Monthly Archives: September 2014

On the verge . . .

Assembly Inn; Montreat, NC

Assembly Inn; Montreat, NC

On the verge of the harvest season!!!

If you look closely at this photo, I hope you will notice the diversity of beautiful greens; golden colors; hints of red. All on the verge of a gorgeous display!

This autumn has me wondering: what is ready to be harvested in me? At what have I — or Spirit, rather — been hard at work? Growing, waiting, becoming. Until now: the season of cultivation. The time to reap the good harvest of all the efforts.

What has been growing in the fertile soil that is you? That is your life? What life-giving fruit might be harvested in you?

I invite you to stay with these questions this season. Open yourself to something beautiful becoming NOW for you. For the Holy. For the life of this world.


21 Sept. 2014 sermon — Exodus 16:1-15

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

The Past, Present, and Future Church

21 September 2014 — 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Exodus 16:1-15 (NRS)

When my parents and sister were here two weeks ago, we went to tour the Hermitage. I felt like an undercover spy checking out the historical roots of this church.  As we entered the museum, one of the first things that stood out was a panel about Ms. Nancy. If I’m remembering the details correctly, President Jackson brought her to the Hermitage to be a seamstress. The last sentence about her tells that she and her descendants were one of the only slave families to become members of this church. The house was beautiful and I loved the garden. But I found myself having difficulty with the history of the 150 slaves serving the Jacksons on the Hermitage. Their jobs ranged from house cook, to stableman, to field hands. Knowing about the ways many slaves were treated in early America, we only can imagine how harsh their lives were. Now, I realize everyone who was anyone owned slaves back in the early 1800s. But I still don’t like it. The fact that only one family of the 150 slaves of the Hermitage ever became members of this church leaves me wondering:  how can such an engrained trend of racial separation ever be turned around.  . . .  Before we finished our tour, I took my family back to the old church building and explained to them that’s where we have Easter Sunrise service. Had it not been for the fire in the late 1960s, we still might be worshipping each week in that very spot. . . . I’ve read the documents from around the time of the fire when this church re-asserted who it was and who it wanted to be in the future. A strong commitment to worship and study continued – which supposedly was the reason Rachel Jackson first asked Andrew about a space on the Hermitage for a church. From all I’ve read, we have great pride in our Hermitage roots; but as we were moving into this facility, we wanted it to be known that we’re not just the church the Jackson family started. We have our own identity and mission apart from having President Jackson’s pew marked with a memorial plaque, as it is in the old church building. It came through the mission documents that we want to worship God, grow in our faith, and be of service in this community.

It’s all got me thinking about looking to the past. Churches so often do it and in some respects, we must. I mean, we have to know from where we came if we want to know where we’re going. Like: it’s important for us to be aware of the nature of the connections our founding church family had with those around them if we want to address how we best connect with those around us today. I suspect our church members of the 1960s knew that, which is why they asserted their appreciation for our start among the Jacksons, yet affirmed our growth into a church with its own convictions and direction. . . . We just can’t be a rowboat church. You know, you row a boat looking backwards from where you’ve come. But you sail a boat looking forward. Heading in the direction you hope to reach. Attending to the forces of the winds upon the sails right where you stand. It might be comfortable to be a rowboat church. Because we can longingly gaze upon the past, in order to keep us from having to face the unknowns of the future.

It’s what Ancient Israel was doing. There they were, just six weeks into their miraculous freedom from Egypt when they started grumbling against Moses and Aaron, for the second time, no less. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,” they complain, “When we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses, our supposedly mighty leader, and you, Aaron, his sidekick,) have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” (Ex. 16:3). The pressure’s on. They’re hungry. The unleavened bread they might have brought with them out of Egypt is about ate up. God just had provided amazingly sweet water for them when nothing but undrinkable stuff was around them in the wilderness of Shur. Now in the wilderness of Sin between Elim and Sinai, they’re so afraid they’re going to starve that they long for the past days of their slavery.  . . .  It’s amazing to me how incredibly patient God is with them – with us. They are romanticizing their past. Thinking the security of food in their stomachs under the Pharaoh of Egypt is better than the freedom they have with God at their side in their present circumstances. There they are and as long as they remain rowboat people, looking back to glorify a past that never really was all that glorious anyway –they were slaves. As long as they keep looking back at their past, they will not see the blessings with which God is surrounding them right there in their present. They’ve got bread – manna every morning and quail every night – thanks to the God who is with them trying to make them into something amazing for the future.

