Freedom from Shame

Scriptures (click links to be redirected to the scripture):

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12


Introduction to Psalm 51:

In order to understand today’s text, we need to know the backstory.


King David, the man who as a boy slew the giant Goliath, has gotten himself into a bit of trouble.


King David, the artist and harp player, the one who soothed the previous king with his sweet melodies, David who read poetry to intimidate his foes.


THAT guy has now become a tyrant.


His most recent abuse of power includes spying on a woman named Bathsheba, who he lusts after and decides he must have as his wife.


The only problem – she’s already married.


But instead of moving on and saying, well, she’s beautiful, but I’ll have to look elsewhere for my next wife, David sends Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines of the war, where he knows her husband will die.


Then, with the husband out of the way, David takes Bathsheba for himself.


David, like many people in power, makes a massive mistake.


It turns out, people in power are likely to make mistakes.


As are people without power.

But David, God’s chosen king, was supposed to be above that type of behavior.


Obviously, he wasn’t.


So his best friend, Nathan, who recognizes David’s plots and manipulations comes to David and tries to get him back on track.


In the book of Second Samuel, the story is told this way:

“God was not at all pleased with what David had done with Bathsheba and her husband, so God sent Nathan to David.

Nathan told David a story: “There were two men in the same city—one rich, the other poor. The rich man had huge flocks of sheep, herds of cattle. The poor man had nothing but one little female lamb, which he had bought and raised. It grew up with him and his children as a member of the family. It ate off his plate and drank from his cup and slept on his bed. It was like a child to him.

“One day a traveler dropped in on the rich man, but the rich man was too stingy to take an animal from his own herds or flocks to make a meal for his visitor, so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared a meal to set before his guest.”

5-6 When Nathan finished the story, David exploded in anger. “As surely as God lives,” he said “the man who did this ought to be killed! He must repay for the lamb four times over for his crime and his stinginess!”

To which, Nathan replies… 7-12 “You are that man!”

Today’s Psalm is David’s response.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

You desire truth in the inward being;[a]
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Sermon and Ritual of Release

David recognizes what he’s done. And he’s horrified. And he begs God for forgiveness.


And if you read on, David DOES find redemption. He DOES change his ways.


But in THIS moment, the moment of Psalm 51, David finds himself stuck in a place that’s familiar to a lot of us. The place of shame.


It’s a place where many of us go when we realize we’ve done something that’s hurt other people.


“Indeed, I was born guilty, he says.     a sinner when my mother conceived me.”


He’s not just feeling guilty. HE’s feeling shame. Not only did he do something wrong, he himself is somehow broken.


The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is that feeling of regret and sadness at having made a mistake.


Shame is the belief that we ARE a mistake. That we ARE inherently evil.


Guilt is about recognizing our actions as problematic.


Shame is the belief that we ourselves are problematic.


And it is SHAME that ultimately becomes a stumbling block for many of us.



It is SHAME that often keeps us from taking the next step and moving on with our lives.


Brenee Brown, who writes a lot about guilt and shame, has this to say about the difference between the two.


She writes, “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

Shame, on the other hand, is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

She adds, “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Thankfully, for David, and for us, shame does not have to be the final word.


David does have to face the consequences of his actions. But Nathan tells him right away, “This is not the final word. God forgives you.”


David, God tells him. You are not inherently sinful. You ARE worthy of love and connection. You just made a massive mistake. And I wanted you to see it, so I sent Nathan to help you recognize what you’d done. But this is not the final word. I forgive you.


David’s realization of his mistakes ultimately becomes  part of his healing.

But at first, he gets stuck in his shame, which could be dangerous.


Writer Jessie Sholl, who writes about health and wellness, captures it perfectly: “Shame,” she writes, “which Jungian analysts have dubbed “the swampland of the soul,” makes us feel like we are worthless. To compensate, we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding. Very high levels of shame are associated with more serious problems like addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm. Shame, in other words, causes us to act in ways that keep us from a feeling of forward movement, freedom from fear, and a sense of agency.”


We witness David’s shame, and I suspect many of us can relate to it. That feeling that in order to do what we’ve done, we must be inherently bad.


But God responds to us by saying, “No. I knit you together in your mother’s womb. I formed your inmost parts. And when you were born, I proclaimed to the heavens, YOU are my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.”


God knows we make mistakes. Sometimes big mistakes. God also knows that we are created in God’s image, fully human, but also fully capable of connecting to God through the Holy Spirit. We are created for connection and love.


And so as difficult as it is to believe in God’s forgiveness and to live into that forgiveness, it is essential if we are to move forward and take the next steps toward healing and wholeness.


As we prepare for Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the scriptures tell us that there are difficult times ahead.


And in order to face what comes next, the trial and crucifixion and yes, the resurrection as well, in order to face what comes next… it is important that we clear our hearts of shame, that we accept God’s forgiveness, and just as importantly, that we begin the process of forgiving ourselves.


In order to fully experience Holy Week, we have to be vulnerable to the Spirit. We have to be fearless and open-hearted.


And so to prepare for Palm Sunday, which is next week, today, we will participate in a ritual of preparation by releasing our shame to God and clearing our hearts, that we might take the next steps toward healing, wholeness, reconciliation, and resurrection.




There will be 3 parts to this ritual.

1) Confession

2) Release of our Guilt and Shame

3) Clearing of our Hearts

So what’s going to happen is that I’m going to give a moment for silent prayer and confession, and I’m going to invite people to speak out loud or speak in silence to God and offer honest confessions of ways you have created distance between you and God, you and others, or you and your true self.

After that, I’m going to invite people to come forward to pick up a rock, as you feel comfortable.

And it’s absolutely okay if you do NOT want to participate in any aspect of this ritual, by the way. It is not easy to be that honest and vulnerable before God. But know that God will not judge, but will simply hear and hold what you have have been carrying.

So I’m going to invite people to come forward, as you feel comfortable, and take a rock from this basket.

And then I want you to take just a moment, and put into that rock, any guilt or shame that is stuck to your soul that you want to release.

Anything that tells you “you are not worthy, that you are beyond fixing, that you are unlovable. That your sins are too great to forgive.” Any shame or guilt that’s sticking to you, put it into this rock, and then place it in the water.

I’m then going to pray over those rocks and ask God to release our shame into the water.

After that, I’m going to ask God to clear it for us. To purify and transform this water and in doing that symbolic act, change something real in our hearts. Transform us and release us, and create in us clean hearts and renew our spirits that we might be able to move ahead and take the next steps toward reconciliation and healing.

Let us begin now this ritual in a spirit of openness to what God has in store.


Let us pray,

God we come to you today with regrets and guilt and shame over what we have done and what we have left undone.

We lift to you now our spoken and silent confessions:


Hear these confessions, O God, and offer us your forgiveness. Amen.


Know that God’s love is boundless. Friends, there is nothing, not even sin or death, that can keep us from the love of God.

We are forgiven. Thanks be to God.


Although we know intellectually that God forgives us, it is sometimes difficult for us to shake the guilt and shame of our actions.

As you feel called, I invite you to come forward and take a rock representing your own guilt and shame.

Put into these rocks anything that you are still holding onto, anything that still keeps you from moving forward as God’s beloved child.

Water is a powerful symbol. It is essential to life on earth, it grows creation, and it welcomes us into community in baptism.

Please come forward now, as you feel comfortable, to place any lingering shame into these rocks.


Here in this bowl are rocks that represent the shame and guild we carry with us.

I now pray to you, O God, that you might release our shame and guilt into this water.

<pour red-colored heavy liquid into vase>

And as our intentions release from these rocks, may we see this visible sign as a symbol of our own shame and guilt releasing from our hearts and souls into your care. Amen.

This is what guilt and shame can feel like.

Heavy, cloudy, a force that keeps us from seeing any way forward.

But into this mix, God pour forgiveness and freedom.


Let us pray,

God, we ask that in this moment, you transform us through the power of your Holy Spirit.

<pour clarifying liquid into the vase>

Just as this water is becoming clear, cleanse and purify our hearts.

Free us of any shame or guilt,

transform our pain and open our eyes that we might see a path forward,

knowing that your forgiveness and love of us knows no end.

Remind us that with you, there is no darkness we cannot overcome.

Remind us that you created us with love and created us FOR love. Remind us that we are your beloved children with whom you are well pleased. Remind us that through you, we are freed to be open and vulnerable again as we prepare for the journey of Holy Week and the joy of the resurrection.



God of our mothers and fathers, we ask that you imprint this memory on our hearts, that in times of struggle, times of shame, we remember this moment in which the cloudy water of shame was cleared, and we were given a fresh start. We ask that you hold us close as we prepare for the days ahead, knowing that you are with us every step of the way.

We lift to you now our silent prayers….


Prayer of Jesus…


Sermon on Numbers and John, including surprises about John 3:16 and the meaning of the Cross!

If there’s any reason to come to Bible study, it’s texts like these…

We won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty of everything in the next 10 minutes, but I do promise I’ll unpack some of the craziness of the snakes and Jesus on the cross to the best of my abilities.

If you want to talk more about this text or about issues relating to what you hear today, please don’t hesitate to call me, and we’ll get together and work through it together.

So before we get into revealing why on earth Jesus is compared to a bronzed poisonous snake, I want to share with you a quick story that demonstrates the principle that I believe both the book of Numbers and the Gospel of John are trying to demonstrate,
which is that sometimes, in order to heal, we need to take a closer look at what’s causing us pain.
A few weeks ago, my friend took action to investigate something that was causing her a lot of personal distress, her lack of sleep.

So she downloaded an application onto her phone that tracks how much sleep she gets.
It’s simple. She pushes a button when she goes to bed and when she wakes up.
The app also connects to a program that’s integrated with her watch to monitor how much she’s tossing and turning during the night.

Now she downloaded this, because she was feeling tired all the time and she thought she wasn’t sleeping well.
After a week of monitoring, it sent her a graph, and what she saw surprised her. It turns out that she’s actually sleeping quite soundly. The issue is, she’s just going to bed really really late.
Here, she thought she was being responsible. She was IN bed by 9 o’clock, but she was reading or looking at emails on her phone until much later.

Before she downloaded the app, she was blind to that reality.
But a simple graph helped her see where she was going wrong.

As a result of this new information, and her personal commitment to caring for herself, she’s slowly changing her habits. She’s increasingly getting more sleep and feeling less tired during the day.
There are lots of places in our lives where we too, seek improvement.
Maybe it’s our eating habits. Or our personal relationships. Our work/life balance. There are always places we can improve.

But often times, it’s difficult to know how to do that.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize there’s a problem until someone else invites us to take a closer look.

And a closer look at the source of pain is exactly what Moses and God intend to do with the snakes in the desert.
The poisonous snakes aren’t just a random plague from God.

Snakes in the Bible often represent evil, and specifically, poisonous speech and actions.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly calls his adversaries “a brood of vipers.” Snakes represent corruption and forces of evil that separate people from God.

There’s also the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, who twists the words of God and Eve to make it sound like God is keeping something valuable from them.

God may be protecting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but the serpent twists that reality in such a way that Adam and Eve are compelled to act against God.

There are a lot of different interpretations of that story too, some of which include some redemption for the snake, but the most common interpretation is that the snake represents evil.

So it’s no coincidence that the plague we read about in today’s text is a plague of poisonous snakes.

When the people begin to complain to God and Moses that they’re tired of walking in the desert, and they’re tired of eating magical mana from heaven, and they’re tired of Moses’ leadership, God sends snakes as a metaphor for the way their complaining and conspiring is poisoning the group.

Remember that God liberated these people from slavery in Egypt. Complaining and saying they’d be better off back in Egypt IS ungrateful. And it’s the kind of thing that would distance them from God and create conflict within their group.

Thankfully, God gives them a way forward.

God tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, and whoever looks at it will be healed.

God invites them to look directly at something that represents their poisonous words and attitudes.

And by looking directly at it, by looking at something that represents their separation from God, they are able to heal and reconcile with God and with one another.
Fast forward to the Christian scriptures, which are written hundreds of years later. The author of John tells his followers, who would have been familiar with the story from Numbers, that just as Moses held up the bronze snake in the desert, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

It may seem odd, but John IS saying that Jesus is equivalent to the bronze snake.

He’s a symbol to look at for healing.

Specifically, a symbol that reminds us of our corruption and poisonous words and actions.

Remember that Jesus spoke out publicly about love and healing and economic justice, and he was crucified as a result.

There couldn’t be a more clear demonstration of human separation from God than the cross, where we executed the man who represented God’s message of love and hope.

And I say we, because even though we weren’t there, we certainly participate in systems and structures and behaviors that continue to damage God’s work for justice in the world.

This invitation to look to the cross is not intended to make us feel ashamed or embarrassed as much as it is intended to open our eyes to the ways we are creating distance between ourselves and God and take that recognition as an opportunity for healing.
Sometimes, we have to take a hard look at ourselves and recognize our shortcomings in order to begin the process of transformation for good.

In my opening story, my friend wasn’t able to change her sleeping habits until she saw the hard facts about what was actually going on with her sleep pattern.

Likewise, in 12 step programs, one of the key steps to recovery is taking a moral inventory and admitting to God, ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our wrongs.

Healing begins with recognition that healing is needed.

And one of the places healing is needed most is in the Christian church.

The text from John today is one of the most misused and abused texts in scripture, and I can’t stand in the pulpit today without addressing that.

So let’s take a closer look at the bronze snake and see what healing we might find.

First, there is a text from 2 Kings 18 that is essential to understanding today’s texts. It reads, “King Hezekiah did was right in the sight of God. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.”

What this tells us is that many years after the events that take place in the desert with Moses, King Hezekiah, one of the greatest and most honorable and faithful kings of the Bible, smashes the bronze serpent, because people in Israel had started making offerings to it.

They had taken it out of context and perverted its original power.

Likewise, the words in the Gospel of John have their own specific context.

They too were a way to bring people healing and wholeness. And yet taken out of context years later, they have been worshiped and idolized on their own in the form of John 3:16 bumper stickers and dangerous theology that says that all you have to do to be “saved” is to believe that Jesus died for our sins.

