Monthly Archives: December 2015


A Sermon for 20 December 2015 – 4th Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:24-38. Listen for God’s word to us in what I assume is a very familiar story to us. Listen.

“After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.”

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

 The story continues with a reading from the gospel of Luke 1:39-56. Listen for God’s word to us.

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he 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 his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

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

I’ve been captivated of late by Macy’s. . . . If you know anything about the department store, then perhaps you’re familiar with their Believe campaign. It’s been going on for nearly a decade and they splash it all over their red shopping bags. “Macy’s: A million reasons to Believe!” . . . It’s a confusing message – at least in my mind – because it seems an ad just to get us to buy more, maybe even as a sign of our belief? . . . My last few years of living in Chicago, I made it a personal ritual to visit Macys the mid-December day of their big sale on Christmas Frango candy-cane chocolates. Yum yum! They’re the best thing about living in Chicago! In the Macys stores there, you have to go downstairs to the candy counter to get the special Christmas mints which sit next to their jolly Santa display. “Believe!” says the red mail box in which we’re encouraged to drop our letters to Santa. It’s hard not to read it all as that whole “give me what I want, Santa,” thing. You know: his naughty and nice list, and the joy of jolly ole St. Nick bringing us exactly what we deserve this Christmas! For Macy’s it’s most certainly tied to that classic Christmas movie which declares: “There really is a Santa Clause, Virginia!” . . . Believe.

A few years ago, Macy’s even declared a National Believe Day. This year they introduced a magic believe pen as a part of it all too. And I so wanted to buy one just to see if, as in the commercial, the magic pen would brighten everybody’s day. For every letter dropped into the red Letters-to-Santa Believe box and a portion of every pen bought, Macy’s promises to donate to the Make a Wish Foundation. Then, on National Believe Day – which was two Fridays ago this year – through the Make a Wish Foundation, Macy’s makes wishes of children come true. Again: it might be a marketing ploy to get us in their doors – I know it makes me wanna race over to the mall to write my letter to Santa. Their donations are one way Macy’s is showing that the spirit of St. Nick is alive and well.

You know the legend, I hope of the Greek Bishop of Myra of the Fourth Century who during the night used to drop off gold coins and other items to families in need. That’s where Santa Clause came from, though it’s gotten way outta control in our market-driven economy. Macy’s National Believe Day, with their gifts to struggling children seems a perfect example of the generous spirit of giving which Saint Nicholas began. That’s something in which we all can believe!

The first time I learned about National Believe Day, was the year the whole nation learned of a place called Sandy Hook. The mass shooting at the elementary school there was three years ago. Something none of us ever wants to believe as a possibility in our world. Something entirely unacceptable, enraging to behold. Emergency vehicles everywhere. Parents searching. Children single-file holding hands as their teachers led them out safely to the fire station next door. We’ve seen the scene over and over since then – far too often. But it’s especially chilling to see such an atrocity at an elementary school among some of the youngest children of our country – all on National Believe Day. . . . Even this time of the year, we know it can be extra difficult to believe. Believe this Christmas will be merry despite the difficulties your family might have experienced this year. Believe the pain will dissipate – if only for those 24 Christmas day hours. Believe it’s all going to be ok.

Believe. . . . What we believe is so very important. What we believe shapes our choices. Our actions. Will we too give generously to another – especially one in need? Will we find a way to endure in the midst of the un-endurable? Will we hold our leaders to the promises they’ve made to us to ensure every child grows well into adulthood? . . . What we believe shapes our very lives. . . . And the truth we’re reminded of, especially today, is that every now and again, we need someone else to believe for us. To hold the torch of faith while our weary spirits doubt. It just might be so, that another’s belief, over time, can inspire us to believe again.

We hear it in Luke’s gospel. This lovely scene recorded alone by the gospel of Luke. . . . We don’t really know how pregnant Mary is at the time. It’s in Elizabeth’s sixth month that Mary is visited and asked to believe herself a part of the most impossible to believe. At some point after that, Mary scurries away. I wonder how long the trek took her – a week or two traveling to the hill country. . . . We don’t really know why she went. Was she trying to escape what most certainly would have been a lot of doubt-filled, shaming stares? Did her parents send her away, as used to be the case with so many other unwed teens? Maybe Mary was afraid to face Joseph so she split. Or did she just need time to herself to process how all this could be? Even the most certain among us second-guesses God’s mysterious ways now and again. . . . One commentator has suggested that Mary needed a little affirmation and went with haste to see the miracle of her old Aunt Elizabeth’s big belly (Feasting on the Word, Michael S. Bennett, p.94). The baby in Elizabeth’s barren womb was proof indeed that the God enlisting Mary in this most marvelous plan was the One able to turn the whole world upside-down until at last it all would be re-set aright.

