Sunday’s worship: A Prayer Service for Ukraine

With everything that’s going on in the world, I decided that what we needed this Sunday was a prayer service – a special time for us to pray for the world and specifically for Ukraine. There were four main elements to this service that I wanted to share this week: Scripture readings, a poem by Ann Weems, a blessing/prayer by Kate Bowler, and a Prayer for Lament from the Book of Common Worship


Scripture readings:

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi for Ukraine, asked Jews and Christians around the world to pray Psalm 31 in solidarity with those in Ukraine who are under attack by Russia. So our First Testament reading this morning was Psalm 31.

Our New Testament reading came from Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus’ reminder that whatever we do to and for those around us who need us the most, we do for Jesus.


Poem: “I No Longer Pray for Peace” by Ann Weems

On the edge of war, one foot already in,

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the “God talk”
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God……
that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

written by Ann Weems for Ash Wednesday 2003


A Blessing for Ukraine” by Kate Bowler

after the prayer (my own words): On her Facebook post that included this prayer, Bowler concluded with these words: “Dear Ukraine, though we shudder to watch what is happening, we will not look away.” Indeed, we shudder, friends. Indeed, we lift up our prayers. And indeed, we will not look away. We will not ignore. We will not forget. We will not excuse atrocities and suffering and injustice. Though we shudder to watch what is happening, we will not look away.


Prayer for Lament (from the Book of Common Worship, ©2018 Westminster John Knox Press)

            Extinguish a candle.

                        In the darkness, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Where are you leading us?

                        How are you calling us?

                        What is your will?


                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response:

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Pour sand from pitcher.

                        From the dust, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Why am I forgotten?

                        Why am I forsaken?

                        Why are you so far away?


                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Tear cloth.

                        In our pain and division, O God, we cry out to you …

                        Where is my family?

                        Where are my friends?

                        Who is my neighbor?


                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

            Place empty plate and cup on table.

                        In our hunger and thirst, O God, we cry out to you …

                        When will justice come?

                        When will peace come?

                        How long?


                        Make us one body; reconcile all people.

            Sung response.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.

                        Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

                        Lord, have mercy upon us.


            God of love and justice, you have made it clear to us that you tire of our church words and religious festivals, and that the worship you want from us is an ethical life lived out in a society that reflects your justice. Hear our prayers for your whole creation, saying,

God of justice, save your world.

            We pray for the church and for all who live by faith, doing charity and advocating for social change.

God of justice, save your world.

            Cultivate peace between nations, between people, and between political parties.

God of justice, save your world.

            Protect and comfort those enduring the violence of war, especially those in Ukraine who are in pain, in fear, in hiding, in mourning; those enduring the injustice of crime, or the destructive forces of nature.

God of justice, save your world.

            Almighty God, guide all the nations of the world into your ways of justice and truth. Establish among us that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that this world may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

God of justice, save your world.

Preserve those who suffer violence at home or bullying at school. Embolden those who see their trouble to help bring relief, help, and compassion.

God of justice, save your world.

            Grant your healing mercies to those who are ill or facing death, especially those whose worlds have been turned upside-down by COVID-19 today, yesterday, or anytime in the last 2 years. Uphold those who care for them, especially our healthcare workers who are not only physically exhausted but emotionally and mentally and spiritually exhausted as well.

God of justice, save your world.

            Delivering God, through Jesus Christ, you come to us and teach us the way of true worship: doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. Set us free to serve you, sharing your work in the world, by the power of your strengthen Spirit.

God of justice, save your world.

Holding Space for All Our Prayers:

            If you feel so moved, I invite you now to voice any prayers you may have weighing on your hearts before God. It can be out loud or in your own hearts.


            Lord, in your mercy, hear all of our prayers – those spoken and those that only echo in the quietness of our hearts. We lift them up to you in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Sunday’s sermon: A Multitude of Questions