We cannot forget that John was writing to a specific group of people, a small sect of Jews who were outcast from the temple and who were facing severe persecution, imprisonment, and even death as a result of their unorthodox beliefs.

Because they refused to give up their Jewish practices, Christian groups ostracized them as well.

When John says, “God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it,” he’s speaking directly to a group of people who feel condemned by religious authorities on a regular basis.
And when John says, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already,” he’s not saying that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell.

He’s simply saying that those people who are attacking John’s small group, those people who are going after them – the attackers are condemned by their actions.
That’s clear if we read down to verse 20, where it says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, “We, Jewish followers of Christ, have found a meaningful way to connect with God. Those who accuse us of falsehood and who attack us in the public square and abuse our bodies and imprison us – they don’t have a monopoly on truth.

In fact, their evil deeds will be brought into the light and God will see them for what they are. Evil done in the name of righteousness is still evil.”

So THAT is the context of John’s words, but just like the people who years later worshiped the bronze snake, many Christians, years later, idolize this text as something set in bronze, something permanent and immovable.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg puts it this way: “In 2 Kings we see how the symbol of the serpent has hardened. It no longer points beyond itself to God. Instead it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a formula…Just as in Hezekiah’s day, the idol of John 3:16 needs to be broken. Like the bronze serpent in Hezekiah’s day, John 3:16 alone is an insufficient guide for healing and salvation. Instead, we need an authentic encounter with the Mysterious, Loving, and Gracious Presence that we call God — and concrete steps transforming one’s life to follow the way of Jesus.” (read more at

The translation of John 3:16 is misread and mistranslated anyway. We hear “God so loved the world” as “God loved the world a LOT,” but it actually means, “God loved the world in this way, in this manner.” God loved the world in this way: God sent God’s only son.

The way God loves the world is to become incarnate in it. To live among us and within us that we might live lives connected to the divine.

My challenge to us this week is to consider what snakes there might be in our lives, what poison we may need to address, but also to not make those reminders of separation from God the final word. To remember that making an idol out of the sins of the past and looking at them forever isn’t the way to healing.
God doesn’t end our story with condemnation. God ends with forgiveness, and healing, and connection.

“The foolishness of God…” – A sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 To those who are spiritually dead, the message of the cross is foolishness—absurd and illogical, but to those of us being healed and liberated by God’s grace, the cross is the manifestation of God’s power. 19 For it is written in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the ‘wise,’

And I will baffle the insights of the ‘intelligent’.”

20 Where are the wise? Where are the authors and scholars? Where are the debaters and philosophers of this age? Has God not exposed the foolishness of this world’s wisdom? 21 The world, through all its earthly wisdom and pursuit of power, fails to recognize God; and yet God somehow uses our humility and “foolishness” to proclaim the Good News. 22 Some are persuaded by miracles, and others invest in worldly wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified. Our message is a stumbling block for many, and foolishness to others, but to those who are called, Christ represents the power and wisdom of God. 25 The foolishness of God is far wiser than the limits of human comprehension, and the weakness of God is far stronger than the limits of human effort.”

Sermon: “We Proclaim Christ crucified”

When I lived in<place omitted for online publication>, I attended a church whose history went back generations.

It was founded in <date>, and from the beginning, the congregation had a commitment to serving the community and living out the message of Christ in the world.

One of their early missions was to sponsor a clinic for mothers and children before the public health department even existed. And among other acts of justice, they spoke out against the interment of American citizens with Japanese heritage during WWII.

The church was on the front lines of the equal marriage movement, and they were one of the first churches to publicize that they were going to perform same-sex weddings no matter what the state had to say about it.

But perhaps even more controversial and risky than all of these previous actions, in 2009, they did something quite radical.

They elected a convicted felon as their moderator.

Now, to be fair, we all believed him to be an innocent man.

But at the time he was elected moderator, as far as the courts were concerned, he was a felon.

Someone who, for over 10 years, sat in jail, because his defense lawyer told him that as a young black man, it was better if he just pled guilty and got a lesser sentence than to go before a jury and take his chances of getting life in prison.

So according to his own plea, he was guilty.

So why on earth would a congregation with over 100 years of leadership in the community, decide HE was the man they wanted leading their congregation.

Well, one answer was that he was a phenomenal leader.

Another answer comes from today’s text.

We elected a convicted felon as our moderator, because we, as Christians, sometimes choose to reject the “wisdom” of the world in favor of the “foolishness” of the Gospel message, which proclaims God’s love and forgiveness for all people.

According to conventional wisdom, it seems grossly unwise to elect a felon to lead an historic church, who had a reputation as a community leader for over 100 years.

And yet the wisdom of God, manifest in the life and message of Jesus Christ, says that lifting up a felon as a leader is completely appropriate.

Isn’t a convicted felon just the type of person Jesus would have called into leadership?

When we read the text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that becomes clear.

The Apostle Paul is writing to a community in Corinth that is divided. They’re fighting over who can be Christian and who is not allowed in community. And they’re fighting over what communion means and over who should be able to speak in church and who should lead and who should remain silent.

And to all of that, Paul says, “Listen. What’s important here is not the law or the tiny details. What’s important is Christ and HIS message.”

And…ultimately, believing in Jesus, and following the MESSAGE of Jesus is not always logical.

Don’t forget – Jesus was a convicted criminal himself. At the very least, a jury of his peers, even a jury of his biggest fans, would have convicted him of disturbing the peace.

In addition to doing things that broke social and religious conventions, like talking to women, working on the sabbath, and eating with people who didn’t keep kosher, Jesus broke Roman law as well.

He spoke out against the Roman empire’s economic injustices, he created a scene in a temple courtyard by turning over the tables of the money changers, and he could arguably be blamed for fomenting a revolution against the Roman empire in Jerusalem.

Just wait for Palm Sunday when Jesus parades in on a donkey at the same time the Roman military leader parades into town on a war horse on the other side of town. Seems like a mockery of Roman authority to me…

Remember that the Roman empire was expansive, and it depended on strict laws and hierarchy to maintain order across such a great stretch of territory.

The Romans tolerated Judaism, in part, because it maintained a logical social structure and kept people in line.

But Jesus brought chaos to the equation, defying logic, defying the religious and civil authorities.

And he did it across the board.

To make matters worse, Jesus was not consistent in championing one side or another.

Yes, Jesus stood up for the poor and outcast, but he also reached out to the wealthy and powerful.

At one point in the Bible, he heals a man with mental health issues who spends his days outside the city in a cemetery, mumbling to himself and fighting with personal demons.

And yet, in another part of scripture we read about how Jesus also heals the daughter of a Roman official.

In another story, he invites himself over to dinner at the home of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who is short in stature, but powerful as an enforcer for the Roman government.

Jesus doesn’t fit the “wisdom” of the world.

He didn’t fit the structures or even the common sense of the world.

If he were here now, he may find himself in the International zone caring for people who are homeless. He may find himself visiting prisoners. But I can guarantee that he would also be meeting at the homes of bankers and wall street moguls and inviting himself to talk with Donald Trump in the Whitehouse.

And even more shocking, perhaps, is the reality that if Jesus came today, he would also be visiting with and having meals with people we reject as broken and even evil.

Jesus might be found gathering with white supremacists to listen to their stories or sharing a meal with a mass shooter.

In a crowd of people, Jesus might single out a registered sex offender as the one he’d like to visit with in his home.

That’s the type of extreme love Jesus practiced. Love so deep and wide that it had room for people who we find are nearly impossible to forgive, let alone love.

That’s who Jesus was.

Now, is that the kind of leader we really want to get behind?


Paul says yes.


But Paul also reminds us in this text of the implications of following Christ.


Paul reminds us of the cost that comes with living a life that defies the laws of the land and the conventions of society.


Paul reminds us of the risk of putting ourselves out there to love people who many see as unlovable.


Let’s not forget, Paul says, that Jesus was tortured and killed, not only because of the crimes he committed, but also because people on all sides feared what it would mean to have a leader who refused to take sides.

The only sides Jesus took was the side of love and the side of forgiveness, the side of justice, and the side of healing and wholeness.


And as much as we’d like to think of ourselves as an open and welcoming community, there’s not one of us here that on some level, must struggle with that message.


There’s not one of us here that doesn’t have some adversary in our lives who we believe to be wrong.


Maybe it is a criminal that’s hurt us or our family. Maybe it’s actually a family member. Or an ex. Maybe it’s a political party or people who have a particular political ideology. Maybe it’s people who are openly racist.


Maybe it’s simple people we don’t know or understand or people we fear.


Following a leader who loves THEM is not logical. It’s not practical. And frankly, it’s dangerous.


Recently, I witnessed someone follow Jesus’ example, and also listened as they struggled with their choice to do so.


A recently homeless man had approached a member of our church community.


He told her he had just left his family, and he had no where to go. He had tried a local shelter, but he had been attacked there, and he was afraid to go back.


Despite conventional wisdom, despite the risk to her own safety, she reached out to him, offering to help him in the form of a listening ear and a phone to call family members and social services. She even welcomed him into a public place and offered him food, not knowing if he might hurt her.


She didn’t know the man. She didn’t know if he was dangerous.


She also didn’t listen to conventional wisdom.


She listened to the wisdom of her heart, and the language of Christ, the language of love and forgiveness and compassion.


Thankfully, she was okay, but I know many people who have ended up being hurt or scammed in situations like that.


And injury, physical as well as emotional, are risks when it comes to caring for people, especially people on the margins of society or people who are at odds with us ideologically for one reason or another.


There is legitimate risk in following the type of leader we’ve lifted up as our savior.


Jesus Christ is not a safe choice.


He’s not someone who will create order and comfort in our lives.


Certainly, we can receive nurture and love from Christian community, but that nurture and care is not an end in itself. It’s part of being restored and filled up spiritually so that we can go out and do that difficult and dangerous work Jesus modeled.


For those of us who are spiritually and emotionally and physically able at this time, my challenge to us this week is to find a place where we can be a little more “foolish.” A bit more reckless with our love for those who the world calls dangerous or wrong or “other.”


And for those of us who feel broken or even just cautious and not ready to risk to such a degree, which is totally fine too, by the way, my challenge for us is allow people in our lives to foolishly embrace US and restore OUR hope, and OUR strength, that we might all participate in the healing of God’s world together.


Sermon on Romans 9:2-7 – Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday
Romans 9:2-7

In today’s story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the top of a mountain, and there, they encounter something extraordinary.

We have no video footage of the event, and the Gospel of Mark was likely written 30 years after his death, so it’s likely that the author was not an eye witness to the event. So we’re not sure EXACTLY what happened that day.

But we do know that SOMETHING happened. And that Peter, James, and John were changed as a result.

So why Peter, James and John?

Maybe they were the Disciples who were closest to Jesus. Maybe they were his top leaders.

Or maybe…they were actually the biggest troublemakers, and so Jesus wanted to keep them close to keep an eye on them.

My own sense is that Peter, James and John, and Peter in particular, were the disciples that needed this experience most.

Peter was a law and order guy. His name was actually Simon-Peter, Simon meaning listener and Peter menaing rock.

But most of the time, Jesus calls him Peter, because Peter, the rock, is solid, trustworthy, but also stubborn.
Peter is an institutional guy. He believed in the value of organized institutional religion. There are reasons he became, according to legend, the first bishop of the church. He liked structure. He liked buildings. He liked monuments and control and logic.

Most of the followers of Jesus, crowds of people surrounding him wherever he went, believed he was capable of healing them and performing miracles.

But Peter had a very different view of Jesus.

Yes, Jesus was the Christ, the son of God. But for Peter, Jesus was also the one who was supposed to transform organized religion. And set the Jewish people free from the influence of Rome. In Peter’s world view, the messiah, Jesus, was supposed to be a traditional political and religious leader who would enact reforms from within the confines of religious law and structure.

Of course, we know now that Jesus did not fit that mold.

And it troubled Peter that Jesus wasn’t living up to Peter’s expectations.

Even more troubling was that before the events in today’s scripture, Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that soon, Jesus will suffer and die.

And so when Jesus says this, of course, it throws Peter into a tailspin. So Peter takes Jesus aside and tells Jesus that Jesus dying is not a part of the plan.

That’s not how things are SUPPOSED to happen. The savior of the world needs to live longer in order to transform organized religion. Jesus’ work is not done. He can’t go yet.

And to Peter’s complains, Jesus responds by turning to Peter and to all the disciples and says this: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus calls Peter the devil. That’s a pretty strong critique.

Jesus calls Peter out, very publicly, and says, listen, suffering is a part of what is going to happen, whether you like it or not, and there is more to this world than what you can see and explain through reason and logic. And more to spirituality than organized religion.

So get out of your head and outside the walls of the synagogue for a second and pay attention to what’s really going on here.

Just 6 days later, Jesus takes Peter to the mountaintop.

Peter needed that experience to break him free.
On the mountaintop, Peter witnesses something he absolutely cannot explain, the appearance of Elijah, the prophet, and Moses, the writer of the law, people who died over a thousand years ago.

And Peter is terrified. Understandably. And so he turns to what he knows – structure and substance.

He witnesses something supernatural, and his instinct is to put his visions in a box. To build a tent or a monument of stone—houses for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus to contain them up here in on the mountaintop.

But of course, visions cannot be contained within stone walls. And the visions of Elijah and Moses disappear. And at that moment, as if the message wasn’t clear enough, a cloud overshadows the mountain, and the voice of God says to Peter and the others, “This is my child, my beloved. Listen to him.”

To Simon-Peter, whose name means both listener and rock, God says, Simon-Peter, be more of a listener, and stop being such a rock.

Peter needs that encounter. He needs something to break him loose from the confines of his world view.

And like Peter, as Christians, as members of this community and as human beings, it sometimes takes this type of experience to shake US loose from our OWN needs to put God and humanity into static, explainable, rational structures.