A fairly new process for organizational improvement exists called Appreciative Inquiry. Some of you might know of it from your roles beyond the church because it started in business and eventually trickled its way into the church. Appreciative Inquiry is a process in which you take stock of what you have, then build upon that. It sounds so much like common sense. Like: instead of running out to the store all the time to pick up something new because a recipe calls for it; just figure out what dish to create with the ingredients you have in the kitchen. Common sense, right?  . . .  Two sociologists at Case Western University created the Appreciative Inquiry process where an organization is to focus on its strengths in order to improve its bottom line. That’s energizing. That’s exciting. That even seems like the most faithful way to honor the gifts with which God surrounds us each day.  . . .  It no longer becomes about fixing a problem – trying to get something we don’t have, or be about something none of us is really any good at, which seems how we so often tend to live our lives – especially in the church. We either get stuck looking back at how it was and think we need to keep that up today. Or we compare ourselves to how everyone else is – what other churches have that we think we need to have too.  . . .  I’m so very glad God is so very patient with us because just like the ancient Israelites: God is showering gifts on them in their present. Sending manna and quail as their food each day but they keep whining away for something else – something other than the gifts God is giving them today. Churches that operate like that might find themselves as frustrating to God as were those would-not-live-free slaves who found themselves having to wander forty years in the wilderness for God to shape them into something else.

To be guided by Appreciative Inquiry is to name and claim our strengths in order to grow from there. It’s to inquire about what we have to appreciate and then to build upon that. It’s like the story of the wise teacher who reminds that God doesn’t ask why we’re not doing a better job at being Moses. God asks if we’re doing the best job at being ourselves.  . . .  In a nut shell, Appreciative Inquiry includes a five D cycle where you define, discover, dream, design, and then live into your destiny. It’s a way to take stock of the present. To ask the same question the Israelites were asking when they said of the manna: “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15). What is the bread God has provided for us today? What are the strengths we have among us that are God’s gifts to us for being the church today?  . . . Churches that undergo the process are set free to create amazing ministry that is relevant and responsible with the gifts of who they are right in the time and place God has put them. It’s being who God wants them to be:  a present church living into God’s desired future. Seeing the bread God is giving each day and being faithful to enjoy and allow the fruits of that bread to grow.

I realize it might be a new way to be. And I know new things can be scary. Can you imagine how scary it was for Ancient Israel? Nothing about their lives in the wilderness seemed familiar. The story goes that they had to go through huge walls of water with the Egyptian army chasing after them. That had to be terrifying. As far as we know, no other people ever had to do that before. Then they landed in this desolate land – dry and rocky and oh so very dark out there in that great big expanse all by themselves each night. It all was new. Unfamiliar. Unknown. Yet, God was present. Not one day did they travel without the fiery pillar at night and the cloud to shelter them from the hot burning sun of the afternoon. God never leaves us alone. The future always is unknown. New things always are new; but we always are with the One who knows us completely. Who, with or without our cooperation, brings the new out of that which is worn-out. Who holds us in our past, present, and future – to our end and beyond. It’s the God with us who gives what is needed to make it through each day. We’ve no need to fear. Just the curiosity to look around to ponder what gifts do we have for today that will lead the way into our future. What strengths has God provided upon which we can build? What is the blessed bread God has given that will be food not just for us in this place, but for those beyond the walls of this sanctuary?

May the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow open our eyes to see it all.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)

14 Sept. 2014 sermon — Mt. 18:21-35

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

14 September 2014 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first:  Matthew 18:21-35 (NRS)

The lectionary is a list of scripture readings for each Sunday set by an ecumenical group years ago. And every three years in early September, the gospel readings of the lectionary come back to Matthew 18. The reading from last week about a process of direct conversation with those who sin against us. And now this week: Peter’s question about how many times we have to forgive. The last time this reading came up in the lectionary it was the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11. A tricky day on which to preach a rousing sermon about endlessly forgiving those who sin against us, which is the intent of Jesus’ response to Peter’s desire to put some limits on mercy. “Not just seven times,” Jesus says. The holy number – the whole number. “But seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” as some manuscripts record. In other words: forgive times infinity, as the LORD our God does.

I doubt I’m the only person alive who struggles with forgiveness. And I should give a disclaimer that we’re not talking about letting the bad behavior continue. Jesus words about limitless forgiveness come after the process of recognizing and calling out the sin another commits against us. If someone else repeatedly is hurting us, that cannot go unchecked. We, the community, have a role to play in ensuring the health and safety of one another. If the sinner doesn’t change the bad behavior; we need to set in motion the process Jesus outlined early in chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel. Continued right-relationship and forgiveness of another are two very different things. . . . Either way, if we give the Lord’s Prayer any weight in our lives with God and one another, then we might find ourselves panicking a little bit. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we mindlessly recite each week. When we stop to think about those words, we might find ourselves struggling with forgiveness. Is it really true that if I can’t forgive another their sins against me, then God might not forgive me mine? It appears to be the end to the parable Jesus tells here as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. But it doesn’t seem entirely fair. After all: God is God. Forgiveness has to be much easier for God than it is for us.

