Monthly Archives: March 2017


A Sermon for 26 March 2017 – 4th Sunday during Lent

A reading from John 9:1-41.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).  Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  Some were saying, “It is he.”  Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”  He kept saying, “I am the man.”  10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”  And they were divided.  17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”  He said, “He is a prophet.”  18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?  How then does he now see?”  20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.  Ask him; he is of age.  He will speak for himself.”  22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”  24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner.”  25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.  Why do you want to hear it again?  Do you also want to become his disciples?”  28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”  30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing!  You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”  And they drove him out.  35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

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


Are you familiar with the story of someone walking on the shoreline?  Another was behind at a distance.  As the first person walked along, she bent over to pick up something out of the sand then threw it into the water.  She did this again and again and again as she slowly made her way down the beach.  When the other person finally caught up from all the woman’s pauses, he asked:  “what are you doing?”  The woman replied:  “I am throwing these star fish back into the ocean where they belong so that they don’t die here in the hot summer sun.”  The beach was filled for miles with such fish that had washed up with the tide.  The man said:  “There must be thousands here on the shore.  You can’t possibly save all these fish.  Why bother?”  Picking up another and tossing it into the water, the woman said, “Maybe I can’t save them all.  But what I’ve just done matters at least to that one.”

One.  One star fish.  One determined woman.  One skeptical man.  . . .  Something about this story from the gospel of John keeps calling out:  one.  One man blind from birth.  One set of parents hauled in to be questioned.  One angry group of Pharisees and one band of his fellow Jews determined to prove Jesus a fraud.  . . .  Oh and The One:  the Light of the world – the Word of God enfleshed, who happened still to be creating.  According to how it’s told here, even on the Sabbath the Eternal Word stooped once again in the mud in an act of creation.  At the first bringing Adam (the mud-creature) from the adamah (the ground of the earth).  Then on this Sabbath bringing sight to a man whose eyes never had fully worked.

Up to this point, the gospel of John tells the story emphasizing that Jesus was one who really was angering the Pharisees and the temple priests.  Time and again he acts, and the gospel of John records that they were enraged – often ending up divided.  Here in this section of John’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem on the sly.  According to John 7, his brothers were challenging him to leave Galilee to make the five day trek to the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem.  They said:  “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.  If you do these things” (the gospel of John records “for not even his brothers believed in him”).  So if you do these things, they said:  “show yourself to the world” (John 7:3-5).  Though Jesus protests that it’s not yet his time; the gospel records that he ends up going anyway.  And when in the middle of the festival he’s found teaching in the temple, some of the people believe he could be the hoped-for Messiah, while others were sure God’s long-awaited promise NEVER would come from Galilee – the place of Nazareth and the surrounding land where Jesus lived and carried out most all of his ministry (John 7:25-44).  The gospel of John even records that Nicodemus, who was one of the Pharisees and a leader of the Jews, challenged the others as he pointed out that their own law wouldn’t allow for the judgment of Jesus without giving him a hearing first (John 7:51).  The longer Jesus stays there in the temple teaching, the more division grows among the Pharisees and priests and the Jews present who have been listening intently.  At last, they are ready to pick up stones to throw at him.  One certainly is upsetting the masses.  As if he has one of those Harry Potter invisibility cloaks, John records that Jesus “hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).  . . .  And so it happened that Jesus walked along seeing a man who had been born blind.

Now, if it were most of us, we might have high-tailed it out of there.  Jesus is causing quite a stir.  He knows it’s not yet his time, at least the gospel of John keeps recording it so; so that time and again he escapes the rage of those whose buttons he keeps right on pushing.  This one – this one blind man really doesn’t need to slow his progress.  He’s blind – in other words Jesus could have walked right by without the man even seeing him.  He didn’t have to stop for this one.  And yet, one.  One matters to this shepherd.  One is enough to stop.  One in dire need is enough to stoop back down in the mud of the earth to recreate, on the Sabbath, eyes that never worked.  Not due to the fault of his parents or of any act of his own.  But according to Jesus, this one’s deep need was there, so that God’s works might be revealed in him (John 9:3).

