Sunday’s sermon: Love Follows Us

Prodigal son - father

artwork by Charles Mackesy

Texts used: Psalm 81 and Luke 15:11-32 (embedded in text)

  • For forty years, the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness in search of the promised land. For forty days, the ark journeyed across the waters until Noah and his family were once again able to step out onto dry land. For forty days, Jesus journeyed alone in the desert before facing down Satan’s temptations. And for these next forty days, we journey together through another Lenten season. As we go this way together this year, we’re going to do so through the lens of another familiar journey story: the story of the prodigal son.
    • Quintessential story for Lent
      • Prodigal son = story of the journey that one young man takes away from home and, eventually, back again
      • Lent = time focused on ways we turn away from God and, eventually, turn back again
    • But there’s so much more to the story of the prodigal son than just the journey of its namesake character. So much, in fact, that we’re going to spend all of Lent exploring this epic tale.
      • Read every Sun. from a number of different versions of Scripture
        • Hear different nuances
        • Hear different translation choices/challenges
      • Encounter the story from a number of different perspectives – some expected and some that might be pretty unexpected → reading and living between the lines of one of Jesus’ most widely-known stories, exploring 2 questions:
        • What is Scripture saying?
        • What isn’t Scripture saying?
      • And so we begin this morning with our first reading of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son from the New Revised Standard Version (the same as your pew Bible’s this morning).
  • READ LK 15:11-32 (NRSV)
  • Okay, so a little over a week ago, I took the boys up to the cities to meet a friend of ours at this indoor playplace. – great place!
    • Separate area for 3-&-unders – all sorts of crazy-fun things for the boys to do, all sorts of open space for them to run around safely
      • Fenced in
      • Only one entrance – gate latch too high up even for our crazy-tall monkeys!
      • But despite all those safety precautions, my eyes were on those boys the whole time.
        • Making sure they weren’t getting hurt
        • Making sure they were playing nicely
        • Making sure they didn’t need my help in some way
        • Even while I was sitting and talking to Sarah, I was watching them. No matter what they were up to, whether the boys were aware of it or not, my eyes were following them.
          • Not so different from God
          • Not so different from the father in our story today
  • So let’s explore the father’s part in this story a little bit more this morning.
    • The text itself is fairly sparse when it comes to the details surrounding the son’s departure: The younger [son] said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country[1]
      • Scholar – important cultural context: Not only does the younger son reject the value of family solidarity, but he demands his inheritance before is father’s death, which is a gross insult to the father.[2] → Think about that for a minute. In this one request, the son is treating his father as though he were dead – the ultimate insult! But instead of acting from a place of indignation, humiliation, anger, or even exasperation, the father acts from a place of radical love and does what his son asks of him, disregarding all personal and cultural expectations.
  • With a love that strong, that all-encompassing, I can’t help but wonder how the father reacted when his son willingly turned his back and left home. Now this is where we have to begin to fill in the gaps in the text – where we have to read and feel and wonder between the lines. When it comes to this part of the story, what is our text missing? What is Scripture not saying?
    • Imagine those last moments as father and son were saying “goodbye” to one another – What kind of words were spoken? What do you say in a moment like this? → hear echoes of possible goodbyes in God’s words to Israel in psalm this morning
      • Maybe father pleaded with son
        • E.g. in ps – God to Israel: I took the world off your shoulders, freed you from a life of hard labor. You called to me in your pain; I got you out of a bad place. I answered you from where the thunder hides, I proved you at Meribah Fountain.[3]
        • Father to son: Remember that time you fell and skinned your knee? I picked you up and bandaged your wound. Remember that time your feelings got hurt? I comforted your and reminded you that you are unconditionally loved. Are you sure you still want to leave?
      • Maybe father voiced a warning
        • E.g. in ps – God to Israel: Listen, dear ones – get this straight; O Israel, don’t take this lightly. Don’t take up with strange gods, don’t worship the latest in gods. I’m God, your God, the very God who rescued you from doom in Egypt, then fed you all you could ear, filled your hungry stomachs.[4]
        • Father to son: Never forget that you have a home here. You have warmth and food and security here. You have love here. Out there … who knows?
    • Imagine anguish father felt watching his son’s every step as he walked away → hear echoes of pain over son’s the decision to leave despite everything that’s been said in psalm, too – Ps: But my people didn’t listen, Israel paid no attention; So I let go of the reins and told them, “Run! Do it your own way!”
      • Heb. in this passage – so reminiscent of the young son