A few years ago I led an eight week course on forgiveness. I had some stuff of my own to sort out so when the trusted resource came along, I thought I’d give it a shot. I wasn’t really sure anyone would sign up for the class. But about 8 or so people did. Stories ranged from harboring decades of anger over being abandoned by parents, to siblings who had messed up the family with their addictions, to co-workers who had done them wrong. Over the years I’ve sat with survivors of incest, and wives whose husbands have had affairs, and people who have been deeply betrayed by loved ones. In story after story, I have learned that I am not the only one who struggles with forgiveness. And I’ve also learned the incredible strength of those who desperately want to forgive but just don’t know how.

A powerful image of forgiveness is contained in a quarterly Christian Spirituality journal called Weavings. Each article of the publication matches a theme for that issue. The “Forgiveness” issue of the early 1990s still is their most highly requested copy. “Forgiveness” had an incredible image in it of what looked much like a dark dirty dungeon. A solid, dead-end wall with heavy chains on it. Shackles around the wrists of a figure whose face appeared gnarled in emotion. One of the shackles was bursting free; the other tightly gripped the opposite wrist. Forgiveness: letting the prisoner go free. . . . The thing about forgiveness – or rather the lack of it – is that both parties end up shackled. And so often the other party doesn’t even know we’ve chained ourselves to them.

A rabbi tells a story about a woman who came to him. She was a struggling young mother whose husband unexpectedly filed for divorce. She spent each day working her fingers to the bone just to make ends meet for her and her three small children. Meanwhile, her ex was living it up in another state with his younger new wife. She was so incredibly mad at him – not to mention betrayed and left wondering what was wrong with her. She was not at all open to the rabbi’s suggestion that she forgive her ex. Finally the rabbi explained: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you are hurting yourself” (Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter, 1999, p. 34). That’s just it. When we can’t forgive, we stay stuck. We shackle ourselves even as we keep the emotional shackles on the other person.

In that Weavings issue on “Forgiveness,” Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director Marjorie Thompson writes an article entitled “Moving toward Forgiveness.” She states: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem. . . . Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” (Marjorie Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19). . . . Can you imagine a God like that? One who always chooses to release us from the judgment we deserve. One always ready to leave behind the resentment and desire for retribution that is our fair consequence. One who doesn’t punish us for our unacceptable behavior but releases us, at least in God’s eyes from the wound we have caused God. What Jesus is telling Peter and his whole church is that God is a God who forgives completely. The body of Christ – us, the church – is to do likewise. Someone has to be on earth that same kind of mercy. That same representation of freedom.

Unlike God, we may need to practice it. “Moving toward Forgiveness” Marjorie Thompson’s article is entitled. In other words, though God may be ever-ready to forgive, you and I may need to wake up each morning to make a conscious choice for that day. It’s another way to think about seventy times seven, or seventy-seven. Consider that young mother who sought out a listening from the rabbi. It might have been helpful for her to hear: wake up on Monday morning and begin the day with a prayer like: “Help me today, God, to forgive him.” At the end of the day when she put her head back down on the pillow, pray: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him.” When the sun comes back up, pray: “Help me today, God, to forgive him – to release my resentment towards him.” And again that night: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him. I choose to let go of my desire to see him punished.” And so on and so forth for as long as it takes until we wake up in the morning free from the resentment; our punitive spirit toward another gone. . . . I like that. Because it seems more real to me. More doable. Like any other virtue or Christian quality we’re working to develop: seventy times seven or seventy-seven times it may take us, but eventually we will be able to forgive. Little by little those prayers – that attitude in us will wear down our smoldering anger, will soothe that throbbing wound until we wake up one morning to find ourselves free. Forgiving and forgiven. Able to practice the same kind of excessive mercy which we find ourselves receiving from God.

