Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Aquatic Experience

A Sermon for 23 October 2016

A reading from Luke 18:9-14. Listen for God’s word to us.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.””

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


Have you ever heard of a ministry called the Aquatic Experience? It was started by Tom Dickleman, now director of the Center for Innovative Ministry in Lake Bluff, IL; but previously a pastor on staff of a large Presbyterian Church in landlocked Indianapolis. . . . You might be wondering, just what is this Aquatic Experience? A biblical exploration of all the ways throughout history that God has used water as a sign of salvation? Is the Aquatic Experience a preparatory class for parents who wanted to bring their children for baptism? Is the Aquatic Experience a fancy name for a year-long confirmation journey or even a youth group sponsored car wash? . . . None of the above. As Tom tells it, he loved to windsurf. It was a passion of his, though he found himself in landlocked Indianapolis. Just for fun Pastor Tom was a certified windsurfing instructor. And one day it hit him: why not join his passion for windsurfing WITH ministry. Thus the Aquatic Experience was born.

And so it began that each week Pastor Tom taught congregation members, and any other folks of the community who would attend, how to windsurf. He didn’t do it as a lead into important bible lessons about water, but simply as a way to bring divergent people together into one windsurfing community. . . . I love what Tom writes about the Aquatic Experience: “When windsurfing, everyone loses control, everyone falls off” (Aquatic Experience, Tom Dickleman: October 1, 2013: Blog). It reminds me of the time I tried paddle boarding on a vacation and found myself unexpectedly swallowing a lake-full of water after losing my balance and falling off! Tom writes: Windsurfing provides “a level playing field for everyone. It (doesn’t) matter if you are smart, athletic, overweight, popular, needy, successful, nerdy, Christian, whatever. When windsurfing . . . everyone gets soaked before humbly pulling themselves back on the board. All the preconceived notions about who someone is or is not, the kinds of things that often impede the development of healthy groups, start to vanish when everyone – and I mean everyone – loses control and gets baptized in the water.” The Aquatic Experience was Tom’s innovative experiment in living humility – because it’s pretty hard to think you’re better than the next swallowing a lake-full of water after first you fall down while windsurfing.

It’s the very same lesson Jesus is teaching in the parable we hear today from the gospel of Luke. Standing before him are some who, quote: “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). . . . It’s pretty easy to go there, isn’t it? We’re good church folk. We worship every Sunday we’re in town – or at least when something else isn’t pressing upon our Sunday plans. We try to do the right things. We at least own a bible at home, whether or not we ever read it. We give some money for the church each week – or as often as we remember and have a little bit extra to spare. When we’re having trouble, we ask God for help. And we believe we at least are in on the right deal with Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We’re doing pretty well in this thing called faith, we think. . . .

It’s bad enough WE are the center of all that self-talk. But how quickly we can slip further into the game of comparisons! We’re doing better than that one over there. As if God’s going to pat us on the head more than the next if we’re doing a better job than someone else. . . . From childhood on we seem to get measured against others. Which one has the best grades at the top of the class? Which one is better at the game so they get to start? Which one is prettier or more handsome and wins the attention of the to-die-for boy or girl of the school? Even which one is easier to parent so gets a little more loving than the next? . . . Before you know it, we’ve created a race of people who only know who they are when measured against another. The better employee getting the promotion; the more attractive personality winning the friends; the wealthier voice wielding more power. . . . It’s as if all of life is a competition to see which one of us is better. It’s no wonder we can think our ways are God’s. Are we less of a sinner than that one who doesn’t even seem to be trying? Are we more important to God if we do more for the church than the next? In a world full of measurement, how do we not find ourselves standing before Jesus thinking: “at least I’m better than that one over there!” That one over there in this parable being the one regarded in his society as a bottom feeder. The dreaded tax collector who was free to take whatever and however they wanted from their neighbors in order to hand over a certain amount to the Empire. A collaborator with the enemy; a swindler whose very existence put them outside in the eyes of their fellow Jews. It’s safe to say we’re at least better than THAT one!

The problem is, at least according to Jesus, God doesn’t see like that. Grace is the veil through which God looks. In each one of us God sees the same: our sins. Our shortcomings. Those things in and of us that separate us from full union with God and all others. Those parts of us that we want to deny or at least cover up never to be exposed. . . . God sees that in each one of us no matter if it’s visible or invisible to the human eye. . . . It’s kinda mind-boggling, but the truth is: God sees it all and just doesn’t hold it against us. I mean God sees it all. God just doesn’t hold our sins against us. None of us – not the ones we think are the worst sinners in the world, not the ones we think are the best saints. With God, thanks be to Christ Jesus, every last one of us gets a get-outta-jail-free-card! . . . I’m not really sure how it’s possible – maybe if you parent more than one child you get it. How God can look upon this entire creation and love it all equally – no one higher in the standings than the other. . . . It’s the most beautiful mystery. That with God, we all receive the same free gift of mercy.