Sometimes, it takes a mountaintop experience. Or a deep VALLEY experience, to engage our curiosity instead of our instinct to know it all, to be right, and to explain.

Certainly in nature, many of us experience awe and connection with the Holy Spirit. In the quiet of the morning sunrise, perhaps surrounded by wildlife and the flora of the desert or the forest, many of us find clarity.

Others of us find that clarity and connection in music. We connect with its heartbeat, with its soul, and we release our bodies and minds to the experience as we become one with the moment.

Both are true for me.

Donna preached once about thin places.

Those places where God is so clearly present.

And I think many of us have experienced those at one time or another.

And sometimes, they’re not where you would expect.

Have any of you ever been to a dance club and had a religious experience?

I used to go to a dance club on weekends when I was in college, and that club, for me, was absolutely a thin place.

There was something about being surrounded by people who were free to be themselves, coupled with music that had good bass and that talked about love and liberation—something about that brought me closer to God.

I remember wanting to raise my hands. I think I probably did sometimes, the way some Christians do in worship.

Because in that place, I felt God was alive.

Peter needed more moments like that….

We all do. Because in those moments of connection,

The nonsense of the media and politics and family and work and personal drama—they all fall away, and we find ourselves connected to the mysteries of the universe, connected to that with that which is beyond ourselves, that which is awe and love in its purist form.

But it’s not just ecstatic experiences that connect us with God.

In Lent, we also talk a fair amount about suffering and loss and mortality.

The valleys of our life are also opportunities for the veil between humanity and God to be lifted and God’s love and presence revealed.

The morning I learned of BD’s death, I was devastated.

I came to the church early, and through my tears, I watched the sun crawl across the valley.

While I sat there in my car, facing the land below, three hawks appeared – two on the telephone wire, and one on a telephone pole about 100 feet away.

Cooper’s hawks.

And they started talking.

Two of them looked right at me, and I could swear, they were talking to me.

And those of you who at this moment feel open to the supernatural and to mystery will probably not be surprised when I tell you that one of those hawks looked like my dear friend Marcia Dimbo, who passed away last year, and the other one looked like my good friend Orp Christopher.
The other hawk watched all of this from a distance and seemed amused at the whole situation.

I actually called LouAnn to ask if hawks were significant to BD, because I had a feeling he was showing up that morning to say goodbye.

I haven’t seen any of them since.

But in that moment, in my grief, and in my reflection on the life of BD Shafer, I found myself open to the possibility that God was close by. And that those people who had died, were also close by.

The hawks closest to me would not stop talking, by the way.

And I felt like one was heckling me.

And so I rolled down the window and said to one of them, “Shut up, Orp. It’s okay for me to be sad.”

The hawk didn’t stop making noise, but it did change its pitch slightly. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was laughing.

And so I laughed too.

And then the hawks all flew away.

My friend who’s a bird expert told me that my story makes no sense. That hawks don’t hang out together usually, nor do they look people in the eye and talk to them.

And yet that experience is something that’s still in my mind and on my heart. And something that felt absolutely real and awe-inspiring in the moment.

Whether it was a random encounter with the natural world or Orp and Marcia and BD coming to cheer me up, I can’t say.

But I can say that I’m still thinking about it.

And as a result of being in one of those valleys of life, I found myself a little bit more open. More able to connect not just with memories but with mystery and with the real presence of God and God’s manifestation in nature and in the lives of people I loved who I do believe are still very present with us now.

One of the most beautiful gifts of death is actually how close it can bring us to the living presence of God and those we love.

The rational explanation is usually easier to talk about, and it’s more palatable to people who are not open to supernatural experiences.

And there are scientists and researchers who even today will try to explain what happened to Jesus on that mountaintop. And Christian scholars still interpret the text from today with a surface-level reading. Very simply: Jesus’ clothing and body were changed, and he momentarily glowed with a supernatural light.

But what if, what really happened, was not that Jesus changed at all. What if what happened was that the veil between life and death and the veil between God and humanity was lifted, just for moment, and that Jesus’ true nature was revealed?

What if, the real miracle was not the radiant glowing light of Jesus on the mountaintop? What if the miracle was simply that Peter and the disciples were finally enlightened to a point where they could see what was there all along.

What is remarkable to me is not that the world has a spiritual heartbeat or that people who have passed on find ways to connect with us.

It’s not remarkable to me that God breaks through into our lives when we need God most.

What is remarkable is that we have become so adept at ignoring the divinity all around us. And within us. And within those with whom we interact.

If you think about it, can you remember a time when God showed up for you this week?

Can you think about a time this morning, where the mysteries of the universe and the presence of God was made known to you in some small way?

Maybe something as simple as the smile of a child? Or an uplifting or inspiring piece of music? The savory taste of chili on a cold afternoon? Or the beauty of the flurry of snow falling on the mountain? Maybe a phone call that offered healing? A dream that revealed something new to you? A sign from a loved one who’s passed? An unexpectedly kind word? Or he manifestation of God’s love here in this community?

My challenge to us this week is simply to pay attention. To be more listener than rock.

And to notice when that imagined division between the human world and the divine world is lifted.

May we all glimpse God’s glory, on the mountain top, in the valleys, and in the everyday wonders in between.


Sermon on Genesis and 1 Peter – “New Beginnings”

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22

Sermon: New Beginnings

There are several seasons of the Christian year, and they can easily be explained by a simple metaphor, which is the butterfly.


Before a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it lives a life of eating.


That is the Christmas season for most of us.


We feast, we enjoy, and fatten ourselves up on Christmas cookies and feelings of generosity and good will.

When 2018 arrived, we began to think about the year ahead.


And like caterpillars who molt several times before they go into a cocoon, many of us are shedding bad habits of the past, maybe even shedding few pounds gained over the holidays.


And now, we arrive at the season of Lent, the chrysalis stage for the caterpillar.


When caterpillars are ready for this stage, hang upside down from a twig or a leaf and they spin a silky cocoon or molt into a shiny chrysalis.


And then for 10-14 days, they grow and transform. The chrysalis stage is not a time of rest. The caterpillar grows wings and antenna, its mouth changes, and ultimately, it prepares itself to break free.


When it’s ready to emerge, it struggles, pushing fluid out of its abdomen and into its wings, which ultimately, allows it to break out of the chrysalis and fly.

If you break a butterfly out of the chrysalis and try to “help” it be free, it will perish.


The struggle is the only way the butterfly develops the strength and body structure to survive its new form.


So like the transformation of the butterfly, Lent, for us, is a time of struggle and transformation in which we prepare ourselves to emerge at Easter in the light of the resurrection.


In order to prepare ourselves for that day when we all break free and emerge into the reality of the resurrection, we must struggle, with ourselves, with the reality of change, and with all that comes with saying goodbye to the past.



Part of that struggle for me, this Lent, is the simple fact that we’re using the Revised Common Lectionary.

That means that the texts we read this season will not be selected by me or by the worship team, but by a committee across several different Christian groups, several mainline churches, who agree to preach on the same texts.


That means that if you have a relative that’s Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or Episocapian or Roman Catholic in the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance that if they go to church this morning, they’ll hear these same scriptures we did.


Which is beautiful, in a way.


And yet, the lectionary challenges us with its seemingly poor choices of texts, including texts that push back against some of our core beliefs.


Working with it can challenges all of us to struggle with texts that we wouldn’t ordinarily choose to read or go to for inspiration.


The text from 1 Peter this morning is particularly difficult.


And so we fight. And we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and like the caterpillar, we may be transformed in the process.


Unfortunately, we don’t have time this morning to unpack these texts as much as I would like. The text from 1 Peter in particular has lots of room for mistranslation

and misuse.



So in the interest of time, I’m going to ask you to trust me, and if you want to dive deeper into these texts, I invite you to come to Bible study at 11AM on Tuesdays or to make an appointment with me to talk more about the questions these texts raise about the nature of God, the sacraments, suffering, and the cross itself.


You may very well come to different conclusions, but because we have so many folks who have heard these texts preached in ways that are hurtful, let me offer you some quick reassurance.


These texts do NOT say that if you’re not baptized, you’re going to hell.


In fact, the text doesn’t mention hell at all.


They do NOT say that…baptism is an exclusive club.


They do NOT say that…there will never be another natural disaster.

They do NOT say that…God planned for Jesus to suffer and die or that Jesus died for our sins and therefore, sinning is just fine.


Those are what the texts do NOT say.


What they DO say is that change is an integral part of the human experience, change requires struggle, and God is our partner in transformation.


Change is, unfortunately, not a promise that things will get better.


And change is not something we all readily embrace!


Frankly, many of us would be happy to stay in that caterpillar lifestyle.


It seems quite nice, crawling around, being cute and eating plants all day.

If caterpillars were as sentient as human beings, and they were somehow able to choose how their bodies changed with time, I imagine that many of them would choose not to enter that scary and vulnerable chrysalis stage that requires so much struggle.


We’ve all been through tough changes in our lives, and we know that change is NOT always welcome.


And even when it IS welcome. Even when change is something that everyone says is good for us or that we know rationally is the right thing to do, even then, change can be a struggle.


Some of you may be struggling at this very moment with the new seat arrangement.


For Lent, the worship team and I decided that it was good to turn toward each other.

And this small change is a simple metaphor for the re-orientation we undertake at Lent.


If you’re experiencing some discomfort around the change, that’s okay.


I’m having to adjust my preaching a bit to see all of you. We’re in this together.


The seats alone are a good reminder that change, even the smallest of changes, can be disorienting.


I recently had another disorienting experience related to change – I got a new glasses prescription.


When I got my new lenses, I was so excited, because at the doctor’s office, when the optometrist put these lenses in front of my eyes, everything was so much more crisp and clean.


And yet when I first put on these new lenses in the mail, my eyes struggled to adjust.


I even looked up my order to make sure I’d gotten the right prescription.


Because everything seemed a little fuzzy and distorted.


I read up on it, which took a little bit longer than planned given how distorted my vision felt at times, and


Apparently, it can take between 2 days and 2 weeks for your eyes to adjust to a new prescription.


Which seems ridiculous to me.


These glasses are better than my old ones.


They’re the right ones for my eyes.

And now that I’ve adjusted to them, everything is brighter and cleaner and crisper than it was before.


But at the beginning, my mind and body rejected them as distorted and wrong.


And that was just a small change in an eyeglasses prescription.


So can we offer ourselves some grace, maybe, when it comes to the struggle we face when adapting to changes in our lives.


Think about poor Noah, whose friends and home were washed away in a flood.


Other than the animals and those 7 other people that were on the boat with him, there was nothing left in the world that he could recognize as familiar.


Like the little caterpillar that hangs from the branch of a tree, Noah’s world was literally turned upside down.


Our lives can feel like that as well sometimes.


When we move, when we begin or end a relationship, when we experience crises of health, when lose someone we love, or when we transition from one phase of life to another, it can certainly feel like a Noah experience sometimes.


Like we’re on a boat in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting with no sign of land or stability in sight.


And yet we know from this story in Genesis that God has promised us that God will never wipe away everything in our world again.


The rainbow is a symbol of that promise.


It may take a while for us to find our footing again. And recognize that rainbow in the sky. So again, I invite us to have some grace for ourselves. It took me several days to adjust to new eyeglasses. If you’re dealing with a change that’s more significant that THAT, give yourself some grace.


We WILL find our way to solid ground.


But it may take a while.


Even coming to church, for those of us who are newer to this community, can take some time to adjust to.


The author of 1 Peter says that the flood was actually foreshadowing for the sacrament of baptism, which for us, is a sign of welcome into this community.


For us, at Church of the Good Shepherd, baptism, for most people, is not about washing away our sin or vaccinating us against hell.

It’s a symbol of God’s grace as well as a promise from the community that they will love us and nurture us as a member of God’s family. In case of children, it’s very much about the church community’s promises to love that child, raise them to value God’s love, and a promise to support the parents as they teach their child about God and about faith.


Joining the church as an adult can be a similar experience. We sing this song, which we’ll sing later in the service in honor of <names removed for privacy>, who are undertaking a transition of their as they move to be closer to family.


The song begins with one voice – I am one voice and I am singing. Then 2. We are two voices, we are singing, and then everyone stands and joins together, we are God’s people, we are singing…we are not alone.


What the stories of the flood and baptism have in common is not just the symbolism of water, and not just the idea of a fresh start and an opportunity for new life.

What they have in common is the promise from God and from the community that we will be supported as we struggle, transform and begin our lives anew.


The metaphor of the caterpillar falls apart at this point.


Because the caterpillar struggles alone.


WE struggle in community. We’re in the chrysalis process together.


All of us are in the process of change, whether it’s as small as adjusting to a new eyeglasses prescription or as dramatic as moving across the country, we are all in the process of changing and growing and transforming our lives.


And more often than not, that process requires some struggle.

The promise of God in both of our texts today is that unlike the caterpillar, we have God and each other to nurture us along that journey.


We are God’s people, and we are not alone.



God, the universe and everything. (Also – God is not Santa)

God, the universe and Everything:
A sermon about grief, hope, and Santa

1st Scripture Reading:
Psalm 58; International Standard Version
To the Director: A Davidic psalm to the tune of “Do Not Destroy”.
1How is it that by remaining silent you can speak righteously?
How can you judge people fairly?
2 No, in your heart you devise injustice,
And your hands mete out violence on the earth.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb;
they go astray, telling lies even from birth.
4 Their venom is like a poisonous snake;
a deaf serpent that shuts its ears,
5 refusing to hear the voice of the snake charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.
6 God, shatter their teeth in their mouths;
Break the fangs of the young lions!
7 May they flow away like water that runs off,
may they become like someone who shoots broken arrows.
8 May they be like a snail that dries up as it crawls;
Like wax that is melted and falls before the fire.
9 Before your clay pots are placed on a pile of thorns—
whether green or ablaze—
wrath will sweep them away like a storm.
10 The righteous will rejoice when they see your vengeance;
when they wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 A person will say,
“Certainly, the righteous are rewarded;
certainly there is a God who judges the earth.”