“Lord: how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asks. No. Not just seven times. But every day. Over and over again until we find we’ve become experts at the practice. Spirits as free as our God to forgive one another.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)


7 Sept. 2014 sermon — Matt. 18:15-20

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

7 September 2014 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRS)


I can’t go into all the sorted details, but last week when I was gathered with about a hundred other pastors at a conference in Montreat; I heard a whole lot of stories about churches in the middle of major fights. One of them had to do with disagreements over denominational matters, but most of them came down to people who really couldn’t find a way to get along. Small churches, mid-sized, and large ones too that to one degree or another are tearing each other apart. The worst I heard was ruling elders having shouting matches at each other in the parking lot after session meetings, though I’ve actually attended session meetings where the elders and pastor on their feet around the table were pounding fists and shaking fingers at each other. You should know that I was an outside guest at such meetings and not the pastor doing the pounding. . . . Most all of the church fights I heard about last week were among good, God-fearing Presbyterians. Just like us: well-educated, successful, family folks who could not get along. Some of the stories sounded totally justified to me. I mean, if the church I was a member of, without any input from us, went off and changed not only the time of Sunday worship but also the style of it; I think I might be ready to throw a few punches. If my beloved music director suddenly was fired; I’d go to battle. If the pastor who had held my hand through life’s traumas, whom I had come to love and trust completely, suddenly was being charged with something outlandish like taking two full days off each week; I just might have a few choice words for the accusers. We’re the church. Everyone says it’s not supposed to be like this. But the truth of it is, sometimes – actually far too often these days – it is.

You all know that. Because whether it’s been during your tenure as a member here or somewhere else, conflict happens. Some of you have told me of the difficult days for HPC during the 1980s. I actually learned last week that many congregations of the South experienced very similar difficulties when a particular experience-driven spiritual gifts movement was sweeping the nation. I guess it was something in the water or something but suddenly certain folks were having these ecstatic spiritual experiences – which are not bad in and of themselves. The problem comes when those who have them seek to make them the norm – especially among frozen chosen Presbyterians – and begin judging themselves better than those who haven’t yet been caught by the Spirit in quite the same way. It can be incredibly divisive; as it was in the early church we read about in the epistles, and as I understand it was here for those around at the time. It feels like overnight a major eruption has happened and good church folks are locked in battle with one another. . . . Church fights. Conflict sets in that rages far beyond a simple problem like what to have for dinner tonight.

I also heard again last week about the levels of conflict. We don’t have to look too far into the world to find evidence of these. Someday we’re bound to experience such things if not in life together in the church, then perhaps in our families or neighborhoods or nation. Some of us might be embroiled in it right now. The gospel of Matthew wouldn’t have recorded Jesus’ words about conflict between people if Jesus expected we’d never experience it. We might as well get prepared for when we come across it. So let me tell you about it. . . . Level one conflict is a simple problem – like what to have for dinner tonight. Or what color to paint the sanctuary ceiling. Level two’s a disagreement: one party insists that Thai food far outweighs the merits of Italian. Level three’s a bit more intense: who makes the best Thai. Coalitions begin to form. Personal attacks are had. Everyone assumes they know each other’s motives. Level four’s flight or fight. The objective is to break relationship – hurt, punish, humiliate the other. Folks start questioning motives and attacking the integrity of others. This is when churches so often move to fire the pastor thinking if that pastor is gone, everything again will be all right. Of course, it rarely is that simple. And then we get to level five. The conflict is intractable. We call it out and out war, where the objective is to destroy each other. The conflict now has taken on a life of its own and cannot be stopped. Though at this stage it’s often ambiguous what the fight is all about, the parties typically believe they are defending an eternal cause. They cannot; they will not back down. The sad thing is, this kind of level five conflict has been on the rise in churches. It’s a killer for clergy and members alike. The sooner we can recognize what’s going on among us, the greater chance we have to guard our life together from exploding out of control as it does at such high leveled conflict.

The best thing to do is advice not that far from Jesus’. Get the parties to sit down together. See if they can begin to understand what each other wants and what lies underneath the wants of one another. We’ve got to get each other out of our reactive lizard brains into a more rational state of respect and open listening. If at all possible, the church can surround all the sides and call them to different behavior. If you really want to know more about it so that you could travel to somewhere like Israel or Iraqi just to give it a try, you can read more about it in the book Getting to Yes where I understand this form of Principled Negotiating is outlined.

It sounds a little bit like Jesus, doesn’t it? At least according to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 where he seemed to be laying out his rules for life together as the church. Step one: recognize the sin against you. Before you pick up the phone to call person 3 about what person 2 did to you, seek out person 2. And as we know these were the days before email, instant messaging, and texts; go to person 2 in person. It would be great, wouldn’t it, if that could be the end of it. If you could just come to me to say, “Pastor Jule, when you said that crazy thing in class the other day, it really hurt my feelings.” “Or Pastor Jule, when you did or didn’t do what I was hoping for the other week, I was left feeling very under-appreciated.” Wouldn’t that be awesome?! We could sit down together and have a rational conversation about what I did or said and what that meant for you – how it hurt you or made you angry and why, because of what need of yours was going unaddressed. We’d shed a tear or two, have a prayer together, and before we know it be feeling so much more closely connected because we were able to hear the deep needs of one another. Hopefully we’d be laughing by the time we saw each other to the door and appropriately hug it out as we departed. Now, I let all my best friends know that we only can have such a conversation when we’re both ready for it. Not when I’m dog tired at the end of a long day, or when my mind is pre-occupied with a zillion other details. It’s fair to request such a conversation, but I find it helps if both parties are in a state of being able to be truly open to one another. Of course, I statements always are best. And I don’t mean like: “I think that you’re a jerk!” But like: “I am hurt when I’m not listened to because it feels like I’m not important.” Or “I don’t like hearing harsh words because that kind of anger scares me.”