        • “my people didn’t listen” = exact same words as God’s plea to “Listen, dear ones” but with “no/not” added to it → So Israel did the exact opposite of what God asked them to do … sort of like a rebellious teenager … sort of like a prodigal son.
        • “paid no attention” = Heb. phrasing implies not an inability to follow but an unwillingness to follow → The prodigal son could have stayed. He wasn’t being thrown out of his home. But he chose to turn his back on all that was familiar to him, and go.
    • Imagine the worry and fear that gripped father’s heart as prodigal son was out there all alone in the big wide world → It’s not difficult to imagine the father’s overwhelming desire to follow after his son – to watch over him, protect him, keep him from harm, and help him “make good choices” (to borrow a phrase from our friends’ parenting style).
      • Scholar: Even as [the younger son] turned his back, the father’s heart and gaze continued to extend toward the son in the distant land.[5] → This is sort of an extended version of the way my eyes followed the boys at that playplace. The father’s eyes surely followed his son until he disappeared over the horizon. His eyes probably searched that horizon day after day as his heart followed his son to that distant land – through his riches-to-rags transformation, through the famine and the pigsty and the destitution.
  • And then one day, the unthinkable happened. Just like every other day, the father continually scanned the horizon in hopes of sighting that familiar, beloved outline coming down the road … and he saw it. His son was coming home. This part of the text, the homecoming and what follows, gives us the clearest view into the father’s heart where we find sheer joy, utter relief, and overwhelming generosity.
    • Again, father places love for his son above cultural expectations of the day – scholar: The father shakes off the normal restraint of a Palestinian male and breaks with the social customs defining the roles of fathers and sons. … So moved, this father does what few men in his culture would have done. He runs after his son and welcomes him home.[6]
      • And yet – text: While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.[7] → cannot miss the joy in this
        • Makes me think of the ways the boys run
          • Ian’s run = enthusiastic but still just a bit cautious
          • Luke’s run = pure exuberance
          • This is a Lukey sort of a run. He reaches his son and literally throws himself at him, wrapping his arms around the young man’s neck and kissing him.
      • Relief = painfully obvious – evidence of anguish and anxiety that we were just talking about
        • Twice father goes so far as to voice his fear that his younger son would never return – text: This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found![8]
      • Finally, hinge on which the entire parable swings = father’s generosity
        • Material generosity, to be sure – father calls a servant to bring him best clothes (robe, ring), to kill the choicest livestock he owns, and throw a giant party
        • Even more important = generosity of spirit – love, compassion, forgiveness
          • Scholar: The parable’s model of parental love insists that no matter what the son has done he is still the father’s son. When no one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him and accepts him back. … The joyful celebration begins as soon as the father recognizes the son’s profile on the horizon.[9]
  • Ahh, but sometimes this radical abundance of grace can cause trouble. Remember, the prodigal son isn’t the father’s only In his brief interaction with the resentful and irate older brother, we glimpse both the father’s greatest challenge and his greatest blessing: the expansiveness of his love for all of his children.
    • Older brother doesn’t understand father’s generosity – goes so far as to be offended by it
      • Did the younger son deserve it? No.
      • Had the younger son earned it? No.
      • Was the younger son ready for it? He certainly didn’t think so.
      • But the father was generous with him anyway. Hmmm … does that sound familiar friends? That is the very definition of grace: God’s unearned favor, God’s undeserved “welcome home” FOR ALL.
        • Do we deserve it? No.
        • Have we earned it? No.
        • Are we ready for it? Sometimes we don’t think so. And sometimes we go so far as pass judgment on whether other people may or may not be ready for the gift of that grace.
        • But the truth is that God gives to us – all of us, each of us, any of us – anyway. → Jn: From [God’s] fullness we have all received grace upon grace.[10]
  • Friends, Lent is a time of repentance, a time of turning and returning to God no matter how far afield our journeys have taken us, no matter what kind of muck we’ve had to slog through or how road-weary our souls may be. I chose to focus on the father’s role in this story first because it is in his character that we find that expansive, generous, radical grace extended to us by God in the life and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
    • Scholar: Grace lies at the heart of this parable – scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions.[11]
    • As distractions and temptations catch our eyes, God’s anguish and anxiety is as real as the father’s was for his wayward son. The father’s relief is God’s relief. The father’s joy is God’s joy. The father’s celebration is God’s celebration. Just as the father’s thoughts and prayers and love surely traveled with his younger son every moment that he was away, God’s love follows us. In all of our turnings and returnings, God not only welcomes us home but runs out to meet us with open arms and an all-encompassing love that joyfully declares, “You are found!” Amen.