2nd Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:25-34, New Revised Standard Version

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life or one cubit to your height? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly God knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I’m going to begin with a song by Janice Joplin: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all own Porches, I must make amends. I’ve worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God worked that way?

If it were just as simple as that?

If we did good deeds and God sent us cars like Santa brings presents to the good little boys and girls?

You know, God as Santa Claus would be much easier to understand and work with.

A jolly old man who laughs and hugs children and brings us gifts under a tree?

And who’s fair.

Because Santa brings presents to people on his nice list, but brings coal to people on the naughty list.

So with Santa in charge, the world is fair.

But God is not Santa.

And the world is not fair.

And that’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around sometimes, because we want to believe that benevolent God would act the way WE want God to act.

Our Psalm today reminds us that as human beings, we really prefer the Santa God to the God whose ways we do not understand.

Now the original psalm that I’d chosen for today was about trusting in God. And trusting that God will come through for us.

It was also a lot less violent. Less raw.

But with the news of <name omitted>’s rapid decline, <name omitted>’s lung cancer, and the spread of <name omitted>’s disease, along with other tragedies in our congregation and in our extended church family, I felt like we needed a more honest reflection of where a lot of us are.

Simply put, that none of this is fair.

That justice is NOT being done.

God is not playing Santa, that predictable, understandable, commercial, magical being we know and love.

No – in reality, good people are hurting.

There are good children who DON’T receive presents on Christmas.

There are good people of all ages who are suffering.

And Psalm 58 puts words to that grief.

Psalm 58 was written by David after he was captured by his rival Saul and put on trial for treason.

From David’s perspective, he’s innocent, and he’s being brought before these corrupt judges simply so that Saul can get him out of the way.

It makes sense that David is angry And fearful that the system is rigged against him.

It is.
And so David prays to God to disable his enemy.
Break the fangs of the lions. Take away their bite.

Make his enemies and his problems like water, that flow over him and then wash away.

And then David gets a bit graphic. He goes a little far.

The bit about God taking vengeance and the righteous washing their feet in the blood of the wicked.

Yeah. That takes it a bit far.

And yet, haven’t most of us felt that type of anguish at some point?

When the odds were stacked against us, and despite our best efforts and intentions, we were shut out or shut down or we lost what we loved anyway?

And some of us have said awful things in the midst of that
Honest things, but awful things.

Someone was telling me the other day about their ex, and their ex’s insistence on being cremated after death.

And the person paused for a second, and then without thinking, added, “and I honestly hope we have to deal with that pretty soon.”

I’ve heard people wish harm on people. Or pray that people who acted in evil ways will pay the consequences, whatever that means.

These are real emotions. They are common. And they are thankfully voiced by King David, a biblical hero, who someone had the good sense to include in the Bible to remind us that pain and suffering and anger and frustration and even thoughts of hurting others are a part of the human condition.

Asking God to take vengeance on people who have acted in evil ways does not make US evil.

It simply makes us human. And honest.

We want God to give us presents and give the naughty children coal in their stockings.

Because in that world, we know how to act.

We WANT fairness.

We WANT justice.

And yet God doesn’t work that way.

Despite our prayers, people on God’s naughty list get rewarded or get away with evil, and people on God’s nice list suffer.
And that fact alone turns a lot of people away from Christianity.

If God allows good people to experience pain, why believe in God at all?

Well, let’s look at the words of Jesus and see if we can’t find some hope and meaning there.

The text from the Gospel of Matthew is from Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

And here, he says to us, don’t worry.

Look at the birds of the air…the lilies of the field…

God feeds them and clothes them and cares for them.

Worrying won’t add another day to your life or inch to your height.
All your needs will be provided for.

Don’t worry about the future. Just live in the moment. God is with you, here and now.

Trust and focus on the kingdom of God, and all of these things will be given to you.

And when I read this, I’m reminded of miracles I’ve witnessed that tell me that he is speaking the truth.

I think about the feeding of the 5000.

Or about a group of nuns in Haiti that I knew who cared for orphan children. And they were out of their last stores of food.

And so they gathered together and they prayed. And they prayed. And for three days they prayed. And they feared that the children might starve.
But on the third day, a truck pulled up full of food.

The truck was supposed to deliver it somewhere else, but the order was canceled at the last minute, and so the truck pulled over to the orphanage to use their phone and figure out what had happened.

The company told the driver that the order had been canceled and that they would have to just dispose of the food.

So instead, the truck driver left the food with the orphans.

How is that not a miracle where God provided?

I myself have witnessed miraculous healings.

People who survived diseases despite impossible odds.

<story of my own healing, details omitted for web>

The doctors had never seen anything like it.

It was a miracle.

And I’ve seen miracles happen to other people, who, unlike the innocent orphans, absolutely did not deserve a second chance.

And yet they somehow received grace and healing.
And on the other hand, I have known the most gracious and loving and generous people who were surrounded by prayer, who visited healers and were held in care and love.

And who still suffered. And who still died.

So where is the fairness and the just and loving God that we hear about in scriptures? Where is THAT God in all of this? Where is the God who Jesus says will provide for everything?

A character in the Old Testament named Job asked the same question, and the response God gave was similar to that which Jesus gives in the sermon on the mount.

Which is basically, “This is beyond your understanding.”

“So stop trying to control it. Or understand it.”

“Stop your worrying. Be present. And know that there is something bigger at work.”

This is what God says to Job when Job asks why are all of these bad things happening to me and why God, are you not rewarding the good people and punishing the bad? This is what God says in return…:

4 “Job, Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, since you seem to have this all figured out.
5 Who set its measurement? I assume you know?
Who laid its corner stone 7 while the morning stars sang together 8 “Who[d] enclosed the sea with limits[e] when it gushed out of the womb, 9 when I made clouds to be its clothes and thick darkness its swaddling blanket, 12 “Have you ever commanded the morning at any time during your life? Do you know where the dawn lives, 13 where it seizes the edge of the earth 16 “Have you been to the source of the sea and walked about in the recesses of the deepest ocean? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you? 18 Do you understand the breadth of the earth? Tell me, since you see to know it all!

God doesn’t give Job the answers he wants.

And likewise, Jesus doesn’t explain the workings of the universe to us in his sermon on the mount.

All they say is…

The world, for some reason, does not revolve around us.

We are NOT the center of the universe.

Our problems, as big as they may seem to us.

Our suffering, as all-consuming as it may seem, is not all there is.

They are not the final word.

So despite all of my studies of scripture, I cannot tell you why people suffer.

Or why others don’t.

But I can tell you that there were people before us, and that there will be people after us.

And that in community, we are more resilient together.

I can also tell you that God is definitely not Santa Claus.

God is not confined by our need for things to make “sense.”

There is something much bigger at work. And even though we may feel broken at times, the whole universe is never broken. God’s reign is never broken…

I love the words of the Rev. Theodore Parker who was later quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King. He said:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.

I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

All we see in our lives is the horizon or what’s in front of us, and yet there is an entire universe with billions and billions of stars and people and experiences and grace that is beyond our understanding.

God has a vision much greater than what we can see in front of us.

So yes, loss and grief and suffering are real, and from inside here, they feel all-consuming.

But they are not the end of the story.

They are not all there is.

And so although we cannot trust in a God who will operate with our own vision of what is “right” and “wrong,” we can trust that the earth will keep spinning long after we are gone.

And that people we love will be OK, even if we pass from this place. Even if we are unable to care for them.

The world has faced ice ages, meteors, nuclear attacks, and events that we thought were the end of the world.

Heck, when I was 13, I thought that my boyfriend breaking up with me was the end of the world.

But it wasn’t.

No was the last seemingly insurmountable tragedy we encountered.

Life continued.

Life found a way.

GOD found a way to continue breaking through and bending that long arc of the moral universe toward justice…



Thank you for King David, for his honesty, and for his example. Thank you for reminding us that at times, our grief gives us tunnel vision that can see nothing other than our pain.

Thank you also for your son, Jesus Christ, who taught us that your vision goes far beyond our own.

Help us grieve honestly, recognizing that the world IS not fair.

And at the same time, help us be present to each moment, letting go of our need to control and explain the mysteries of healing and grace.
Surround us with your love, uplift us with your promises, and help us find our place in that long arc that bends toward justice.

“Spiritual knowledge”

1 Corinthians 2:12-16

In the process for ordination as a pastor, as some point, you have to go through a gauntlet of psychological testing.

It usually takes 3 full days, and it includes written tests as well as conversations with professionals who have scored and reviewed your tests.

At the first test, the person proctoring it said, “Now I know you’re studying to be a pastor. Have you ever felt like God was talking to you? Or maybe that you saw a sign from someone who had passed away? Maybe heard the voice of an angel? Or felt God leading you to do a particular thing with your life?”

“Well, of course,” I said. “That’s partly why I’m here.”

“Okay,” he said. “Just don’t mention that on the test….”

Spiritual experiences, and particularly mystical experiences, those which take us beyond what we might consider the natural, physical realm, have often been labeled by scientists and psychiatrists as signs of mental illness.
Even in the process for ordination for ministry, a profession whose texts include that which we read today, even then, a professional psychiatrist, hired by a Christian organization, advised me not to answer honestly about hearing the voice of God, because it might flag me as someone with psychosis.

There are some cultures in which this is not the case, but certainly in the United States, we value phenomena we can explain.
We also value our sense of self. Our independence. And our intellect.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he addresses a similar audience. Corinth was a trade route, and although it was originally Greek, it had been conquered by Rome and resettled with Roman veterans.

Roman scholars, at that time, emphasized objective inquiry. They asked questions and used the tools of science, philosophy, and the natural world to provide rational explanations for what they witnessed around them.
At the time Paul was writing, scientists and philosophers in Rome were, for the first time, trying to explain the workings of the world without relying on any explanations that involved the gods.

And so Paul, who has experienced profound mystical and spiritual experiences of his own, pushes back, and encourages the congregations in Corinth by telling them that although people who value human language and science and wisdom may not understand the language of the spirit, spiritual wisdom DOES exist. And it is through SPIRITUAL wisdom that we come to understand the mind of Christ and are transformed by it.
In the book of Acts, we learn that Paul himself had an extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus.
Paul had been one of the biggest critics of Christianity, someone who was actively persecuting Chrsitians for Rome, but on the road to Damascus, something happened that changed his life.
The way it’s told is that the he saw a bright light and was blinded. And that his eyes crusted over with scales.
Several days later, when the scales fell away, Paul saw the world with new eyes.
He connected in some intimate way, beyond human understanding, with the presence of God, and his life was transformed forever.
After that, he turned his life around 180 degrees, changing from the greatest critic of Christianity to one of its biggest advocates and witnesses.

It’s impossible to explain scientifically what happened to Paul, although many people have tried.

If you search online, it’s easy to find books that explain Paul’s blindness and healing scientifically.

But what makes it clear to me that it was more than just a physical phenomena, is the transformation that happened.

That’s the key.

The life change.

That’s what spiritual experiences, mystical experiences, everything from great epiphanies to small realizations have in common.
They transform our lives.

People who have experiences beyond their physical selves, experiences of oneness with God or the universe, experiences of connection with the Spirit, people who have those experiences tend to come out on the other side as more generous, more compassionate, and more focused on making a positive difference in the world.

If you’ve ever met someone who has come close to death and lived, you may have heard story like this.

People who have near-death experiences talk about having conversations with God or with relatives who have gone before them. They talk sometimes about being enveloped by light, about being held and loved unconditionally.

And as result of those interactions, when they come to or come out of whatever near-death place they were, they have a renewed sense of purpose and meaning for their lives.

One phD researcher who studies these experiences writes that when people connect with that which is beyond themselves, and when they let go of their sense of self as they face death, transformation is often the result. “No matter what the nature of the experience,” she writes, “it alters lives. Some alcoholics find themselves unable to drink any more. Hardened criminals opt for a life of helping others. Atheists embrace the existence of a deity, while dogmatic members of a particular religion report “feeling welcome in any church or temple or mosque.”

So without coming near death, how can we experience that profound connection with the Spirit that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians?
Assuming we want to.
I guess I should preface that by saying that not everyone really wants to go there.
Spiritual experiences, mystical experiences, can be absolutely terrifying.
And they require a degree of letting go that not all of us are prepared for.
And that’s okay.

But those of us who WANT to experience that connection, I want you to know that it IS possible.

Although it takes some work to get there.

Especially for those of us with lots of resources.

Have you heard that saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven?

That saying is not just about money. It’s not just about giving away our possessions.

It’s also about giving away our sense that we have power and control in our lives.

One thing that most spiritual experiences have in common is a mixture of hardship and vulnerability.

There is typically pain involved – emotional pain, physical pain, or something else that forces us to acknowledge that we cannot control and take care of everything in our lives on our own.

Because if my understanding is sufficient, if my resources are sufficient, I don’t need God. I don’t need to be connected to other people.

And if I don’t NEED God, and if I don’t NEED other people, I am less likely to pay attention and search for God or search for spiritual connection with the rest of humanity or creation.

Most of us here have an extraordinary amount of privilege.
We drove ourselves here. We made ourselves breakfast or bought breakfast with money we earned.
We can get around on our own.
And we’re fairly independent.
There’s not much in our lives that we don’t have the resources to handle.

But in order to get to the deeper language of the spirit, we have to let go of that illusion of control and independence.

And for those of us who HAVE a lot of control and independence, that may mean setting up situations that give us a better chance of hearing that still small voice of God.

Art Stuart this week quoted a colleague of his who said that when it comes to Science, there is no luck. “but the scientist learns to create an atmosphere in which luck happens.”

The same is true for spiritual experiences.

We can create an atmosphere in which mystical union with God is more likely to happen.

In Christian teaching, that includes ritual, music, meditation, prayer, and mindfulness. It may also involve silence and imposed hardship.

Scripture gives us the example of Jesus, who was baptized, who participated in a ritual in which he experienced a metaphorical death and rebirth.

And it was in his rebirth that he heard the voice of God, after which he fasted in the desert for 40 days and faced the harshness of the elements.