Maybe it won’t always work. Which is exactly why Jesus puts forth step number two. If the first attempt breaks down, take along another church member. Now, we have to be smart in these days of frequent litigation and accusations that could ruin a person’s life. But if the problem isn’t one involving the abuse of power, taking along a few other listeners is a great idea. We don’t want to create a sense of ganging up on someone. The others are there merely to listen. Witnesses who can hear out each others’ side. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time for the fault to go public. Tell it to the whole church so that together we all might be able to bring the other’s behavior back in line – which is always the point of such confrontation. Treating another like a Gentile or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting them off – this was Jesus speaking. The one who went out of his way to show an extra dose of compassion to Gentiles and tax collectors. He expects the same from his church.

I realize this might sound a bit like a very dry lecture inspired by our Book of Order’s “Rules of Discipline,” which is why I think the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome come in handy. “Owe no one anything,” he writes, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). When we can do so in a respectful way, it’s most loving to have a direct conversation with each other about the ways we have hurt one another. I’m not talking about bringing along your laundry list of all the ways the pastor has been failing to meet your expectations and getting ready to fire away, but sitting down with each other – in love – to give and receive the truth needed. It’s loving to take responsibility for our own feelings and faults instead of blaming everyone and everything else. It’s loving to work out a way together to live compassionately with each other on our good days and on the days when we sin against one another. Being merciful to one another because, in the wise words of our Home Book Club author Jim Dant: “if everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I assume that includes me. And if you and I are both sinners, then I can’t stand against you – we’d be fighting. I can’t stand over you – I’m not your judge. I won’t stand below you and be humiliated. I only feel comfortable – Christ-like – standing beside you, walking with you, struggling with you, and gratefully allowing you to do the same for me. Practicing compassion. Trusting God to do what only God can do” (Dant, Finding Your Voice, pp. 160-161). . . . When we live like that, we fulfill the law of love. We show forth the God of mercy to the whole wide world. May this be our way today, tomorrow, and forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)


A friend of mine who works a lot of hours was told last week that they are a grown adult.  They don’t need a day of rest.

Shudder, shudder, shudder!  Ugh, ugh, ugh!

It was in fact a church member telling a church staff member that such time for personal rest was not necessary.  The church member was angry that my friend put self care above meeting their expectations.  I was mortified.

The longer I live, the more I understand that there is a very fine line between the good ole’ Midwestern work ethic and work-aholism.  Every week I seek to practice Sabbath — an intentional pause.  To cease.  To stop.  In order to rest.  In order to re-connect with God in ways I cannot  during demanding weeks of professional and personal responsibilities.  To listen to my true name:  precious child of God — not because of anything I do; but just because of God.  Sabbath rest reminds me that I am not God.  It’s not all up to me.  If the church wants a Savior, I know a much better direction in which to point them.  🙂

I love the latest words about Sabbath that I discovered in Mary Ann McKibben Dana’s wonderful book Sabbath in the Suburbs.  Mary Ann quotes Blu Greenberg, who writes:  “Six days shall you be a workaholic; on the seventh day, shall you join the serene company of human beings.  . . .  Six days shall you be the perfect success; on the seventh day, shall you remember that not everything is in your power.  . . .  Six days shall you enjoy the blessings of work; on the seventh day, shall you understand that being is as important as doing.”

I need this reminder everyday, which is why I seek the balance of a sustainable life for my body, mind, and spirit.  I don’t always get it right — which is why I keep on practicing.  I used to spend untold hours on a basketball court seeking to perfect my jump shot.  I figure I can give just about the same amount of effort to perfecting a life as centered as possible.  Some days I’m like a wobbly lump of clay about to spin off the potter’s wheel.  Other days I’m as ready as pliable clay in the potter’s hands, about to be made into something absolutely beautiful, useful, useable for the sake of another.

Rest . . .  no matter what any other voice might tell us:  ALL adults need it.  All adults have been created for it by a most generous, peace-giving Creator.  The Holy One who longs for us just to be together!

What have you noticed about such Sabbath rest?

Let us all know here — especially if you are a working parent or someone taking on more just to make ends meet.  Extra prayers go to those of you!