[1] Lk 15:12-13 (NRSV).

[2] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.

[3] Ps 81:6-7 (The Message).

[4] Ps 81:8-10 (The Message).

[5] Randall K. Bush. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 151.

[6] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119, 121.

[7] Lk15:20 (NRSV).

[8] Lk 15:24, 32 (NRSV).

[9] Culpepper, 305.

[10] Jn 1:16 (emphasis added) (NRSV).

[11] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 118.

Ash Wednesday – Meditation and Service Elements

Ash Wednesday banner

The following is the meditation from last night’s Ash Wednesday service as well as a short description of part of our service.

Texts used:
Psalm 51:1-16 and 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
*Note: Though we have been reading from The Message in recent weeks, something about the solemnity of Ash Wednesday caused me to want to revert back to the New Revised Standard Version. That’s what we read last night, and that’s what I’m posting here.*

The Bible is full of water:

  • Powerful waters like the waters that crashed down on Pharaoh’s army after the Israelites had safely crossed the Red Sea with Moses
  • Life-saving waters like the waters at Meribah that sprung from a rock and refreshed the Israelites as they wandered through the desert
  • Muddy waters of the River Jordan in which John baptized Jesus
  • Unassuming jars of water that Jesus miraculously transformed into wine at the wedding feast in Cana
  • Symbolic water
    • Proverbs – Like a cool drink of water when you’re worn out and weary is a letter from a long-lost friend.[1]
    • Amos – But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[2]
    • 2 Samuel – We all die sometime. Water spilled on the ground can’t be gathered up again. But God does not take away life. [God] works out ways to get the exile back.[3]
  • Water acting as a draw for those who are seeking, even when they don’t know yet that they are seeking
    • Disabled man who begged for Jesus’ healing at the pool called Bethesda[4]
    • Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well – went for a simple pitcher of water, left with more than she could have ever guessed: A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” … The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” … Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water. … Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst – not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”[5]

Friends, tonight we gather to set out on another Lenten journey – a journey through the wilderness and deserts of our own lives and spirits, a journey of self-reflection and repentance and examining our faith, a journey toward a hill and a cross and a tomb made of stone.

We mark the beginning of that journey this evening with the opposite of water – with anointing oil and a cross of ash. God’s chastising words to Adam ring in our ears: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[6] Sometimes the paths we’re walking feel more like oil – like everything that is life-giving and spirit-refreshing is somehow repelled, constantly pushed away from us and kept just out of reach. Sometimes the paths we’re walking feel more like ash – like everything that is life-giving and spirit-refreshing has been burned away, leaving us only with a dark smudge of what we thought we knew. Our passage from 2 Corinthians[7] tonight spoke to this. It spoke of times when we face hardships and calamities and sleepless nights. I cannot help but think of the 21 Egyptian Christians that were killed by ISIS this past week when I read these words – men who truly suffered persecution, beatings, and imprisonment; men who paid a price many of us cannot even fathom for their faith: life itself.

In times of sorrow and pain like this, whether it is pain we ourselves are experiencing or pain that we feel on behalf of others who are suffering, we want to cry out to God. We want to ask why and how, to demand a rhyme and a reason for what we know in our hearts is truly discordant and unreasonable. We cry out to God for comfort, for reassurance, for God’s life-giving, spirit-refreshing self. We hear this cry in our psalm tonight: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love … Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me![8]

And what is the reply that we hear from God? “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”[9]

And so tonight we also mark the beginning of our Lenten journey with water in all its vital, restorative splendor. Because sometimes the paths we’re walking are bathed in blessings, giving us the opportunity to not only experience that life-giving, spirit-refreshing presence of God but also to be that presence for those who need it most.

