Monthly Archives: September 2015

Step One

This morning I was reminded how important step one is.

I started running again. It’s been a few years since this was my daily obsession, but I have been determined to re-start. I was doing pretty well all summer, until my time and energy got consumed by a recent move. Today wasn’t my first run in the new neighborhood. I’ve been out there a few mornings in the past couple weeks. But it was the first one this week – the first one in several days due to an overflowing September schedule. It also was my first Monday morning run from the new house – which is significant because Sundays tend to tire out this preacher.

I’ve finally figured out what the new running route will be. It took a few attempts because this new neighborhood is (an understatement) hilly. No matter which way I go, there either will be an immediate incline or a slow and steady rise. I’ve settled on the immediate incline that I walk up as my warm-up. Of course most running mornings, I’ve already been up the hill and back once on a walk with my little dog, as was the case this morning. When I went back out without him, I got to the top of the immediate incline and found myself not quite ready to start. Agh. It was mind over matter. I had to force my right foot to take the first stride, then left, then right, then left, literally willing myself on for quite some time. I could feel the weariness everywhere. And I noticed for the first time on this route that the immediate incline turns into a slow and steady ascent all the way to the end of the street. Agh. Agh!

Step one. For lots of reasons this morning, it was particularly difficult. As was step two and three that followed – a reminder that sometimes it just is.

I reflected upon a poem recently that was called Start Close In (by David Whyte). The wisdom it imparted was to just begin. There is no need to fret first over step two and three and fifty-six if we never take step one.

How often is life like that?

What step one do I need to take . . . not on a running route but in my work? In my relationships? In chasing my dreams?

What ones do you?

Only begin. Even if it takes mind over matter, even if you don’t know where the road will lead, even if you worry that way won’t unfold beneath your feet. (BTW: it will!)

Take your first step. The adventure of your lifetime will not begin without it!

Step one. Only begin.

@ Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)

Your Great Cloud

A Sermon for 13 September 2015 – Worship inspired by the Scottish Highland Games

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-31, 12:1-3

A reading of various verses from Hebrews chapter 11 and 12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . . By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ . . . By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. . . . Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Perhaps you’re like me and today, in this Scottish-inspired service of worship, is the first time you’ve really heard of tartans. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing of our ancestors – at least I hope not! . . . After a year and a half of having my life in storage, it all arrived this week at the house I’ve been moving into. Box after box after box! Though exhausting, the fun has been unpacking to find hidden treasures. Late the other night, I tackled a dish barrel that wasn’t very well labeled. Before I knew it, I was walking down memory lane. I unwrapped dish after dish after dish from my maternal grandmother. Sometime when I was about ten, my grandmother set out to buy up 24 place settings of dishes for one of my sisters, our cousin, and myself. Do you remember when you used to be able to do that one piece at a time at the grocery store? 24 plates, 24 cups, and 24 saucers for each of the three of us. As I unwrapped my set the other night, I was overwhelmed by the determination of my grandmother. That couldn’t have been an easy task! Through that grocery store points for dishes or however that all worked, she was dead-set on ensuring the three of us had enough place settings to feed a small army! The wonderful thing is that her devoted gift connects me still not just to her, but in a special way to my sister and cousin too. Grandma died while the three of us still were in high school – which really turned our lives upside-down as she was the pillar of our family who got us all together at her house at least one or two Sunday lunches a month. Her place settings remind me of her deep commitment to being a family together. Knowing each other and sitting down together regularly to eat and laugh and enjoy each other. I hope today you too can remember a grandmother like that!

