you need to do to protect your body, your mind, your spirit. But the good news of the gospel remains that the one place that you can always find renewed relationship after reconciliation is with God. God will always welcome you back. God will always offer healing and forgiveness and life on the other side of the rift.
    • Want you to hear these questions from the end of the reflection particularly in the light of your relationship with God this morning: Where have you reconciled in your life? What reconciliation would help you most, and how do you think that might happen? How can you create reconciliation in your community and your family? Amen.

[1] Margaret Wise Brown. The Runaway Bunny. (New York: Harper & Row), 1942.

[2] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2019.

[3] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Matthew 18:21-35 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 70.

[4] Mt 18:21-22.

[5] Mt 18:1-5.

[6] Mt 18:6-9.

[7] Mt 18:10-14.

[8] Mt 18:15-20.

[9] Mt 18:24.

[10] Lewis R. Donelson. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Matthew 18:21-35 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 71.

[11] Mt 18:28.

Sunday’s sermon: Arches National Park – Connection

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, UT.

Text used – Romans 12:4-17

  • When I was in 3rd grade, I had the most amazing teacher.
    • Taught us about all those necessary 3rd gr things
      • Spelling
      • Cursive handwriting
      • Multiplication facts (using the greatest, Midwestern white lady rap ever!)
    • Also focused a lot on respect and wholeness → And one of the main ways that we did this was at the beginning and end of every school day, we set down in a circle in the middle of our classroom and sang the song “Love Can Build a Bridge” by the Judds.


      • Teacher even let me work out hand motions to it that we taught to the class (small example)
      • And sure, there were kids that didn’t love doing it. There were a few boys in the class that would be silly about it (because that’s what 9yo boys do!). But I’ll tell you something: to this day (almost 30 yrs. later), the 20 or so kids that were in that class still talk about those times. We still talk about how much fun it was. Some of us can still do at least some of the motions. And most important, as we get older and go through the motions and the ups and downs of life, we still talk about how meaningful that song has been.
        • Fully honest: I still can’t hear that song without crying! → even just listening to it in my office this morning, I was getting all teary
      • Chorus: Love can build a bridge // between your heart and mine // Love can build a bridge // Don’t you think it’s time? // Don’t you think it’s time?
  • So obviously, one of the things that got me thinking about “Love Can Build a Bridge” – and particularly my 3rd class’s experience with that song – is the connectionality of it. It’s a song all about coming together – about making meaningful connections with people, connections that build each other up and help each other out, connections that are based on the strength and power of love. But the other thing that got me thinking about “Love Can Build a Bridge” in connection (no pun intended) with today’s theme is that the music video was actually shot in Sedona, AZ.
    • Lots of fabulous 1990s-style panorama shots of them singing out in the desert
    • Scene in the video = the Judds (Wynonna and Naomi) standing on top of … Can you guess? An arch. → [READ FROM America’s Holy Ground[1], pp. 31-32]
  • All of those beautiful arches are points of connection. They bridge the cap between one pillar of stone and the next, creating a structure that is even more breathtaking and beautiful than those pillars would have been alone. And that’s what this morning’s Scripture is all about.
    • About how we need each other
    • About how we belong to each other
    • About how we are better together
      • Lift each other up
      • Compliment each other
      • Connect us to each other
      • Text: We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.[2] → These are surely powerful words, but I think they’re even more powerful when we think that Paul is writing them to people he didn’t know. So often, we read Paul’s letters to people in churches that he had established in his mission journeys.
        • Letter to the Christians in Ephesus
        • Letter to the Christians in Philippi
        • Letters to the Christians in Corinth and Thessalonike
        • All of them = letters to people with whom Paul had already established relationships → people with whom Paul had already made those connections
        • But Paul’s letters to the Romans was to a community unknown to him. Sure, they knew of Paul – knew of his reputation and his ministry, maybe even knew of his conversion story with the flash of light and the vision of Christ and the blindness and healing afterward. Yeah, they probably knew of Paul, but they didn’t actually know His mission travels hadn’t taken him there. He hadn’t planted a church there. There was no established connection there. And so into the absence of that connection, Paul sent them these words about just how powerful and essential connection is to the Christian faith.
          • Make his initial point of the critical nature of connectedness → how we all belong to each other
          • Drives his point home with examples: We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful. Love should be shown without pretending.[3] → Paul highlights all of those different gifts – all of those different pillars that surely could stand on their own. But with the connection of Christian community, the bridges that form between those pillars make us the Church together. Service can be inspired by teaching. Teaching can be informed by prophecy. Prophecy can bring out encouragement. Encouragement can build up leaders. When we combine all of those gifts that Paul talks about, we become stronger, wiser, deeper, closer to God together.
            • Mother Theresa: You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.
            • More humorous spin – FDR: I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I sure can pick smart colleagues.
  • Thing about connections: they aren’t always perfect, right? [READ FROM America’s Holy Ground[4], pp. 32-33] → The arches are fragile. The ecosystem is fragile. Even the dirt is fragile. And in truth, our human connections can be fragile sometimes, too, can’t they?
    • One of the hardest part of the last 5 yrs. or so → We seem to have lost a critical esteem for our connectedness as humans. We’re clinging so tightly to the idol of our own opinions … we’re clinging so tightly to “my rights” over my responsibility to my fellow human beings … we’re so focused on getting what’s mine we’ve lost sight of the importance of what’s ours.
      • Feels like more and more, we’re living in world of shattered connections
        • Children not talking to parents
        • Siblings not talking to one another
        • Neighbors not talking to neighbors
        • Even worse → horrific acts of violence perpetuated against other people simply because of who they are
          • Black and brown people
          • Jewish and Muslim people
          • Native Americans
          • People of Asian heritage
          • LGBTQ people
          • People who have come to this country seeking safety and hope and the promise of possibility
    • Paul addresses this fragility, too, as well as the importance of love and grace in the face of it: Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.[5]
      • Now, there are a lot of places we could go with that … but then we’d be here all day. There’s one central phrase in there, though, that I want to look at closer. → “Consider everyone as equal” = sort of Paul’s version of the golden rule – Gr. “think of/be mindful of/take up the cause of” + “each other”
        • Older translations: “Be of the same mind one toward another”[6] → But I want us to notice in that that it doesn’t say “be of the same mind with one another.” The Greek word for “with” is definitely not part of that sentence. Paul isn’t trying to tell us that we all have to think exactly the same thing. Paul is trying to tell us to “be of the same mind toward one another.” Treat others the way you want to be treated. Because mutual honor, mutual respect, mutual love … these are the ways that we build connections in the first place and the way that we rebuild them once they’ve been broken.
    • Passage about Arches National Park makes it clear that those connections – those beautiful, majestic sandstone formations as well as the minute connections in the ecosystems – can’t be rebuilt → once they’re altered, they are forever altered
      • But the beauty of being human … the blessing of being human … is that a lot of times, we can work to rebuild those connections. Not always. There are some connections that cannot be rebuilt – even some that should not be rebuilt when there’s abuse or neglect or other harmful intentions involved. Sometimes the mistakes other people make are just too great. Sometimes the mistakes that we make are just too great. But through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God showed us on the grandest scale possible exactly what kind of strong, powerful, beautiful, life-giving connection can be made through the gifts of love and grace. And as Christians, it is our charge and our challenge to follow Christ’s example out in the world. And that will always include connections.
        • Questions from the end of the Arches National Park reflection: What connections have made a difference in your life so far? What connections would you like to make? With whom can you connect, or reconnect, in a way that enriches you both? Amen.