Text used – John 7:37-52

  • It’s always how the story goes – how the story makes its major twist. Well … maybe not always, but it is an age-old story.
    • Think of the Marvel Comic Universe – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, and all the rest
      • Hero’s story is introduced
      • Hero becomes adored by crowds
      • Hero experiences a major setback
        • Loss of a major battle
        • Loss of a loved one – friend or family member or heroic comrade
      • Major setback leads to doubt
        • Doubt of mission
        • Doubt of the power of good in the world
        • Doubt of self
        • Doubt that comes both from themselves and those around them
      • Hero makes a colossal interior effort to overcome doubt just in the nick of time
      • Hero is even stronger on the other side of the doubt
        • Stronger in power
        • Stronger in purpose
        • Stronger in conviction
      • Hero saves the day
    • And while it’s difficult for us to watch those doubting parts – difficult to watch the hero beat themselves up and doubt themselves and wonder aloud if they’ve made any sort of difference at all – part of the reason it’s so difficult for us to watch is because we know how true-to-life that experience is.
      • We know the struggle of being doubted
      • FLIP SIDE: We know the struggle of doubting
      • We know how jarring doubt can be – jarring to our sense of self, jarring to the tenuous and fragile ordering of the world around us, jarring to the beliefs we hold dear. And yet doubt is as human an experience as breathing, especially in this day and age.
        • Live in an era of proof
        • Live in an era of scientific discovery
        • Live in an era of empirical fact over perceived reality → the measurable over the unmeasurable, the head over the heart
        • Often, we don’t trust a theory or proposal until it’s been tried and tested and thoroughly dissected by others, a process that requires doubt in its most honed and zealous form.
    • And certainly, that’s not always a bad thing! Medically speaking, where would we be if both practitioners and scholars centuries ago hadn’t doubted that blood-letting did anyone any good? I shudder to think! No, doubt is surely not always a bad thing … and yet, it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We don’t like to be doubted, not by others and especially not by our own selves. And we are especially uncomfortable with doubt when it comes to faith. For centuries, various elements of the Church have tried to squash doubt as quickly as possible – calling it heresy, calling it witchcraft, calling it apostasy, calling it anything and everything possible to drive it from the life of the Church. But how helpful is that, really? And how Scriptural?
  • Seems to me that today’s Scripture reading is full of doubt – full of questions not meant to innocently glean information but to reveal a perceived falsehood in line with a particular agenda
    • Context for today’s encounter with Jesus
      • Text begins: On the last and most important day of the festival[1] → backing up to the beginning of ch. 7, we learn this is the Jewish Festival of Booths[2]
        • Fall festival of thanksgiving
        • Reminder of the years when the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness after Exodus from Egypt → thankful for the ways God provided for them in the wilderness
        • Characterized by the building of huts made of branches that are reminiscent of the huts erected by the people of Israel in their time in the wilderness
        • One of what used to be three Pilgrimage Festivals → holy festivals when Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple[3]
        • So for today’s Scripture story, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem to celebrate and to give thanks. But, of course, Jesus is Jesus, and word is spreading fast and furious about all of the astounding things he’s been doing – the good and the not-so-good.
          • Water to wine
          • Healing
          • Hanging out with Samaritans (in Samaria, no less!)
          • Feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fish
          • Walking on water
          • Teaching → all these inexplicable statements about living water and living bread and eternal life
          • Making all sorts of “I Am” statements that come perilously close to heresy  → Jesus’ “I Am” statements = same linguistic formula used by God when Moses was given God’s most holy name at the burning bush
    • Needless to say, when he went to teach in the Jerusalem synagogue during this Festival of Booths, Jesus was far from avoiding being noticed. → made sure of that in the beginning of our text this morning: Jesus stood up and shouted, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”[4] → couple of interesting things here
      • First, flash forward with me for a minute to Jesus’ crucifixion in Jn’s gospel → Remember that all the gospels have different accounts of what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. John’s account is the only account in which, after Jesus has died but before he’s been taken down from the cross, one of the Roman soldiers pierces his side with a spear, “and immediately blood and water came out.”[5]
      • Back to today’s Scripture: not exactly sure what “scriptures” Jesus is quoting here → not a recognized citation out of the First Testament
      • Also interesting that gospel writer is helpful for readers with a little explanation at this point (theological hindsight that we get a lot of in Jn’s gospel) – text: Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.[6] → But remember, John’s gospel was written around the turn of the 1st century roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it’s definitely not an explanation that those in Jesus’ hearing that day would have received.
