Monthly Archives: February 2016

Momma Hen vs. the Fox

A Sermon for 21 February 2016 – 2nd Sunday of Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:31-35.

“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ “”

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

My thirteen year old niece loves animals. All kinds of them. Last winter a stray cat was wandering near their house. She was all worried that cat would freeze to death outside in the frigid temperatures of their Wisconsin winters. So after a few days, out on their front porch; she made it a warm, welcoming home. She even named the cat Shadow. Then to lure Shadow in to the little shelter, she put up a sign reading: “Shadow is Loved Here!” . . . She has this amazing compassion for all kinds of animals – and for people too – but especially for animals. Though she lives in Wisconsin with the rest of our family, she’s not on a farm. Nonetheless, for the past several years she has been wanting to raise chickens. She and my sister baby-chick-sat one spring for my sister’s friend who raises chickens and provides fresh eggs to all her family and friends. Ever since then, my niece has been set on having a few cute little chicks of her own. For whatever reason, my sister hasn’t given in to her pleas. Perhaps because they live in the woods on Lake Michigan and my sister knows all other sorts of animals are around. Things like that stray cat and raccoons and coyote. Once when my niece was really young and used to take off by herself through the woods over to grandpa and grandma’s house next door, my sister told her she couldn’t do that because what would happen if a bear was out there in the woods between their houses? My sister insisted she was too little to face a bear alone. Rarely have there ever been bear in those woods, but my sister really didn’t want anything to happen to her so she tried to reign in my niece’s precocious nature with the potential presence of a ferocious bear. It didn’t really work. But the point is: cute, cuddly little chickens most probably wouldn’t have a chance at their house with all the other predatory animals around.

The amazing preacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor has a beautiful sermon about animals that is inspired by the gospel text for today. Barbara speaks firsthand. Because after too many grueling years trying to keep up with the daily grind of pastoring for a big urban church in Atlanta, she moved as far away from civilization as she could in order to be the priest for a little country church. Part of why she left the city was to live in the middle of nowhere on several acres of land. There she and her husband built a chicken coop, planted a huge garden, and even made a little cabin back in the woods were Barbara can go into the quiet to listen and write. Out there on the land, Barbara learned all about chickens. Along with various rhythms of the natural world – including lessons learned about lurking predatory animals like owls and weasels and fox.

Jesus was a man of the land – most subsistence cultures are. While some trade was taking place in his day, it is believed that many of the people of the Galilee, where he was raised, grew their own food and tended their own small animals. He likely had fig trees and some sort of grain. Perhaps his family had a goat and a donkey and chickens running all about. It was a daily part of life so that they knew the lessons of nature – what it took for crops to grow. How to catch a fish – if you lived right on the Sea of Galilee. And which animals could and could not live peaceably together. Like: Jesus would have known all about mother hens. Their fierce instinct to protect their young – though without the kinds of talons of roosters and with such small beaks, about all a momma hen can do is cluck around while flapping her wings – trying to get her little brood under her safety. If that doesn’t work, as Barbara Brown Taylor states, a mother hen just “puts herself between (her chicks) and the fox, as ill-equipped as she is. At the very least, she can hope that she satisfies his appetite so that (the fox) leaves her babies alone” (Bread of Angels, p. 125). If you are a keeper of chicks, about the last thing you want anywhere nearby is a fox.

It would appear that Jesus choose his words very carefully. How long had God been trying – tirelessly trying to gather God’s beloved brood: God’s precious little fluffy chicks called Israel? . . . A plethora of prophets were sent – Jerusalem ignored and at times even had them killed. You’d think exile in unknown lands might have gotten their attention. Or, if not that life-altering experience, then certainly the restoration thereafter would have. None of it works! . . . At this point in the story, John the Baptist already has been beheaded by Herod. Supposedly he didn’t much like the accusations John had made about Herod’s unacceptable taking of his wife. The fox has proven himself to be a predator of any speaking truth. Jesus is his next target. Some Pharisees come to warn him. Nonetheless, Jesus’ course is set on Jerusalem. He travels with firm resolve. No fox scares him. He knows he’s the embodiment of the hen. He’ll do anything to protect his beloved chicks. . . . Content at revealing a stronger power, Jesus simply says, “Go and tell that fox: he may think he’s got the ability to interrupt God’s plan. But listen: I am continuing my work of casting out demons, performing cures, and on the third day I’ll be done” (Luke 13:32). He weeps when he considers the way Jerusalem again and again behaves like a fox. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” He mourns. “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). Perhaps it’s just fuel for the fire in him that is determined to show a more excellent way: the way of laying down your life for the sake of another, so that all may live. Jesus is intent on showing that every time the way of the mother hen prevails against the fox.