[1] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019), 31-32.

[2] Rom 12:4-5.

[3] Rom 12:6-9a.

[4] Lyons and Barkhauer, 32-33.

[5] Rom 12:9b-17.

[6] Rom 12:16 (KJV).

Sunday’s sermon: Acadia National Park – Beginnings

Text used – Genesis 1:1-5; 2:1-4

  • What is summer for, friends, but a good road trip?
    • Bags packed
    • Snacks handy
    • Sunglasses on
    • Hair wrapped a la Grace Kelly in opening scene of “To Catch a Thief”
    • Maybe you’ve got a map or your GPS … or maybe you’ve decided to venture out without one, opting instead to chase the horizon wherever it may lead you.
      • Incomparable American Beat author and poet Jack Kerouac: All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.
    • So that’s our plan for the summer, friends. We’re taking a spiritual road trip together – for fun … and for formation. → travel to 8 or 9 National Parks together, using the beauty of nature (virtual though we may be) to help us learn and think about God in some new ways
    • Book for the summer: America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer[1]
      • Begin this wonderfully little book with a number of Scripture passages including one that really stood out to me and really captured the essence of this sermon series – Ps 8:3-9: When I look up at your skies, at what you fingers made – the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place – what are human beings that you pay attention to them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them? You’ve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet – all sheep and all cattle, all wild animals too, the birds in the sky, the fish of the ocean, everything that travels the pathways of the sea. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth![2]
      • Also begin with quote from Scottish-American naturalist and mountaineer – and the person known as the Father of the National Parks – John Muir: No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty![3]
      • Purpose [READ FROM INTRODUCTION, pp.17-18, 19]
  • And of course, as we embark on this journey together, where better to start than the beginning? The beginning is, after all, a very good place to start.
    • Begin with the history [READ FIRST HALF OF REFLECTION, pp. 25-26]
    • Text: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good[4]  It’s a passage you may have encountered any number of times throughout your lives.
      • Read in various devotional material
      • Heard interpreted lots of different ways
      • Heard preached lots of different ways Heck, it’s one I’ve preached myself in some form or another at least 4 times over the past 10 years and have referenced I don’t even know how many times.
      • This morning: want to take a look at this text simply for the beauty of the language and how it speaks to us about this incredible, beautiful world that God created dig deep into the Hebrew
        • v. 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth[5]
          • Heb. “create” = word only used for God’s acts of creation throughout Scripture “create, shape, choose, select”[6]  There’s a sacred intentionality to this creation. It’s not a willy nilly sort of creating – tossing paint on the canvas to see where it lands and what comes next. This creation at the beginning of all things is God consciously and willfully entering into the act of creation.
            • Goal in mind
            • Hope in mind
            • Love in mind
          • Heb. “heavens” = word in particular dual form that encompasses both the known and the unknown in the heavens element of what we can see (clouds, sky) woven together with what we cannot see (“the part beyond where the sun, moon, and star are”[7]) There’s something so incredibly expansive and all-encompassing in this word – like those who first told this creation story around an open fire wanted to make sure those who heard about God’s amazing creation understood just how mind-boggling and far-reaching that creation truly was.
        • v. 2 makes it clear just how necessary that new beginning was – text: the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.[8]
          • Heb. “formless,” “void,” and “darkness” are all words reverberating with chaos and obscurity, meaninglessness and emptiness, misery and destruction[9]  There’s a wildness and an uncultivated quality to this “before the beginning” time that sounds to me like Lyons and Barkhauer’s description of the water at Acadia National Park: From the coastal cliffs you peer down into narrow inlets of the North Atlantic Ocean where rough waters put on a spectacular display of spray and froth as they become trapped against the land.[10]
          • And yet over the face of that wildness – a wildness that we cannot even begin to imagine – blew the wind from God.
            • Heb. “wind” = not just a breeze or even a gale force wind No. This “wind of God” is so much more than that. This is ruach. This is a powerful, holy little Hebrew word that means wind … and breath … and Spirit.
              • Same Holy Spirit wind that blew over and around and even through the first disciples on that Pentecost morning bringing them purpose and power and a new beginning
    • The moving of the Holy Spirit of God over those wild and chaotic first waters brought the first beginning. It brought a newness and an orderedness and infinite, unfathomable potential. – text: God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day.[11]  From that wildness and chaos, the presence and purpose and power of God brought new life and new possibilities.
      • New … in the midst of the darkness and desolation
      • New … in the midst of the unknown and unfamiliar
      • New … in the midst of the unexpected and unpredictable
      • Friends, it is not lost on me the magnitude of the fact that we are reading this passage and “visiting” this park and this theme of beginnings (and new beginnings) at this a particular time.
        • Potential for new life and new possibilities in this church
        • Potential for new life and new possibilities in this COVID-endemic world
        • And so many of us are facing new life and new possibilities in our own lives right now as well. lots of transitions happening in our individual lives right now
          • Graduations
          • Weddings
          • New career paths
          • Retirements
          • New relationship opportunities
    • Scripture gives us blueprint for new beginnings from that first beginning
      • Presence of God
      • Openness to the intention and expansiveness of God’s creating power
      • And time to give God a chance to work and time to let that newness take hold – text: The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.[12]
        • Heb. “rested” = shabat  Yup. Sabbath. Holy rest. Intentional time away from the activity to marvel at and be in the presence of the One who set the work in motion. God rest. GOD rested. You can, too. Because that truth is that while there is beauty and possibility in newness … there is also a need to rest – to let the work of God work.
          • Chance to stop for a breath
          • Chance to set down your pack and rest
          • Chance to catch your bearings again Because, as we all know, new beginnings can be exciting … but they can also be overwhelming and disorienting. If you were hiking to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park to catch those first rays of sun as they graced the eastern seaboard, somewhere along that path to the top, you’d have to stop and rest (probably more than one “somewhere!”). Because if you burn yourself out before you reach the peak, you’ll never feel those first rays of the dawn – the beginning of a new day.
    • Questions from the end of Lyons and Barkhauer’s “Acadia” reflection: Can you make an important “beginning” in your life? Is there something that you would like to start over or begin afresh today? Regarding your relationships, is there space to create a “new day” with someone?[13]  Amen.

