December newsletter piece

Wise Men

When I was a little girl, the only lullaby I ever remember my dad singing to me was “We Three Kings.” He always said it was the only song he could remember. J So I’ve always had a soft spot for those three ragamuffin, nomadic mystics from an ancient land.

Despite every Christmas crèche, children’s Christmas story, and most Christmas scene depictions, the Wise Men didn’t appear at the stable simultaneously with the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.

We like to envision them as three grand gentlemen in extravagant robes, coming with the simple intent to pay homage to this newborn Savior-King.

But this isn’t quite the way it was.

The gospel of Matthew[1] – the only place in Scripture in which we encounter those mysterious figures – calls them magi: wise men, astrologers, magicians “from the east,” meaning they were more than likely Zoroastrian priests.[2] From the number of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – we in Western Christianity assume that there were three of them. (The tradition in Eastern Christianity is actually 12 magi.)

Scripture tells us they originally set out from their homeland seeking the newborn king of the Jews in order to honor him. Unfortunately, one of their stops along this journey was the palace of King Herod, king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. As far as we know, Herod wasn’t aware of the birth of this “new king” until the magi share this news with him:

They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him (Matt 2:2-3).

Uh oh. Herod was a ruthless man who thoroughly enjoyed his power and prestige. He was born a Jew and appointed as governor of Galilee by the Romans – a position that he defended through brutality and oppression. When his nephew forcibly deposed him, Herod went crawling back to the Roman officials and begged for a new position. They made him King of the Jews, of the nation of Judea – a title he defended with even greater brutality than he’d previously displayed.

And by asking the simple question of where this “newborn king of the Jews” might be, the magi focused the attention of this cruel and powerful king on the helpless, newborn Son of God. In a sneaky attempt to find this newborn threat, Herod tries to elicit the help of the magi, asking them to “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” (Matt 2:8). Essentially, Herod turns these mysterious sojourners into spies.

Fortunately, God is greater. As we know, the magi do indeed find the Christ-child. They follow the star. They enter the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. They fall to their knees and honor the new king, worshipping him and giving him their gifts. And then, before they can head back to the treacherous Herod and tell him all about this  baby king, they are “warned in a dream not to return to Herod,” (Matt 2:12) so they head back to their home country by another road. Likewise, Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod is coming.

“Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. (Matt 2:12-15)

And so we find the Christ-child, the Savior, the One for whom the world has waited, the Prince of Peace, God Incarnate – we find the only Son of God Most High a refugee in a foreign land fleeing a terrorist king focused solely on destruction and death.

Imagine what the history of our faith may have looked like had the people of Egypt closed their doors to this refugee family.

Pastor Lisa sign

[1] Mt 2:1-12.

[2] “Biblical Magi.”