We gather together this evening as people of faith – people whose faith lies in a God of love and forgiveness, a God of grace and mercy, a God of hope. We recognize that it is through the waters of baptism that we are immersed in the body of Christ, the covenant family of the Church universal, and the incredible community that we so lovingly and uniquely call OZ. Through the waters of baptism, God claims us, working in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge that we are indeed called to be God’s people always. Instead of God’s stern words to Adam, it is God’s words through Paul that resonate in our hearts: Become friends with God; [God is] already a friend with you. … In Christ, God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.[10] It’s not extraordinary water. It’s not special water. It’s not magic water. It’s only and entirely the grace of God, soothing, refreshing, and pure.

So whatever path our journeys have taken up to know, we come with the words of Psalm 51 on our lips: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is every before me. … Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.[11] Amen.

Bringing Ourselves and Our Burdens to God

Tonight, I’m asking you to write your struggles, your burdens, your worries and fears and all those things that are holding you back in your relationship with God down on the small piece of paper that’s in your bulletin. When you’re ready, I’m going to ask you to fold your paper in half, come up to the front, and place it in the basin at the foot of the cross.

*We used a large glass bowl, sort of like a giant fishbowl. At the bottom of the bowl were 3″ fluted mason nails. People piled their folded pieces of paper on top of the nails. The paper itself was a special paper – what Amazon called “Spy Paper.” The papers remained there in the bowl at the foot of the cross until the very end of the service*


“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Friends, (**POUR WATER**) let the life-giving, spirit-refreshing waters of God’s grace wash over you. Remember the words from 2 Samuel: God does not take away life. God works out ways to get the exile back. As you leave this place this evening, I invite you to reach through the water, through the remains of those struggles and burdens that you’ve been facing, and take a nail with you as a tangible reminder of (**BENEDICTION**) the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit that goes with you always. Amen.

*As I poured the 2 prepared pitchers of water over the folded pieces of paper, they began to instantly dissolve. By the time people began reaching in to retrieve their nails, all those burdens and struggles and worries that people had written down were gone. To be totally honest, I would’ve liked the water to have been clearer. But as one of my parishioners pointed out afterward, it was powerful to have to reach through the murkiness and obscurity created by the dissolved burdens in order to grab hold of those nails. Amen and amen.*

[1] Prov 25:25.

[2] Amos 5:24 (NRSV).

[3] 2 Sam 14:14.

[4] Jn 5:1-18.

[5] Jn 4:7, 9a, 10, 13-14.

[6] Gen 3:19 (NRSV).

[7] 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10 (NRSV).

[8] Ps 51:1, 11 (NRSV).

[9] Is 55:1, 3 (NRSV).

[10] 2 Cor 5:21

[11] Ps 51:2-3, 7, 10, 12.

Thoughts on DanceGate

Maybe this seems silly, but as a pastor, a woman, a Christian, and a mom (albeit of 2 very small boys who are completely unaffected by this), I feel the need to weigh in on the recent DanceGate issue (as it has been branded by the media).

If you’re unfamiliar with what’s been going on, let me briefly catch you up. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) held its high kick competition for dance teams this past weekend. The team that won first place was the Emeralds Dance Team from Faribault. This ended up being a controversial decision seeing as a number of other teams had filed accusations with MSHSL officials that Faribault had “stolen” part of their routine from another dance team in Utah. In protest, the other 5 teams that should have participated in the medals ceremony at the end of the evening refused to do so, standing together in a group with their backs to the Faribault team. Yes, even the other teams’ coaches participated in this display. It’s even been reported that members of these teams stood outside the Fairbault locker room after the medals ceremony screaming at the Faribault team. Here’s the full story according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune (as of this morning, anyway).

Seeing as I was never a dance team member, am not a parent of a dance team member, and am not affiliated or even connected to any of the teams involved, I’m not going to comment on whether or not the Faribault team’s coach did indeed steal choreography. I don’t know enough about dance team or choreography to make that kind of assessment.

However, I am a human being. I am a woman who was once a teenager with a fragile sense of self. As a pastor, part of my calling is to be present with people in the midst of their challenging times – times of disappointment, sorrow, doubt, indignation, and anger. As someone who competed in other ways in high school, I can completely understand the sense of loss and frustration that these other teams are experiencing. No one ever said it was fun to lose, especially when you’ve worked as hard as all of these young women have worked. But all the competing teams worked hard. All the competitors put their hearts and souls into their performances. All of the girls involved in this competition had their hopes set high … including the girls from the Emeralds Dance Team.