[1] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2019.

[2] Lyons and Barkhauer, 15.

[3] Lyons and Barkhauer, 16.

[4] Gen 1:1-4a (NRSV).

[5] Gen 1:1 (NRSV).

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy – “So Much Bible!” blog:  

[7] Levy’s exegesis.

[8] Gen 1:2 (NRSV).

[9] Levy’s exegesis.

[10] Lyons and Barkhauer, 25-26.

[11] Gen 1:3-5 (CEB).

[12] Gen 2:1-3 (CEB).

[13] Lyons and Barkhauer, 27.

Sunday’s sermon: Every Time I Pray

Text used – Philippians 1:1-18

  • For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been following Paul’s travels through various parts of the Roman empire as he set up churches and shared the good news of the gospel.
    • Last week: talked about how Paul ended up in Athens via Thessalonica and Beroea
    • Week before that: talked about Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Philippi
    • Today’s Scripture reading is a little like one of those scenes in a movie when they cut away from the plot line – from all of the happenings – to one of the characters writing later about his or her reflections on the happenings.
      • Writing a journal entry
      • Writing a memoir
      • Writing a letter to someone else → I picture it sort of like the 1987 classic film “84 Charing Cross Road,”[1] the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.
        • Bancroft = woman from New York City seeking some particular out-of-print books who writes to a bookshop in London
        • Hopkins = one of the owners of the bookshop
        • Two correspond back and forth via letter for decades and end up developing a close friendship
        • Format of the film: scenes of Bancroft and Hopkins going about their normal lives with their families and friends overlayed with sections of them speaking aloud their letters to one another
      • And that’s sort of how I picture today’s reading from Philippians. → book of Philippians = one of the letter written by Paul to a congregation that he had started elsewhere
        • Books of 1 and 2 Corinthians = Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth
        • Books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians = Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica
        • Book of Philippians = Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi → Yup … the same city in which Paul and Silas had been imprisoned. The city of the fortune-telling slave girl, the earthquake at the prison, and the prison guard who became a Christian along with his whole household.
  • So before we dig further into this morning’s text, I want to set the Philippian scene a little bit for you this morning. – excerpts from “Introduction” section of commentary on Philippians from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series[2] → Let this paint a bit of a picture for you. 

“Philippi was a fairly small city in the first century CE (approx. 10,000 inhabitants) … Philippi had originally flourished because of gold mines nearby, but these had been worked out long before the first century CE, and the city was important mainly as an agricultural center, being situated on the edge of a fertile plain where grain and wine were produced. … The fact that the city was a Roman colony gave its citizen great privileges, for they enjoyed considerable property and legal rights and were exempt from the taxes imposed on those without this status. Citizens of the colony were also citizens of Rome, and the city’s administration was modeled on that of Rome. … When Paul came to Philippi, therefore, he would have found a stable nucleus of Roman citizens, many of whom were Italian by birth and who constituted the aristocracy of the city. He would have found Roman administration and discipline as well as Roman culture. The official language was Latin … and the city was loyal to Rome, which meant, among other things, that the cult of the emperor would have been much in evidence. [The “cult of the emperor” was the Roman practice of worshipping the emperor, and, by extension, his family, as divine. It’s a practice that was begun with Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.] … No archaeological evidence has been found for a Jewish presence in the city … [so] Paul’s converts would have been entirely, or almost entirely, Gentile.”

    • So that gives you some insight into who Paul was writing to – the people, the culture, and the geographic nuances of Philippi.
    • A bit of other pertinent information → Many of Paul’s other letters that made their way into the New Testament canon are letters that address a particular issue that the church was going through at the time.
      • E.g.s
        • Galatians = letter written by Paul to churches in Galatia that had received other Jewish-Christian missionaries who were preaching “a different gospel” and trying to force the practice of circumcision on new Christians[3]
        • 1 Thessalonians = letter written by Paul to church in Thessalonica (reminder: Thessalonica = city that Paul and Silas were chased out of because the Jews in that city were angry that Paul was welcoming Gentiles into this new Christian subculture) → purpose of 1 Thess is to encourage the believers there to stay the course – to remain strong in their faith – despite opposition and even outright hostility from non-believers[4]
        • Ephesians = broad letter intended for multiple communities written by Paul to address importance of incorporating Gentiles with the people of Israel in the new creation that God had planned from the beginning → emphasis on unity and community[5]
      • But the book of Philippians is different. There doesn’t really seem to be any major issue that Paul feels the need to address in this letter.
        • Touches on a few points of theological clarification and teaching
        • Spends a very short time (1 single verse) on mildly rebuking a few of the local leaders who seem to be in disagreement with one another[6]
        • But on the whole, the purpose for this particular letter from Paul seems to be wholly and utterly joyful. Paul is expressing his encouragement for the Christians in Philippi and the work that they’re doing. Paul is expressing his thanksgiving for his faith and the ways that their faith bolsters his own. And of course, Paul is expressing praise for the person and work of Jesus Christ.
          • Summed up nicely by scholar: The passage that opens the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is striking in its emotion and intimacy. It suggests a deep, and potentially enduring, relationship. The key theological themes are remembering, joy, and fellowship. Paul’s recollection elicits thanksgiving, his joy is rooted in shared tribulation, and the longing for fellowship can only be fulfilled in Christ.[7]
  • One of the main emphases throughout this passage = concept of koinonia
    • Powerful concept throughout Paul’s NT writings
    • Powerful concept within the mission and worship and identity of the early Church
      • Rev. Dr. Katherine Shaner, ordained ELCA minister and assoc. prof. of NT at Wake Forest University School of Divinity: A koinonia in the ancient world is literally a partnership. And not just a “hey, we’re all on the same team” partnership. It’s a partnership that is formalized, recognizable to the outside, and often with tangible goals. Oftentimes it is a share in a financial or another kind of large valuable entity. Even in our own world, whether it’s a share in a stock, or a share in a home, or a share in another kind of property, we make these partnerships all the time. But we rarely think of the ancient world as having such partnerships—particularly when the shares are shares in the Gospel.[8] → And how often do we think about our faith like that? How often do we think about our faith as a valuable share in the work of the Gospel? But truly, that’s what we’re doing here this morning. That’s what we do whenever we gather here whether it’s for worship, for fellowship, even for Christmas cookie sales or cleaning days or major milestone celebrations like our 150th anniversary coming up. We’re gathering together because of the partnership that we find here. We’re gathering together because of the partnership that we’ve formed here – a partnership that we form and re-form and re-form every single time we come together as a community of faith. We’re gathering to regenerate our spirits and our minds with our shares in the Gospel – that message of God’s love for us and for the world, a love so big and so wide and so strong that it took Jesus to the cross, to the grave, and back again.
        • Paul’s words from our passage this morning: This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.[9]
          • Gr. “more rich” = even more effusive than our translation this morning makes it sound → literally “overflow,” more than what is ordinary or necessary[10]
            • Outstanding
            • Abounding
            • Above and beyond
          • NOTICE: It’s not your faith that Paul wants to see grow “more rich” (though that’s definitely a part of it). It’s not your perfection. It’s not your beauty or your wealth or your success or any of those other measures that society likes to uphold. → Paul: “This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insights.”
  • I have to be honest with you, friends, I feel like this passage is such a passage for the times in which we are currently living.
    • Hard time
    • Divisive times
    • Angry and hateful times
    • People I know who have long been “news hounds” – who have always tried to keep up with the headlines and what’s happening around the world – have stopped checking their news sources because all of the anger and fear and mistrust and disinformation and ugliness that is spilling out all over the place is just making it too dang hard for them to be a good human right now. And I get that! I don’t know about you, but I feel a little bit like a prize fighter that’s been in the ring too long and has taken too many hits.
      • Spirit is aching
      • Mind and my soul feel battered and bruised
      • But even in the face of all that pain and brutality, I feel like I could stand up here and preach Paul’s words directly to you this morning because even nearly 2000 years after they were written, they are still true.
        • Text: I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace.[11]
          • Truly, friends, I do indeed thank God every time I mention you in prayer. I am thankful for you – for who you are, for what you do for me and for this congregation and for the love and work of God out in the world. And I am thankful for this community – all that it has been, all that it is, and all that I know it can be. With Paul, I am glad, and I’ll continue to be glad. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] 84 Charing Cross Road, directed by David Hugh Jones (1987; Culver City: Columbia Pictures, 1987), DVD.