  • Explanation that would clearly have been beneficial for those in Jesus’ hearing → You see, this is where the doubt starts to seep into our story this morning. This is when the barrage of questions begins.
    • Begins benignly enough with the affirmations of some – text: When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man truly is the prophet.” Others said, “He’s the Christ.”[7]
    • But there are others in the crowd who aren’t convinced. – text: But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” So the crowd was divided over Jesus.[8] → Divided indeed! Is this man before them another prophet – revered but not a singular occurrence in the history of the people of Israel? Or is he the Christ, the Messiah – the One sent by God to save the people once and for all? Or is he something else entirely? The seeds of doubt begin to take root and grow.
    • Next part of Scripture reading can be divided into two curious occurrences
      • 1st occurrence: Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him. The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?” The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken he way he does.[9] → So clearly, these guards had orders to arrest this rabblerouser Jesus and his followers … but by their own admission, they were so taken in by his words – by the mystery that surrounded and infused the presence of Jesus that they just … couldn’t do it. I hear awe and even a little bewilderment in their response to the chief priests and Pharisees: “Why didn’t you bring him?” “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”
        • See the flip side of doubt in this → Sometimes doubt closes us to possibilities and newnesses, but there are other times – times like this one – when doubt actually leaves us more open. The Roman guards’ doubt in their orders to arrest Jesus not only left the crowd open to the possibilities that Jesus’ words and teachings offered, but it left the guards themselves open.
      • 2nd curious occurrence = reappearance of Nicodemus (“he of the midnight meeting and desperate questions” → Remember, we read about Jesus’ first encounter with Nicodemus, the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member, about a month ago. We talked about Nicodemus’ questions, and how he was a man seeking more than just answers but seeking God’s Truth in all its glory and fullness and immeasurable grace. And here, in this next episode of questioning and doubt and testimony, we find Nicodemus again. – text (following the guards’ awe-filled declaration): The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!” Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”[10] → This is such a fascinating encounter! The Pharisees attempt to disparage the intelligence of both the guards and the crowd by declaring that they only believe in Jesus because of their ignorance of the Law, clueless to the fact that one of their own (Nicodemus) has in fact already sought out this subversive and problematic Jesus to learn from him and believe in him. And when Nicodemus speaks up in an attempt at a mild but logical defense of Jesus – basically asking the Pharisees to hear him out based on the precedence of the Law they’ve already cited themselves – they scorn him and tell him to “look it up.”
        • Fascinating because I have to wonder what was going through Nicodemus’ head during this whole exchange … and what was going on in his heart
        • Fascinating because same doubt that left the guards open to Jesus’ teaching and Truth has closed the Pharisees to that same Truth
  • In a strange, inextricable, and powerful way, Doubt itself is a character in this strange little gospel exchange that John gives us.
    • Rev. Dr. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church in Boston, addresses the unescapable presence of doubt in this story and the way it speaks to our faith: It is reasonable to assume that in every worshiping congregation there are people who lost their faith in the course of the past week, those who never had faith, and a great many for whom belief and doubt are strangely mixed together. … [In these challenging circumstances, John hopes] to pluck up our courage and equip our minds, hearts, and spirits for the arduous (and not so easy to defend or explain) journey of Christian discipleship. … John urges us to follow Jesus, even when we do not understand him. He aches for us to listen to Jesus, even though Jesus’ words and stories are perplexing. The author suggests that we trust the gentleness and openness of Nicodemus. He asks us to wonder and marvel at the defiant behavior of the temple police. He points to the uneducated crowd who find Jesus exceedingly compelling. … In other words, if we cannot see Jesus directly, we can at least see and experience him indirectly, through the eyes and lives of those who have risked everything, even their reputations, to follow him. Their witness is trustworthy.[11] → It was only after making it through the doubt – wrestling with it, going toe-to-toe with it, slogging through it and coming out the other side, possibly battered and bruised but still making it through that the heroes we talked about found themselves stronger, more convinced of their purpose and convicted in their mission. Maybe … just maybe … that’s the way it is with faith. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s why we do this “faith” thing together – to hold that openness for one another in the face of each other’s doubts and provide the trustworthy witness for one another in the most challenging moments. Amen.