31 August 2014 — Hymn Sing


This is a different kind of post. Primarily because the service inspiring it was a different kind of service. Every now and again, we do a Hymn Sing. Sometimes it’s an opportunity for a preacher to introduce new music, as I did last summer in a Global Hymn Sing. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to challenge the church organist by having anyone call out whatever song they’d like to sing, as I did a few years ago the Sunday after Christmas when we all couldn’t get enough of our favorite Christmas hymns. Sometimes Hymn Sings have a theme. And sometimes, as was the case for this one, worshippers are asked to submit their favorite hymns in advance. I like those best as it gives me a way to research a little bit about each chosen song and even weave some sort of theme together. Praise of God is my go-to theme. Perhaps because, in the words of The Shorter Catechism, “the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever!” (The Book of Confessions of the PCUSA, “The Shorter Catechism,” question 1). Enjoy these words. Maybe even find a link to listen or sing along.
Blessings as you live in a way that gives God all the glory while you enjoy our marvelous Giver of Life each day!

Click here to read the scripture first: Psalm 149 (NRS)

Praise the LORD! . . . Did you ever notice that it’s not a suggestion? All over scripture – especially in the Psalms – God’s people are charged to praise. To sing to the LORD. To make a joyful noise! It’s not an option, but a command. God desires and God deserves our praise! . . . Singing is a funny thing. Sometimes we don’t feel like it. Maybe because we’re tired – just didn’t get enough sleep last night with all the end of summer festivities some of us might be up to this weekend. Maybe our weariness goes way beyond a night or two of not enough sleep. Maybe the demands of living have piled up so heavily upon our hearts that we can’t even squeak out a thanksgiving. Maybe we’re grieving or are locked in despair. Maybe we think we’re not good enough at singing – that no one else around us would want to hear our out-of-tune notes. Even though it’s God who is our audience, not anyone else! Or maybe, like I felt a time or two this past week at the conference I attended, I didn’t always like all the songs they had picked. And there were moments when singing one more stanza of one more hymn was the last thing I wanted to do!

I love these last few Psalms of the Psalter. They are all about praise: Praise for God’s help. Praise for God’s care. Praise for God’s universal glory. Praise for God’s goodness to us. Praise for God’s surpassing greatness!

New songs! All the assembled! Making melody with all sorts of instruments, though we’ll pretty much just use organ, piano, and voice today. Dancing is encouraged too as a way of singing praise to God, though many of us Presbyterians aren’t very comfortable with much other than stoic faces and stiff bodies during worship. If you find yourself otherwise this morning, go right ahead! . . . Praise: praise the LORD!

We’re using songs some of you suggested for this day. And some songs our choir director and I really wanted to include either because we know they are favorites or we hope they will become so. . . . My hope is that these songs we sing together will inspire us, and heal us. I hope they will re-connect us with the God we’ve loved our whole lives long – or cause us to fall a little bit more in love with the God who is so incredibly amazing! Loving us each and every day, supporting us in every trial, challenging us when our faithfulness wavers, comforting us in every trouble, and guiding us into everlasting peace. . . . In these songs today, let us celebrate and praise and allow the thankfulness in us to bubble over into joy. Let us sing – whether we really feel like it; whether we think we’re any good at it. Let us sing in grateful praise unto the LORD!

We begin with “Morning Has Broken,” The Presbyterian Hymnal #469, stanzas 1 and 3.

I grew up with this next one. As many of you did too. It was written in 1912 by a Mid-Western Methodist evangelist, George Bennard, and published in 1915. The Old Rugged Cross uses a sentimental popular song-form with a verse-chorus pattern in 3/4 time. It speaks of the writer’s Christian experience, rather than adoration of God. It has been an enormous country gospel favorite ever since it became the title song of Ernest Tubb’s 1952 gospel album; it has been performed by some of the twentieth century’s biggest recording artists like Al Green, Anne Murray, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, and John Prine. . . . An artist never does know how their offering will be received OR how it will be used throughout time. Bennard certainly would not have approved of his beloved hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” becoming one of a number of Christian hymns reportedly co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and sung at cross burnings. ( Such a history may explain why the hymn has not been retained in recent hymnals of the Presbyterian Church. . . . It remains a favorite of many – speaking to us of the one who died in love that we all might be free of such divisions. Let us sing together “The Old Rugged Cross.”