It is wise old Elizabeth who hallows Mary first. When Elizabeth heard Mary had arrived, the one to be called John went crazy kicking in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth broke out into her own proclamation: “Blessed! Blessed are you! And blessed indeed is the little one growing in you, Mary! . . . Blessed is she who believed! (Luke 1:42-45). Maybe Mary had been rehearsing her song the whole trek long. I know a lot of us need to believe the mother of our Lord never wavered. Others of us take comfort in the plausibility that Mary’s own belief needs Elizabeth’s insistence. Kinda like all of us need now and again. Believe. . . . Believe in the goodness of God. In the favor God has for us. In the mercy God is that causes God to turn upside-down the wrongs of this world until it is re-set aright. . . . To believe that even what seems the most impossible is not beyond the possibility of our God.

It’s our job, O church, to believe. With Elizabeth to proclaim – especially during this season. For a world of people still find themselves in darkness. So many are filled with unbelief: the circumstances of their lives clouding their spirits so they feel as if there is no hope. Even us who doubt along this path that can throw us such curvy, windy ways. . . . We all need each other to believe.

It might seem unlikely. All the evidence may point to the contrary. Still, we can believe. We must. Emmanuel . . . God is with us. For us. In us – forevermore.

May our spirits be ready with Mary to rejoice! Our souls all set to magnify! For the Mighty has done great things for us. The promise is fulfilled. . . . This Christmas, let us all believe!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)


Shaking the Foundations

A Sermon for 13 December 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 3:7-18. Listen for God’s word to us.

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

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


I wonder if you have anyone in your life like my friend Rita. She’s a dear ole soul and I love her immensely. She’s an amazing listener really and always wants to know the most up-to-date goings on in my life. In some ways she’s like my Tennessee momma, because she’s my parents’ age and has that way of wanting to know all the kinds of things really nurturing mommas want to know. Rita’s great fun! But she’s got this one thing about her that I don’t always appreciate. She knows. Rita, in her own words, loves to slap ya’ up. She never does it literally, just figuratively when she senses you’re wallowing in your own pity party, or caught up in your own stuff, or not quite being the well-mannered person she believes we all need to be. She’s got no problem calling out your foibles – which she does for the sake of love, I know. I like when she wants to slap up others in my life who really need it because of their bad behavior but I never seem to have the guts to do it myself. She always volunteers. I just don’t always appreciate Rita stepping in to slap me up when I might really need it, but certainly don’t want it! She’s like the ever-nurturing mother who suddenly can turn stern to let you know it’s time you change your ways. And off she goes with her good ole’ fashion slapping! Really, do you have anyone in your life like this? Someone who knows you well enough and someone you know who loves you deeply – warts and all – so that they’re able to speak the truth you need to hear now and again when you wander off the path?

Maybe because the lectionary fears not enough of us have Ritas in our lives who will slap us up when necessary, we get John the Baptist each Advent. Crying out in the wilderness to get ready to walk in the ways of the Lord! Sometimes I just can’t believe the way he talked to his listeners and got away with it! “You brood of vipers,” he starts out. Name-calling: children of slithering snakes! . . . These people came to him to be baptized – they wanted to do something and he talks to them like that?! I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it, say if Christmas Eve, one of our favorite worship services of the year, the preacher got up here to tell us all: “You little snakes! Who warned you to flee from a horrible end?” . . . The thing that is absolutely amazing is that they listen! The wildman in the wilderness tells them that nothing they relied upon before is enough and they listen!?! They beg to know what they need to do.

If only it would be that easy. That we could be bullied and terrified into an open stance so that we really would cry out: tell us then what we should do! I mean, we know, don’t we? One commentator writes of our annual Advent visit from John the Baptist that “there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness calling us to repentance. . . . Trying to avoid or sugarcoat John’s words is just not possible. Faithful and fruitful arrival at the manger will be possible only after the careful self-examination and recommitment called for by John” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol, 1; Kathy Beach-Verhey, p. 69). We know we have to make our hearts ready if we want to stand in Bethlehem with any sense of wonder, gratitude, and joy. But as we’re just a dozen shopping days shy of Christmas Eve, who really has the time? Here alone this week we have the Christmas Joy lunch right after this, followed by a session meeting for some of us, and assembling care gifts for our homebound members this afternoon too. Then getting ready for Wednesday’s Christmas cookie exchange, and an end of the year Dinner Club party next Saturday. If you’re in the choir, you’ve got notes to get right for your upcoming pieces next Sunday and Christmas Eve too. And that’s just here! Hopefully you’re almost ready at home! If you don’t have your packages shipped soon, you know delivery by Christmas Eve cannot be guaranteed. And while all of it can be great fun and very meaningful to participate in the wonderful traditions of Christmas in the church and in our individual lives, we’re right here hearing from John the Baptist to change our ways! With his crowds, we might be wondering: “What should we do?” Focus, of course, on the love of God and the love and care of neighbors because nothing else is enough!