My greatest concern in the midst of all this is that somewhere along the line, we have forgotten how to treat one another. We have been blinded by such a strong desire to win – to be the best, to be raised up above everyone else – that we have forgotten to see our competitors the way God sees all of us: as beautiful creatures gifted with incredible ability, strength, and grace. This, unfortunately, is not a new attitude. In the book of 2 Samuel, we read about King David’s own public dance display: “David, ceremonially dressed in priest’s linen, danced with great abandon before God. The whole country was with him as he accompanied the Chest of God with shouts and trumpet blasts. But as the Chest of God came into the City of David, Michal, Saul’s daughter, happened to be looking out a window. When she saw King David leaping and dancing before God, her heart filled with scorn.” (2 Samuel 6:14-16, The Message) 

Even a great and mighty king like David experienced ridicule and taunts because of his dancing. David, the great king of the nation of Israel, who knew that he had been chosen and ordained by God to fulfill his role as king. Imagine how much more distressing, how much more painful, how much more damaging such ridicule can be in the heart and mind of a young woman. We have worked so hard – as friends, parents, loved ones, and a society – to build up the self-esteem of young women. We have seen time and time again just how powerfully the words and actions of others can affect young adults in those critical high school years – those years that are so formative in shaping what kind of adults our young women (and men) are going to be. And yet this attitude of “winning is everything” continues to overrun such ideals as sportsmanship, grace, and mutual encouragement. It is perpetuated by society. It is perpetuated by parents. And it is perpetuated by coaches. And, frankly, that makes me sad – sad for the girls on the Emeralds Dance Team, sad for the girls on the other teams, and sad for us as the human race.

Recently, one of the parents in one of my congregations posted a picture on Facebook. It was a sign posted outside of a gym. The sign said, “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of person you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient, and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting.” As a mother of boys who will be free to participate in whatever extracurricular activities they choose, this is my hope for them. As a pastor of two small churches with young adults currently involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, this is my hope for them. And it is my hope that this is what all those involved in this whole DanceGate issue will come to realize. In the book of Ephesians, we find this prescription: Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and as thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. (Eph 4:32-5:2, The Message)

Sunday’s Sermon: The Take-Away

Texts for this sermon:

2 Kings 2:1-14 and Mark 9:2-10

  • Alright, ya’ll, I know I usually start off my sermons with a story, but our Scripture readings this morning have already presented us with two crazy, epic stories that feel like they came straight off a couple of movie sets.
    • First we have …
      • Two guys journeying together – mentor and his apprentice
      • Hear the tense movie music as they go along
        • Tension between the 2 of them – Elijah trying to get Elisha to stay behind: Stay here. God has sent me on to Bethel … Jericho … the Jordan. → Elisha continues to refuse: “Not on your life!”[1]
        • Tension from the outside, too – every time they stop, all these other prophets pulling Elisha aside in every place: Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today? … Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today?[2] → Did you know? Did you know? Did you know? Whisper whisper whisper.
      • Finally reach their destination – drama really begins
        • Elijah takes off his robe, rolls it up, smacks the river and parts the water so he and Elisha can cross to the other side of the Jordan
        • Then, as they’re walking and talking together, a chariot of fire swoops down out of the sky, comes down in between Elijah and Elisha, snatches Elijah up, and carries him off into the sky. … What?!
    • 2nd crazy Bible story:
      • Another mentor with a few of his followers up on a mountaintop
      • More drama
        • First, Jesus starts glowing – not just that cute pregnant-lady kind of glow … really glowing!: His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white[3]
        • Then, all of a sudden, there’s more than just the 4 of them on the mountaintop – joined by …
          • Moses, one of the greatest fathers of faith
          • Elijah, the prophet who never actually died!
          • There they are … just chatting away with Jesus!
        • Out of nowhere, this mist – “light-radiant” cloud – engulfs them and a voice resonates from the cloud itself: This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to him![4]
        • Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah are gone again and they’re headed back down the mountain with Jesus. What?!
    • Seriously, ya’ll … what more dramatic stories can you tell? And the drama in both of these stories stems from the same source: God interacting with the people in the stories. And, friends, God still reaches down into our lives, touching us, inspiring us, speaking to us and through us. And whenever we encounter God – just like Elijah and Elisha, just like Peter and James and John – our lives cannot remain unchanged.
      • Now, sometimes, like Elisha, we expect the encounter – remember all those whisperings from the other prophets: “Did you know that God is going to take your master away today?” – Elisha’s response every time: “Yes, I know it.”[5] → Elisha knew something was going to happen that day. He was expecting an encounter. He was expecting God to act, he just didn’t know how.
      • Sometimes, though, that encounter blindsides us – disciples experience → left “stunned by what they were seeing,” and “looking around, rubbing their eyes”[6]
  • Any encounter with God leaves life-changing take-aways
    • Like goodie bags for parties – little take-away baggies with all sorts of fun things in them (candy, stickers, little toys and trinkets) → Any and every encounter between kids – birthday parties, Halloween parties, Christmas parties, neighborhood picnics – all now carry the expectation that no child will walk away empty-handed. Elisha didn’t walk away from his encounter with God empty-handed. Peter, James and John didn’t walk away from their encounter with God empty-handed. They came away from their encounters with God with take-aways that changed their lives, and like Elisha and the disciples, our encounters with God leave us with powerful, life-changing take-aways as well.
  • First take-away: blessing
    • Subtle blessing in the gospel story → You see, today’s passage follows on the heels of Peter’s critical declaration: “You are the Christ, the Messiah!”[7] but for Peter, that was a leap of faith. He didn’t have any proof to back it up. So this encounter that we read today blesses him with divine confirmation of that testimony.
      • Blessing of reassurance
      • Blessing of affirmation
    • Flip side – Elisha asks for it explicitly: Elijah said to Elisha, “What can I do for you before I am taken away from you? Ask anything.” Elisha said, “Your life repeated in my life. I want to be a holy man just like you.”[8] → Now, I have to be honest with you. The good Minnesotan in me finds this asking uncomfortable. It’s a bit too forward, a bit too audacious, a bit too brazen
      • Pastor and contemporary Christian writer Maryann McKibben Dana points out the flaw in this kind of timidity: Too many good-intentioned Christians seem willing to make do, to go without, to give without ceasing, while refusing the balm they need.[9] → helps us understand that it’s okay to ask God for a take-away
        • Healing … guidance … strength … peace … blessing → We ask these things for other people, but how often do we feel like it’s okay to ask them for ourselves?
        • Certainly works out for Elisha – Elijah’s response: “If you’re watching when I’m taken from you, you’ll get what you’ve asked for. But only if you’re watching.” And so it happened … Elisha saw it all.[10]
        • Jesus’ encouragement: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.[11]
  • Second take-away: new information/new outlook – a revelation → This is the disciples’ experience.
    • God’s proclamation may sound familiar to us: “This is my son, marked by my love. Listen to him.”[12] – same words that are spoken when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, but remember, Jesus was alone at that point. None of the disciples had even joined Jesus yet when he heard God speak those words to him on the banks of the River Jordan. So this proclamation is new information for Peter, James, and John. → can’t help but learn and grow after a revelation like that
    • Hundreds of ways that we learn and grow in our own encounters with God, too
      • Learn about ourselves – who we are when it counts, what we can do and what we can endure
      • Learn about our faith – our places of comfort, our growing edges, our questions and hesitations, our sources of strength
      • Learn about God
    • But what about when it’s a lesson we don’t want to learn? We may not like it, but sometimes that experience – that revelation – involves challenge, discomfort, even pain.
      • Elisha = perfect e.g. of this – Elisha’s response to Elijah being scooped up by the chariot of fire: Elisha saw it all and shouted, “My father, my father! You – the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” When he could no longer see anything, he grabbed his robe and ripped it to pieces.[13] → hear intimacy, grief, longing in Elisha’s experience
        • Maryann McKibben Dana: What [Elisha receives] is the awareness that whatever Elijah has taught him up to now will have to be enough; he must go on alone. What he receives is grief. … Elisha will go on to do great deeds, to be sure, but for now, his mantle is one of sorrow.[14]
  • In the midst of that sorrow, in the midst of that boundary stretching, we find the development of a third take-away: a new calling.
    • Dana said it: Elisha will go on to do great deeds.
    • Text says it, too: Then [Elisha] picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him, returned to the short of the Jordan, and stood there. He took Elijah’s cloak – all that was left of Elijah! – and hit the river with it, saying, “Now where is the God of Elijah? Where is he?” When he struck the water, the river divided and Elisha walked through.[15] → kicks off Elisha’s ministry
      • 60 yrs. as God’s prophet in Israel
      • Ministry characterized by humility, love for God’s people, and faithfulness
    • Happens today, too – Here If You Need Me[16]
      • Story of Kate Braestrup
        • Husband Drew was a Maine State Trooper planning on going to seminary to be a pastor after he retired → killed in a car accident in 1996
        • As she journeyed through her grief and loss, Kate encountered God and heard her own powerful and particular call to ministry. After struggling through seminary as a newly-single mom of four children, Kate became the very first chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, a law enforcement agency dedicated to serving and protecting the public as they enjoy Maine’s incredible natural resources as well as serving and protecting those incredible natural resources from human exploitation.
        • From sorrow and pain, Kate’s take-away was a new calling to be God’s presence of prayer and compassion in other people’s places of fear, anxiety, and pain. – chaplain for anyone interacting with the wardens but also a chaplain for the wardens themselves
  • And in Kate’s story, in Elisha’s story, in the disciple’s story, in our own stories, we find the final take-away: new life … resurrection. This is the point. This is the grand plan. Friends, this is the forest and the trees.
    • Through her new calling, through her continued faith, through her interactions with God in her career and in her children, Kate Braestrup found a new life and new love.
      • Doesn’t erase or replace love she lost → honors the life she had by continuing to live anew
    • Why did Elijah and Elisha mediate God’s message to the people of Israel? To help them find new life by returning to God’s way and walking in God’s love.
    • Why did Jesus take Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop? To give them a glimpse into God’s plan for a new life of everlasting love.
    • Why did Christ come at all? – Titus: Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with [God] and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come – an eternity of life![17]
    • Friends, this is the word of God – the Good News, the life-giving, life-changing Word. May it be a take-away blessing for each and every one of our hearts. Amen.