[1] Jn 7:37.



[4] Jn 7:37-38.

[5] Jn 19:34.

[6] Jn 7:39.

[7] Jn 7:40-41a.

[8] Jn 7:41b-42.

[9] Jn 7:44-46.

[10] Jn 7:47-52.

[11] Nancy S. Taylor. “John 7:37-52 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 246.

Sunday’s sermon: A Hunger So Deep

Text used – John 6:35-59

  • The smell of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing quite like it, is there?
    • Walking into Grandma’s house as a kid after she’d just baked bread
    • Maybe it’s a hobby you picked up during the pandemic, either out of interest (something you always wanted to try but didn’t feel like you had the time for before) or out of necessity (to avoid going to the store)
    • Doesn’t have to be homemade → get that same mouth-watering, warm, yeasty smell when you pop a batch of premade rolls from HyVee or wherever into your oven
    • Even if you’re someone who’s never once baked any kind of bread in your entire life, you know that if you walk into a Subway at the right time of day, you’ll catch a whiff of that wonderful, fresh-baked-bread aroma.
    • Bread isn’t just delicious → it’s elemental to the human experience
      • Some type of bread found in some form in basically every culture around the world
        • Flat breads
        • Risen breads
        • Quick breads
        • Every day breads
        • Dessert breads
        • Fancy loaves and rolls for special occasions/celebrations
      • And you know, one of the most beautiful and most amazing things about bread is that from some very, very basic ingredients – some type of flour or grain, water, and salt … from these incredibly ordinary and humble ingredients, there is truly no end to the kinds of bread that can be made. 
        • Different breads in different cultures
          • Bannock cooked by the Inuit people who’ve made their home in the Artic for millennia
          • Injera – crepe-like flat bread common in Ethiopia and Somalia used as platter, utensil, and meal
          • Pillow-soft Japanese milk buns
          • Crackling crust and soft interior of a French baguette
          • They even found a petrified but fully intact loaf of nearly 2000-yr.-old bread in the ruins of Pompeii![1]
          • Maybe most recognizable here in the Midwest: potato-tinged familiarity of lefse (whether you add butter and eat it with meatballs … or add butter and sugar and cinnamon … which is not a war we will wage today)
        • Different recipes handed down from one generation to the next within the same culture
        • Even variations made on family recipes from one generation to the next! → Maybe Grandma used walnuts in her Christmas loaf, but you prefer pecans. Maybe your great-aunt’s recipe for hot cross buns calls for raisins, but you prefer currants. Or maybe you’ve gone completely off the rails and added crazy ingredients like saffron or a raz el hanout spice blend to your great-great-great grandfather’s favorite biscuit recipe … just to spice things up a bit!
    • The bottom line is, bread is essential to who we are as a people. It both expressed our own heritage and build bridges between cultures because bread – in one form or another, in one flavor profile or another – is something we all have in common.
  • It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus spends so much time talking about bread in our passage this morning.
    • Disclaimer before we get any further with today’s passage: reading/contemplating/preaching anything from John = like a game of theological pick-up sticks
      • Handful of major theological themes scattered throughout every passage
      • Can’t pick up one theme without bumping into all the others
      • Also can’t pick up all of them at once
      • Which is my way of fully acknowledging that there’s a lot that we could tackle in this passage, but we just can’t get to it all. But, as always, if you’d like to talk about any of it further, I’m more than willing to sit down with you … maybe over a cup of coffee … and some bread.
    • So let’s dig into this “bread of life” passage a little more.
      • Context w/in the greater narrative of the gospel
        • Comes on the heels of two pretty miraculous occasions
          • Beginning of ch. 6 (vv. 1-15) = Jn’s account of the feeding of the 5000 → Now, all of the gospels include some version of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5000+ people with nothing but a couple of loaves and fish. Only in John’s gospel does that meal come from someone in the crowd – a young boy. But all agree that after blessing and breaking the bread, and after the disciples shared the meal around, there was still an overabundance of bread and fish leftover.
          • Next passage starts with disciples heading out onto Sea of Galilee by themselves (Jesus went up on a mountain to pray after the feeding of the 5000 … today, we call that self-care, y’all … even Jesus did it!) → water becomes rough, and in the midst of the wind and the waves, Jesus walks out to the disciples’ boat across the surface of the water
            • No mention of Peter joining Jesus out on the water in Jn’s gospel à this account just ends with: Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.[2]
          • Part of the passage directly leading into today’s reading = discussion btwn Jesus and the crowd → crowd had gone looking for him after they realized he was no longer with them following the feeding of the 5000 → Jesus gets a little contentious with the crowd: When they found [Jesus] on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” (Sounds like an innocent-enough question, right?) Jesus replied, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you at all the food you wanted.”[3] → From there, Jesus launches into his discourse on the Bread of Life.
  • And let’s be totally honest, here – it’s a pretty heady discourse. It’s not exactly easy reading, right? – text: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” … Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”[4] → It’s a dense passage. It’s a rich passage. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot there, and some of it could get us digging really deep theologically.
    • Whole “flesh and blood of Christ”/bread and wine idea could lead us down the path of talking about the Catholic theology about communion vs. the Lutheran theology about communion vs. the Reformed theology about communion → If that’s what pulls at your heart and your mind with this passage, I would love to talk to you about it further. Later.
    • Could also spend all sorts of time taking a deeper diver into Jesus’ multiple assertions of his inextricable connection with God and how those who seek God must inevitably do that seeking through the person and work of Jesus himself → Again, if that’s what pulls at your heart and your mind with this passage, let’s talk more … later.
  • What really pulls at my heart and mind when I read this passage is how truly and fully embodied God is in Jesus Christ. God took on all that it was to be human in the incarnation in Jesus Christ. God literally put on flesh and bone and hair and eyelashes and goosebumps. God put on coarsely woven clothes and rough leather sandals. God’s own stomach rumbled and God’s own mouth watered at the smell of fresh-baked bread.
    • Rev. Dr. Jamie Clark-Soles (prof. of NT at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX): If we are going to experience God, it will have to be in our bodies. This is, after all, the Gospel of Incarnation … John 6 is as embodied as it gets … Ingesting Jesus (a phrase used by Jane Webster who has a book by that name), eating his flesh and drinking his blood makes us commingled with him, and therefore God, in the deepest way.[5] → Friends, it was God who created us – created our bodies in all their beautiful and frustrating and confounding glory, created all of our daily needs to be fed and nourished over and over again, created each individual olfactory receptor that allows us to smell that baking bread and each individual taste bud that allows us to savor it. Remember, it’s in John’s gospel – John 10:10 – where Jesus promises those gathered around him (disciples, crowds, and Pharisees) that he came so that “they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”[6]
    • And that’s the other really powerful connection that I love about this passage. Jesus is very specific. He is not just bread but “the bread of life,” “the living bread.” Over and over again, Jesus uses these two phrases.
      • vv. 35 and 48: “I am the bread of life.”
      • v. 51: “I am the living bread.”
      • v. 50: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats it will never die.”
      • vv. 51 (further in) and 58: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
      • Also v. 51: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world”
      • Again and again and again, Jesus links himself and abundant life with bread – the most common, humble, varied, and accessible food element throughout history. → powerful for 2 reasons
        • FIRST: wide-spread accessibility of it all → text: Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.[7] → Gr. “world” literally refers to the whole world in the most inclusive sense
          • Humanity
          • Everyone
          • All peoples
          • WHOLE. WORLD. Period. Full stop. God embraced and took on the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ for the whole world. No exceptions.
        • Also powerful because of that Eucharistic link that we touched on earlier – that distinctly communal element → Every single time we gather together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together – every time we break bread and share it, every time we partake together and pray together and praise God in our shared presence together here at this table, we participate in and are nourished by that abundant life.
          • Rev. Dr. Clark-Soles: We experience God in the flesh. Our flesh is invigorated by the Spirit. Jesus, God, and the Spirit indwell us; we participate in them in our actual bodies. … For all of us, the eucharist (or communion, or the Lord’s Supper) reminds us we are part of a community, a community of life. Human beings were not made to be alone and cannot attain or maintain abundant life without others. We are in it together. Period.[8] → Thanks be to God. Amen.