[2] Morna D. Hooker. “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 469-471.

[3] Richard B. Hays. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 184.

[4] Abraham Smith. “The First Letter to the Thessalonians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 682.

[5] Pheme Perkins. “The Letter to the Ephesians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 362, 365.

[6] Eph 4:2.

[7] James H. Evans, Jr. “Second Sunday in Advent – Philippians 1:3-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 38.

[8] Katherine A. Shaner. “Commentary on Philippians 1:1-18a” from Working Preacher,

[9] Phil 1:9-11.

[10] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy:

[11] Phil 1:3-7.

Sunday’s sermon: To An Unknown God

Text used – Acts 17:16-31

  • We humans have such an odd relationship with the unknown.
    • Certainly experience some fear/trepidation toward the unknown
      • Scariest part of any psychological thriller/horror movie = part where camera focuses in on the face of the whoever’s acting in the scene → hear the scary/suspenseful music + see the dawning horror on the person’s face → But we can’t actually see what they’re afraid of … and those few drawn out moments of not being able to see is worse than anything else.
      • Human’s innate fear of the dark → story of having to empty the food scraps bucket as a kid
      • Fear that comes with any the unknown of medical/health situation as well, either for ourselves or for our loved ones → In those first moments – those moments when we first realize that something in wrong, those moments between any tests or examinations and any results, those moments right after we’ve received a diagnosis – we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the unknown.
    • And yet, as human beings, we are also fascinated by the unknown.
      • Quote from famed British author/essaying Aldous Huxley: There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
      • Fascination that has fueled every scientific breakthrough since the first humans started investigating and inventing things
        • Stunning example of that this past week: initial test images from the James Webb Space Telescope that were released this week revealed never-before-captured images of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way → what scientists call the “gentle giant” whose gravitational pull literally holds our everything together[1]
      • Fascination that extends far beyond the realm of the real into the vast reaches of the fictional → Anytime anyone imagines what could be in the unknown, a story is born.
        • Fictional representations of what could have been in the past – in the blacked-out sections of history that have been lost to time and memory → either what has been lost in the historical record or what was never a part of the historical record to begin with
          • E.g. – author Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series (books: The Evening and the Morning[2], Pillars of the Earth[3], World Without End[4], and A Column of Fire[5]) imagines the building of a great cathedral in a small English village and the life that goes on around it throughout the centuries → It’s a series based in historical fact but fueled by the unknown storylines of people’s lives.
        • And, of course, fictional representations of the future – what could be called the Greatest Unknown.