Sunday’s sermon: Prepare the Way: Learning

Advent hope

Texts used – Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:1-6

  • Gathered yesterday with Dad’s side of the family for Thanksgiving – talking about how family and our annual Thanksgiving gathering continues to expand
    • All of us “kids” getting married and adding spouses
    • All of us “kids” beginning to have kids of our own
    • A few aging parents that have moved in with my parents’ generation
    • Gone from adding another leaf to the table to adding a whole other table to adding a kids table besides
    • It served as a reminder to me that people are always coming into our lives in new and different ways – children being born, being adopted, being fostered. Children who are between phases in their lives and “come home to roost again” – those who have become known as the “boomerang children.” Maybe you’ve invited a foreign exchange student into your home and your life. Maybe your own aging parents or grandparents have come to live with you, expanding the sphere of your nuclear family and home yet again. Or maybe someone else – a friend, another relative, or one of your children’s friends – has come to live with you. No matter who it is, throughout our lives, new people enter into our realm of existence time and time again.
      • Big part of these people coming in, at least when we know about it ahead of time = preparation
        • Making our homes ready
        • Making their spaces ready
        • Making ourselves and our families ready
    • Today, we begin the season of Advent – a season of preparing, a season of making ready, a season in which we anticipate welcoming the Christ child into the world and into our hearts anew. And as I was thinking about preparing for the coming of this Christ child, I started thinking about all the different phases of preparation when someone else enters our lives. Voilá … a seasonally-appropriate sermon series was born!
      • This year’s Advent series = all about preparing
        • Today = preparing the way by learning
        • Upcoming = preparing the way by nesting, worrying, breathing, and, finally, naming
  • And today’s New Testament reading heralds the need for preparation.
    • When I read this passage, I always envision the opening scene to Godspell[1] in my head – musically adapted and culturally updated re-enactment of this passage
      • Today’s reading: John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”[2]
      • Opening scene from Godspell: ordinary people going about their ordinary days – decidedly uninspired, basically bored
        • Woman studying in a library
        • Man driving a taxi cab and his passenger
        • Waitress at a diner
        • Guy pushing a rack full of clothing across the street
        • Ballet dancer practicing in a studio
        • And so on.
      • First, people hear blast from a bugle – sound only they seem to be able to hear (people around them either can’t hear or are choosing to ignore it)
      • And as those who have heard the bugle call begin to step away from the hustle and bustle going on around them to follow the source of that call, they hear a voice: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” To those who have heard the bugle call, this voice is as loud and as clear as a bell.
        • Throughout the rest of the musical, these called people take on the persona of those who followed Jesus throughout the gospel, listening to and learning from the Messiah before he is betrayed, crucified, and resurrected in glory
        • Spoiler alert: in the end, they return to the “normal world” … but they are changed
          • Go out with a dual message on their lips
            • Long live God!
            • Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
          • You see, in order to reach that point – that point at which they could not only proclaim their own abiding faith in God but also the point at which they could call others to faith, they had to prepare the way by learning.
            • Learning from God
            • Learning about God
    • Not so different from the way we prepare for new arrivals in our lives
      • Books and blogs and forum websites and support groups all dedicated to any number of types of “new arrivals” already mentioned
        • Want to feel knowledgeable
        • Want to feel prepared
        • And so we yearn for and seek out that education in the face of coming newness in our lives. That’s exactly the education that John the Baptist was providing for people in preparation for Jesus’ coming.
          • Preached about coming Messiah
          • Quoted Scripture pertaining to coming Messiah
          • Baptized people in preparation for the coming Messiah
          • John was sort of the teaser, the opening act, trying to get people captivated before the main event. In his teaching and preaching, he was preparing people for the coming of Jesus.
  • Obviously, there are a lot of things that we get from education and learning before someone new arrives in our lives. If you’re preparing for your first child, for example, in whatever way that’s happening – birth, surrogacy, adoption, fostering, whatever – you very quickly and startlingly realize just how much you don’t know! The desire to learn about milestones and development and diaper brands and formula and baby food and sleeping habits and car seat restrictions and car seat laws and car seat installations and strollers and illnesses and well-baby checks and immunizations … it can be overwhelming and downright intimidating! But in preparing – in learning – we can find …
    • Confidence
    • Reassurance
    • Empowerment
    • And we can find another overwhelming and powerful emotion: hope. As we learn and as we prepare, we begin to envision and daydream about what could be. Hope is the feeling that what is desired can actually be had or that events will turn out for the best. As we learn and prepare, those hopes and dreams for what could be become more developed. They become stronger. They become fuller. They take on whole new possibilities and light.
      • See this hope in OT text – prophet Jeremiah is trying to prepare the people, trying to teach them about the One who is to come: The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.[3]
        • Historical background for Jeremiah
          • Often referred to as “prophet of doom” or “the weeping prophet” because of roll he played – prophet during a “good time” but leading up to a “bad time”
          • Prophet in Judah toward the end of one of the country’s prosperous, happy times → This was never a good time to be a prophet because while all the people were enjoying a time of stability and abundance, the prophet’s task was to tell them that they were doing things that were wrong, things that were displeasing to God, and that they needed to stop because there was judgment coming.
            • As you can imagine = not a popular message
            • Not easy to believe → hard to believe a storm is coming if the sky is blue and the sun is shining
            • General population was mad at him
            • Even worse, powerful kings were made at him
          • Foretold the fall of Judah and the captivity of the king which came to pass shortly afterward → Jeremiah actually witnesses/is part of beginning of the Babylonian Captivity – time when Babylonian army conquered, captured, and carted off all of the wealthy, powerful, intellectual, talented, and important people in Judah and took them to live in Babylon → not returned for generations (70 years)
            • Huge event in the history of the people of Israel, and Jeremiah not only saw it happen, he knew it was coming
      • So in light of that knowledge and in light of the knowledge of all the sins going on around him, it’s no wonder much of the book of Jeremiah is doom and lament. However, there are also shining moments within the words of this prophet, such as our text for this morning, that are an attempt to bring hope to the people: The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.[4] → Jeremiah had been spending so much energy and breath trying to teach the people about all the bad things that had been happening and that would be coming, but in the midst of that, he offered them the greatest hope of all: a Savior, a Messiah, the One who will come to redeem and to uplift and to restore.
        • Valclav Havel – philosopher, political dissident, and president who led during transition from Czechoslovakia to Czech Republic after Czech-Slovak split in 1993: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” → Jeremiah knew that in the short term – and even in the long term, depending on how you define “long term” – things weren’t going to go very well for the people of Judah. However, in the grand scheme of faith, he knew that there was a Hope coming – an undeniable Righteousness, a Light in the darkness, a Messiah.
  • Friends, this is the same Messiah, the same Savior, the same Righteous One for whom we begin our preparations today.
    • Lit the Candle of Hope this morning → And within the light and warmth of that flame burn all the hopes that we have in God and in Christ.
      • Hopes that have already come → hope of grace, hope of redemption, hope of forgiveness
      • Hopes that are yet to be → hope of Christ’s return, hope of an eternity with God
      • Hopes for ourselves
      • Hopes for our congregation
      • Hopes for our loved ones
      • Hopes for the world
      • Hope can be a powerful light in our lives. And in this Advent season as we prepare the way for the birth of the Christ child, we do so with full knowledge that the light of that hope has come, that it continues to come, and that it will come again. Alleluia! Amen.