Lent is a season for us to be reflecting upon which way we tend to live. Do we put our trust in the power of the mother hen, or do we acquiesce to the world’s way of the fox? Do we seek to shelter others who need protection, or do we seek first to satisfy our own appetites? Are we willing to lay down our lives for the sake of another, or do we devour one another as if other’s lives don’t matter beyond being prey to fill our own emptiness? Which nature more often rules in us: the way of the mother hen or the way of the hungry fox? . . . Pay attention little chicks, for we’re sheltered so that we too will live likewise. As intent as the mother hen in loving those about to be devoured. Refusing to run and vowing never to succumb to such destructive means. This is the path of our Savior, the path our mother hen invites us to follow each day. God grant us the courage to carry on for the sake of life for us all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)


A Sermon for 7 February 2016 – First Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday during the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

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

If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, then perhaps you remember his Narnia Chronicles. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are the siblings who step through the wardrobe door to discover the wonder-filled world of Narnia. The whole series is an adventure in that magical place where the siblings come to know their true selves. They live in the real world – and similarly at first in Narnia – unaware of who they really are and what their lives have been destined for from the start. It is as if the circumstances of life in the real world left them with a sort of amnesia. A film of forget-fullness regarding their true identity. Through a series of fanciful events in Narnia, the siblings finally see that they are royalty. Heroic kings and queens of the land – there to ensure the forces of evil are battled. Aslan, the great talking lion, guides them in their quest that is as much about them discovering who they are and what their lives have been destined for from the start, as it is about fighting against the malevolent forces trying to capture Narnia. . . . It’s the classic hero’s tale. The unsuspecting under-dog who rises to the challenge of their life to impact the world for good. To claim the fullness of who they are – the hidden powers within that are needed to battle inner and outer demons on the path that twists and turns until at last the hero stands triumphant. If only the hero can remember their true identity, then for sure all else shall be well.

If only . . .

Naturally the gospel of Luke is going to start the adventure with such a struggle. If only the hero can claim his true identity. If only the one of royalty can remember his deepest self. If only the one freshly baptized in the Jordan River by John and driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness place of testing. If only Jesus can remember who he really is and what his life has been destined for from the start; then, for sure, he will stand triumphant in the end. . . . Each Lent we’re given this story on the Sunday at the start of the season. Too often it’s been presented as some sort of super-human ability to best the devil at his own game. You know – withstand with the strongest will-power the deepest temptations of our lives; so that somehow people end up making empty vows during the season of Lent to overcome the temptations of certain vices – like chocolate cake or swearing or beer. As if that’s what the season of Lent is all about: shoring up our own will-power in order to beat some devil at his own game. . . . If only. If only. . . . If only we realized the testing in the wilderness is the hero’s training ground. It’s not so much about temptations as it is about amnesia – a forgetfulness of his true identity and the God-given destiny about which his life is to be.

A close reading of the text shows us that Jesus just has been baptized. He’s just heard the Voice declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The very next voice he hears echos: “If . . .” Really? “If you are God’s son . . .” To the best of our knowledge no one was there but Jesus and the Tester – and the Spirit. Which goes to show that if is a powerful, little universal word that pops up in the voices in all of our heads. Forty days fasting in the wilderness left Jesus vulnerable. Would he remember The Voice? Would he remember the Way of the Voice: the self-emptying path of the Voice that is love – the greatest force for good the world ever has seen? Would he overcome any doubt the Tester sought to provoke? Would Jesus remember his true identity and that for which he had been destined from the start? . . . That’s what’s at stake out there in the wilderness. If only this one can remember.

If only we can. Because how easy is it for us to forget who we really are and what our lives have been destined for from the start? Lent is about that remembering. It’s our annual forty day testing ground to see if we can remember our true identity and that for which we have been destined. In years when snow doesn’t prevent it, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – or today as we’ll do in a few minutes – with the self-emptying sign of love traced in ash. Right there on the same spot where we received our mark of baptism, we begin our Lenten journey with an ashen cross that calls us to deeper dedication in following the path of Christ. We are reminded that we too are royalty: sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe! Children of the LORD God Almighty! Heroes on the winding way of life here to wrestle inner and outer demons until at last we stand triumphant. If only . . . If only we remember our true identity, then we too can empty ourselves of our own wills to pray in deepest trust with Christ in Gethsemane: “Thy will be done through me, O God. Thy will be done through me.”