[1] 2 Kgs 2:2, 4, 6.

[2] 2 Kgs 2: 3, 5.

[3] Mk 9:3.

[4] Mk 9:7.

[5] 2 Kgs 2:3, 5.

[6] Mk 9:6, 8, 9.

[7] Mk 8:29.

[8] 2 Kgs 2:9.

[9] Maryann McKibben Dana. “Last Sunday After the Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday): 2 Kings 2:1-12 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 436.

[10] 2 Kgs 2:10-11a, 12.

[11] Mt 7:7 (NRSV).

[12] Mk 9:7.

[13] 2 Kgs 2:12.

[14] Dana, 438.

[15] 2 Kgs 2:12b-14.

[16] Kate Braestrup. Here If You Need Me. (New York, NY: Back Bay Books), 2007.

[17] Titus 3:6-7 (emphasis added).

Sunday’s Sermon: Voluntarily Becoming a Servant

Texts for this sermon:

Isaiah 40:25-31 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Friends, why are we here today? Or any Sunday … or even any other day of the week for that matter? What keeps us coming back to this building – this historic little white church with the green shutters and the antique organ?

Really, it’s out of the way for a number of us. Some come from Red Wing, from Goodhue, from Wanamingo.

We don’t all see eye-to-eye on things – silly things as well as some of the more serious issues of the day.

And there are certainly bigger congregations around here that we could join – congregations with more butts in the pews and fewer financial concerns.

And yet we choose to keep coming back here Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, year after year.


We come back for the community. We care about each other. We have a shared history (some maybe a bit longer history than others). We ask about one another’s families, jobs, vacations, and the hurdles that we’re facing not because we have to, but because we genuinely care. We’re invested in each other’s lives – celebrating together, mourning together, and lifting each other up when the need arises. We pray for each other, and we love each other because that’s what you do as brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we connect with each other heart-to-heart.

And we come back because of our shared belief that we are doing powerful, important work here – God’s work in the city of Zumbrota, in southeastern Minnesota, and even in the world. That’s part of the reason we’re gathered today, isn’t it? To do the work of the church in the form of the annual meeting. We’re gathered to take action on some items that affect our lives together as the First Congregational United Church of Christ and as the OZ congregations. We’re gathered to “check-in” with each other again – to hear about how the various functioning bodies that are affiliated with this congregation (the Trustees, the Deacons, and so on) have been working to live the Good News of the Gospel throughout the past year.