Indeed the One who stops is the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  The One who once told a story about a flock of 100 sheep from which one got separated.  Remember?  The Beloved Shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the one.  How often we identify ourselves as one of the responsible 99 that stays with the flock so that the shepherd doesn’t have to trek out in search of us.  No one wants to be the one whose absence panics the shepherd.  We want to keep in line.  Stay with the flock, try to be unnoticed so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves.  That’s the good Presbyterian thing to do.  We may even find ourselves a bit impatient with the one who, we believe, was irresponsible to get lost themselves lost in the first place – as if the one brought it on themselves.  . . .  In all our responsibility, in all our staying in step with the herd; we fail to see the ways in which we ourselves really need to be found.  We end up blind to our deepest needs.

It’s exactly what the good shepherd says that Sabbath on his way out of the temple.  Before it’s all said and done, those who think they see actually don’t.  While the one who never has seen, looks into the face of the One at whose feet he must fall in absolute, unbridled gratitude.  Worshipping the One for whom each one matters.  . . .  A close reading of this story tells us that the newly-sighted man is thrown out by the others.  A commentator writes that as soon as he used the word we, as in “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but to one who worships and obeys God’s will” (paraphrase of John 9:31).  As soon as he draws himself into the circle of belief with the religious leaders; they act “decisively in his regard, cutting him out of the we that he had just grafted himself into, peeling him off from them since he could only corrupt them by association” (Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014; Liz Goodman, p. 8).  They drive him out.  Which is exactly when, “hearing that they had driven him out,” Jesus goes in search of the man; for the man is the only one now able to see.  In the words of that same commentator, it is as if “one outcast is picking up another outcast.  The Church:  a herd of strays claimed by Christ” (Ibid.).  . . .  I like that, don’t you:  one plus one plus one plus one in this circle of Christ’s where every last one of us matters – where there’s always room for one more.  Where we become we.  If only we could see ourselves as Christ sees us, maybe we’d be a little more eager to open wide the circle.  Maybe we’d go in search of those in this world who are hurting deeply.  Those who are lost.  Those who need to be found.  . . .  Whether we’re the ones today in need of seeing, the ones waiting to be found, or the ones to go out gathering in one more; here we become ones united to eternally lift our gratitude unto the One!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


A Sermon for 19 March 2017 – Third Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 4:1-42.  Listen for God’s word to us.