[2] Jn 6:21.

[3] Jn 6:25-26 (with my own insertion).

[4] Jn 6:50-51, 53-58.

[5] Jaime Clark-Soles. “Commentary on John 6:35-59” from Working Preacher,

[6] Jn 10:10.

[7] Jn 6:51 (emphasis added).

[8] Clark-Soles.

Sunday’s sermon: Promises Promises

Text used – John 4:46-54

This sermon was given on the Sunday of our annual meeting in 2022. The tradition in the congregation that I serve – the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco – is to intersperse the business of the annual meeting within the worship service. It helps us remember that all the work we do – the mission work, the compassion work, and even the sometimes-tedious administrative work – is work that we do for the glory of God.


          For the last few weeks, Jesus has been traveling. A couple of weeks ago, we read about that little incident at the wedding in Cana – the whole water-to-wine thing. After that, he and the few disciples who had already joined him headed up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover where he met the Pharisee Nicodemus in the secret of the night, then spent some time winding their way through some of the more remote parts of Judea. Then, of course, we read about Jesus’ adventure into Samaritan territory and his life-changing encounter with the woman at the well last week. All in all, this is the kind of journey that probably took a couple of weeks: probably 4 days or so to walk from Cana in Galilee to Jerusalem, time to celebrate the Passover, and probably a week to make their way back north to Cana (because last week’s Scripture reading told us Jesus and his disciples spent a few days in the Samaritan village). All told, it’s a journey of roughly 80 miles one way.