Charge & Benediction
Go in learning.
Go in hope.
Go to prepare the way for the Lord.

*And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.*


[2] Lk 3:3-6.

[3] Jer 33:14-16 (emphasis added).

[4] Jer 33:14-16 (emphasis added).

Sunday’s sermon: Remembering Gratitude


from “Art Just for Fun” blog, June Pfaff Daley

Texts used – embedded within the text

Last weekend, comedian and late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel sent one of his “roving reporters” out onto the streets of New York City to ask a bunch of kids one simple question: What are you thankful for?

And, oh, some of the answers that he got!![1]

Sure, a number of them said things like friends, family, pets, and so on … all those answers that make us go, “Awww!” when we hear them in those sweet, child-like voices. But some of them were a little more “out-there”:

What are you thankful for? “Plants, because plants give us air.” Okay … sure.

What are you thankful for? “Sushi and chickpeas.” Huh … ‘k, why not?

What are you thankful for? “My dog that pooped out earbuds.” Nope. Nope. Not even touching that one.

What are you thankful for? “Not flying United Airlines. I hate them. Delta … always fly Delta.” Seriously … you can’t make this stuff up!

Friends, Thanksgiving is fast approaching – that day set aside to celebrate the many blessings that we have in our lives, to take time out to reflect on and express our gratitude for people, opportunities, experiences, and all those other things for which we are thankful. And just like those kids on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the things for which we are thankful vary so greatly from one person to the next. When we talk about the things for which we are thankful, they tell the story of our lives – the ups and the downs – as well as the story of our faith. They shed light for ourselves and for others on the way we experience the world around us. Where do we see the good? Where do we see those blessings? Where do we see God?

And when we get the chance to talk to other people about those blessings – to describe our own and to listen to the things for which other people are thankful – we get an ever greater, more complete picture of God.

See this in Psalm [READ PSALM 136] → When I read this psalm, I picture someone sitting outside with a notebook on a sunny day and just writing down all the things that come to mind when she thinks about what she is thankful for, when he reflects on the word “gratitude” and how that expresses God. Some of them are things we can relate to: “Give thanks to the Lord for [God] is good … Give thanks for the only one who makes all wonders … Give thanks to the one who shaped the earth on the water … God is the one who provides food for all living things – God’s faithful love lasts forever!”[2] Sometimes, the things that other people are grateful for are things that we find it harder to related to: “Give thanks to the one who brought Israel out of [Egypt] … Give thanks to the one who split the Red Sea in two … Give thanks to the one who brought Israel through.”[3] But it’s still important to express our gratitude to the people around us and, in turn, to hear what it is that they are thankful for because in that expression – in giving voice to our thanks and our blessings – we remember them again. We remember to look for them again. We remember how important those blessings truly are to us. And when we remember those blessings – those things that have been and those things that are a source of joy and light and comfort and strength and love in our lives – we are able to go out into the world in a new way. We go out refreshed. We go out centered in who we are and who God is. We go out encouraged. And when that happens, we’re more open to doing that needs to be done to be or enact someone else’s blessing.

So that’s what we’re going to do this morning.  Instead of listening to me for the next 15 minutes, you’re going to spend time listening to each other. You all will be each other’s sermons – witnesses to God in life and in faith.

  • Get into groups of 3-4 (stay where you are or move around if you’d like)
  • Questions on the back of the “I’m Thankful For …” sheet
  • Spend time talking about those questions with the people around you
    • Make sure everyone gets a chance to answer
    • I will prompt from one question to the next à keep things on track
  • Come back together for a short wrap up at the end


thankful 1

thankful 2

The “front sheet” was the illustration at the top of this post.

thankful 3

thankful 4

We’ve spent some great time this morning sharing our blessings and our thanksgivings with each other. And it’s fun to do that, isn’t it? Did you learn something new about the people you talked to? Did their responses shed some light on something else you may be thankful for – something you’d never thought of before or maybe something you’d forgotten? Did you hear God this morning?

Here’s the thing: It’s great to share those blessings and thanks with other people. But don’t forget to share them with God, too. You may have noticed that we haven’t read our New Testament Scripture reading yet. It’s one of my favorite little Bible stories because it feels so much like life.