     “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee.  4 But he had to go through Samaria.  5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).  “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  27 Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”  28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  30 They left the city and were on their way to him.  31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’?  But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.  Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.””
This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!
      Monday in Kansas City, the NEXT Church national conference began.  You’d think with a name like NEXT Church, this would be a conference put on by flashy young clergymen from one of those non-denominational, mega, pop-up churches.  But, believe it or not, NEXT Church is a network of church members, youth leaders, educators, pastors, professors, seminarians, and ruling elders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  This national network of Presbyterians believes “the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful, and more agile” (  Their website includes relevant resources, an opportunity to be a part of a monthly web-based roundtable, and story after story of churches telling the ways they are re-imagining treasured ministries.  There’s even a submission from a SMALL church of this Presbytery that created a 20-minute Ash Wednesday pod-cast to reach 1,000 listeners – something they did in addition to a drive-through line in their parking lot for commuters to receive the imposition of ashes on their way to work.  Sounds pretty cool to me!  . . .  In addition to having a website filled with such creative options, NEXT Church also hosts an annual conference.  This year, some 220 first-time attenders joined another 300 or so folks for a week of honest, inspiring conversation around the theme Wells and Walls:  Well-Being in a Thirsty World.  They spent all week around the gospel of John’s story of Jesus, tired out from his journey, breaking down walls as he sought out a local well.
     It may be shocking to hear, as the gospel details early in this story, that even Jesus was thirsty along his journey.  Jesus seems to indicate that it’s four months before the harvest, so likely that puts them in the heat of summer, at noon, mid-way through the five-day trek of the 100 miles from Judea where Jerusalem is, back to his home district of Galilee, where Jesus undertook the majority of his ministry.  Intentionally he takes the short cut.  Maybe because he’s exhausted from the journey.  More likely because he’s not afraid of the long-standing walls between people.  Though the Samaritans may not be included in his people’s definition of one of us; the gospel of John tells the story as if he had a messianic need to go through Samaria.  He may be tired out from his journey so that he sits at a well – likely hoping to quench his body’s thirst.  But within, he also has another thirst.  He has a thirst – a craving inside to encounter those of this world who thirst.  This is the gospel, remember, that one chapter prior tells of Jesus encountering at night the Pharisee Nicodemus.  According to the gospel of John, the last time we hear of Jesus in conversation with another; he tells that treasured truth:  why God sent him into the world.  Out of love, we hear on the lips of Jesus in John 3:16, the Word was enfleshed; not to condemn but that no last one would perish.  The thirst that drives our Christ is to fulfill this mission of God’s.  To complete this work, Jesus explains to his disciples after they return and find him talking with a woman, of Samaria, who has been passed from husband to husband.  She happens to be the one who walked up in this foreign land through which Jesus decided to travel.  So she becomes his first Samaritan disciple who runs off to tell everyone else about the One she encountered at noon at the well.
     It’s hard to tell when we’re thirsty, isn’t it?  I listened to a friend this week who is worried she could end up hospitalized from de-hydration, as she was two years ago, because she can’t seem to remember to stop throughout the day to take in the water she needs.  Due to a recent flood in her area, it doesn’t taste quite as good as it used to, but it’s still right there – with her in her computer case as she travels from place to place going about her daily work.  According to, an international nonprofit organization that has been working for 25 years to address the global water crisis; 663 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.  That’s one in 10 people on this planet, or twice the population of the United States, without safe drinking water.  That’s a lot of thirsty, prone to disease and death people who literally need water to drink.  . . .  I could tell you stats about how many today describe themselves as spiritually thirsty but not turning to the church for connection with the Divine.  A growing number of spiritually curious people in the United States do not see evidence that church-goers’ lives look any different than their own unchurched life.  But we don’t need the stats to know how deep the thirst.  We know the stories.  Grown children who may still consider themselves Christian but do not participate in a local church; it seems irrelevant.  Siblings who don’t make it a practice to be in worship anywhere – if they ever did.  Neighbors who most likely spend Sunday mornings lounging and catching up as a family rather than racing over here – or to any of the other ga-zillion Nashville church options.  Even those who want to be here, but no longer can be due to illness or mobility or physical capacity.  Everywhere we look today, we see thirst.  We, who come here week after week, also thirst.  . . .  What’s going to quench those parched places in us and in others?
     The gospel of John presents One who stays with the woman.  Locked in what seems like a heady-battle, she questions and queries as one determined to protect her heart.  With every response, Jesus just takes her deeper; deeper to the scorched places within.  He meets her where she is and won’t allow any rules set up between them to get in his way.  He is thirsty for her not to perish, which in the gospel of John has to do with a state of living right now, today.  The eternal life that is God’s will is not just about eons to pass.  Eternal life has a flavor that better matches our understanding of abundance – a state of being now that our Creator wants for us all.  It’s the difference between a stinky, still pond of water and a fresh, gushing spring coming right up from the ground.  Or the difference in a defensive woman at a well and a filled-with-vigor witness who drops her jar to sprint back to the village to tell news too good to be kept inside.  It’s one filled with a joy-ful spirit who finally knows herself accepted in the eyes of the Divine, cherished as one welcomed into the fold.  Standing in the presence of the One whose love will wash over her every morning like waves refreshing a tattered soul.  Simply Jesus reveals himself unto her until, at last, everything within comes alive.
     He wants it for us too.  And for every other person of this world who thirsts.  Somehow the two go together – that when we are filled, the Spirit of God comes pouring right back out.  We know it because in this story, Jesus never does get a cup of cool water from that well.  His thirst is quenched in his encounter with the woman and those of her town to whom she introduced him.  We’d do well to remember:  it is in fulfilling the mission of God, Christ’s thirst is satisfied.  . . .  It’s like that with life-giving water.  Ebbing and flowing between us like waves.  No walls able to stop it.  It just keeps crashing up against any defenses, slowly wearing ‘em down, until we’re drenched in God’s life-giving love.
     For us all in this world who thirst, may the Living Water flow!
     In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
                                             © Copyright JMN – 2017 (All rights reserved.)