    • And truly, throughout history the Church has played a significant part in wondering about the unknown. I mean, in essence, that’s faith, right?
      • Can’t empirically prove the existence of God
      • Some of the more mystical, complex elements of theology/tradition: doctrine of the Trinity → how God can be both three persons (God, Christ, and Holy Spirit) and yet one eternal God
      • Can’t even wrap our minds around all that God is because … well, because God is God and we are not.
      • And so in that space of unknown between us and God, we find faith.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = fascinating e.g. of the interaction btwn. faith and unknowning → Paul’s experience in Athens
    • First, let’s back up for a little context. → only a few verses in between what we read last week and where our reading started this morning, but a lot of action in those verses
      • LAST WEEK: left Paul and Silas at the home of the prison guard in Philippi → Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown in prison for their acts of witnessing (and for casting out the demon that enabled the slave girl to be a fortune teller and therefore losing her owners a lot of money) → Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison at midnight → earthquake broke all the chains and opened all the doors → Paul and Silas and the rest of the prisoners stayed put instead of fleeing à their actions and their faith inspired the prison guard and his entire household to be baptized and become followers of Christ
      • FROM THERE:
        • Paul and Silas journeyed to Thessalonica → experienced much resistance and persecution from Jews in that city (weren’t happy that so many Gentiles were included in this new Jesus movement) → formed a mob intent on arresting Paul and Silas (similar to the situation they experienced in Philippi) → found only the person who had been housing Paul and Silas in Thessalonica → jailed him and some other believers instead
        • Other believers help Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonica under the cover of night → Paul and Silas travel to Beroea (received a much more hospitable welcome) → But those from Thessalonica were still so outraged and worked up by what Paul and Silas had been doing there that they followed them to Beroea and began to stir up the crowds there as well!
        • Believers in Beroea sent Paul away to the coast for protection while Silas and others stayed in Beroea, panning to reunite with Paul as soon as possible
      • Verse just prior to today’s reading: Those who escorted Paul led him as far as Athens, then returned with instructions for Silas and Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible.[6]
    • As our passage for today begins, one of the scholars that I read this week summed up Paul’s situation pretty well: Here is Paul, alone in Athens, after being driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea, a solitary witness, once again trying to be faithful in yet another strange and complex situation.[7] → Clearly, Paul has his feet firmly planted in the unknown.
      • Unknown city
      • Unknown situation (on his own – without traveling companions or other believers for the first time in a long time)
      • Unknown culture → At the time, Athens was a highly learned city –a hub for intellectual and cultural life within the Roman empire teaming with scholars and philosophers, historians and poets, artists and architects, and so many more. Athens was, after all, the city of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. So anybody who was anybody in the ancient Roman world – or anybody who wanted to be anybody! – went to Athens to try to make their mark on society. And suddenly, not through his own planning but through the necessity of circumstances, Paul found himself in Athens alone.
    • To his credit, didn’t seem to quell Paul’s spirit – beginning of this morning’s text: While Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day.[8]
      • Reminder of religious policy of the Roman Empire → For the most part, the Roman Empire left other religions alone so long as those adherents A) didn’t cause trouble for the Romans, and B) continued to do what the Romans required of them (pay taxes, mostly).
        • Jesus’ words from Mk: “Give to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”[9]
      • So with this policy, a place like Athens – a melting pot of people from all over the empire who had come to study and learn and flourish, a city full of people who would have brought their own religions with them from whatever corner of the empire they hailed from … a place like Athens would have been awash in various religious centers and shrines and all manner of worship necessities. And being the fervent evangelist that he was, Paul felt the need to speak.
    • Paul goes toe-to-toe with some of the philosophers → And poor Paul. He ends up getting dragged before another court! – text: They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill.[10]
      • Mars Hill = rocky hill just outside Athens, meeting place of “the council of the Areopagites,” the court of Athens → dealt with all manner of issues: capitol crimes, legal matters, political issues, educational and religious affairs[11]
      • Yet even before this grand court in this intimidating setting, Paul speaks words of faith into the unknown! – text: Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”[12] → And from there, Paul goes on to tell the people about this previously unknown God.
        • God who created the earth and the heavens
        • God who created humanity in all our complexities and beauty, all our foibles and our imperfections
        • God who came to save God’s most beloved creations: us
  • And there are two powerful lessons for us to take away from Paul’s witness in this moment bursting with the unknown.
    • First: Paul’s conviction, Paul’s certainty → Paul doesn’t claim to have all the answers to every question that the council could ask, but when it comes to his faith, Paul stands firm.
      • Secure in his relationship with God
      • Secure in his trust in person and work of Jesus Christ
      • Secure in his call to share his faith with any and all
      • Just because the situation all around Paul is full of the unknown doesn’t mean that Paul has to let that unknown erode his conviction. Even with all that he’s been through, even with all that he is currently facing, even with all the unknowns that his own future holds, Paul stands firm in his faith.
    • Second: Paul doesn’t throw that firmness back in the faces of those listening to him → Paul cites his own convictions and his own experiences. He makes observations – observations, not judgments – about the city of Athens and the variety that he finds there. He draws in some cultural references that will mean something to those around him without warping or manipulating the culture. In all his witnessing, Paul doesn’t condemn the people of Athens. He doesn’t accuse the people of Athens. He doesn’t use his faith to threaten the people of Athens or to shame them for their unknowing. Paul simply declares the Good News of God in Christ Jesus to them, opening up a door to perception for the people of Athens in between their known and their unknown. And, friends, our challenge is to follow that example.
      • Scholar: The challenge is to say to those around us, “We see your spiritual hunger. Might we offer sustenance from our rich store of spiritual resource?” The challenge is to find the imagery and language that allow us to enter another’s world in order to speak our truth honestly, respectfully, and effectively. What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?[13] → In the midst of all the unknowns in the world – the world around us and the world within us – “What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?” Amen.

[1] Ashley Strickland. “New image reveals the ‘gentle giant’ at the heart of the Milky Way” from

[2] Ken Follett. The Evening and the Morning. (New York: Penguin Books), 2020.

[3] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: New American Library), 1989.

[4] Ken Follett. World Without End. (New York: Penguin Books), 2010.

[5] Ken Follett. A Column of Fire. (New York: Viking), 2017.

[6] Acts 17:15.

[7] John S. McClure. “Sixth Sunday of Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 473.

[8] Acts 17:16-17.

[9] Mk 12:17.

[10] Acts 17:19a.

[11] “Areopagus” from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible – vol. 1, A-D. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 216-217.

[12] Acts 17:22-23.

[13] Randle R. (Rick) Mixon. “Sixth Sunday After Easter – Acts 17:22-31 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 476.

Sunday’s sermon: A Tale of Two Households

Female hands holding two houses.