It was after that meaningful ritual of baptism and his painful experience in the desert that Jesus emerged transformed and ready to begin his ministry.

The Buddha, likewise, studied with teachers who preached fasting and hardship as a way to enlightenment. After months of self-deprivation, he ultimately did a 49-day fast and meditation under a tree, which led him to the realization that greed and attachment are the source of suffering.

I’m not suggesting that we fast for 40 days, but as we get ready for the season of Lent, perhaps there wisdom in the practice of deprivation and self-sacrifice and self-emptying.

I’ll tell you… in Outward Bound… (examples of Outward Bound things like giving a group a tarp that is too small for the number of people, pushing people beyond their limits physically…).

Most of us HAVE the power to manage most things in our lives. Most things. But there is power in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to reach out in those places where we cannot manage.

There is power being vulnerable to God.

And for those of you who seem like you have it all together, I know you don’t.

Because I don’t.

The ruse is up. You don’t have to pretend anymore. I know that there are places in your life where you are broken. Places in your history that still need healing. And places in your present where you don’t know what to do.

Most of us are really good at putting on a happy face, even when there is pain or suffering or longing or loss in our hearts.

We’re pretty good at numbing ourselves and putting those difficult feelings aside or boxing them up and saying, “Well, I’ll open that box one day and deal with it, but for now, I have to get this work done.”
Or “For now, I’m going to do something enjoyable.”
Or “For now, I’ll soothe myself with food or drugs or alcohol or television or shopping or gambling. And I’ll make myself feel just fine. This is good enough for now.”

But it’s temporary. And all of that self-soothing, while helpful in the moment, is keeping us from spiritual transformation.

Spiritual healing. REAL healing, REAL life change.

Spiritual healing requires that we go to those dark places and not try to fix them or even soothe them ourselves.

It requires sitting with that pain and allowing something greater than ourselves to enter in.

And yes, that’s terrifying.

And today may not be the day you’re ready to go there. And that’s fine.

But when you’re ready, God will be there.

When you’re ready to let go of the myth that you can heal yourself, God will be waiting.

I know that not all of you love the Message paraphrase of the Bible, but there is a phrase in there that captures what we’ve been talking about.

In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, that translation says, “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and God’s rule.”

It is difficult for us, who are NOT at the end of our ropes, to connect with God.

When we are full of ourselves, there is no room for God to enter in…

Thankfully, addressing our own pain is not the only way to access God. Although it’s a reliable one.

We can also shift our focus consciously to other people and to God’s creation.

This is another Christian practice that’s effective.

It may not always lead to the profound epiphanies and transformations that suffering and near-death experiences are known to induce, but simply taking a moment to be thankful and to appreciate others does have the potential to connect us to the mind of Christ that Paul speaks of.

Taking a moment, the way I did this morning, to be in awe of the sunrise over the mountains. Writing a note of appreciation to someone who had an impact on us.

I want to close by saying that fasting for 49 days or diving head-first into the pain of our trauma is not the only way to access God.

God is there in every moment, in every smile, in every ray of light, in every musical note, every breath.

If we are attentive, God is there. All the time, God is there.

Close with John O’Donohue, “For Presence.”

Matthew 6 – Come to God in Prayer


First – Some variations on the Lord’s Prayer:

1) From the King James and New King James translations of Matthew 6:9-13
In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father 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 debts, As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

2) A translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the Galilean Aramaic dialect, by Richard Antonisz in his book The original ‘Our Father’ in Aramaic : a New Discovery.

Our father, who is in heaven, sanctified be your name.
May your kingdom come, may your will be done, just as it is in heaven, so also upon the earth.
Our bread, which is from the earth, give us day by day.
And forgive us our sins, just as we should forgive our debtors.
Our bread, which is from the earth, give us day by day.
And forgive us our sins, just as we should forgive our debtors.
And do not bring us to trial, but deliver us from evil.

3) A version of The Lord’s Prayer from The New Zealand Prayer Book

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.

4) A translation of the Lord’s prayer from Aramaic, by Neil Douglas-Klotz in his book Prayers of the Cosmos.

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos,
Focus your light within us—make it useful:
Create your reign of unity now—
Your one desire then acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms.
Grant what we need each day in bread and insight.

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.
Do not let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will,
The power and the life to do,
The song that beautifies all,
From age to age it renews.
Truly—power to these statements—may they be
the ground from which all my actions grow: Amen.



Today, we’re going to talk about prayer, and we’re going to talk about language. And the importance of bringing language to life through action.

So to begin, I want to set this up by reminding us how central language is to the message of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of John begins by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

The Word was God.

Think about that for moment.

God is the Word, God is language, the very tool we use to create reality in our world.

Words, language, for human beings, are forces of creation.

Many people may argue that language simply reflects our objective reality.

We call something “chair,” because it’s a chair.

We call this place “sanctuary,” because it’s a sanctuary. Right?

Well, it’s more complex than that.

Someone else might walk in here not familiar with our Christian traditions and simply call it a “big room.” Which it also is.

Someone looking for a space for a concert, let’s say, sees this place as “a big room,” and creates for themselves a vision of a large space where a concert could be held.

For us, this “big room,” is more than just space. It’s a sanctuary. Somewhere we are safe. Somewhere where the sacred dwells. And where we can dwell with the sacred together.

We call the room across the way the Hospitality Room. But when my kids first came here, and I told them I would meet them after church and asked where we should meet, they said, “How about in the food court.”

For them, food was central to the meaning of that place.

All of this is to say that the words we use matter.

They create for us a reality, a meaning for what exists in our world.

And so when we come to God with a spoken or written prayer, like the Lord’s prayer, the language we choose also matters.

The followers of Jesus understood this as well, which is part of the reason they were so concerned about prayer.

They’ve witnessed the priests in the synagogue, their Pagan friends who have their own rituals, and people who seem not to pray at all.

And they’re curious – what is the RIGHT way to pray? What are the right WORDS to use?

So in answer to their questions, Jesus clarifies, by saying in Matthew 6,

“There is no need to stand up in front of people or on the street corners so that you can be seen by everyone when you pray. And there’s no need to pray long, involved prayers.”

This is how you should pray, he says.

And then he offers the Lord’s prayer as an example.

One possible way to pray. Not THE way.

Again – these are not magic words, they’re an example of what prayer can include.

And we know that they were not the only words possible, because even in the first century, there were many variations and many different translations of this same prayer.

And unfortunately for us, they were all in Aramaic or Greek.

And from the translations you’ve heard, it seems to be a little more complicated than the simple words we hear in church on a typical Sunday.

Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was an incredibly complex language.

There were many fewer words in Aramaic than there are in English, but every word had rich connotations beyond what most English words have.
Even the order of the letters may have meaning in some cases, including here.

Words that are 2 letters long may be used intentionally to trigger a connection to a similar word that uses the same letters, only reversed.

To give you an idea of the complexity – there are entire books written just about the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

If you want to go even deeper into this prayer, just type “Lord’s prayer meaning” or “Lord’s prayer Aramaic” into your favorite search engine, and you’ll find an extraordinary amount of scholarship on this topic.

On the other hand, despite its apparent complexity, when said in Aramaic, the prayer also rhymes, making it easier to memorize.

So in some ways, it’s rich in meaning, and in another sense, it’s simpler than our prayer – more easy for a child or someone new to the faith to pick up and learn.

So what do WE do with this prayer?

How do WE choose to say it and interpret it?

What language do WE use to create a reality in which God is with us?

Do we use the new King James version? Or the version we grew up with or learned when we came to a Christian church for the first time?

Or does the translation from the New Zealand prayer book capture our thoughts more accurately?

Like so many texts in our holy scriptures, there’s not a simple answer.

I know that for me, speaking to God from my authentic voice is what matters.

And so sometimes, speaking the prayer I grew up saying is exactly what I need. I need something rote, something comforting, something familiar.

At other times, I want something like the final translation we read today, which challenges me to think more deeply about each phrase.

And if I’m in crisis, I may add some choice words to my prayers that are less G-rated than those which we find in Matthew.

And before you judge me as a heretic, I encourage you to read the prayers of Jesus and the prayers of the Old Testament, because strong language is sometimes authentic language.

When we are hurting, the language we use to speak to God may come from the depths of who we are, and THAT is what is true and authentic and what will connect us to that which is beyond ourselves.

On the other hand, there are times when poetic language feels more appropriate.

Or conversational language.

Language both reflects and creates our reality, connecting us with God right where we are.

Especially when we connect our words with action.

This is the key.

Words are nothing without action to give them life.

In many Spanish translations of that first chapter of the book of John, where it reads, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God,” it translates Word as “Verbo,” which not only means language and Word, but it also means verb.

Doing, being, acting.

What do our words mean anyway, if we say “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or in the words of the New Zealand prayer, “In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us,” or in the other translation “Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”

What does any of that mean if we don’t PRACTICE forgiveness?

They’re nice thoughts, nice aspirations, but they’re empty without follow-up.

What does it mean to say, “sanctified is your name, the hallowing of your name echo through the universe” if we don’t act in a way that honors God?

Ultimately, having words act together WITH our deeds is one of the most powerful ways to make change in our world.

Language creates meaning, yes, but actions EXPLAIN that meaning.

Let me give you an example – when I was in 9th grade, I took the confirmation class at my church.

(I was given the “best debater” award at the end of the class, by the way…)
And I learned about Calvin and Zwingli and Luther and Presbyterian polity. And I learned that God is a loving God who calls us to care for others.

And I got it up here.

But it wasn’t’ until I did a mission trip with the youth group that I got it here.

I went to Wind River Wyoming and I saw poverty like I had never seen before, and I experienced what it felt like to repair someone’s roof and make a tangible impact on someone else’s life.

And I experienced radical and unconditional love and welcome from the community at Wind River and from Christians from around the country.

And it was then that the words I’d heard in Sunday School, and the work of my own hands and the generosity of others all came together, and the Gospels finally made some sense to me.


The Lord’s prayer is just the beginning. It’s a prompt.
For us to dive deeper into its meaning, into language, but also into action.

The Gospel of John doesn’t end with In the beginning was the Word.

It continues by saying that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and from that FULLNESS we have all received grace upon grace.

God with us, acting with us, acting through us now in our time, is what brings language to life.

And so I end by recognizing that this sermon is mostly just words, so the action piece is going to have to continue with you.

And my challenge to us this week is to take these words of prayer, and bring this prayer to life with our actions.


Job – Going deeper into listening


Scripture: Job 6

Job is a folktale – an old folktale – older than nation of Israel.

Folktale is as follows…. <told from memory, but here are some highlights:>

God wants to know more about human beings.

“The Satan” (part of God’s Council) offers to investigate.

God agrees. Gives him the perfect test subject.

“The Satan” encourages God to test Job. Job passes.

God restores everything to Job.

Generations after it was written, the Israelites added 40 chapters of poetry into the middle of the folktale, part of which is today’s text, in which the author envisions Job’s experience of this ordeal.

The emotional and poetic words we get from Job today come in response to a friend, who tells Job that obviously, there must  be a raitonal explanation for Job’s suffering.

And the rational explanation is that Job has somehow offended God and God is correcting Job. And Job should be thanksful, because this is an opportunity for learning!

We may roll our eyes at this, and yet how many of us, in modern times, have heard this type of response when facing hardship?

How many of us, when victimized, have been blamed for our own suffering?

And the ugliest part – the victim-blaming is disguised as “help.”

At a previous job, I remember going to my supervisor to report harassment by a church member.

And the response was – I’ve never experienced that kind of behavior from him. Are you sure you weren’t just having a bad day? Or that he wasn’t just having a bad day? I mean, I’ve just never known him to be like that. He’s a friendly person. You must be mistaken.

I don’t tell you this story to create pity for me – that situation was ultimately resolved, in large part due to the humility and openness of that individual, who, when I confronted him privately, took my words seriously, and took it as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. The story had a happy ending.

But many stories of injustice do not.

Many people end up feeling isolate, alone, and even blamed for their own suffering.

And we’re not just the victims in this scenario. It’s not just other people who struggle to take OUR pain seriously.

We are just as guilty as Job’s friends when it comes to our need to seek a rational explanation for suffering and injustice.

For example, when a child comes to us and tells us that a teacher is treating him differently than the other students, don’t some of us begin by asking questions like, are you sure? Are you paying attention in class and turning your assignments in on time? Is something getting in the way of your judgement? Some prejudice against the teacher’s gender or race or politics maybe? What’s your part in this?

What about when someone comes to us and tells us that someone they love has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Don’t’ some of us ask, “Is your friend a smoker?”

Because there must be a REASON for their illness, right?

What about when a friend who has darker skin than we do tells us stories about being followed in a department store or stopped more often in the airport or at those checkpoints between El Paso and Albuquerque along I-25. Don’t we doubt, sometimes, perhaps just in our own heads, whether they might be exaggerating a bit? Or assigning undue meaning to coincidences?

What about when someone is homeless despite all of the services and opportunities available to them in Albuquerque. As embarrassing as it might feel to admit this, haven’t we thought, at some point, “Well, I’ve had tough times, and I pulled myself up by MY botstaps. Something must be deficient them them that they cannot.”

We do this, because for many of us, our experiences of teachers and police and the employment market and even the human body, in the case of health issues, that they they operate fairly and rationally. Smoking leads to cancer. Inappropriate behavior leads to problems in the classroom, and when it comes to the police, well, MY experience is that they are fair and just. And when I’VE faced the possibility of homelessness, I dug in and I survived.

So something MUST be wrong with them. With those other people With Job.

In Job’s case, it’s not health or teachers or police that are on trial, though – it’s God. And God, his friends argue, is rational and just. So something MUST be wrong with Job.

But it’s not. Just as nothing may be wrong or deficient with the other people I mentioned.

Life is not rational nor just. And perhaps God doesn’t operate that way either.

And certainly in this world that includes so much injustice, having friends that blame us for our struggles is no help at all.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Job,” they say.

And Job cries out, “But I don’t even have any boots!”