When I looked through the Favorite Hymn Sheets we made available several weeks ago in preparation for today’s Hymn Sing, Melissa listed this next one as one that motivates her best to go into the world to live for God. Our choir director and I met several weeks ago and planned to use it as a sung Psalm even before we knew how the past few weeks would unfold – that Melissa would unexpectedly die on the evening of August 17. . . . So many of us certainly have called upon the words of Psalm 23 as a comfort to us in the storms of life. The LORD is our Shepherd: what do we need to want? . . . We are given rest. Our souls are restored. We are led. Ever-present, we’ve no need to fear. Our whole lives long – here and now and forevermore – we shall dwell with the LORD.
Let us sing together the whole of this hymn: “The LORD’s My Shepherd I’ll Not Want,” #170 in The Presbyterian Hymnal.

Click here to read Psalm 150: Psalm 150 (NRS)

Praise. Praise. Praise. . . . Praise takes humility. In order to give great thanks to something else, we have to humble ourselves enough to know we need that someOne else. . . . “I Danced in the Morning” is a hymn utilizing an American Shaker melody called SIMPLE GIFTS. The tune originally was set to these words: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.” ( This is the epitome of humility. The ability to be where and how we belong. Aware of the One who deserves all the praise.
Let us sing together a favorite requested that is set to that Shaker tune – a song in our hymnal that reminds us of the story of the One who Danced in the morning for the benefit of us all. Let us sing together stanza 1, 3, & 5 of “I Danced in the Morning,” #302 in The Presbyterian Hymnal.

Another favorite suggested for this day may be fairly new to us all. “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore.” It’s a reminder of the way God in Christ comes looking for us, the regular old folks of this world, who God enlists for God’s work of love. Stanza three of this hymn summarizes well the call of discipleship: “You need the caring of my hands. Through my tiredness, may others find resting. You need a love that just goes on loving.” And so we leave our metaphorical boats on the shoreline behind us – all that keeps us from putting first the things of God’s kingdom. Then with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we seek the other sea. The organist will play this hymn through entirely one time; then we will join in singing stanza 1 and 2 of “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” #377 in The Presbyterian Hymnal.

There’s no doubt about it: this life can be difficult. We are called to open our hearts to one another – yet the storms of life still blow. Loved ones don’t always remain beloved throughout this life. Loved ones grow older and leave us. Loved ones die.

In 1876 a faithful Presbyterian layperson was notified that four of his daughters died in a tragic shipwreck. He got on a ship himself to go to his wife in Paris who remarkably had survived the wreck. Amid the tears – his aching soul gave birth to these words: Nonetheless, “It is well, it is well, with my soul. . . . Christ lives, O the bliss of that glorious thought!” (Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal, Westminster John Knox Press 2013; #840). . . . In life and in death, the gift of resurrected life is the promise and comfort of our God! Let us sing together “It is Well with My Soul.”

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

24 August 2014 sermon — Psalm 124

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

“Taking Sides”

24 August 2014 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read the scripture first: Psalm 124 (NRS)

Some of us may not be aware that three times each year the people of ancient Israel would go to Jerusalem. They would pilgrimage to the holy city, right up to the Temple gate in order to celebrate their annual festivals to God. They went to rejoice over Passover (or the remembrance of God’s delivery from slavery in Egypt), Shavuot (or the Festival of Weeks which celebrates the giving of the Law after the Exodus), and Sukkot (or the Festival of Booths which commemorates the 40 years the Israelites lived guided by God in such booths in the wilderness) []. For some, it was a long journey: on foot, no cars or planes or bicycles. For one living in Galilee, say around Nazareth, the trek would be about a five days’ walk – somewhere around 100 miles if you didn’t go through the taboo land of Samaria. These pilgrimages were commanded in the Torah. All good Jews would make the effort to go; though some could not afford to attend all three every year. Much like our liturgical calendar that takes us on an annual journey from the waiting of Advent through the culmination of Christmas, to the death and resurrection of Christ, to the formation of the church at Pentecost through to the glorious celebration of Christ the King; the three pilgrimages of ancient Israel shaped the people. Thanksgiving to God undergirded it all.

Like the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” song sung in so many cars on lengthy family vacations; the ancient Israelites had songs for their journeys as well. It’s just that pilgrims to Jerusalem had songs that made a bit more sense. They didn’t exist just to annoy the driver or keep the kids occupied. Israel’s pilgrim songs told of joy on the journey: “I was glad when the said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” chimes one (Psalm 122:1). As the pilgrims made their long, sweaty way over the rolling, rocky terrain; another song boasts: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). Another song for the pilgrim journey to Jerusalem begins: “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD” (Psalm 134:1). And yet another: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side – let Israel now say – if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive” (Psalm 124:1-3a). These are the Songs of Ascent, known to us as Psalm 120 through Psalm 134. As far as we know, these were the melodies on the lips of grateful travelers as they made their way to Jerusalem three times each year in order to give great thanks unto God.