It’s Advent, but today John takes us back to our baptisms. He reminds us that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We made promises – or had them made for us as children and confirmed them later for ourselves – that Jesus Christ is the One we follow. He’s all that can save us – not our own efforts to make the most perfect Christmas or any other day of the year. We promised we would turn from the ways of the world (renouncing evil and its power in this world) and turn to the Way of the One who lived simply among us — embracing life as the most precious gift to be savored as we seek connection with God and each other. We promised, in our baptisms and confirmations, that we would “be Christ’s faithful disciples, obeying his Word and showing his love” as The PCSUA Book of Common Worship’s baptismal vows go (1993, p. 407, #1). Which means that even in these final Advent days, we will put first Christ’s call to follow in the footsteps of his self-emptying love for the sake of Life in this world – for the sake of those who experience little love in this world and need the reminder that Light always outshines any darkness. All is well because God-in-flesh has come to dwell with us! And God, in the Holy Spirit will keep on working in us until all that is unfaithful in us is blown away in the same way chaff is parted from the wheat in winnowing to leave the wholesome grain. . . .

Something I read this week suggested we actually include a renewal of our baptismal vows in worship today – not only to satisfy John the Baptist’s insistent instruction, but also to align ourselves more firmly during this time of the year which is ours – which belongs to Christ Jesus our Lord, but has become so incredibly consumed by the societal pressure to buy and sell and get ready to get instead. . . . If we were to do so, I’d go over by this baptismal font and ask you to respond to these questions: “trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting alone in his grace and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” (The PCSUA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 407, #1.) Because especially at this time of the year our families and friends and neighborhoods and countries need to see something else in the midst of these busy holidays. They need to see the kind of generosity we see in the face of a newborn child being swaddled by his willing mother in a cave out back because there was no other place for them. They need to see the kind of awe the angels observed on the faces of simple shepherds who were overcome that they too would have a role to play in the drama of God’s grace. They need to see peace that resides in each one of us because the Light broke into this world that cold, dark night to let us know that God’s final word to us is love: good will; for the favor of God rests upon us all! We need to re-commit ourselves these very days to the vows of our baptisms so that the whole world can see that God’s endeavor to live among us anew was not in vain. Our lives are the proof! . . . What then should we do? Once again, say yes! Say yes! Say yes; then go forth faithfully to love and serve the LORD! Children of the covenant; followers of the Way!

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

© Copyright JMN 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Guide Our Feet Into the Way of Peace

A Sermon for 6 December 2015 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:68-79. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this proclamation from the priest Zechariah on the birth of his son John the Baptist. Listen.

“”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.””

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


A Washington Post article appeared early this week that I found very disturbing. (The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this Year,” 30 Nov. 2015). It came out Monday, before the event at the special needs facility in San Bernardino, California. The article was a piece on mass shootings in America in 2015. The article defined mass shootings as “incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.” According to the article, it’s a definition a bit broader than some sources that reduce the definition of mass shootings to incidents that only count deaths and not injuries by shooters. And while I’m sure there are good reasons why the difference is delineated, four or more killed or injured, versus four or more killed seems unnecessary hairsplitting really when we’re talking about such unacceptable degradation of human life. You probably remember the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs Thanksgiving week. And maybe you remember the shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June when nine people were ruthlessly killed while at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Maybe you even remember the last school shooting this year on October 1 at a small community college in Roseburg, Oregon where ten people were killed and seven others injured before the shooter killed himself. If you remember only those, then you might be shocked to learn that according to the article in The Washington Post, as of November 30; there have been 351 mass shootings in America in 2015’s 334 days. That’s an average of more than one a day – a number that already has surpassed the total number of shootings in 2014 and is well above how many took place in 2013. Though we only may have heard of the one shooting in Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving, the article reported that there actually were twelve mass shootings in our country during the week of Thanksgiving. . . . Could the poetry of Zechariah have fallen upon us at a more opportune time, so that we might join our prayers with his words in calling out to God: “Guide our feet into the way of Peace!” (Luke 1:79).


Ten years ago, one pastor sent me these words and since receiving them, I have kept them close: “Peace. It’s not the absence of conflict or an enemy threatened or pummeled into submission. Not a boot squarely and securely placed on the neck slowly squeezing life from a hostile windpipe. It is the overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, trust. A reciprocal recognition of inherent worth and mutuality; the bell that tolls for the demise of ego, pride, greed, and, most of all, fear” (“Peace,” by Todd Jenkins, 2005). Peace.