In another box from the moving truck, I pulled out memories of my paternal great-grandfather. He was ancient for as long as I can remember him. No longer able to see when I was a kid, great-grandpa and great grand-ma lived next door. It was a great treat to be the one to bring them their daily mail. Great-grandma would go to get you a cookie while great-grandpa entertained you with his simple tricks. He had this thing he could do with his fingers – some cool way of rapping his knuckles on the counter top that I never have been able to mimic. In the winters he logged in the woods at the lake, which is how he lost half of the fingers on his left hand. It’s what made him make that extra cool noise when he rapped his fingers on the countertop. He always wanted to make us kids figure out some sort of trick. He engaged us and taught us so much – some of it even useful. Did you have the good fortune of knowing such a great-grandparent? . . . Before my great-grandpa lost half his fingers, he was an amazing artist. Chalk was his preferred medium and I am proud to have three incredibly intricate, beautiful scenes he created. I’m sure some would look at them and think: “Uh. They’re ok.” I look at them and remember the hands of that loving man who was a tender trickster – the way he showed his great-grandchildren that we really mattered to him. And whatever wisdom, love, and fun he could pass on to us, he’d certainly do his best to do it.

It’s not just the tartans and family symbols we’ve each brought here with us today that remind me of such things. It’s Hebrews also. Abraham and Sarah. The faith of Moses and the Israelites. Even Rahab, a foreign prostitute, whose courageous actions on behalf of God’s people name her a hero in the great line of faith from which we all come. Such an amazing cloud of witnesses, Hebrews reminds us. All of them – though we’ve not met them in person – still, as ancestors in Christ, it’s as if they surround us in this great arena called life. Urging us on by the testimony of their lives. By the encouragement of their faith. Like a roaring crowd of fans peering on the field to see how the players carry out the next move. All of these surround us each day as we seek to faithfully live the moments of our lives. . . . We’ve got the incredible trust of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah too. Imagine setting out for a whole new way of life when you’re about 80 years old – all because God shows up to whisper in your ear: “I’ve got a little something yet for you to do.” . . . And Moses. We fail to remember his great sacrifice. He could have kept himself in line with the Pharaoh of Egypt, having been raised by the princess in her kingly father’s luxurious palace. But somehow Moses not only saw the injustice, but he also decided to side against it. He was enraged by the suffering of his people who had been made slaves of the Pharaoh in order to keep him and his land in the lavish lifestyle they had come to expect. Moses fled Egypt – only to be brought back years later as a mighty liberator. One courageous enough to go stand before the Pharaoh to say: “The Sovereign LORD of the universe says: ‘let my people go!’” . . . And what about Rahab? She didn’t have to act with such bravery. She didn’t have to aid the spies of Israel against her own Canaanite people. Her courage, her insight, her determination to keep peace for herself and her family with those besieging her city ensured she and her family were safe – even as she showed her awe of the God of the Israelite people (Joshua 2). . . . These all are a part of our collective great cloud. Those from whom we can learn because of the faithful examples of their lives.

What about your great cloud? Who else from your life is a part of it? . . . I wish each one of us had time to tell today of the family symbols we’ve brought. But more so, I wish we each could speak of the way we’ve been shaped by the people behind our symbols. Maybe we can tell each other about it at coffee in the fellowship hall after worship. . . . Did you learn to read because of one of them? Did you know your worth because of one of them? Despite one of them, did you grow into a more loving person – a person ready and able to let go and forgive so you wouldn’t become a reflection of another’s bitterness? . . . Who is in your great cloud cheering you on each day? Leading you by the example of their lives all throughout your years? We are because they were – are still. . . . As our liturgy of the tartans reminded us at the start of this service: we have a responsibility because of them – because of the heritage of faith passed on to us by them. . . . We have been gifted, and comforted, and challenged by the love of our families – our moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas and brothers and sisters all in God’s great family of faith. Because of them – because of those who make up our great cloud, we are to welcome the stranger as one of our own. We are to sacrifice too to live out the love of God despite the cost because others will come after us who need our lives to be their testimonies. Because of the families and nations and ancestors all around, we give thanks to God and we re-commit ourselves to doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. This is our way to be Christ’s grace each day. This is our way to carry on the faith of our great cloud and ensure our lives are added to the great cloud for the benefit of those yet to come.

Therefore, carry on! As the writer of Hebrews so eloquently put it: “Run! Run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 11:1b-2a). Do not grow weary or lose heart. . . . And when you feel like you are, listen for the cheers of your great cloud! Let them direct you back onto Christ’s path each day!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)


A Sermon for 6 September 2015

A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.

“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).

If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).

If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston,, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!

And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).

It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.

This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)