“I not only did nothing wrong, but I don’t have the rources I need to survived this.”

“God has given me more than I can bear.”

People love to say God will never give you more than you can bear.

Have you heard that?

God will never give you more than you can bear.

It’s simply not the case. There are plenty of times when life is more than we can bear by ourselves.

And that phrase itself is a gross mistranslation of 1 Corinthians 10:13. The phrase is actually, “There will never be a test in your life that someone else has not also faced at some point in history.”

In other words, you will never be ALONE in your suffering.

And yet sometimes, as Job so clearly points out, it feels like we are.

And that solitude, that hopelessness of isolation is one of the reasons why it is IMPERATIVE that as Christians, and as friends, and as a community, that we LISTEN and take one another seriously.

We MUST give people who are speaking their truth the benefit of the doubt.

Our experience in the world may point to them being 100% wrong, but our responsibility as care-givers is to listen WITHOUT judgment as if they are 100% right.

That man who harassed me at my former job? No one else experienced him as anything but appropriate.

And yet he WASN’T.

Thank God HE was able to hear that from me.

Others don’t have such success.

How many people in our lives are suffering and feel like they are alone, because no one will take them seriously?

I’m not suggesting we abandon critical thought. And of course, there will be people who will exaggerate their pain.

But in my experience, people are much more likely to UNDERSTATE injustice.

And when they come to us saying –

My teacher told a joke that felt kind of homophobic to me.

Or I’m kind of uncomfortable with this person’s treatment of me.

Or I don’t think college is for me…

Or I’m kind of struggling to make ends meet…but I’ll be okay…


When people come to us with these types of statements, one of the best things we can do is to go deeper, not into judgement or prosecutorial mode, but deeper into listening.

Because I can guarantee that behind those statements is a story that needs to be held in love.

So my challenge to us this week is to go deeper into our listening. To reach out, reach in, recognize Job in others, recognize Christ in others, and let people know that they are not alone.

Baptism of Jesus – “You are My Beloved”

Luke 4 – Jesus is Baptized, Prays, and then enters Into the Wilderness…



Jesus grew up hearing stories of the Messiah, the one promised to come save Israel and rescue them, the way Moses and Joshua did in days of old.


And he also probably grew up hearing stories from his mother and father who told him about their dreams and about how one day, he would be that messiah, the one to free the people of Israel and bring God’s reign on earth.


No pressure!


Well, I imagine that at some point, Jesus realized that if he WAS going to be the messiah, he was going to be a very different kind of savior than the ones he grew up hearing about in the scriptures.


Because HE was not a military leader like Joshua.


He didn’t hear God in a burning bush like Moses.


And he was far from perfect.



He undoubtedly learned that pretty early on.



And I imagine that if he ever DID get the feeling he was perfect… if he ever got a little too big for his britches,

too convinced that he was there to save the world as a mighty conqueror and as God on earth,


I’m sure that his parents and friends were quick to correct him.


Can’t you just hear the guys on the construction site with Joseph and Jesus, ribbing Jesus when he dropped a hammer off the roof?


“Good reflexes, Messiah.”


“Are you going to fly that thing back up here with the power of the wind?”




“Okay. Well, you better climb down and get it like the rest of us do.”


And can’t you imagine Mary, his mother, telling teenage Jesus,


“You may think you have a handle on all of the scriptures, but can you also get a handle on the mess you left in the living room?”


Jesus knew from an early age that being the Messiah did NOT mean doing everything “right.”


Because what does it mean to do everything “right” anyway?

I recently did a sewing project in collaboration with a friend, and let me tell you, any time you collaborate, you learn very quickly that “right” is relative.


I thought I was doing everything “right,” and that my sewing was close to “perfect,” but I would show her my work and she would hand me the seam ripper and say – it’s going to look all wrong if you do it that way. Rip the seam and do it differently.


And she’d show me, and I’d do exactly what she said, or what I THOUGHT she’s said, and then I’d show her my work, and she’d look at me and hand me the seam ripper again and laugh and say, “How on earth did you think I meant for you to do THAT?”


If 2 people who have the same picture of what something’s supposed to look like can’t even agree on what “perfect” is, how on earth was Jesus supposed to live up to all of Israel’s expectations for what “perfect” looked like?


Jesus knew that he was never going to be “just right” for everyone. That he was never going to be “perfect.”


He was fully human.


And had a human amount of energy and mental capacity and human strength.


He undoubtedly did things many times in his life that others saw as “wrong.”


He also undoubtedly took actions that offended someone or hurt someone.


And I can guarantee that he wasn’t able to help or care for people as well as he wanted to.


He wasn’t perfect.

So why is it that we, who feel called to follow the example of Jesus, feel like it’s OUR job to be perfect?


Jesus knew better early on.


That letting go of perfection meant creating room for God.


And yet so many of us obsess over getting things just right.


And when we don’t, we feel this weight of others’ disappointment.


God’s disappointment, even. And our own disappointment in ourselves.


And we feel ashamed.


And so we have a tendency to hide these vices and imperfections, any temptations or mistakes or failings of character.

But why? We have this example in Luke 4 of a different way of being, and yet we miss it somehow.


We have this example of Jesus, the imperfect young man we call Messiah, who goes to John the Baptist seeking repentance and forgiveness.


Jesus goes to be baptized – to turn his live around and start anew.


Even if we want to claim that Jesus was, by our own definition, somehow perfect, he certainly undoubtedly felt inadequate.


He was never able to heal as many people as he wanted to. There were people he had to turn away, because he simply didn’t have the energy to work another hour of the day.


He knew that he couldn’t do everything for everyone and that sometimes, he made mistakes.


He KNEW that he wasn’t capable of saving everyone and ending all suffering.


And so when he goes to be baptized, he demonstrates that publicly, before a crowd of people – he proclaims to them through this action of baptism that he wants to change his life.


At the time John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing people in the desert, baptism was about repentance –


It was all about confessing faults and then giving those to God and being reborn into a new life.


Not a perfect sinless life, just a new era of life with new possibilities.


So Jesus goes, like many other people, and proclaims, I have let people down, I have made mistakes, and I want a fresh start.


And after doing this, he prays.


And the holy spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove and hears a voice that says


“You are my child. My beloved. With you I am well pleased.”


The voice doesn’t say – You are the messiah.


It doesn’t say you must be a perfect example for all humanity from now on.


It says I KNOW you. You are mine. You are from me, my child. And I love you.


I love you.


This is the starting place of Jesus ministry.

That moment when he hears God claim him and tell him he’s loved.


Immediately following this profound moment of clarity, Jesus feels called into the wilderness for 40 days.


No doubt to contemplate what this means.


He was professing to the world that he was in need of forgiveness. In need of healing.


And what he heard was not disappointment or condemnation.

God didn’t lecture him about how he needed to get his act together and be a better messiah.

At this moment of public confession, what Jesus hears is I love you.


What do you do with that?

Jesus grew up hearing the stories of a God who destroyed entire cities, entire peoples on account of their mistakes.


Were those stories untrue?


Did the people who wrote them misunderstand God?


It’s a lot to think about.


That God loves us. Without condition. Knowing ALL of who we are. All of the ugly sides. All of the beautiful sides. And everything in between.

Knowing we are flawed. Knowing we have a messy room and that we drop hammers. God loves us.


Knowing that we have betrayed friends. That we have hurt people we love. That we have acted selfishly or rudely. Knowing that we often try to fill those holes in our hearts with money and food and unhealthy relationships.


God loves us.


This is such a puzzling and troubling and life-altering message that Jesus feels drawn into the wilderness to contemplate what it means.


I’m honestly not sure what it means for us. For OUR ministry.


But my invitation to us this week is to contemplate that statement.


You are my beloved.


Not because we look the most put together.

Not because we ARE the most put together.

Not because we did more good deeds than anyone else or got more A’s on our report card.

Not because anything.

There’s no because.


God just loves us.


It’s a lot to think about.


May we enter the wilderness together, letting go of perfection, and making room for God.



Christmas Eve Sermon, 11AM

Luke 1:46-55

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
 God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
 God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
 God has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Something miraculous happened that first Christmas.


We’re not the sure HOW it happened.


But we do know that it changed the world forever.


Between 70-100 years after Mary sang her beautiful song that we heard in our scripture today, 4 people, who call themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke and John set about writing down the story of Jesus from their perspective.


None of them was there as an eye-witness to the angels or Mary’s song or Jesus’ birth, but they all undoubtedly grew up hearing stories of that first Christmas.


It’s not so hard to imagine.


Many of us grew up hearing stories of our parents or grandparents.


Or the story of our church, Church of the Good Shepherd.


And everyone tells those stories slightly differently.


When it comes to the story of this church, for example, Shirlee and Floyd Coppage may tell me about the important role of our young families and how faith in God and in our mission kept people steadfast, even in the toughest times.


Art Stuart, who started coming a bit later but who was here when we moved into this building, hasn’t talked to me as much about the young families, but he has talked to me about the hard work of the adults in the church and how no matter what needed to be done, we figure out a way to do it ourselves.


Orp Christopher never talked to me about painting or electrical wiring the way Art hard, but she certainly told me plenty of stories. In addition to telling the story about how she kicked the California Conference representative out of her house, Orp loved to tell me stories about the raucous church choir rehearsals at her house, and how vital the choir was from the very beginning, and how the choir was a key factor in the growth of the early church.


But talk Paul Mohr, our founding pastor, and he’ll tell you a slightly different take on the choir. According to him, the choir was having a little TOO much fun at Orp’s house, and he had to insist that they move their practices to the church, because people who weren’t in the choir feared that the choir was doing more partying than rehearsing.


So what REALLY happened in our history?


Well, all of it.


And…when we tell stories about influential moments in our history, we have to choose what details we want to emphasize.


In the Bible, we have 4 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and we have 3 different versions of Jesus’ birth.


We only have 3, because Mark begins with Jesus’ ministry and leaves out his birth all together.


John doesn’t tell many details either. Just that Jesus was there from the beginning and that God became human.


Matthew is fairly scant on details – there are no shepherds, no inn. And there’s no angel that appears to Mary. The author of Matthew talks about the angel that appears to Joseph to reassure him. Matthew also talks about the wise men, who the rest leave out.


And then we have Luke, the author of today’s text, who centers the narrative around the experience of Mary.


Just as the choir is important in Orp’s story and faith in Shirlee and Floyd’s and hard work in Art’s, for the author of Luke, Mary is the one who brings the story all together.


She is the one who the angel tells first about the coming birth of Jesus.


She is also the one who God chooses to inhabit. Before Jesus is born, Jesus spends his first 9 months with Mary. They share the same food, the same body, the same life force.


She feels his heartbeat in harmony with hers before anyone hears his first cry.


Mary, this ordinary young woman, not a queen, not someone famous, just an ordinary woman, someone like any of us.

THAT is who God chooses first.


For Luke, God choosing Mary is important.


And for Luke, Mary is not only the one who bears Jesus, but the one who in her womb, in her very being, ties together the entire history of the Jewish people and the promise of new life and hope in the messiah.


Mary is the keystone, that piece in the arch that holds together the arc of the past and the arc of the future together.


She is the one who, when Elizabeth calls her blessed, sings a song that takes directly from the song of Hannah. Hannah, a mother who wrote her own poetic song over 600 years before Mary, when Hannah herself was promised a miraculous pregnancy.


Listen to this except form Hannah’s song. It’s nearly identical to Mary’s.

““My soul magnifies the Lord;, Hannah sings.     my strength is exalted in my God my salvation. The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble are given new strength.
Those who were full are begging for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with excess.


It’s almost identical.


When Luke tells Mary’s story in this way, he reminds us of all of the women before her, all of the ordinary women, all of the women who were set up against great odds, and yet found strength in God and in one another.

By connecting her to Hannah, the author of Luke connects her to all of us, and to all of our histories, and to all of the women and men who came before us and had faith, even in the most difficult times.


Of course, Mary’s song doesn’t just quote the Old Testament, it also quotes Jesus, and his sermon on the mount.


Jesus, in his ministry, will proclaim,

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.


Mary’s song is not just an echo of the past, it is foreshadowing Jesus’ life and ministry as well as the work of the church.


Remember that Mary’s song is not just a light-hearted pop number. It is a prophetic message about a God who throughout history has fought for the “have-nots”. Listen again. Mary says,

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s words will become Jesus’ words. And our words.


Our mission at Church of the Good Shepherd is to create a just world through community, one life at a time.

We are a part of that broader story that Mary holds together.


The story of God’s justice and peace.


Christmas day, for Luke is not the end all be all.


It’s one day, one moment in history that goes back thousands of years and continues thousands of years beyond anything the author could have imagined.


Christmas is the beginning of a new chapter, certainly. Nothing will be the same once Jesus is in the world.


But it’s not the final chapter.


God is still speaking.


Through the words of Mary, and through us.


So my challenge to us this Christmas is to ask ourselves – what is our place in this story?


In God’s arch of history, where do we come in?


How is God still speaking through us?




Advent Candle Lighting


Sarah: Mary was full of life and promise. We remember her today as we also celebrate the child in her womb, Jesus the Christ.


Tammy: At the beginning of the service, we relit the candles of hope, peace, and love, remembering the light of Christ, which shines in and through us.


Sarah: Today, we light the 4th candle. And it’s pink! But why is it pink?


Well, in the earliest years of the church, the only recognized season was Lent, the 7-week period leading up to Easter. It was a season of fasting and prayer, and during that season, the church used to light 7 blue candles—blue signifying repentance.


Tammy: However solemn the season, Lent also had a bit of hope and joy, because people knew that the death of Christ led to the resurrection on Easter Sunday. In ancient times, the story goes, church leaders would honor a citizen with a pink rose to acknowledge the joy and hope they brought to the people. In time, that pink rose became a pink candle, which was lit on one Sunday each Lent to remind us of the joy of the resurrection to come. <Tammy light stick from one of the candles on the altar and get ready to light the pink candle>


Sarah: When the church started celebrating the season of Advent, it was seen as a parallel season to Lent—a time for reflection and preparation. At the same time, Advent is also a time to prepare for the coming joy of the birth of Christ. So one Sunday each Advent, we light a pink candle as we celebrate joy.