It seems an important detail regarding the Psalm before us today: Psalm 124, one of the pilgrim Songs of Ascent. The context is pilgrimage in order to celebrate freedom from slavery, the gift of the Law which would make them a covenant people, and the provisions of a present God all through the wilderness. The people are celebrating the gracious care of the LORD their God. They are recounting their history – one they believe to have been made possible by a God who would not let them go. Part of the point of pilgrimage was to praise, even as it was to keep the people in perpetual reminder that once they were nothing – worthless slaves in a land not their own. But God heard their cry. God led them out. God made them into something – not because of any great credential of their own. But because of God, the LORD who made heaven and earth. The One who chooses to dwell among us. If it had not been for that One being on their side, they never would have made it out of Egypt. Or they would have gone a few miles only to be swallowed up in the raging waters of the Sea.

Sides. I gotta admit, it’s kinda disturbing. It seems like too many today are quick to put God on their side over and against their bitter enemy. I know I feel that way. It’s late August. Pre-season’s almost over. The team’s nearly set. Ours pretty much has been for a while. Aaron Rogers again will be our dynamic starting quarterback. All our favorites like Clay Matthews and Sam Shields have had time to heal after last season’s debilitating injuries. And we haven’t had a need for a new head coach in years. It’s looking like it could be a great new season for us! I’m not talking about the Titans, you know, but the Green Bay Packers! The green and gold just might make it to the Super Bowl this year, or at least crush our conference rivals like the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions and the dreaded Minnesota Vikings. So there you have it. My football bias. I’d like to believe that God is on our side – even if you Titans beat us at the pre-season opener when the rains were pouring down and most of our priced starters weren’t even suited up to play – though yours were.

Truth be told, I don’t really believe God is on my Green Bay Packer side any more than I believe God is on the side of the Titans or any other NFL Team. I’m pretty sure God’s got more important things to do than stack up a Fantasy Football Team and spend all weekend cheering for certain ones to win. . . . What is it in us that so often we put God firmly on our own side against our bitter enemy? It sounds a little bit like what the ancient Israelites did in their Song of Ascent. It’s a fine line between rejoicing over God’s ever-present care and claiming God’s with you against your enemies. . . . When it comes down to it; Jesus lets us know God’s only enemy. His conversation with his disciples, which we overhear in the gospel reading for today, makes clear prime suspect number one. The enemy of God and God’s people is death. So much so that even if he’s killed, as he explains to his disciples that day he’s asking them who they believe he is, God will raise him up again. Life shall be the final word! . . . The lectionary puts these texts together for today. Not to have one make sense of the other. The intent is more to compliment themes that might be present in the texts. It stands out even more when the Old Testament text from Exodus is thrown in the mix. There Egypt’s Pharaoh commands the killing of all the Hebrew boys. He’s paranoid that Israel was getting too strong so he tells the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill the male babies as the mothers are giving birth. (Exodus 1:15-22). Shiphrah and Puah find a way to wiggle around the king’s edict. And when the Pharaoh orders the Hebrew mothers to throw their own baby boys into the Nile, one mother honors the request but makes a basket of reeds first to ensure the boy she turns lose into the Nile will not drown. . . . Death is the constant threat. God’s enemy that seeks to attack again and again and again.

It’s been a trying few weeks for us. One of our own, who was with us just last Sunday in the back row, tragically has died. A few other beloved among us are showing the fragility of aging bodies. Anxiety is rising in our nation over race relations in Ferguson, Missouri; Israel and Hamas really have been at it the past few days; and who knows what’s going to happen in the Middle East with the beheading of an American journalist. It all seems a little surreal – a bit of emotional overload. We need words that remind us: if it is not the LORD who is on our side. If it is not the living God who’s first enemy is death. Who despises that which steals the gift of life from us so that God came among us in our own flesh to deal the final blow against it. If it is not God who fights for us for the eternal gift of life and for the gift of abundant life each day . . . well, without such a gracious God on our side, we would come to naught. There would be nothing beyond our physical death. We’d be swallowed up alive in despair here and now, without hope, with little reason to carry on. The flood waters of death would drown us, sweeping us away forever if not for the waters of baptism that keep us throughout all eternity. If it had not been the LORD who, for our benefit, is on the side of Life. . . . Let this be our reminder. The song we sing on our journeys – our own pilgrimages throughout this life. The living God is on our side – has made a way for us to live here and now and forevermore. We’ve no need to fear God’s enemy death; for it already has been conquered. We join our voices in thanksgiving too! Blessing the One who will not give us over eternally as prey for death’s teeth. That snare gets broken and we are allowed to fly free! . . . Let us all say: our help is in the LORD! God forever is on the side of life!

For this we give great thanks to the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)