Life out there in the real world can make us forget, or leave us wondering if it ever was true in the first place. The pains we experience, the losses, the other voices that shout. Before you know it, we succumb. If wins the day. The memory of the Voice grows dim. We take the path that’s easier than the way of self-emptying love. . . . The sun sets and the sun rises, and we are given a new opportunity to re-claim our true identity. To ground ourselves in God, so that we can face whatever challenge that comes. If God were afar watching, I’m sure there would be cheers of encouragement. Messages to get back up and give it another try. . . . The good news is that God isn’t afar at all, but within and all around. When we feel like we’re in the throes of the hardest battle, God is right there with us willing us to remember our true identity – pleading for us to rise to live out our destiny as sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe – ones who follow the path in every encounter we have. If only . . . If only . . . We’ve got the rest of this special church season to remind us – and one another to encourage us along the path as well. For we’re needed in this world. We are in this world to live the alternative way of Christ – so that others will remember, or discover for the very first time, their true identity too. Until at last every other force is redeemed and for sure all else is forever well. . . . If only, brothers and sisters of Christ. If only we daily remember . . .

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

Jesus’ Mission Statement

A Sermon for 31 January 2016

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:14-21. Listen for God’s word to us. And remember that each gospel tells the story of Jesus a bit differently. In a nutshell, this one has Jesus being born, John the Baptist showing up on the scene, Jesus being baptized by him, then being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness as a testing ground for his mission ahead. As he comes forth to begin the work of Christ among us, we hear this gospel tell of that beginning like this. Listen:

“Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.””

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


Do you remember this: “A man on the moon and back by the end of the decade?” The words of President Kennedy before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. ( . . . Or maybe you’ve heard this one: “We exist to create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.” That one’s by Disney. ( . . . Or this one: “. . . to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” And indeed they have. Can you guess it? Facebook. ( . . . Maybe you’ve even heard this one a time or two: “The Great Ends of the Church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017, F-1.0304).

Mission statements. Marching Orders. Fundamental purposes. Clear, succinct goals – at least the best ones out there are – that clearly tell all what we’re about. That to which we aspire. What we’re trying to achieve. . . . We can debate all day – and trust me, in my twenty years of ministry as a pastor, I’ve been in my fair share of church meetings that have done so. We can debate all day the differences between a mission statement, which is a unique description of an organization; and a vision statement that spells out the aspirations an organization has for its future; and core values, which form the constant foundation on which work is performed and by which people interact. You know, “the practices we use, or should be using, every day in everything we do” ( . . . Whichever one we want to talk about; without a clear statement of purpose, which all together seek to fulfill, an organization will not succeed.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus had a mission statement. A very clear one. Marching orders which were not new to him. . . . To know his unique purpose in the world, to tell everyone clearly what he was about and what he aspired to achieve; Jesus looked to his Holy Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah in particular. . . . He was at the beginning of his ministry, as the gospel of Luke tells it. Straight out from the waters of baptism and temptation in the wilderness. When, filled with the power of the Spirit, he set off to head back to Galilee (Luke 4:14). He had been teaching in local synagogues. And things were going really well. Everyone seemed to be very impressed with what he had to say. Whether it was his charisma or his content, the start of the gospel of Luke records that he “was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15). . . . And then he went home. Back to Nazareth where he had been raised.

Now, Nazareth wasn’t that big. And the text claims it was his custom to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. So I’m guessing pretty much everyone present knew him already. They knew him as Joseph’s son: a good carpenter, just like his father. Maybe after thirty years, the question about whether his mother and father already were married — or just engaged – at the time of his birth. Maybe the talk of the town over that whole mess already had faded. Of course, if it had, he’s about to stir things all up again. . . . It’s possible Isaiah was a favorite of the people. The prophet who gave such hope, such comfort to their ancestors during their long trek from the fall from grace, into exile in Babylon, and back again. Quite possibly Jesus’ friends and neighbors in Nazareth resonated deeply with a people longing to hear God’s blessing on them again. To know, despite all appearances to the contrary as people living under the crushing yoke of Roman rule, that indeed in the eyes of God; they were precious. Beloved. Bound for freedom from all that would keep them captive.

Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and it seems this is the moment he decides to make his big statement. Great timing. It’s his proclamation to the world. To declare to those who know him best what he really is about. . . . Jesus intends to be clear about who he is. Why he exists, and what he aspires to do. It is time for his mission statement. His vision for the future. That which he values above all else.