[READ LUKE 17:11-19] → Things just kinda sucked for those 10 lepers. They couldn’t be around other people – people without leprosy, I mean. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t attend any of the worship services or religious feast day gatherings or anything like that. They couldn’t see their families (unless their family members also had leprosy). And everyone despised them. And then just like that, for these 10 incredibly blessed people, Jesus heals them. They cry out. Jesus hears. God heals. And most of them are so elated, so overjoyed, so wrapped up in this amazing and miraculous thing that has just happened to them that they just keep going! Maybe they continued on to show the priests like Jesus instructed. Maybe they veered off to find long-lost friends, family, loved ones, etc. Maybe they just went off dancing into the sunset. The point is, they forgot to come back and say “thank you.”

One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”[4] → “One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice.” Friends, we often get so wrapped up in our days and our lives that we forget to return to God with our thanks as well. We tell people about the wonderful things that we have in our lives, the wonderful things that are happening, and we say, “Thank God! We’re so blessed!” But do we actually take that time out of our days to do it? To thank God … to acknowledge that blessing in the presence of the One who gave it … to fall on our faces at the feet of our Incarnate God and thank God for what we have and for what God has done for us and simply for who God is? Friends, today let us follow the example of the Samaritan, the foreigner. Let us remember our gratitude and return to God with thanksgiving. Amen.


[2] Ps 136:1, 4, 6, 25.

[3] Ps 136:11, 13, 14.

[4] Lk 17:15-19.