May we remember all of the labor of our staff and volunteers, celebrate the life-giving work of this community, and light this candle in anticipation of the great joy of Jesus’ birth.


<Tammy  lights pink candle here>


Let us pray… <Sarah says a prayer here>


<silent prayer> <prayer of Jesus>

Christmas Traditions – A Sermon on Isaiah 58 – Advent 3

Mini-sermon on Isaiah 58


There was a Christmas Cantata at the 11AM service, but this mini-sermon was preached at 9AM.



There are hundreds of Christmas traditions around the world.

Some revolve around food (congregation members shared some of their own traditions).


In Japan, people eat Kentucky fried chicken. (look it up – it’s true!).


Other traditions revolve around gift-giving.

From the web: “Christmas in Iceland involves a visit from the Yuletide Lads over 13 days between Christmas and Epiphany. Over the 13 nights, children place a shoe in their bedroom window. Each night a different Yuletide lad (fairy-like creature) visits, leaving sweets or gifts.
“In Italy, Christmas comes around again in January when La Befana (a nice old lady who looks like a bit of a witch) goes around and gives presents and treats to the kids. Just as with Santa, kids will leave a snack out for La Befana who is usually depicted as dirty and covered in soot since she enters through the chimney.”


“A late 19th Century American tradition, it all revolves a Christmas Tree decoration the shape of a pickle. For Christmas morning, a pickle shaped ornament is hidden on a branch and then the children try to find it. The finder receives an extra present from Santa or good luck for the next year.

The tradition has ties to marketing in the 1890s when glass Christmas decorations were imported from Germany. Woolworths brought in the decorations that featured glass blown vegetables. The Christmas Pickle idea was concocted to sell the product.”

(for more interesting traditions, visit: or google “Christmas traditions around the world).

Many of these traditions have SOME connection to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, but many of them have also emerged from unique cultural situations or from a blend of biblical stories and modern twists that often have more to do with economics than anything else.

It’s also traditional for Chrsitians to talk about the “real meaning of Christmas.”

So what IS the real meaning of Christmas?

I’m guessing there are a lot of different answers to that question, but if we consider who Jesus was, celebrating his birth is not just about presents or even just about good will and cheery feelings.

Jesus was a prophet–someone who spoke out and challenged us to change our lives.

In many way he echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah in our text today.

Our text today was written after the Jewish people had been returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile.

When the exile happened, around 589BCE, the upper classes – the educated folks, the folks with power, folks with privilege were exiled to Babylon.

Several generations later, when Persian conquered Babylon, the Jewish people were allowed to return.

Most of them probably didn’t.

Jerusalem was in ruins, while Babylon had a thriving economy.

The generations that had grown up in Babylon had assimilated into Babylonian life in a lot of ways—as is true in many refugee communities, the younger generations didn’t have the same connection with the motherland that the older ones did.

But some folks DID return.

People who had maintained their Jewish traditions and remained true to their faith.

Educated people who had been studying Judaism from afar for years, carefully and faithfully following the law, even in exile, people who were just waiting for that glorious day when they could return and rebuild the temple.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, while the upper classes were off in Babylon, the working poor and those with less education and privilege had been allowed to stay behind.

They’d been practicing Judaism themselves – not by reading books, but by living their faith.

When the exiles returned, many of them with some wealth and resources, they basically said to the people, okay – your chief priests and teachers and leaders are back, listen up. We’ve been practicing our faith and studying it for generations in exile and we’re here to bring it back.

And the people back home who’d been in Jerusalem the whole time were like, “Judaism never left.” YOU left. But our faith didn’t. Just because we can’t read or write or buy nice clothes or hold high positions in the church doesn’t mean that we can’t be faithful to God.

It’s into this mix that the poet and prophet Isaiah arrives.

The religious leaders are talking about how pious they are, fasting and keeping the REAL traditions of Judaism.

And God responds through the words of the prophet. “You’re missing the whole point,” Isaiah says.  “You’ve had your nose in books for years, yes, but knowing the words and living the words are two very different things.”

“You’re fasting and professing to be holy, while at the same time, oppressing the people who work for you.”

“You’re missing the point. Listen.

“This is the fast that I choose for you:

to loose the bonds of injustice,     to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,     and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry,     and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,     and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

It’s a tricky message to get our heads around.

The religious practice of fasting is supposed to be about denying our interests.

And yet, as Patricia Willey writes, “To fast while continuing to serve one’s own interest, no matter how attractive the interest, is not to fast at all. To fast and to maintain control is not to empty onself before almighty God, but simply to go on a little religious diet.

But what if on your fast day, you also fasted from pursuing your interest?,” she writes. “What if you took a sabbath from power, because others are continually starved for lack of it? What if you fasted by attending to the needs of others, even at the risk of your firm hold on your social standing, even at the risk of your own visions? Now THAT would be an act of faith even more radical than the pursuit of the exited poet’s promises, because it would be faith not in an imaginable goal, but in God alone.

Nobody can practice faith like that—nobody would WANT to practice faith like that—without believing both that there are interests more crucial than the best they can imagine and that those interests are also God’s.” (Patricia Willey’s piece, “Repairing the Breach: A Meditation on Isaiah 58” appeared in Church and Society in the Nov/Dec 1992 edition).

As we approach Christmas, we practice our faith in many different ways.

My challenge to us is to not let our traditions, religious or otherwise, be the end of the story.

To consider also what the birth of Jesus means for our lives in a larger sense.

What it means for love to come into the world.




Advent Candle Lighting


Sarah: Last week, we lit the candles of hope and peace, and we relight them today, remembering God’s promises and finding hope in our faith and in our community.

Today, we will also light the candle of love.

The Bible tells us that love is patient. Love is kind and envies no one.

Worship leader: Love is never boastful or rude or selfish.

Love is not quick to take offense.

Love keeps no record of wrongs and does not gloat over other people’s troubles, but rejoices in truth.

Love conquers all.

Sarah: At Christmas, we celebrate God’s love that comes to us in the form of Jesus, a baby who will grow up to embody what love means.

Worship leader: He will teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves and show us that love takes courage and perseverance.

Sarah: Today, we light the candle of love to remind us that Christ will be a light for love in our world and also to remind us that as the living Body of Christ, our light shines God’s love for all the world.


Let us pray…




Speaking Up and Shedding Light – Adevent 2 – Peace


Scripture: Matthew 18: 15-22

Advent 2 – Peace

“Speaking Up and Shedding Light”


The other day, I got out of a meeting, and my phone popped up a message with a map. “20 minutes to get to church of the Good Shepherd.”


How does it know that I’m planning to go to Church of the Good Shepherd?


Well, it turns out, it has paid attention to my habits and knows about what time I come into work.


And so I got curious – how much do my electronics actually know about me?


I recently did a search, “What does Google know about me.”


And it probably won’t surprise you that Google knows an awful lot.


It knows that I like to search for hymns on YouTube.



For those of you who haven’t turned off location services, if you have a smart phone, it probably also knows all of the places you’ve been recently.


It may even pop up a message from time to time telling you how to get there.


You can turn all of this off, of course. All you have to do is Google “What does Google know about me,” and you can find videos and articles about how to restore your privacy.


(Of course, Google will know that you googled “What does Google know about me.”)


All of this is not to make us paranoid about Big Brother, but to remind us, that there are a lot of companies who know more about us than we think.


And it’s frankly none of their business.


But they’ve MADE it their business in order to make money.


Our business is a bit different. Our mission statement is to “Create a just world through community one life at a time.”


Our business is creating a just world.


So why, if that’s our mission, are we so afraid to step in when people are doing things that interfere with our mission?


Maybe it’s because we want to protect each other’s privacy.


We see someone acting out, and we think, well, that’s none of my business.


Or, he’s not hurting me, or she’s only hurting herself with that behavior, or it’s not my place to interfere.


Well, today’s text, which was written specificially for the church, says that actually, it IS our business.


When it comes to this community, it is our RESPONSIBILITY to pay attention and also to speak out when we see people behaving in ways that go counter to our mission.


It’s our RESPONSIBILITY to act on what we know and speak up in love when we notice that something’s wrong.


We talked about the spinach in the teeth example.


We’ve all had that scenario when we have a piece of spinach or something in our teeth? Or when we’ve said or done something that accidentally stepped on people’s toes.


Don’t you hate it when you get home and realize that spinach was there the whole time and no one told you about it?


Or when you find our months or even years later that someone was hurt by something you said and never told you about it?


If we see someone with something in their teeth or someone doing something that hurts us or our community, of course, we could just say it’s none of our business.


But the loving thing to do is to tell them.


And the Gospel message takes it even a step further.


The text uses the word “sin,” which at its core is about broken relationship. Broken relationship with God, with other people, or with ourselves.


And the translation we have says “If someone sins against you, take them aside privately and talk to them,” but the oldest and most reliable manuscripts we have of this passage do not contain the words “against you.”


So they don’t’ say “If someone sins against you,” they just say, “If someone sins,” speak with them privately about it.


And so the Gospel of Matthew is suggesting that it’s not just when someone hurts us personally that we step forward and say – hey, that wasn’t okay.


No, it’s saying when we see ANY sin in our community, anything that’s keeping someone from God or from community from personal wholeness, that it is our RESPONSIBILITY, it is the LOVING thing to do, to take them aside privately, and talk to them about it.


This doesn’t mean being nosy. This doesn’t mean talking about people behind their backs or gossiping about the things they’re doing that irritate us. It means taking the offending person aside privately, and in love, telling them your observations.


And that requires a measure of trust and relationship.


Someone the other day just randomly came up to me at the supermarket and handed me a lint roller and said, here – you could use one of these.


I thought that person was a total jerk.


But if someone I love and am close with came to me with a lint roller and said – you mention all the time how much your dog sheds. I thought I’d get you one of these, because I know you probably need one with such a big fuzzy dog!


I’d probably respond very differently, right?


The key is relationship.


When we confront people about “sin,” or if that word’s too loaded, when we confront people about behavior that we believe is breaking relationship, it’s important that we don’t shame them or point out who wrong they are.


It’s important instead that we go with an intention of compassion, telling them, in love, that we care about them and that we’re concerned about them.


The Gospel of Matthew reframes confrontation as an opportunity to invite members of our community, people that we love, into dialog about something that brings us concern.


And this could not be any more salient than now.


There’s been a lot in the news lately about harassment.


And I know a lot of people are just now coming forward and talking about what happened to them as victims of this behavior.


The church is certainly not immune from that.


As a clergywoman, I’ve both experienced and witnessed inappropriate behavior in churches before.


And as a victim, especially a victim in a situation in which I had little power, it was difficult, if not impossible to confront the person behaving in a hurtful way.


One of our responsibilities in a community such as ours IS to care for victims.


And a big part of caring for the victims may be not having the expectation that the victim be the one to confront the person behaving badly.


When there is a power imbalance or a major conflict, it’s really courageous for the person who is a victim to go forward and tell the bully, “Hey, what you did hurt me.”


It’s really courageous for the victim to say something, even if the perpetrator was clearly not aware that they were behaving badly. Maybe they said something innocently or did something that was truly offensive, but they had no idea.


It is courage and loving, just as it is to tell someone they have spinach in their teeth, to tell that person, “Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but what you said or did was really hurtful to me. It was really offensive. And because I love you, I want you to know that.”


But I also want to be clear, that a lot of times, it’s just not fair to ask the victim to have the sole responsibility to correct the behavior.


Honestly. It’s great when victims can.


But this passage today reminds us that it is ALL of our responsibilities ALL of our roles to step in when we see sinful behavior in our community, behavior that breaks relationship.


This is OUR business. Stepping up in order to build a just world through community one life at a time.

Because I wonder, in the cases coming to light today, how many people observed the behavior in question, friends of the bullies or harassers, How many friends or colleagues, and saw that they were acting in ways that were hurtful or inappropriate, and yet didn’t say anything because it was “none of their business.”


Or because they simply wanted to avoid confrontation?


Some of the men are coming forward and saying they had no idea that the language they were using or the things they were saying were hurtful.


Some of them are full of it. A lot of this stuff is common sense.


But I really believe that some of them had no idea the degree of damage they were doing. Or even that they WERE doing damage.




In Christian community, in an intentional community like ours that seeks to build a just world, one life at a time, it is ALL of our responsibilities to take people aside and talk to them when we notice behavior that might break relationships or hurt people.


And let me be clear – because Matthew is clear – in this community, if we see harassment or bullying happening, the Christian response is not to publicly shame them, or punish them, or scold them in the media or kick them out of the community.


It’s to take them aside personally, speak with them privately, in a loving manner, and create a dialog about how their actions break the bonds of community.


And if they don’t listen, we can take someone else with us to talk with them.


And if they STILL don’t listen, we can take the issue to a a larger group.


And if they STILL don’t listen or change their behavior, they will be to us like a Gentile or a tax collector.


Which in the life and example of Jesus, does not mean cutting them off.


It means that the bully is someone that we must go out of our way to care for, to love, and to welcome into community and offer healing to, because their unwillingness to change their bad behavior means that there is a deep deep wound somewhere that needs to be tended.


Now, if we’re the victim of their abuse, cutting them off may be what we have to do to keep ourselves safe.


But for those of us who are allies, both of the victim and the perpetrator, there’s no way we’ll be able to help heal their wounds and restore wholeness to the community if we cut them off.

When there is brokenness in relationship, any relationship, there cannot be a just world, there cannot be wholeness in the Body of Christ.


When there is brokenness in a church member’s relationship with another church member, there cannot be wholeness in the Body of Christ.


When there is brokenness in our relationships with people who disagree with our politics, there cannot be wholeness in the Body of Christ.


When there is brokenness in a church members’ relationship with their own body, there cannot be wholeness in the Body of Christ.


This is our business – loving one another and creating a just world, one life at a time.


That’s our business.