In the light of such good news, we’re called to live the same! To let our measuring stick be living the ways of Christ – the values of God’s kingdom, not living at least a little bit better than the ways of the other person over there. Each day we need to get in touch with this truth: that in God’s eyes we are all like wet windsurfers soaked down in the waters, swallowing lake-fulls of it. Because only from that position can we live the mercy of God with ourselves and with others. Only drenched from our failings and fallings will we realize the precious gift and be humble enough to rely not upon our own abilities, but upon the amazing mercy of our God . . .

For such incredible grace, we give thanks to the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.


© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

From the Inside Out

A Sermon for 16 October 2016

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 31:27-34. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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


If you’ve ever been put on a diet, then you know how hard it can be. The doctor tells you your pants are fitting just a little too tight. Or maybe for another health reason you have to cut out sodium, or caffeine, or sugar. You’re sent home with the list of what you can and cannot eat. The list that’s to dictate whether or not you can enjoy all your favorites like chocolate cake and deep fried green tomatoes and beer or wine or whatever. Out of sheer willpower, some people can handle such external directives – for a little while or maybe even for the rest of their lives. Most cannot, which ends up causing other problems when we cheat. But maybe, just maybe somewhere along the way you came to your own conclusion that you only will eat what truly will be healthy for your body. Fresh vegetables and ripe fruits. Grains and nothing processed. These your body begin to crave and when you stop to really listen to exactly what your system needs, you find it’s an ice cold glass of water instead of half the bag of chips. Living like that – hearing from the inside out just exactly what your body needs – makes a shift in nutrition doable. Energizing even.

Internal motivation just seems to work better over the long haul. Athletes with that drive to be the very best in the world at their sport tend to reach their goals more often than those who have to be prodded along by an over-bearing coach. Ones who are naturally curious tend to really learn – and keep at it long after being handed a diploma at 12th grade. Those who appreciate beauty find a way to create something themselves, somehow. Being guided from the inside out – from the life-giving passions within instead of the external expectations of others leads to happier, healthier, persevering people. From the inside out assures we have matured in who we are and how we freely choose to live our lives.

From the inside out could be the title of the promise of God declared here by the prophet Jeremiah. For all we know at this point in their history, most of the people are in exile. Jeremiah seemed especially upset because Judah sought to put Temple worship as the pinnacle of religion – the abiding sign of the Davidic dynasty. And because they did, they sought to resist exile. Unpopular though his opinion be, Jeremiah was opposed to fighting against Babylon. He saw it as the road to national disaster. Rebellion against what seemed inevitable would only lead to more harm from the stronger kingdom. Besides, Temple worship, the royal religion of Jerusalem, was a “false religion, sure to fail,” Jeremiah proclaimed every chance he got (The Harper Collins Study Bible, 1993; p. 1111). They did not need to risk it all to try to retain it. Instead, the people needed to return. Return to the faith of their ancestors. Be changed from the inside out. Embrace the road map for what will work in life together and what will not. Making sacrifices in the Temple would not do. Clinging to practices that certainly would no longer be possible for waves of those exiled to Babylon or heading out to Egypt; fighting for the kinds of outer practices in the Temple that no longer could be was futile – at least as Jeremiah saw it. Rather, the good news Jeremiah proclaims here in chapter 31 is that another way is possible. A better way that God indeed promises to give the people. “The days are surely coming,” says the LORD through the prophet Jeremiah. When “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:27-34). . . . The days surely are coming when we will have within us all we need to live as God desires – no matter if we find ourselves exiled to Babylon, fleeing to Egypt, or left back behind in the ransacked city of Jerusalem as the poorest of the poor were. One commentator writes: “The remnants of both Israel and Judah would enter into a new covenant and faithfully follow God’s law, for it would be written upon their hearts” (Ibid.). They will know it from the inside out.

From the inside out. . . . It’s possible to think of this inside out living in a few different ways. Take, for instance, the return to living according to the commandments – to having the ways of God written in our hearts. Once upon a time long before the supposed security of the bricks and mortar of the Temple, the people understood the whole moral code of the commandments as God’s gift to them of the best way to be the people of God together. The Light of God shining to all the nations. But if it wouldn’t get inside them; if they started to see it as something other than a gift. If they grew spiritually lazy and stopped being truly led by the love of God; then there were going to be problems. If the love of God isn’t within, we can have an external list of all God’s laws to follow; but we won’t likely carry them out. Or we’ll live by the letter of the law and forget the whole reason behind it. We’ll get caught up in trying to earn something by how many from the list we can follow. We might even start comparing ourselves as better, or worse, than everyone else. We’ll be led from the outside and sooner or later it will cause problems on our insides – bitterness or arrogance or fear.