Text used – Acts 16:16-34

  • This morning’s text, y’all … mmm, mmm, mmm! This morning’s text is one of those Biblical stories that could easily be it’s own Hollywood box office drama.
    • It has …
      • Intrigue
      • Action
      • An exorcism!
      • A courtroom (complete with false accusations!)
      • One of those “all was lost … but then!” moments
      • Prison AND a prison escape
      • And it ends with lives changed. Really, this story has it all!
    • It’s also one of those stories that we can pretty easily break down into two parts, and those parts are defined by two different households and the choices they make.
  • Before we dig into that, let’s take a minute for a little backstory for some context. → remind us how we got to where we are in Acts today
    • Reminder: Acts = continuation of account written by author of Luke’s gospel → so Acts = Good News, part II
    • Main character throughout most of Acts = Paul
      • Acts begins with disciples/Pentecost
      • Focuses on Peter for a few chs.
      • Enter Saul → Saul’s dramatic conversion → spends the rest of the book chronicling Saul/Paul’s many missional journeys to start churches and share the gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide
    • Leading up to today’s portion of the story = major drama!
      • Paul’s original traveling companion/evangelizing partner = Barnabas
        • Started a lot of churches together
        • Walked A LOT of miles together
        • Even put together their own ministry team with a few of their own followers/disciples
      • BUT backing up some verses from today’s passage, we read that Paul and Barnabas had an argument – text: Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they shouldn’t take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and hadn’t continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace.[1]
  • Part 1: household of the slave woman
    • Like any good story, this one begins with sometime to draw us in right off the bat → Paul and Silas are out doing their work in God’s grace – “on the way to the place for prayer”[2] – when they come to the attention of this slave woman … a woman with an uncommon … gift?: “a spirit that enabled her to predict the future,” a spirit that enabled her to make a lot of money for her owners[3]
      • Interesting bit that gets lost a little bit in our translation: Gr. translated as “slave” when describing the woman is the same Gr. translated as “servant” when describing Paul and Silas → Is there an element of choice involved in this? The woman is indentured. Her freedom is not her own. Paul and Silas are devoted to the service of God. Through this service, they find an ultimate and eternal freedom – the freedom of Christ.
    • Maybe it’s this servitude connection that draws this woman to Paul and Silas. We don’t really know. But whatever draws her, it’s a powerful, persistent draw! – text: She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days.[4]
      • Draw that’s so powerful and persistent that it eventually pushes Paul over the edge → Paul finally turns to her and casts out the spirit that’s been enabling her to predict the future → And we can’t really blame Paul, right? Remember, time-wise we aren’t that far removed from Jesus being arrested, tried, convicted, and killed for spreading the message of God’s love and grace. And how Paul and Silas are going around trying to spread the same message. And here comes this woman shouting and pointing and drawing attention to them again and again and again. I mean, really, if someone was following you around all day shouting about your business and drawing attention in a time and place when it wasn’t entirely safe for that business, you might get a little testy, too, right?!
      • Fears are justified → action and attention ended up coming back on Paul and Silas in spades – text: Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. → And this is where the choice comes in. Just like everyone else within earshot of this woman, her owners surely must’ve heard (or at least heard about) her claims as to who Paul and Silas were.
        • Must’ve heard about their mission
        • Must’ve heard about their message
        • Must’ve heard about their faith
        • In fact, we know they did because of what they said in front of the court: They said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.”[5] So they knew that Paul and Silas were proclaiming a message of faith and witness. And they could have paused to listen – to let that message seep into their minds, into their hearts, into their spirits. They could have given the word of God a chance to work in and through them. But instead, they chose to follow the way of greed. Their fortune-telling, money-making slave was no good to them anymore, and that was what mattered to them: recompense and revenge. They actively chose to reject the work and worship of God.
    • Result: Crowd joins in the attacks against Paul and Silas (as crowds so often do) → authorities order Paul and Silas to be stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison “with great care”[6]
      • “with great care” = challenging translation → sounds soft and maybe even compassionate BUT Gr. here is more forceful and restrictive, more like “thrown them securely in prison” or “in prison beyond a doubt”
        • See this in the description of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment – text: When [the jailer] received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet with stocks.[7]
  • Brings us to part 2: household of the jailer himself (different household, much different choice)
    • Despite their imprisonment, Paul and Silas are “praying and singing hymns to God”[8]
      • Maybe for their own benefit → to keep their own spirits lifted
      • Maybe for the benefit of those around us (text: the other prisoners were listening to them[9]
      • Surely, though, God was listening to them. – text: All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose.[10] → In this darkest and most desperate moment, Paul and Silas are displaying a strong and wholly devoted faith. And God’s response to that faith is equally strong. Not only are Paul and Silas’ chains released, but every door in the prison is opened and every chain is loosed.
        • Brings to mind God’s promise through Is (words that were probably running through Paul’s mind as well, since he’d been a Temple scholar before his conversion): God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners[11]
    • Clearly a situation that presented the jailer with his worst nightmare → jailer (who had been asleep) wakes up to find every door in the prison open and assumes that all the prisoners have fled → literally about to fall on his own sword rather than risk the wrath of the Romans over having lost every single prisoner → Paul stops him: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”[12] → jailer is so overcome with disbelief and gratitude that he falls on his knees before Paul and Silas à leads them out of their bondage and out of the jail himself and asks the ultimate question: “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
      • More familiar version of this question: “What must I do to be saved?
        • Heard similar question asked of Jesus by the rich young ruler in the gospels
        • And truly, this is the It’s the question that’s the whole point of Paul and Silas’ many journeys. It’s the question that’s the point of their work and their message, their witness and their prayers. “What must I do to be saved?” And so they give the jailer the answer that they have given to so many before him and will give to so many after him: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your entire household.” They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house.[13] → And so the jailer is present with The Choice.
          • To believe or not to believe
          • To embrace faith or not to embrace faith
          • To give their hearts, their minds, their lives to God … or not
    • And, of course, the jailer makes the opposite choice that the slave woman’s household makes – text: Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.[14] → And I have to point out that the ending of this story is just as important as the rest of it because not only are we given the jailer’s choice – to choose faith, to choose God – but we’re given a glimpse into just how immediate and life-changing that choice can be.
      • Affects the jailer’s action
      • Affects the jailer’s spirit
      • Immediately upon actively choosing God, the jailer acts in compassion and hospitality to those on the margin – those he had literally just released from his own prison. He takes these men into his own home, bandages their wounds, and gives them something to eat. And not only are his actions affected, but his state of being is affected as well. We’re told that the jailer was “overjoyed” because he and his whole household had come to believe in God.
        • Gr. really interesting word here → denoted the physical act of rejoicing but also includes an internal causality for that rejoicing → makes the joy a central part of the subject’s sense of self instead of just a reaction to some external event → Because of his choice – because he chose God – the jailer was given joy – joy on an essential, elemental level … a kind of joy that can’t be taken away.
    • And friends, we are given that same choice each and every day. When we wake up in the morning, do we choose God? As we go about our days – the rollercoaster of ups and downs as well as the most tedious moments – do we choose God? In the ways we interact with others, do we choose God? As we wind down at night and prepare for sleep, do we choose God? At the very core of who we are, do we choose God? Amen.

[1] Acts 15:36-40.

[2] Acts 16:16.

[3] Acts 16:16.

[4] Acts 16:17.

[5] Acts 16:20-21.

[6] Acts 16:23.

[7] Acts 16:24.

[8] Acts 16:25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Acts 16:26.

[11] Is 61:1.

[12] Acts 16:28.

[13] Acts 16:31-32.

[14] Acts 16:33-34.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Invitational