After Go

A Sermon for 12 March 2017

A reading from Genesis 12:1-4.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.  Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.”

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


When I was a little girl, I loved Sunday night services with the missionaries.  That was back in the day – at least in the Midwest – when churches gathered for worship both on Sunday mornings and on Sunday nights.  It wasn’t like the early and the late service with two different time options to experience the same service of worship.  These were two entirely different services – with two entirely different sermons by the one same pastor.  I’m pretty sure our pastor also loved the Sundays he’d only have to prepare one sermon because a missionary financially supported by the church was on furlough in the States and available to do their thing among us.  The thing they would do on those Sunday nights varied.  Most told stories about the people they were meeting in places deep in the heart of Africa or somewhere over in like Korea.  We’d be shown pictures of people who looked very different than all the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Dutch descendants living in my little hometown.  Never before had I seen such luscious black hair.  And no matter how long my sister and I tried to tan on the beach, our skin could not get as dark as the beautiful faces we’d see from places like Nigeria.  The dress, the language, the very different climates:  I loved it all!

Some Sunday nights those missionaries would take the mic to tell their own personal stories.  We’d hear of calls from God to folks who left successful businesses to venture to the other side of the world.  A few would say they were born to parents committed too to such work; ministering somewhere exotic was all they ever knew.  Every now and again a missionary would get teary-eyed as they told how different their life had become.  Not anything like they’d ever imagined.  They would explain that since they went, they had learned how to communicate with people whose first, second, or fifth language was NOT English.  They now gathered for worship to the sound of a conch shell or the steady beat of a native drum.  After they sold most all of their possessions to make the trip to the other side of the earth with one simple suitcase and few if any luxuries that were common-place back home, they found out they really could be content with less.  They explained:  gratefully, their lives were nothing like they had been back home in the States after they answered, what they believed to be from God, the call to go!

I wonder how many of us would say the same thing.  That gratefully our lives have become like nothing we knew before – like nothing we ever could imagine – after we answered a call to go.  . . .  Don’t tell me you never have.  It doesn’t have to be to some far away international mission field.  We’ve got plenty of work to do for God right here in our own communities. . .  At some point, all of us have answered the call to go.  For starters, we woke up this morning, did our regular morning routines, and landed here in what may be a long-time favorite pew – or perhaps a spot in a sanctuary in which we’ve never set foot before.  . . .  At some point in our lives we agreed to go – go to worship.  Go to a new member’s class.  Go to a bible or other Christian study with a bunch of folks we barely knew.  Go to serve at a mission project sponsored by this congregation or another local church.  All throughout our lives we have answered the Christian call to go – to serve in the world in something more than just a job.  To understand our daily work as the vocation in which our best gifts and abilities can be used for the glory of God – at the school where you teach, or the hospital in which you serve, or the business in which you practice.  Each of us is called by God to go into relationships with people that end up dramatically changing our lives.  Into families that turn out in ways we never would imagine.  Into friendships that shape us for good.  . . .  At some point in our lives every last one of us recognizes some sort of nudge.  The Spirit of God within beacons through a notion we just can’t get out of our head.  A passion stirs that sets us on fire for the benefit of another.  An emotion nags until we sit down to sort out just what it is all about.  That’s the call of God – directed at every one of us.  The summons to go from what we have known into land that’s absolutely unlike anywhere we’ve been before – even if we only ever travel to our local communities, places of employment, or very own families.  We all are called to go.