          Today, we catch up with Jesus as he and his disciples have finally returned to Cana in Galilee. But this isn’t a simple, uncomplicated returning for Jesus. He’s been doing things. He’s been healing people. His disciples have been baptizing. They traveled through – and stopped in! – Samaria! (gasp!) He’s back at that place where he turned simple water into the best of wines. People know him now. So when he and the disciples did finally return to Cana, word got around. Word got around far and wide. All the way to Capernaum, another 12 (or so) miles northeast of Cana, and in Capernaum, word reached a certain royal official whose son was sick. It’s interesting that the gospel writer tells us that this man is a “royal official.” It could mean that he’s a Gentile – a Roman citizen of some sort. But it could also mean that he’s a Jew whose been employed by the Roman Empire. Either way, he’s an outsider, because Jews who were voluntarily in the employ of the Romans – the oppressors – were despised within the Jewish community as a whole. (Think of Zacchaeus and Matthew, the tax collectors!)

          But to this father – this father’s whose son is deathly ill – none of that matters. He would travel ten times as far as those 12 measly miles between Capernaum and Cana if it meant his son could possibly be made well again. But he’s heard all the rumors flying around about this Jesus fellow, and he knows … he knows! … that this man can heal his son. Even though it’s a long shot. Even though his peers all think he’s crazy. Even though the possibility – the hope – is just a mere flicker … even though it’s barely a spark, it is a hope.

          So he goes to Jesus and asks him to heal his son. And he will not be deterred. Even when Jesus tries to put him off – tries to tell him that he doesn’t really believe. He hears Jesus say to him, “Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders, you won’t believe.”[1] He hears it, but he continues to plead: “Lord, please. Lord, please. Come. Come now. Come quickly. Come before my son dies.”[2] And even as he’s standing there shaking and weeping … even as he is silently and ceaselessly praying … even as he is pouring every ounce of his hope and his faith into this strange and miraculous rabbi in front of him, he hears the words he’s been praying for: “Go home. Your son live.”[3] And just like that, the man knows it’s true. He doesn’t have to see it. He doesn’t have to feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms. He knows. He believes. He mumbles thank you upon thank you upon thank you as he swiftly leaves this Jesus man’s presence and hurries home.

          And it is true. Before he can even get close to his home, he sees one of his servants running toward him along the road, shouting that his son is well. His son is well! And not only is he well, but he was made well at the exact moment that Jesus said it. When he finally walked back into him own home … when he finally did feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms … he told his whole household about his incredible encounter with Jesus, and they all believed.

          This is probably one of the shortest but most powerful stories in the gospel of John – powerful not because of Jesus’ actions but because of the man’s belief. Undeterred. Unfailing. Unwavering. He couldn’t know for sure what the future held, but he believed. He believed it not only could be better but it would be better. He believed without seeing.

          Friends, I don’t normally do this. In fact, I’ve never done this, but this morning, I want to read my pastor’s report to you:

          Many of you know that I’ve been working on a doctorate through the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary for the last 2 years – a Doctor of Ministry (DMin for short … and yes, it sounds exactly like “demon” … commence the ironic laughter). More specifically, it’s a DMin in “Pastoring for Renewal: Discipleship, Liturgy, and Catechesis.” The cohort description that appears at the top of every semester’s syllabus says,

“Renewed pastors lead renewed ministries. Renewed communities encourage and support joyful discipleship in Jesus Christ–loving God, neighbor and self–for the life and healing of the world. For renewal to be lasting and vital, it must address the personal and corporate worship life, education in the faith, and practices of discipleship. This UDTS Doctor of Ministry program will offer students the opportunity to explore the relationship between renewal, liturgical formation, catechesis, and practices of discipleship, both personally, as pastors, and within their parishes, congregations, or faith communities.”