Might it be possible that the opposite of peace isn’t violence but ego, pride, greed, and most of all, fear? . . . Zechariah gave great thanks to God for a history of rescuing the people from the hands of their enemies in order to serve God without fear. In other words, in peace. More than once, according to the long history of their people which we come to know in Scripture as our own history too. God sets us free in order to serve the LORD without fear – in peace. The prophet Isaiah long ago spoke for God to the people reminding of the way we are to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Healing springs up quickly, the prophet proclaims (Isaiah 58:8), when we live in ways that bear our name: repairs of the breach – those broken places. Restorers of streets to live in. . . . We are to be people who live peace – that overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, and trust. It is like that beloved Christmas carol charges: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us!

But how? We can’t storm into everyone’s homes and take away weapons. We can’t round up all the troubled young men – as seems to be the profile of those who commit these mass shootings – we can’t round up anyone we might suspect as a potential threat and suddenly fix whatever’s broken in them that would conceive such destructive violence. What can we – a little ban of followers of the Prince of Peace do as we seek to serve God without fear? What can we do that all feet might be guided into the way of Peace?

I think the first thing all of us must do is pray –because prayer changes things – it has the power to change the very energy in the atmosphere around us. . . . Sometimes I wonder if the world around us is getting more violent because the world inside us all is becoming more violent. It is as if the very air we breathe has become toxic. It seeps into our bodies, minds, and spirits until we don’t want to talk to those who are different from us. We don’t dare risk and we definitely find it difficult to trust. While twenty minute segments work best, even five minutes a day seeking to cultivate interior quiet allows the Spirit of God to work in us. To pull out the negativity that gets in from outside and pops up from inside too. It’s like the silence just rakes that all away for the beautiful calm of God to pervade us instead. We must start there because we serve the One who started there all the time. According to the gospels, all the time, Jesus was out somewhere communing in quiet with God. Some churches have begun weekly centering prayer groups as part of their peacemaking ministry efforts. The groups cultivate inner peace as a first step in affecting any sort of peace between families and communities and countries. Anyone can do this – this simple act of peace through quiet, centering prayer. And if you want to give it a try but don’t know how, or feel like you haven’t been successful at it in the past, then let me know and we’ll learn and practice together.

From such a place of inner peace, we can begin praying for others who need peace. 351 mass shootings, and a few more this week too –if it’s just the minimum number of people killed or injured in each shooting, that means that at least 1,500 families all across this nation this year are trying to figure out how to go through these holidays for the first time since losing their loved one to the unspeakable violence done to them at the hand of another person. That’s a lot of grieving parents – a lot of hurting siblings – a lot of grandparents whose hearts are breaking this year over the loss of their loved one.

You know the story of the peace crane, I’m sure. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of our nation being bombed at Pearl Harbor. Well, the peace crane is a paper crane one little girl in Hiroshima, Japan lifted up on her deathbed as a way to work for peace in the world. She started out hoping to make 1,000 of them to bring about her own wish for healing from the cancer she developed, which was believed to be a result of her exposure to the atomic bomb. Upon her death, her classmates took up her cause. The children collected enough money to build a statue in her honor that reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: Peace in the world” ( . . . What child doesn’t want to grow up in a world free from violence? There are easy instructions online of how to make the origami peace cranes and wouldn’t it be an interesting Advent practice to make a crane each day as you pray for peace and for those reeling from the loss these mass murders have brought? You even might consider making a paper peace crane each day with the name of a child you know on it – maybe even with the name of one of the children of this church or of the children of the community who are coming to be with us on Wednesday nights – as you pray for their daily safety and self-esteem as they seek to grow in the world we’re giving them.

I know not everyone gets excited about peacemaking – because after all, memories of “peace protests” in our nation’s history can leave a bitter taste. But did you know that the Presbyterian Church has a long history of peacemaking ministries? Since 1983, more than 4,500 PCUSA congregations around the United States have signed the Commitment to Peacemaking. Because, as a denomination, we believe that “peacemaking is not a peripheral issue but a central declaration of the gospel” of Jesus Christ (; p. 3). Congregations commitment to everything from worship expressing God’s desire for our peace, to peacemaking pledges offered to families as guides for how to live together at home, to study of global issues that affect human rights, to being a part of local peacemaking ministries however the church chooses to define such efforts. Congregations who take the pledge begin to see that everything they do to build relationships and uplift the needs of the downtrodden and learn about living together is done as ways of making peace. As ones praying to God to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It’s not enough for us to turn off the news. Or helplessly wring our hands when we hear of another shooting. Or shake our heads naively believing it could never happen here. It is our call to join our best efforts – to use our hearts and minds and creative imaginations as we call out to God to guide our feet into the way of Peace! Guide our feet into the way of Peace. Teach us, LORD, show us this Advent the way we are to walk as the ones who follow the great gift of Peace. . . . Let peace be our prayer, our commitment, our overwhelming desire.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)