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” Jesus says. . . . “I’m anointed to bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to those blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim it is the time of God’s great favor” (Luke 4:18-19). It’s Jesus public statement of his mission. . . . And as the gospel of Luke tells it, he goes on from that moment focused. Centered. Clear. Every step thereafter he’s about fulfilling his mission. In fact, he’s so committed to what he’s about, he never wavers. Even if his mission doesn’t go over so well with others. Even if it’s gonna get him killed, Jesus accepts that not everyone is going to embrace the work to which he aspires. No matter. . . . Like the U.S. single-mindedly putting together all our best energies to fulfill President Kennedy’s 1961 order. Or Disney and Facebook doing everything they can to assure they successfully bring to life their missions. Jesus never wavers from what he’s declared his purpose to be.

We’d do well to pay attention to our Lord’s way. . . . Look on the fifth page of the bulletin – right under the final details of our order for worship today. Since June, the reason this church exists and the vision this church has for ministry has been right there each week – followed by your core values which flow in and out of this church’s purpose. You all have worked hard these past several years since you undertook New Beginnings in 2010. You’ve listened and dreamed and discerned well in order to clarify who you are as a church and what God has created and is calling you to be about! Find page 5 of the bulletin so we can read your purpose out-loud together. . . . Join me: Welcome to worship among this church which exists to be a community growing in Christ through worship, study, and service in order to support each other and those of the surrounding community through life’s challenges so that the gracious love of God will be experienced! We value: participating in liturgically-based worship and music, learning and growing in faith, caring for one another, helping those in need, and coming together in fellowship. . . . Beautiful! And it’s refreshing to see that we’re not that far off from the mission statement of our Lord. Growing in Christ through worship, study, and service that we might be a little bit more like him each day in supporting one another and those beyond this membership through the challenges we face in life so that God’s gracious love will be experienced. Though it’s not quite as specific as Jesus’ quotation of the prophet Isaiah, this church’s mission and vision for future ministry is similar to the purpose of Christ. If not, we need a task force to change it immediately. For an organization that is the living presence of Christ in and for the world today should look a whole lot like him if it dares to claim his name.

In all that we do. In all that we are. We’ve got our marching orders. Our clear purpose. That to which we aspire. Our statement of mission which clearly tells all what we’re about. What difference in the lives of people we seek together to achieve. . . . The question is: how do you think we – this church – you are doing at growing in Christ through worship, study, and service so that you will better support each other and those of the surrounding community through life’s challenges for the gracious love of God to be experienced?

You alone can determine how much you’ve grown in Christ over the past months and years of being a part of this congregation. Like: do you see yourself more ready to give to one in need who crosses your path? Do you find yourself drawn to the company of others of this congregation not just because you have a need you hope they can fill, but also because they have a need you know you can fill? In the past few months, I hope you’ve seen the statistics and heard the stories of how many, who have been struggling, have been helped through your food bank and Thanksgiving baskets and financial assistance to those in need coming right up to the church’s office door and more! . . . I certainly hope you’ve been a part of the outpouring of love to members of this church who have been thrown into the storms that sometimes rage in this life. Like how beautiful to see you all come together to be God’s presence for the families these past weeks who have lost loved ones and others who have been going through significant difficulties. It was wonderful to see you take the gracious love of God to our homebound members over the holidays and to witness you living the love of God among the children being brought to us on Wednesday nights who need a safe, loving community just to let them be the precious children that they are. We are to live this church’s mission – aspiring to this vision of supporting each other and those of the surrounding community through life’s challenges so that the gracious love of God will be experienced each day as we walk through the regular days of our lives. . . . One of my favorite stories from a church member comes from a grocery store experience. A young, struggling momma, her hands literally full with her child; when some stranger approached. She said she was expecting the other person to come tell her to get it together and snap her child into line or something like that – she could feel that a whole lot of people were glaring at her and her melted-down child. Imagine her surprise and absolute relief when the older woman approaching stepped up to ask if she could push the grocery cart for her while she tried to complete her shopping list and tend to her child. The unexpected expression of kindness felt like literal salvation to that overly-stressed, completely frazzled young mother. . . . I love that story because it just goes to show that it doesn’t take an organized mission project by a church committee to support someone who is hanging on to life by one, last, fraying thread – kinda like Jesus did everywhere he went.

It’s what we are about. That to which we aspire. All we’re here to achieve. Our purpose is clear. . . . So, filled with the power of the Spirit, like our Lord, may we get out there to live our mission each day!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)