          I mailed in my application for this program toward the end of 2019 and began in February 2020. Little did we know at that time what the next two years would look like. I’ve often joked about how ironic it is that I’m studying renewal in one of the least renewing times in history. And yet, I’ve come to recognize that it’s also incredibly fortuitous. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly and irrevocably clear that the Church is in the midst of deep and significant change. This isn’t something that was brought about by the pandemic. Far from it. It’s a change that’s been on the horizon for decades, but the realities and challenges of the pandemic both shed a harsh and unrelenting light on the need for change and accelerated the timeline of that need.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal: the theory, the practices, the theology, the roadblocks and pitfalls, the practical steps, etc. I cannot think that this is an accident. This is what my Fun Nuns would call a pretty mighty “showy God” moment. Because, friends, we are in need of renewal.

          Stating the obvious, we are in need of renewal because of how drained and disconnected these last 2 yrs. of pandemic life have left us. But it goes far beyond that. Nearly five years ago, this congregation made the unanimous decision to dissolve the yoke with First Congregational Church UCC in Zumbrota. When we made the decision to dissolve the yoke, we did so because we’d looked at our finances and realized that we had maybe 3-5 yrs. left if nothing changed. Following that decision, we experienced a quick shot of renewal. People were coming or coming back to worship. Our finances became more stable through a couple of significant gifts and some savings in a few crucial areas. We had lots of energy and ideas. More than that, though, we had the excitement and fervor for the mission and work and worship and life of this congregation.

          But over the last few years, that renewal has been waning. After a few years of our budget staying in the black at the end of the year, we slipped back into running a roughly $10,000 yearly deficit. Participating and attendance – in worship but also in our various activities – has gone down. This is not a “fault” thing. It’s not because someone didn’t do something or forgot to do something or did something wrong. But it is still true.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal. With this DMin program, I’ve reached the point of needing to figure out and propose my final project – my dissertation. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and praying and discerning a project that would be something that speaks to where my deepest heart lies in ministry but also something that would be truly and lastingly beneficial for the life of this congregation.

          And so I share with you “Come Alive!”: Exploring Discipleship through Prayer and Story – my DMin Ministry Focus Paper. Everything that I’ve read so far has made it clear how crucial it is that a congregation experience spiritual renewal before any kind of numerical renewal. Our spiritual bones need to be strong before we start thinking about reaching out and branching out in any sort of outreach. As one of my course books puts it, “A community of people growing up in their faith would never decide that they were not interested in reaching others with the gospel that is transforming their own lives.”[4]

          So we’re going to do some deep diving together into renewing our spiritual lives as individuals and our spiritual life as a congregation. It’s going to involve discipleship. It’s going to involve prayer. It’s going to involve story – God’s Story through Scripture but also our own stories of faith through testimony. We’re going to make a concerted, intentional effort to reconnect to God and to reconnect to one another as this body of Christ here in this particular time and place. Because that’s why we come here, right? I would hope so.

          The thing is, I can’t do this alone. Literally. I cannot undertake and participate in an entire congregational curriculum by myself. I need your help. I’m asking for your participation, but more importantly, I’m asking for your heart. I’m asking for you to take part in this endeavor not because you feel like you have to but because you want to – for yourself and for the life of this congregation.

          Let me tell you a story. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon sitting on the floor of my office really working on the particulars of this Ministry Focus Paper. I was surrounded by books and papers and pens and a rough (very rough!) outline that I’d already put together. Before I began, I lit one of my candles – something I always do in my office because it reminds me that the light of Christ is ever-present. And I was listening to music … because I am who I am. More particularly, I was listening to Lauren Daigle, a contemporary Christian artist. As I was sitting there elbow-deep in plans, a song came on – a song called “Come Alive.” The lyrics for this song come from Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in the valley (Ezekiel 37:1-14):

          But we know that you are God, yours is the victory.
          We know there is more to come
          That we may not yet see.
          So with the faith you’ve given us,
          We’ll step into the valley unafraid, yeah …

           As we call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive!
          We call out to dead hearts, come alive, come alive!
          Up out of the ashes, let us see an army rise.
          We call out to dry bones, come alive!

          As I sat there surrounded by and steeped in thoughts and plans and prayers for renewal – specifically the renewal of this beloved little white church on the hill – with this song and these lyrics resounding in my ears and my heart, I was overcome with this vision of what we could be. It was full of hope. It was full of joy and possibility. It was full of God’s Spirit. And it brought me to tears. I hope and pray that you’ll take this journey with me in the year to come.

          Friends, it’s time to believe without seeing. Let’s do this. Amen.

[1] Jn 4:48 (emphasis added).

[2] based on Jn 4:49.

[3] Jn 4:50.

[4] Harold Percy. Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections That Build Healthy Congregations. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 31.