Sunday’s sermon: With Eyes Wide Open

Texts used – Isaiah 62:6-12 and 1 John 2:3-11

  • Last Sat. morning, I was helping my mom with a program at her library in Le Sueur. Afterward, she was coming here to hang out with the boys for the rest of the weekend. When the program was over, we were taking stuff back out to our cars, and as I was putting my stuff in the backseat, Mom came over and said, “I have a surprise for you.”
    • Thoughts: “Sweet!” → Who doesn’t love surprises?
      • Feeling excited
      • Feeling pretty happy
    • But then she grabs my hand and says to me, “Okay, close your eyes,” and she starts to walk me over from my car to hers. … And she actually expected me to do it! She actually expected me to walk with my eyes closed. Now, if you had asked me if that was going to be a problem before that exact moment, I would have told you, “Of course not.” … But it was! Walking even just those few short feet, even with someone whom I absolutely 100% trust implicitly, was so incredibly difficult! à made me feel …
      • Unsteady
      • Disoriented
      • Extremely hesitant
      • Anxious
    • There are a number of important things that we do throughout the day that require our full focus and effort.
      • Walking
      • Cooking
      • Driving
    • When we don’t give these things the attention they require, it can feel like we’re going around with our eyes closed.
      • Not really the way we want to operate, right? → disastrous results
        • Distracted driving/walking = dangerous
          • Thousands of injuries and deaths every year
          • It’s such a problem that there are actually a number of apps designed specifically to let you see the ground as you’re using your phone so you can walk and text or whatever with your phone and not unintentionally step off a curb or fall down a hole or something like that.
        • Question this morning: Do you consider following God one of those “important things”?→ I’m not talking about just saying you’re a Christian. I’m talking about intentionally being in a relationship with God and seeking out God’s guidance each and every day. Following God should be important to us every day because each of us has a special work to do in this world, and that work can only be found when we follow God with eyes wide open.
  • Our Isaiah passage this morning says a lot about following God[1]:
    • Text: Pass through, pass through the gates; prepare the way for the people! Build, build the road; clear away the stones!
    • These are words of action! Isaiah says, “Pass through, pass through the gates,” not, “Sit around and wait for God to show up.” Get out there!
      • Love that they’re also words of de-cluttering – Heb. “prepare” can also mean “make clear” → Sometimes, when we’re working on something important, we can get distracted by any number of other random things. If we’re being honest, there are even times when we seek out those distractions. Maybe we’re afraid of how important the task is. Maybe we don’t feel confident in our own ability to accomplish it. Maybe we don’t feel worthy of accomplishing it. There are a lot of reasons we try to close our eyes. Or other people try to close them for us.
        • Story after story from seminary colleagues → ministry as a 2nd, 3rd, even 4th career because they’d been avoiding their call for 10, 20, 30, even 40 years!
        • It’s like trying to work in the dark. You can’t avoid God’s path and try to follow it at the same time. God will keep bringing you back around to that place where God wants you to be – that work that God wants you to do.
    • Isaiah also makes it clear that in the midst of all those distractions and the clutter, God is trying to get our attention! – text: This is what the LORD announced to the earth’s distant regions: Say to Daughter Zion, “Look! Your deliverer arrives, bringing reward and payment!”[2]
      • There’s a fun Hebrew word found here in verse 11. Nerdy admission: It’s probably my favorite Hebrew word. Unfortunately, we lose all but the faintest traces of this word in the English translation.
        • Explanation of hinneh → word that doesn’t really have an exact English translation – meant to grab attention, to highlight importance of what follows
          • Often shows up as “Look!” … “Behold!” … “O!” … “See!”
          • Dr. Matt’s favorite translation: Shazzam!
        • Only time it comes out in the translation: “Look! Your deliverer arrives” → quite tame
          • In the Hebrew, hinneh is the very first word of this verse and shows up 2 more times within the verse. (Hinneh! This is what the LORD announced to the earth’s distant regions: Say to Daughter Zion, “Hinneh! Your deliverer arrives, hinneh! bringing reward and payment!”) This is meant to be an attention grabber because in this verse we find a declaration of the ultimate purpose: “Your deliverer arrives!”
            • Pew Bibles translation (NRSV): YOUR SALVATION COMES! … Shazzam!
          • So if we are trying to follow God’s guidance, then we’ve got to open our eyes and de-clutter the path. I want you to stop and think for just a minute about what might be cluttering up your path. What’s keeping your eyes closed to God’s guidance? What’s distracting you from your special, God-given work?
  • Maybe you just aren’t sure what that kind of work is supposed to look like.
    • Granted: everyone’s work is going to be different
    • New Testament passage gives us a hint as to how to find that work à speaks of following/obeying God: This is how we know that we know [God]: if we keep [God’s] commandments. The one who claims, “I know [God],” while not keeping [those] commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in this person. But the love of God is truly perfected in whoever keeps [God’s] word. This is how we know we are in [God].[3]
      • Gr. “keep” throughout these verses could also be “obey” or “pay attention” → Like the passage from Isaiah, these are active words, not passive ones. “Keep” in this sense doesn’t mean put the commandments on a shelf and forget about them for the next 50 years. John is telling us to open your eyes! Pay attention! God is trying to show us the way to go. God is trying to reveal that special work that needs to be done in this world, but showing is not the same as doing. We can’t expect God do to everything for us. We have to be active participants!
        • Active participants in our relationship with God
        • Active participants in that work
  • The good news is that God provides us with signs – evidence of God at work in the world around us, little (and sometimes not-so-little) hints as to where God is calling us to go, what God is calling us to do, and who God is calling us to be. But are we even watching for those signs? Are we being vigilant, or are we waiting for God to drop a pre-programmed GPS in our laps? “Here’s your light. Here’s your path. Here’s the exact route to follow.” Not gonna happen, folks. Instead, we have to keep our eyes wide open.
    • Short but important phrase in Is that could easily be missed: “raise up a signal for the peoples”
      • “Signal for the peoples” = the Messiah – text: Raise up a signal for the peoples. … “Look! Your deliverer arrives.”[4] → The deliverer is the signal. The salvation is the sign. As Christians, we believe that Isaiah is foretelling the coming of Christ, the Savior we know and love and follow.
    • John speaks of orienting ourselves through Jesus, too: This is how we know we are in [God]. The one who claims to remain in [God] ought to live in the same way as [Christ] lived.[5] → Simply put, that’s faith – trying to walk as Christ walked, trying to follow God.
      • Further clarity – important point: The person loving a brother and sister stays in the light, and there is nothing in the light that causes a person to stumble.[6] → In theory, this one’s pretty simple: Christ preached love for others. But it gets a little tougher when it comes to practicing this. You see, Christ never promised that love would always be easy. However, the alternative is clear:
        • The one who claims to be in the light while hating a brother or sister is in the darkness even now. … the person who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and lives in the darkness, and doesn’t know where to go because the darkness blinds the eyes.[7] à truly startling e.g.s of this over the past few days

poem Paris

  • And as much as we may want to close our eyes to it, this attitude of darkness pervades not only extremists like those who carried out these many attacks. This attitude of darkness, of hating our brothers and sisters, pervades our own society as well.
    • KARE 11’s “We stand with Paris” photo – comments underneath it → hate, violence, and underlying fear were palpable
  • Friends, our paths, our work, our way of following God is most certainly different than everyone else around us because God created each and every one of us to be different. But no matter how different we are, our path, our work, our following should never result in harming another person. We are all God’s beloved children, and God desires us to do good in this world.
    • Familiar words from prophet Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[8]
    • Similar words from Frederick Buechner:
      • Buechner – American author and Presbyterian minister
        • Quote: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deepest joy and the world’s deepest hunger meet.”
      • We have to remember that whatever work God has for us to do, whatever path God has for us to follow, it is ultimately God’s labor to build up, sustain, and renew God’s Kingdom here on earth. The heart of work like this can only be love – love with hearts wide open, love with minds wide open, love with eyes wide open. Amen.

[1] Is 62:10.

[2] Is 62:11.

[3] 1 Jn 2:3-5.

[4] Is 62:10b-11.

[5] 1 Jn 2:5b-6.

[6] 1 Jn 2:10.

[7] 1 Jn 2:9, 11.

[8] Mic 6:8 (NRSV).