Text used – John 20:1-18

  • Stories make up the realm of who we are – our past, our present, and even our future. Stories build meaning. Stories construct our shared experiences. Stories connect us to one another and to the world around us. And it’s been this way as long as humans have been communicating with one another.
    • Stories = how we relate to one another
    • Stories = how we teach one another and learn from one another
    • Stories make up the very structure of our lives → Just like the bones in our bodies give our muscles and sinew and our very skin something to cling to – something strong and stabile and solid – stories are the strong and solid foundation on which our identity is built. There is nothing in our lives that doesn’t involve some sort of story.
      • Your relationships produce stories → There’s nothing quite like listening to a pair of people – spouses, siblings, friends, neighbors – tell a story together.
        • Each person adding their own details and impressions
        • Each person remembering things just a little differently
        • Each person’s telling feeding off the other person’s telling until story itself has taken on a life/personality all its own
      • Big events in your life are saturated with stories: story of driving out to Bob and Arlene’s with Grandma Viv for Thanksgiving every year → passing the same one-room schoolhouse every year → hearing the story of how that was the schoolhouse that Grandma and Bob went to as kids
      • Even places in our lives our rich with stories.
        • All the stories that swirl around you when you’re in your home
        • Or this sanctuary. I bet if you asked …
          • Gail: story about the Bible stand and her dad
          • Cindy/Nancy: story about the rose window and Wayne
          • Joanne: story about paraments and her husband, Bill
          • Many: story about remodeling the sanctuary
          • If you flip open the Bibles in the pews, many of them have been given in honor or in memory of someone, and each one of those dedications comes with a story. Or if you flip open your hymnals, many of those bear name plates in honor or in memory of someone as well, carrying not only the story of that dedication but also the story of the congregation that those hymnals came from: The Presbyterian Church of Le Sueur.
    • Point: We are story. Story we are. Story is in us and through us and around us and flowing from us all the time.
      • Author Philip Pullman: After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
      • And as Christians, this is particularly true. We find our identity, we find our hope, we find our purpose in God’s grand story of faith. It is the story that grounds us. It is the story that inspires us. It is the story that gives us direction when we are lost and comfort when we are in distress. And it is a story that is undeniably and inextricably a part of our own stories as well. And today, friends … today, we get to bask in the fullness and glory of the climax of that Grand Story of Faith. Today, we get to celebrate both the origin and the ultimate purpose of that Story. Today, that beautiful, miraculous, radical Story both circles back to the beginning and starts anew because today, we can boldly and joyfully declare that Christ our Lord is indeed risen!
  • Today’s gospel story is unique in that it’s the only Easter gospel account in which the resurrection Jesus actually makes an appearance in the garden
    • Mt’s account[1]: multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter the stranger/messenger/angel in the shining clothes: “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”[2] → women run to share the good news (this beautiful, miraculous, radical story) with the disciples → encounter Jesus on the road
    • Lk’s account (very similar)[3]: again, multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter two strangers/messengers/angels in shining clothes: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[4] → women run share the good news (this beautiful, miraculous, radical story) with the disciples → Peter (in disbelief at their story) runs to the tomb himself to check and finds only the linen burial wrappings → disciples encounter risen Jesus later (road to Emmaus story[5])
    • Mk’s account[6]: multiple women coming to the tomb → find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty → encounter one stranger/messenger/angel in a while robe: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here.”[7] → women are so terrified and alarmed by this encounter that they flee the tomb, saying “nothing to anyone because they were afraid”[8]
    • That’s a lot of story all tangled up in one place … in one event … in one person! But John’s account tangles it even further. – today’s reading = Jn’s account[9]
      • Jn’s account = more characters
        • Mary Magdalene (goes to the tomb alone)
        • Simon Peter
        • Unnamed beloved disciple
        • Two angels dressed in white → not messengers as in the other gospels (only words they utter in Jn’s account: “Woman, why are you crying?”) → more placeholders
        • And, of course, Jesus. – text: [Mary] turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).[10] → What a story! What a story! Can we even imagine ourselves as Mary in that moment? Can we feel first her despair and consternation at finding the body of her beloved Teacher missing? Can we feel her racing, anxious heart and her racing, frantic thoughts? “Where is he? What have they done to him? Where have they put him? What does this mean?” Can we feel her confusion and desperation when she first encounter “the gardener”? Can we feel the dawning of recognition and awe, not slow and steady but quick and crashing the second she hears her name fall from those lips that were both familiar and wholly unexpected? You see, friends, this is the beauty of the story of our faith. It invites us in.
          • Invites us into the experiences of others
            • Experiences of God
            • Experiences of faith
            • Experiences that mirror our own
            • Experiences that are vastly different from our own
            • Experiences like Mary’s encounter with the Risen Christ on that first Easter morning
            • Scholar: Before they became the Bible, the stories of Scripture were lived. Unfortunately, that seems lost on many of us. Once they became cemented within the canon, they no longer smelled of the real world. The dust of ancient walking paths settled, and the sweat of an early morning run evaporated. … John tells the story of that first resurrection morning, and the portrait he paints … invites the reader to feel at home with people a lot like us.[11]
  • Friends, our faith is a relational faith. We were created to be in relationship with God, and in order to demonstrate the love and grace not only possible but promised in that relationship, God came down to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. God took on the fragile and mundane form of the same creatures that God created for love and faith and devotion. God endured the pain and shame and suffering and brokenness of humanity on the cross to make that love as unmistakable and conspicuous as possible. That pain and that brokenness are a part of our story. That love and that grace are a part of our story. The miracle and scandal of that cross and that empty tomb are a part of our story.
    • Story that shapes us
    • Story that is shaped by us and our own experiences → How we tell the story of our faith shapes how people hear the story and, in turn, process their own stories. Our story adds to their stories and vice versa.
      • Sort of like a beautiful, complex macrame creation full of different colored threads, different kinds of knots and hitches, different textures, different bits and baubles to accent and adorn this Grand Story of Faith that we all share
    • Like the story that Mary experienced that morning, it’s a story meant to be told … meant to be shared … meant to be proclaimed
      • Exactly what Mary did – text: Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.[12] → Mary told the disciples. And probably the other women that had followed Jesus as well. And her friends. And her relatives. And maybe even strangers she met on the street. And the disciples told others. And the other women told others. And Mary’s friends and relatives told others. Maybe even the strangers on the street told others. And they told others. And they told others. … And here we are today. → built into the resurrection story itself is not just an invitation but a directive to tell the story and to keep telling the story
        • Learn from the way Mary told her story → Mary had just come from the garden in the early morning hours. She had been weeping. She was probably hot and sweaty and dusty after first running to get Peter and the belove disciple, then running back to show them the empty tomb, then running again to the disciples after her encounter with Jesus. She was probably still shocked and confused and overcome with emotion as she told her story that first time. Maybe her words were jumbled. Maybe she mixed up the order of events in her excitement. Maybe her story came out all in a rush before she could even remember to breathe, so she had to repeat it. I’d be willing to bet that it was perfect and measured and edited and practiced. But it was her story, her beautiful, miraculous, radical story. And she told it. And she kept telling it, not because it was perfect, but because it was
          • Thomas Long (book: Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian): Christians believe that we cannot tell the truth, not the whole truth, without talking about God, and if we cannot tell the whole truth, we cannot be fully alive as human beings.[13]
  • Friends, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again and again and again. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mt 28:1-10.

[2] Mt 28:5-6a.

[3] Lk 24:1-12.

[4] Lk 24:5b-6a.

[5] Lk 24:13-35.

[6] Mk 16:1-8

[7] Mk 16:6.

[8] Mk 16:8.

[9] Jn 20:1-18.

[10] Jn 20:14-16.

[11] Sean White. “John 20:1-10 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 308.

[12] Jn 20:18.

[13] Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 5.

Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Sincere

Before the Scripture reading:

  • Before we read this morning’s Scripture reading, tell me what we’re going to hear in the Palm Sunday story. Think about it in terms of a play being staged. What are the essential elements of the Palm Sunday narrative? (And no peaking at your Scripture reading this morning.)
    • Who are the characters?
      • Jesus
      • Crowd
      • Disciples
      • Donkey
    • What’s the setting?
      • Jerusalem
      • Road
    • What are the props that we need for this scene?
      • Palm branches
      • Cloaks
    • Okay … keep those elements in mind as we read John’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem this morning.

Text used – John 12:12-27

  • So of all those things we talked about before we read our passage for this morning, what elements were a part of John’s narrative? [pause for answers] What elements weren’t there?
    • Let me help jog your memory a little bit. – read Mk’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry: When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.[1] → Other than a few central elements, that’s significantly different from what we read this morning, isn’t it?
      • Similarities
        • Crowds shouting “Hosanna!”
        • Jesus riding a donkey’s colt
        • Palm branches (Though did you notice that Mark didn’t actually call them palms?)
        • Quoting one of the First Testament prophets, Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.[2]
        • But that’s basically where the similarities end, right? Mark gives us a lot more detail about the actual entry itself – about the act of Jesus riding into the city. But John gives us a lot more detail about the acts surrounding that central event.
          • More detail/background about the crowd
          • More detail about what was happening with the Pharisees (sort of a behind-the-scenes look)
          • More detail about what transpired btwn Jesus and the disciples directly following their entry into the Holy City
          • Mark – as well as the other synoptic gospels, Luke and Matthew – give us fanfare. John’s gospel, on the other hand, gives us … you might be able to guess this by now … testimony.
            • Scholar: John focuses squarely on the entry into Jerusalem and includes details that serve only to affirm the event as a momentous occasion, a sign of Jesus’ lordship, and a foreshadowing of his final victory. … As with so many passages in John, the would-be mysterious sayings and doings of Jesus [touched on by the other three gospels] are revealed from the outset as portents of good news.[3]
  • One huge clue that points toward this good news – giant Biblical neon arrow – that’s only present in Jn’s account = reference to Jesus’s recent miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead – text: The crowd who had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead were testifying about him. That’s why the crowd came to meet him, because they had heard about this miraculous sign that he had done.[4]
    • Significance of “testifying” in this passage = emphasized by the Gr. → So here’s the thing about ancient Greek. Sentences aren’t structured the way we structure them in English. The myriad of different endings on the words tells you what the subject and object are and which verbs go with which parts of the sentence. But sentences are rarely laid out the way we lay them out in English.
      • English = subject + verb + object → e.g.: He reads books.
        • Subject: He
        • Verb: reads
        • Object: books
      • Instead, in ancient Greek, the sentences are structured by importance – the most crucial thoughts or words or phrases are placed at the beginning of the sentence. And that verse about the way the crowd that had been present at Lazarus’ resurrection was testifying about Jesus … I bet you can guess what the first word of that Greek sentence is. Testifying.
    • And the testimony of that crowd – that crowd that watched Jesus weep and then call a dead man out of his tomb – brought this crowd that greeted Jesus with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!”
      • Chain of testimony was sincere enough – candid and genuine and wholehearted enough – to bring more and more and more people to Jesus’ presence
      • Chain of testimony = so obvious it even has the Pharisees grumbling – text: Therefore, the Pharisees said to each other, “See! You’ve accomplished nothing! Look! The whole world is following him!”[5]
  • And just in case that foreshadowing about raising Lazarus from the dead wasn’t pointed enough (which is clearly wasn’t because our Scripture this morning said: His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.[6]) … just in case call that foreshadowing wasn’t enough, Jesus gets even more pointed with his words toward the end of today’s passage. – text: Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.[7]
    • As the daughter of a farmer and the granddaughter of not one but two prolific gardeners, this is probably my favorite of Jesus’ much testimony in just a few words
      • Speaks truth about the effort that will be required → Anyone that has done any planting – whether it’s a single houseplant, a backyard garden, or hundred of acres of farm fields – knows that planting takes work. Your hands have to get dirty. Your brow might get sweaty.
      • Work has to be intentional → Especially when you’re talking about something larger like a garden or a farm field, you can’t just plant willy nilly, scattering seeds wherever you feel like it. You have to make the space in the ground. You have to put in the seed. You have to cover it up. You have to pay attention to where and how your seed is planted. How deep should it be? Is there an “up” side and a “down” side? (I know I can’t be the only one who’s planted bulbs upside down before!) Does it need shade or full sun or something in between?
      • Work has to be ongoing → You have to water it. You have to water it again. You have to weed around it. Maybe it needs some sort of fertilizer or it needs to be sprayed for bugs. Maybe you need to build a fence to keep out critters that want to try to eat what you’re trying to grow. You have to water it again. You have to prune it. Planting seeds is never a one-and-done endeavor.
    • And all of that comes into play in Jesus’ words here.
      • Speaks truth about the effort that will be required of Jesus
        • Work that is intentional → Nothing reveals just how intentional – just how purposeful and willing and deliberate – Jesus’ actions are than the last verse of our Scripture reading this morning (again, Jesus’ own words): Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.[8]
          • Sheds a stark but sincere light on Jesus’ testimony → Even Jesus himself had reservations about what was to come, but he knew that this was part of his story – part of the testimony that his very life was meant to be – and so he kept on telling it. “This is the reason I have come to this time.”
        • Work that is ongoing → Jesus story … became the apostles’ story … became the story told by the Church throughout the millennia … has become our story.
          • Story of love
          • Story of grace
          • Story of service
          • Story of gathering in
          • Story of making space
          • Story of hope
      • Jesus also speaks truth about the effort that will be asked of any who follow after him – Jesus’ own words: Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.[9]
        • Scholar: After all, taking on a new identity means saying good-bye to another. When we welcome strangers, we invite what is strange about them to come along too. When outsiders are allowed in, what was familiar no longer is. … Yet unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. Being a servant of Christ, being a part of the church, is to be in an honored position, but being one of his life-giving grains means inevitably to fall to the earth. … This passage reminds us that at the heart of Christianity is a bunch of unsettling truths: some things we are familiar with need to die, in order for new life to arise; the work of the Spirit will not be contained in set patterns; and anyone and everyone who wants to get involved should do so. In the end, the blessing and honor of God come not to those who follow guidelines, but to those who give up their lives in service.[10] → It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Mk 11:1-11.

[2] Zech 9:9.

[3] Alexander Wimberly. “John 12:12-19 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 82.

[4] Jn 12:17-18.

[5] Jn 12:19.

[6] Jn 12:16.

[7] Jn 12:23-24.

[8] Jn 12:27.

[9] Jn 12:25-26.

[10] Alexander Wimberly. “John 12:20-26 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 88, 90.