So may we take the time to build relationship and build the courage to speak up in love, that we all might be part of building God’s reign of peace on earth.


If the supermarket cares enough to know what kind of food we buy, and smartphones and computers know where we go and what we like to search for, if all of these companies make it their business to know and care about what we’re up to so that they can sell us more stuff,


I have faith that we, as a Christian community, with all of our strength that comes from God and one another, can forego our fear about violating people’s privacy in order to love people and bring more wholeness to the Body of Christ.





Advent Candle lighting


Worship Leader: In Advent, we light candles to remind us of God’s light in the darkness. Today, we light the candles of HOPE and PEACE


Sarah: In the season Advent, we prepare for the birth of Christ in the world. And yet we also know, from our place in history, that Jesus’ life was limited.


Worship Leader: This baby, this child that will be born, will bring us hope, and he will also preach peace. But ultimately, it’s up to us to follow through. To do the hard work of MAKING peace on earth.


< Worship leader lights 2 BLUE candles now>


Sarah: Today, we light the candles of hope and peace, knowing that the hard work is not just up to the baby coming, but up to us, the Living Body of Christ. As we light these candles, we offer a prayer that God’s light of hope will shine a path for us, and that God’s light of peace will illuminate the places in our lives where darkness dwells.

May God hold us in the light, and may we also shed God’s light on the lives of others. With love and compassion and understanding, may we bring wholeness to the Body of Christ and support one another on our journeys to peace.




Embracing the Darkness while Waiting for the Light – Advent 1

Scripture: Psalm 27

Sermon: Embracing the Darkness while Waiting for the Light

When I was in college, I participated in a spiritual practice one Lent that included fasting.

We fasted for 3 days

3 days!

I’m not one of those people who just “forgets to eat.” I love food.

But for 3 days, I fasted, and I prayed, and I experienced hunger and longing.

And I will tell you that the first meal I had, which was a simple salad with almonds and strawberries. I don’t think I will EVER forget that meal.

The strawberries were the sweetest strawberries I’d ever had. I’m not one who usually jumps for joy about spinach, but I remember closing my eyes and savoring every bite.

It was overwhelmingly good. Overwhelmingly rich and satisfying. All of my senses came to life in my experience of that simple salad.

How many of us woke up this morning and cried with joy that we could walk?

I can guarantee you that there ARE people who have suffered life-changing injuries and struggled for months, maybe years to learn to walk again, and I’m sure that now, they wake up, perhaps in tears of thanksgiving, saying “Thanks be to God that I can take a step today.”

Longing for something, experiencing the absence of something, whether that be food or comfort or security or companionship—when we DO experience those things again, they are that much more powerful and meaningful and full as a result of their absence in our lives.

Longing is a valuable part of our human experience as well as our spiritual experience.

And today’s Psalm talks a lot about longing. Longing for the light. Longing for God’s action and protection. Longing for God’s presence.

The Psalmist says that the ONE thing he longs for more than anything is to live in the house of God forever.

The Psalmist wants that sustenance, that sweet taste of security and safety and belonging.

And yet, without his moments of separation and pain and loss and darkness, it’s quite possible the Psalmist would never appreciate the light and connection he seeks.

Our God is not just a god of the light, but a God of the darkness as well.

In OUR mythology, our God, is first, a God of darkness.

In the beginning, God separated the light from the darkness and called them good.

And if you read the text carefully, the first day of creation begins with darkness.

The Jewish day begins at sundown.

God doesn’t just shine in the light of day. God begins the day after the sun has gone down.

And the darkness is good.

God called the DARKNESS GOOD.

Not just the creativity and quiet and spiritual moments that come with the night.

Those moments under the stars or around a campfire or around a table with friends.

God calls all darkness good.

And not just the darkness of night where we find creativity or spend time with friends around the campfire…

The darkness that William Hull described as that inward confusion when ignorance frustrates our ability to find the way ahead and we cry, “I’m in the dark!” It also describes that sinister environment in which foes lurk to do us hard under the cover of night. Ultimately, it comes to denote that doubt and despair we call ‘the dark night of the soul’ separating us from God.”

God calls THAT darkness good.

And that’s difficult for me to wrap my head and heart and faith around.

As upbeat and energetic as I seem most of the time, I HAVE experienced real darkness in my life.

And to think that those times were “good,” is something that’s difficult for me to accept.

Certainly, it’s not good in the sense of being pleasurable. Or good in the sense that it’s comfortable.

But as I struggled with this text, I came to the conclusion that darkness and longing and separation from God ARE good, in the sense that they are part of the cycle of life that connects us to ALL of who God is.

And the darkness and longing are good, because they lead us to appreciate the light.

Some religions ignore the darkness all together.

Some Christian churches do too.

<a note here from Barbara Brown Taylor about “solar” vs “lunar religion”>

It’s all happiness and upbeat and God is good and God offers blessings.

Christianity doesn’t just show up in the happy times.

Sometimes, the most glorious miracles happen when we’re at our lowest points.

And those dark times bring us deeper into appreciation and thanksgiving when the light returns.

And the light WILL return.

That’s difficult to believe sometimes when we’re in the midst of darkness, especially a long period of darkness.

<example of Saint Theresa of Avila, who experienced God as a burst of light, but then for 18 years, she didn’t feel connected to God at all. She was in the dark. She did pray. She offered spiritual direction. She ran a convent. But it wasn’t until 18 years later that she felt the presence of God return to her.>

The Bible is clear, the darkness will NOT last forever.

Where there is separation, there WILL be reconciliation.

Where there is pain, there will be relief.

Where there is uncertainty, there will be resolution.

God begins our days with darkness, but continues with the light.

And BECAUSE of the darkness, because of those times of separation and hardship and loss and betrayal, when we DO experience the sunrise, the joy will be overwhelming.

Our God is a god of the darkness first.

May we find God in the longing, in the waiting, and in the promise of light to come.

Advent Candle Lighting

(immediately after the sermon)

One: In these long nights of winter, we might find ourselves embracing the mysteries of God in the darkness: relishing the stillness of the night and the glimmer of stars, breathing into the spirit of creativity and emotion that thrives in the predawn hours of the morning, and enjoying all of the ways God’s creation comes alive in the moonlight.

Two: This Advent season, we may also experience darkness of a different kind – the emptiness of grief, the pain of separation, the fear of uncertainty, or the depths of despair.

One: Throughout this season of Advent, we light candles to remind us that whether the darkness we face is painful or whether it is life-giving–however we experience the darkness—God is there with us.

Two: Today, we light the first candle, the candle of hope: Hope for justice; Hope for healing; Hope for new life.

<lights candle now>

One: May we find comfort and assurance in the light of God’s hope.

Let us pray….

<Pastoral Prayer>

Focusing on People, not the Fuss

Luke 10:38-42

Martha means “master.”

Head of the household.

And like her name implies, Martha was in charge.

She made sure that everything was handled.

  • When her brother Lazarus died, she was the first one to run out to Jesus on the road and scold him for not getting there sooner.
  • She was also the first of the sisters to recognize Jesus as the messiah in the Gospel of John.
  • And so it makes sense that Martha, the one in charge, is also the one in the kitchen, making preparations and making sure everything is in order.

And yet Martha gets bad press in a lot of sermons about this text.

And so I want to be clear here that hard work and Martha’s work in particular is not something Jesus is condemning here.

We all need Marthas in our lives.

Those people who are behind the scenes, making sure every detail is attended to.

People like our Ministry Team Lead for Hospitality, Jill Crawey and her team, including folks like Carol St. John, people who have stepped up in such a big way this past month to offer hospitality at 4 memorial services as well as at today’s Thanks for Giving meal.

You’ll see some of the work they’ve put in today, but a lot of it is things that happen behind the scenes.

I also think about Roberta Glaser and the team she’s developing to help us manage memorial services even better.

This past month, she made sure flowers were arranged, families were cared for, and ushers were called and in place.

And we can’t leave out Meg and Dorenda and Linda and… me too, who juggled logistics to make sure every service was equally meaningful and well-put-together.

And it wasn’t just memorial services where our Martha sides showed up this month.

I think about Marge, for example. Wow!

  • In addition to running a beautiful Generosity Campaign, she worked with Sammy to organize the boxes for the East Mountain Food Pantry. She calculated exactly how many potatoes and yams each family got, did the shopping, and then put printed forms on every box, so that the volunteers like me who showed up knew exactly what to do.

And then there are all of you who weren’t necessarily “in charge,” but who put in countless hours. Shopping, setting up, carrying food, serving, driving leftovers to Casa Q, winterizing our garden, or setting up our Cornucopia, among other things.

And it’s not just here at church where our Martha sides show up.

There are many of us who are hosting a large number of guests, maybe not here at the church, but in our homes.

I know one person here today who’s welcoming over 20 guests, not just for Thanksgiving dinner, but for 8 meals. And she’s doing all the shopping!

Whether it’s our job or calling or a volunteer position, these tasks and events involve a LOT of work.

And a attention to detail.

And that was Martha. It was her gift. The hard work and the attention to detail.

She made sure that everything was in order for Jesus’ arrival.

And I want to be clear, Jesus, in this text is not condemning the Martha’s of the world. In fact, Jesus praises Martha over and over in the Bible, saying how much he loves her.

And…in that spirit of love, Jesus also encourages Martha, and he encourages the Marth in all of us to keep perspective when faced with enormous tasks such as these.

I believe that here, he’s encouraging Martha not to stop working, but rather to relax, to breath, and to keep things simple.

This year, at Church of the Good Shepherd, there are some places we’re doing better at this than others.

For example, our Council decided to cater our Thanks for Giving meal this year.

The Council used to not only donate the turkeys but also cook them.

Knowing how much our Council works (and if you don’t, I’ll tell you that at least two of them volunteered over 40 hours last week), can you imagine, during this busy season, giving them yet another task?

I’ll confess that in that past, when we had the Council cook the turkeys, there was also some variation in the quality of the cooking…

Everyone has their gifts. Not everyone’s gift is cooking.

So this year, the Council is keeping it simple.

They’re hosting a beautiful meal, but they’re not fussing, at least not as much, in the kitchen.

Jill Crawley is still there, and if there’s someone you’re looking to thank or shower with gifts this holiday season, she’s a great person to consider!

Because even keeping it simple, someone still has to be in charge. And that’s Jill. She’s our celebrated Martha today.

Thankfully…she also has a crew of volunteers that is helping her.

And…my hope is, that they’re not so busy and distracted with all of their serving responsibilities that they forget to enjoy and get to know one another.

The Amplified Bible translates today’s text to say that Martha was not only busy but DISTRACTED with all of her serving responsibilities.

In the Message translation, Jesus says to Martha, “You’re fussing over far too much.”

Jesus pleads with her, “Martha, Relax a little. Keep it simple. I don’t need a feast for a king. What’s important is not what we eat or how beautiful it is, but who we are with.”

Keep it simple. And focus on the people, not the fuss.

Whether we’re hosting a meal (or 8), sharing time with guests, or putting together a memorial service, it’s important to remember that simple can still be meaningful.

At this point in my career, I’ve done over 150 weddings and funerals. And at just as many pot lucks, if not more. And no one has once said “I wish the linen had been ironed better.”

No one has once said, “I wish the hour devours at the service had been made from scratch.”

No one has once said, “I wish the bride had worn a more expensive dress.”

You know what people remember?

The couple getting married. Or the stories about the person who’s passed from this life. Or the people they shared those moments with.

In our text today, Jesus tells Mary that what she’s getting sitting at Jesus’ feet is something that will never be taken away from her.

Those stories, those intimate conversations, those moments of laughter – those are what stay with us.

I don’t remember what I ate at Thanksgiving in 1985. But I do remember singing along while my great grandfather played the piano.

I don’t remember whether the pie was any good at the Christmas pot luck in 2008. But I do remember talking to the 85-year-old member of my congregation who’d just gotten her first tattoo and wanted everyone to see it.

At our memorial services this month, I heard over and over again that people just wished they’d spent a little bit more time getting to know the person they were celebrating.

We learned amazing things about people at those services – like how Carl rescued dying service members from the front lines in WWII, how Jim McElhaney wrote love-note comic strips and left them for his wife Penny when he went out of town, how Wayne traveled the world and loved to sing Amazing Grace at the top of his lungs while riding his horse. And how Orp, was a clown. Okay, lots of us guessed that one.

But those stories made me wonder, what depths of one another’s lives are we missing?

What insights does that person sitting next to us have to share that we haven’t heard yet?

And what do we have the opportunity to learn and appreciate while we’re still here together?

Now, I certainly don’t want people to stop cooking or volunteering, but I do hope that we work to keep things in perspective, and when we can, keep things simple, fuss a little less, so that even those of us working behind the scenes can take a moment to sit, listen, and enjoy one another.

This church is full of extraordinary people.

For example – did you know that Jenny Sanchez, in addition to leading our justice ministry and working in our garden, is also a phenomenal Latin dancer? Or that Michael Tucker, our Vice Moderator, is also a writer and videographer and one of the few Americans to try his hand at writing in the Japanese genre of interactive online visual novels.

How many of us know that Sky, our Ministry Team Lead for Administration, is also a 3rd-generation blacksmith who’s forges steel swords in his garage.

Or that Karen Bash, our former moderator, is running for elected office.

And Dorenda, our accomplished pianist, also has the cutest puppy you’ll ever meet.

Of course, listening and sharing is a two-way street. In order for us to get to know one another, we also have to be willing to fill the role of Jesus, sharing our own stories and letting people know a little bit more about who we are.

Trust me, people want to know!

So many of us think that our lives are uninteresting. Or we’ve been taught to be humble and keep our accomplishments to ourselves.

But I’ve also never done a memorial service for anyone of any age where people didn’t have something in their lives that people valued, that was cause for celebration.

When we share who we are and what we do and what we care about, it brings us closer to one another.

So my challenge to us today and in this seasons of generosity and is to give thanks for the Marthas in our lives, and to also

Keep it simple. Share with one another. And focus on the people, not the fuss.