Sunday’s sermon: Uncommon Treasures

gum wall 2

Texts used – 2 Corinthians 4:6-18 and Mark 12:38-44

  • In the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington, there’s an incredible, weird, beautiful, interactive, communal art installation that’s been a work-in-progress for 22 years.
    • It’s one of those really cool works of art that’s made up of so many small elements that the further away from it you get, the more you see. And the coolest part about it is that it’s communal. All sorts of people have been leaving their mark and adding to this work of art for more than 2 decades.
    • Specs[1]
      • 15’ x 50’
      • Setting for movie scenes
      • Popular backdrop for marriage proposals and wedding photos
      • Tourist attraction and local landmark, bringing people from all over the country and all over the world
      • Also named one of the 5 germiest tourist attractions in the world, second only to the Blarney Stone → You know … that block of limestone built into a castle in Ireland that everyone kisses.
    • This incredible, weird, beautiful, interactive, communal art installation can be found along the brick wall behind the Market Theater. In fact, the art installation is the brick wall because the wall is covered … in used chewing gum. Yup. You heard me right. Used chewing gum – probably millions of pieces of gum, several inches thick in some places, that have been stuck on and stretched and molded and manipulated into the most amazingly whimsical, fantastical, gem of a local landmark.
    • Interesting thing – came out this week that they’re cleaning this local landmark for the first time ever
      • Scraping off the gum
      • Scrubbing the wall
      • Steam cleaning
      • Purpose = actually preservation: sugar in the chewed gum is eroding the bricks
      • But once the alley wall has been cleaned, the city of Seattle has decided to allow people to begin sticking their used gum up on the wall again and creating a whole new work of art.
    • Use chewing gum. Chewing. Gum – that has become a local treasure, a place of beauty and inspiration and unexpected joy that has become so important to people that they are willing to spend another 20+ years recreating it. Used chewing gum – something that people usually throw away, toss into the garbage (if you’re lucky) or disdainfully scrape off the bottom of their shoes. Garbage. Unwanted. Disgusting, even. And yet here it is … treasured.
  • Both of our Scripture readings this morning present us with similarly uncommon treasures.
    • Scene Jesus described presents stark contrast
      • On the one hand: rich people throwing lots of money into the temple treasury box
      • On the other hand: widow who drops in a meager 2 coins
      • If we stopped our reading there and asked, “Who gave more?”, this story would basically be a no-brainer. “Count it up! Math is math, right? Two is greater than one. One hundred is greater than two. Done and done?” But as usual, Jesus flips our standard expectation on its head.
        • Text: Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.[2] → In this example, Jesus is making the point that what the widow gave is treasured above all else not because of the quantity of her giving but because of the quality of it. The diminutive nature of her contribution made it uncommon in relation to all the other gifts being given. The sincerity and devotion and self-sacrifice with which she gave those coins is what made them a treasure.
          • Highlights treasure of her gift
          • Even more importantly: highlights treasure of the woman herself → Seeing as this woman was a widow, which meant that she had absolutely zero status in Jewish culture at the time unless she had male relatives to stand up for her, it’s possible that the rich people didn’t even notice this woman at all – literally didn’t even see her. Or worse yet, that they actively tried not to see her. But Jesus did see her. Jesus noticed this woman.
  • Made me wonder what kind of treasures we’re missing out on in our lives because we’re not ready or willing to see them → What is God trying to bring to our attention?
    • Treasure in the world around us – nature that we take for granted
      • Stunning colors in the sunrise/sunset
      • Quiet wonder of snowflakes falling gently from the sky
      • Miraculously precise way that nature interacts with and renews and strengthens itself – circle of life
    • Treasures in the people around us
      • Who are the treasures that we often forget to see?
        • Maybe see them so regularly that we’ve begun to take them for granted?
      • Who are the treasures that we actively choose not to see?
        • Those who are different from us
          • Economically, racially, religiously
          • Different in terms of gender, sexual orientation, education level, social status
        • Striking e.g. – those struggling with mental illness
          • Stats[3]
            • 8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year – That’s 1 in 5 people. One in five!
              • Nearly 60% of them didn’t receive any treatment last year
            • Result of choosing not to see
              • 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters are living with mental illness à notice caveat: “staying in shelters” = skewed statistic because what about those on the streets?
              • 24% of state prisoners have “a recent history of a mental condition”
              • 70% of children in juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition
          • Social stigma surrounding any and all kinds of mental illness and yet there are incredible contributions to the world – art, science, math, literature, drama, political activism and advocacy – made every day by people that society often chooses not to see → uncommon treasures that are commonly overlooked
            • Reminds me a lot of that beautiful gum wall in Seattle → I’m sure that there are people who look at that wall and see just the stickiness, just the “ick factor” – people that can’t get past the fact that it’s just a bunch of used chewing gum stuck up on that wall, people who just can’t step far enough outside their comfort zones to recognize the unexpected and abstract beauty of it.
  • Choosing not to see – whether it’s actively choosing or not – is even more pejorative when we see that Paul makes it clear that human being as a whole are uncommon treasures in our other New Testament passage this morning!
    • Passage begins by speaking of glorious nature of the light of God that shines in each and every one of us → highlights the treasure
    • But then we come to one of Paul’s most famous comparisons: But we have this treasure in clay [jars] so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.[4]
      • Uncommonness of placing a treasure as sacred and precious as the light of God in such a vessel → Face it, ya’ll, when it comes to finding a receptacle and a bearer for the light of God, we are a strange choice indeed! We are fragile. We are commonplace. And compared to the incredible treasure that we carry with us, we are woefully unadorned.
        • Get impression of this in Paul’s following description of struggles: confused, harassed, knocked down, dying even as we live à encompasses all those things that pursue us and plague us each and every day
      • And yet God chose to come down and be a part of our strange and fragile humanity in Jesus Christ. God chose to come down and live this commonly uncommon life with us to bring us the treasure of eternal life in God’s own holy presence. → bring us uncommon strength, uncommon courage, uncommon endurance
        • Paul: We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.[5]
        • Goes on to speak of uncommon treasure that witnessing to that faith can be: We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke. We also have faith, and so we also speak. We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory. … Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison.[6]
  • We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you.” Friends, carrying name “Christians” makes us bearers of ultimate uncommon treasure: Christ himself.
    • God came down as a Jew in a society in which Jews on the whole were powerless and oppressed
    • God spent time with those who were even more disregarded and disdained
      • Women
      • Children
      • Those who were sick and disabled
        • Lepers
        • Beggars
        • Those who were ritually unclean according to Jewish law
        • Possessed of demons (which many scholars today believe were people battling some form of mental illness)
      • Sinners
    • God came down to live among us knowing that the death that lay ahead of Jesus was the excruciating and humiliating death of a criminal. God came down to experience this life knowing that it wouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows. There would be pain. There would be sorrow. There would be regret and shame and fear and disappointment. There would be trouble and confusion and harassment. There would be death on a cross. But there would also be light. There would also be joy. There would also be laughter and teaching and tenderness and healing. There would be empowerment and friendship and love. Above all else, there would be the uncommon treasure of grace – unearned, undeserved, and unconditional. Amen.