From the inside out – God’s law written on our hearts –also is a beautiful metaphor for the Spirit of God living in us. The Divine dwelling inside – as happened when first God put the breath into us. God’s ruah, God’s Spirit exhaled right into the very first ones and every one of us since. We may not always feel that Presence within; but rest assured: it is there. Just waiting to be awakened. Waiting to be stirred up – moved as when we feel compassion, or love, or righteous anger over the violation of human dignity. That too is the law of God written on our hearts. God internal – in us – to be the compass that points us in the right direction, to the right action, to the needed word that we do know when we do as the Psalmist said: when we be still (paraphrase of Psalm 46:10) to let the swirl of angst and external expectations and voices of everyone else settle like muddy water finally calming into a crystal smooth pool in which we clearly can see. Be still, like that, on the inside and indeed we will know the prompting of God’s Spirit in us. Hearts transformed by God.

Of course, from the inside out presumes we trust enough not only God, but also ourselves. How many of us see ourselves as so incredibly marred that something so Holy as God’s Spirit never could dwell in us? Could something as pure as God’s unconditional love move us from the inside out?! Jeremiah’s words shout yes! Notice the depth of God’s love in Jeremiah’s prophecy? This is a re-start between God and God’s people. A chance for true forgiveness after the people of God have transgressed. What husband – as God is named here in reference to God’s people – what husband re-commits to a new covenant after the original vows have been trampled all over? What partner is ready to begin again when actions have caused such heartache? One able to honestly declare this: “I will forgive and remember the violation no more.” (paraphrase of Jeremiah 31:34). . . . It seems almost impossible for us, so much so that we often hear someone say, “I can forgive, but I never will forget!” According to Jeremiah, that’s not what God says. God forgives AND God forgets. Together we are free to begin again. . . . I’m not sure this is something anyone of us really can do, which might be why so many harbor guilt for whatever ways we’ve messed up. We hardly can forgive ourselves, let alone forget the disasters we’ve done in our lives. But God’s not like that. Not according to the promise of the new covenant initiated by God. . . . It’s an act of the greatest love that God hopes will get in us – stick in us and stay there so that we might begin to live a little bit more like that. God desires so deeply to be in this intimate dance of life with us that God changes us from the inside out. And it all is done by God’s love – transforming the hearts of every last one through God’s amazing gift of grace.

Here then is the new creation: God in us, transforming from the inside out.

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 2 October 2016 – World Communion Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”


And a reading of Psalm 137. Listen for God’s word to us.

“By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

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


Rocks tie these texts together today. Millstones hung around necks that sink to the bottom in an instant. And big, immovable ones that are best for the dashing against. Harsh feelings cause such fateful acts. A desire for retribution because heinous things have been done. It’s exactly why the Psalmist’s lament is filled with those shocking words. “Happy shall they be who do the unspeakable to your little babies!” (paraphrase of Psalm 137:9) The words seethe with hateful vengeance over the exile to Babylon. . . . In that context, maybe we can understand such sentiments. I mean, who among us too can tell a story about a time we were hurt so deeply by another, that we really wanted to lash out? Who here hasn’t stood stuck in the muck that makes for a bitter grudge? Has your spirit ever been shattered? Maybe a significant other pledged faithfulness, but strayed. Maybe a sibling has put your parents through high waters. Maybe due to the unthinkable, the earth-shattering, the awful that we’ve experienced in our lives: we close our hearts. The wall grows taller. We are too weary to trust again and again and again. . . . And these just are situations between people who know each other – not anything quite as destructive as the exile when Jerusalem was ransacked, burned to the ground, and the people carted off for the next seventy years to the distant land of their invaders. What about when nations clash today? What about when races can’t find a way forward? What about when one group seeks to hold back another for eons? How are we to live together pain after pain after pain?

If you were listening closely to the gospel reading of Luke, then you heard Jesus’ disciples declare: “O Jesus, increase our faith!” . . . That’s what the apostles said when Jesus told them the truth about life together. According to the text, it’s the context of the infamous: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree” – by the way, it’s a mulberry tree in Luke, not a mountain as in Matthew’s gospel. So you could say to this great big tree: “be uprooted and re-plant yourself in the sea” (Luke 17:6). . . . At the beginning of chapter 17, Jesus states: “Occasions for stumbling will come. . . . If another sins,” Jesus says, “tell them so.” I always like to add, “Just please be gentle when pointing out my mess ups.” I mean, “Log in your own eye,” remember (Matthew 7:3)? . . . We are told to forgive. To practice being ready – at all times – to receive back into the fold one who repents – one who turns to say, “I am sorry;” not only in words but in changed behavior too. We’re even to forgive the same person seven times in one whole day if it comes to that! . . . So be honest with yourself: is there a more appropriate response to such a charge than, “Lord, increase our faith!”