Now, as we consider the work that’s been done and the work that lies ahead, it’s my hope that as we go through the familiar motions of this annual meeting we will also grasp that shining thread of hope and vitality and inspiration that we find running through Paul’s words this morning. In the New Testament passage that we read, Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth about his ministry and about their ministry. Paul talked about the voluntary nature of his calling – about giving his heart and his time and his energy not because he had to but because he wanted to: I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wider range of people.[1] And Paul made sure that the Christians in Corinth knew that the message he was bringing – the message that he was, in fact, living – was for everyone: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever.[2] Paul made it clear that it wasn’t his job to tell someone, “Nope, you’re not worthy of hearing the Good News.” It reminds me of a story that I loved while I was growing up. [Stone Soup] Paul knew the truth at the heart of the Stone Soup story – there’s a place for everything in the pot. Every contribution just makes the soup better.

In fact, Paul made it clear that he did whatever he had to do in order to make the Good News accessible to everyone: I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.[4] I know … I know … sounds a little exhausting, right? How often do we tell our children, our spouses, our friends, and even ourselves that we don’t have to be all things to all people? That we don’t have to please everybody? And it’s true that if you spend all your time trying to be what everyone thinks they need, you will find yourself sorely depleted before your head can even hit the pillow at night. But on the flip side, it seems like more and more, we live in a “take it or leave it” society. We deify our constitutional freedom of speech while often turning a blind eye to the consequences and the aftermath of that speech. There has to be a happy medium in there – a place in which we can live the Good News of the Gospel, God’s love and forgiveness and justice, in a way that it reaches people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and walks of life but also a place in which we find renewal in this living, not exhaustion.

I think that in our Scripture this morning, we also get a hint at that place from Paul. You see, Paul made sure to highlight two other key points. First, he reminded the Corinthian Christians that it wasn’t for his own gain, his own glory, his own authority that he was working. Paul said, “I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”[5] Paul had found this incredible, life-altering faith in Jesus Christ. He had been given a first-hand experience of God’s grace and forgiveness and blessing, and it was toward the spreading of that message, that Good News that he worked so passionately. And, friends, it’s the same for us. We’re not spreading the message of how awesome we are. We don’t gather on Sunday morning to read from our own day planners or sing songs about our own greatness. We come together in this place and engage in the work of this church to spread the Good News of the Gospel, that in Jesus Christ, all sins are forgiven, all slates are wiped clean, and all are made a people loved and forgiven and freed.

And Paul’s second critical point? Yes, this work can be exhausting. It can be trying. At times, it can be challenging – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Paul even went so far as to compare working for the Good News to the rigorous training of the gladiators! But even in the face of that struggle and strain, Paul made it clear that the blessing of the ultimate goal far outweighed the exhaustion: All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got.[6] As a Hebrew scholar in his former life, Paul would have been familiar with the words from the prophet Isaiah that we read this morning: God doesn’t come and go. God lasts. [God’s] Creator of all you can see or imagine. [God] doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch [a] breath. And [God] knows everything, inside and out. [God] energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts. For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, they run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.[7]

I know that sometimes it’s hard to be part of a small congregation – rotating in and out of the same positions, always being the one to plan this fundraiser or organize that meeting. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the little details and to get discouraged by the amount of work that there is to do. But friends, we have to remember that we truly are doing God’s work. We are God’s living message of love and peace and justice, and the work that we do is important work. And as we approach this work, we need to come at it with a Stone Soup attitude – everyone has a contribution to make, and everyone has to step up, take ownership, and share a piece of themselves. Former President Jimmy Carter said, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

As we look ahead as a congregation, as we discern where God is leading us in the year ahead and how to be the sort of servants that are needed right here and right now, let us ask ourselves three important questions:

  • What is our voice?
  • What is our mission?
  • What can we do today?


[1] 1 Cor 9:19 (emphasis added).

[2] 1 Cor 9:20-22a.

[3] Heather Forest (retold by). Stone Soup. (Little Rock, AK: August House LittleFolk), 1998.

[4] 1 Cor 9:22c.

[5] 1 Cor 9:23.

[6] 1 Cor 9:25-26 (emphasis added).

[7] Is 40:28b-31.