[1] “Gum Wall” from Last updated 3 Nov. 2015, accessed 5 Nov. 2015.

[2] Mk 12:43-44 (CEB, emphasis added).

[3] “Mental Health Facts in America” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness,, accessed 7 Nov. 2015.

[4] 2 Cor 4:7.

[5] 2 Cor 4:8-10 (emphasis added).

[6] 2 Cor 4:13-15, 17.

All Saints Sermon & Service

This Sunday was a special Sunday in the life of the church. It was All Saints’ Day – the day we celebrate and honor and remember those whom we have loved and lost. In this week’s post, I’m including the short message and Scripture reading, but I’m also including that remembrance portion of our worship service as well as the benediction.

I’m also including a few pictures from our sanctuaries. Throughout October, we left 12″x9″ sheets of colorful tissue paper out along with black markers and gave people the chance to write the name of deceased loved ones on those sheets. In preparation for this Sunday’s service, we hung all those colorful name banners up in the sanctuary. I love using these tissue paper sheets for a number of reasons. First, they are incredibly colorful, reminding us of the brightness and joy that our loved one brought to our lives. Also, because they’re tissue paper, they move with the slightest breeze, reminding us that the love and the spirits of those whom we have lost still move in our lives and in our hearts. 

All Saints 2015 collage

First Congregational UCC – Zumbrota

All Saints 2015 collage

The Presbyterian Church – Oronoco

Sermon: Being Mary AND Martha

When we talk about Mary and Martha, we usually talk about the Biblical story in which we pit one sister against the other: Martha the hard worker with the slightly skewed priorities who busies herself with meal preparations for their guests vs. Mary the spiritually devoted but domestically neglectful sister who instead chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet. But today’s story of these two sisters is a different one. Mary and Martha are not pitted against one another but instead are united … united in grief. [READ John 11:1-44]

  • History of All Saints’[1]
    • Begun as far back as 373 C.E. in some way
    • Connected to doctrine of Communion of the Saints – belief that all God’s people, in heaven and on earth, are spiritually connected and united
      • Recognized and canonized saints but all those saints that we encounter – parents, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, spouses, children, siblings, friends
    • Days when the Church honors and celebrates all saints, known and unknown

And even as we celebrate and honor and remember those we love – those saints that have touched our own lives – like Mary and Martha, we would desperately love to see them, hear them, hug them, laugh with them again. We find ourselves both Mary and Martha in this. In those moments of longing so desperately for our loved ones, haven’t we come to God and Jesus ourselves saying, “Where were you? What took you so long? God, if you had been here, my brother … sister … mother … father … daughter … son … husband … wife … cherished friend would not have died!” I want you to pull out your pew Bibles for a minute and read those few verses to yourself – verses 20-21. [pause] How do you hear Martha’s voice in your own head? Or Mary’s voice when she asks the exact same question in verse 32? Is it pleading? Is it resigned? Is it desperate? Is it accusing? Is it numb? It is hopeful? One of the most powerful things about this Scripture story is that we can so easily read ourselves into it. In the face of grief and loss – in the face of death itself – how do we approach God?