We’re human beings. Continuing in communion, as our Christ commands here, is tough stuff. Because, of course, that’s just it: all people in the whole wide world are human beings. We are not error-free. We all sin by separating ourselves from God and each other – sometimes intentionally and sometimes without us even knowing it at all. With the professional theologians, we can scratch our heads all through the day wondering about God’s original creation. We can expend great energy trying to parse out if sin is our natural state or not – which seems to be contrary to Scripture’s witness. After all, – Genesis 1 professes that the Creator declared it and us all good! Very, very good! (Gen. 1:31) . . . Still: “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” We’re not supposed to try to do it. We’re supposed to do our best. We are supposed to aim for right-relationship between us and each other and the whole of the world – no separation between ourselves and others. But it happens. Jesus knows. God knows. Why do we expect otherwise? Whether one trips over their own two feet, or deliberately orchestrates an elaborate fall, no human being in this whole wide world is perfect. If we’re going to be in community, we’re going to have to find a way. . . . Jesus might as well simply say, “You will be hurt. And you will hurt.” Certainly God doesn’t want it like that. Still, such tumbles will happen. As servants of the unconditionally merciful God, we are to be ready to do our part. Seek to walk right. Rebuke gently when needed. Turn around to start again. And always forgive. There just cannot be community – will not be real community – without such forbearance.

Be certain to understand that Jesus is NOT saying that in community, anything goes. We were not created to be doormats. Every action is not okay – and some things that are okay at one time and place are not in another. At the same time, Jesus is NOT insinuating that we roll over to play dead by pretending that the pain caused by sin simply isn’t felt. It’s real. It hurts. Why do you think we have Psalm 137 with the blessing of those who bring an end forever to the ones who brought an end to us? It’s not there to justify our thirst for vengeance. It’s there to remind us that this relationship with God stuff is real. It’s about who we really are and how we really feel. Every last emotion that wells up within us is to be brought to our God. Nothing separates us from God’s love. That rage we feel is our signal that for us something has been violated. The Psalmist knew that. The issue is: how are we going to act after such damaging violations? . . . As an example: say so and so really screws up. Either we point it out to them, or they come to realize their mistake on their own. They stand ready to begin again – ready to turn around and act differently. Will we forgive? Will we do what forgiveness is: freely give grace to another so that reconciliation can begin? . . . According to Luke’s Jesus, even if it’s seven times in one whole day, “you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In other words, forgiveness is a practice. One might even say it’s a spiritual discipline. Do you get it? Sometimes it takes practicing forgiveness repeatedly; choosing to release that bitter, begrudging desire within over and over and over until we can freely give grace to someone for the one thing they did that we just can’t seem to let go. Depending on the particular violation, we might have to wake up every morning and before we even set foot on the floor, we might have to plead: “O Lord, before I awake and let the bitterness I hold against so and so creep in, increase my faith right now!” That is what life together demands. And they say it only takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit. So forgive that sin today and tomorrow and the next day for 21 times until the defenses in your heart breakdown and release that person for that particular act.

Of course, we’d like to remind Jesus that even if we’re busy gently pointing out each others’ transgressions in rebuke, not everyone comes to us ready to turn things around. Not everyone repents, right? Then what? Even if the transformation of reconciled life together never will take place, can we still forgive? Must we still forgive? . . . I love the artwork I think I’ve mentioned before as it’s been such a powerful illustration for me. It’s of two sets of chains in a dark, dank dungeon hanging free. The title reads: forgiveness. Ponder that a moment. Two sets of chains hang free. One was for the person we were convinced deserves it because of their hurtful actions. The other set was locked around us; the ones whose lives were just as mangled by life-squelching bondage because we refused to release our clutch upon the one who wronged us. That’s the most amazing thing about forgiveness – maybe reconciliation will not come because another refuses to change their behavior. Nonetheless, forgiveness can go forth. It must. We have to let go of the desire to punish another. For without such release, we are not free to be the ones Jesus sends out.

Is there any better message – even if it’s quite a challenge one – for us this day on World Communion Sunday? Jesus’ teachings on life together. . . . If we can practice it here among us, maybe those beyond the sanctuary walls will begin to see it too. Like the pebble falling into the water that sends ripples far beyond its reach, maybe our little bit of faithfulness will spread to the farthest corners of the world – showing another way. Servants of a magnificently merciful God, keep at it. Even the tiniest bit of faith will help us find the way.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)