  • Different situations, days, hours, minutes – may be different approaches → Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance
  • Each of these approaches can be read into this story, depending on where we are in our own grieving process.

In thinking about how we approach, we also begin to think about who we approach. Jesus’ role in this story is also incredibly powerful. It’s easy to first be angry and frustrated with Jesus. He gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is gravely ill, and instead of rushing to his bedside to perform one of his miraculous healings, Jesus waits … and waits … and waits. He has a discussion with his disciples about how this is going to be a great teaching moment for them: “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.” The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death. Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”[2] Once Jesus as this disciples finally arrive at Bethany, Jesus even ventures to use this awful moment as a teaching opportunity for Martha: Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”[3] Now, I don’t know about you, but I want to shake Jesus at this point! Martha’s pain is raw. She is grieving the unexpected death of her brother, and in confronting the one person whom she truly believes could have done something about it – really done something – Jesus uses this painful and desperate moment to extract a declaration of faith. And yet doesn’t it always seem that those moment of greatest desperation also bring out our own strongest declarations of faith?


But then we come to the turning point in our story. Jesus is taken to the tomb by Mary and Martha. Mary declares along with her sister, “Lord if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus sees Mary (and most assuredly Martha) weeping, overwhelmed by grief. He sees the other villagers weeping and grieving Lazarus as well. And Jesus finds himself standing at the tomb of his dear friend. And he is overcome: When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. … Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb.[4] Before he fulfills that teachable moment that he had described to the disciples and, to some extent, to Martha, Jesus is overcome by the emotion and the loss and the despair of the moment, and he weeps. Jesus weeps. In this moment, we encounter a Savior who understands the pain and grief we ourselves feel in the face of loss. We encounter a Savior who understands pain and sorrow and desperation. We encounter a Savior who knows exactly what it means to lose someone near and dear. Jesus weeps.


But we also get a glimpse of the eternal hope of our faith. The story does not end with Jesus weeping but with the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus words: “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”[5] We encounter a Savior who defeats death over and over again to bring us eternal life after this one – who in the face of the finality of death, “Untie him and let him go! Untie her and let her go! I have given my life so that you may live. Go and be with the Holy One and all the saints forevermore.” And so even in the face of death itself, we have hope. We have power. We have life. Amen.

Honoring and Remembering the Ones We Love

Lighting the Center Candle – We used a plain white pillar candle to signify the lives of our deceased loved ones. They have been lights in our lives – strong lights, warm lights, bright lights.

Moment of Silent Remembrance

Bearing the Light – Everyone had a small, individual candle which they brought up and lit from the flame of the larger pillar candle. After returning to our seats, we sang “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” a favorite hymn for many during those pivotal moments in our lives of faith – baptism, confirmation, marriage, and at funerals.

After finishing the hymn, I blew out the light in the larger pillar candle while everyone’s smaller candles remained lit: Our loved ones may no longer be with us, but look around you. Their love, their light, their spirits are still a part of our lives shining through us. We take a part of them with us no matter where we go or what we do, and we can choose to share the impact that they made on our lives – share that light – with others as well. We can choose to create for them a legacy of love, of warmth, and of strength.

Proclaiming the Good News Together (based on Isaiah 25:6-9)
     One: On this mountain, the HOLY ONE of heavenly forces will prepare all peoples.
     Many: God prepares a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined.
One: The HOLY ONE will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is obscuring all people, the shroud covering all the nations.
ALL: God will swallow up death forever. God will swallow up death forever. God will swallow up death forever!
     One: The HOLY ONE will wipe tears from every face.
Many: God will remove the people’s disgrace from the whole earth, for the HOLY ONE has spoken.
One: They will say on that day,
Many: “Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited – and God has saved us! This is the HOLY ONE, for whom we have waited.
     ALL: Let us be glad and rejoice … let us be glad and rejoice … let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation!”

Silent Prayer

Pastoral Prayer

All Saints charge

[1] David Bennett. “The Solemnity of All Saints Day” on ChurchYear.Net: Liturgy, Church Year, and Prayer, Updated 28 Oct. 2015, accessed 31 Oct. 2015.

[2] Jn 11:11-15 (CEB).

[3] Jn 11:23-27 (CEB).

[4] Jn 11:33-35, 38.

[5] Jn 11:41-44.