It’s the story of our ancestor Abram.  In Genesis 12 we start out in Haran with Abram, Sarai, and Lot.  We forget that Abram’s family already had been on the move.  In chapter 11 of Genesis, we learn that Abram’s father Terah first took his family from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran where they settled before reaching their ultimate destination Canaan.  All we know is that Abram’s father died in Haran.  For whatever reason, he didn’t forge forward on their trek to Canaan.  And after his death, it was time.  The LORD says to Abram:  “go!”  Perhaps Abram knew the location where God wanted them to be.  But here in Genesis 12, God just says “go . . .  to the land that I will show you” (vs. 1).  So much like God – not to give us clear flying instructions before we’re to venture forth.  . . .  We feel that way a lot today, don’t we, as a church?  Gone are the canned ministry programs of the late 20th Century that were designed to get a church from point A to point B to point C.  The experts keep telling us there is no set way today to re-grow a church, other than get to know our neighbor’s needs, organize afresh for action with impact, and switch our mindsets from luring people in as fresh blood for our pews – switch our mindset from going to church to being Christ’s disciples in the world.  To getting out there.  Go-ing into the world to meet people where they are.  So that we can serve the need they have – not in hopes they eventually will come ‘round to be members here – but just to be with them in their need.  Because they have a need – we all do.  And we, as Christ’s body, now act as he would on earth.

Going is scary.  We’re not so sure what we’re going to find.  Abram never had been to Canaan.  He couldn’t anticipate the Canaanites he’d meet.  Other than through possible rumors, he knew nothing of their customs – what they valued and made a part of their daily lives.  He may or may not have been able to speak words that made sense to them.  He didn’t know what would happen for his family’s needs to be met.  He could not anticipate what would take place all along the way or once they finally arrived.  He’d been told he’d be made a blessing – but how that would take place he could not yet know, before he first set out.  . . .  When I consider the steady decline of Mainline church in America, sometimes I wonder if it’s God’s summons to go.  God’s invitation to follow to a whole other land.  Like an adventure to leave behind the country in which we’ve grown comfortable to journey to the land God will show.  It’s not that the land we’ve been dwelling in is bad or anything like that.  It’s just that sometimes we need new vistas.  To expand who we’ve always thought we were.  We need new ways for God to be able to get in that our trust might be deepened and our faith grown wider.  As we go, we’re changed.  We learn what’s of value to those we don’t yet know, which just might sharpen what really matters to us too.  As we go, we’re made into different ways of being in this world which honor our past and take seriously the present.  We’re blessed to be a blessing in ways unimagined if we decide we’d rather not go.

In the end, it’s our choice.  But talk to anyone who’s tried to dodge it – Moses, Jonah, a whole lot of second career preachers.  No matter how foreign the territory to which God tells us to go, we’d do well to let God use us to be a blessing.  Who knows:  maybe we’ll end up grateful.  Our lives changed in ways we never could imagine, before we answered God’s persistent call to go!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Lenten Reminders

A Sermon for 5 March 2017 – First Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 4:1-11.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

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

What do you do for reminders?  Do you mark anniversaries on your calendar?  Make lists of tasks you need to get done.  Maybe you create little songs to remember names when first you meet a person.  I’ve been told that singing engages at least three different parts of our brains.  It’s not just a fun way to remember; it’s incredibly effective and long-lasting too.  When I was in high school, some kids would write reminders right on their hands.  Perhaps it was a precursor to the tattoos so many have today – symbols permanently inked directly on skin to remember what really, really matters.  I heard once that some people tie red ribbons around their fingers; but I can’t recall now how that’s supposed to help us remember.  . . .  It’s not easy today to remember things – no matter our age!  A blog post on tech21Century explains that the average human brain daily is bombed “with such a large volume of information which could overload even a powerful computer” (  The study sited, “believes that people are every day inundated with the equivalent amount of 34 GB (gigabytes) of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week.  . . .  (We) receive every day about 105,000 words or 23 words per second” during our waking hours (Ibid.).  Add in all the pictures, games, and whatnot; and before we know it, our human processing system is hampered – especially affecting our focus and hindering our ability to reflectively, deeply think.  One psychiatrist comments that “never in human history, (have) our brains had to work so much information as today . . . (people) are so busy processing the information received from all directions, so they lose the ability to think and to feel” (Ibid.).

If you’re familiar with a contemplative approach to spirituality, then you already may know about a similar phenomenon called monkey mind.  The information age did not event it.  For centuries those teaching centering prayer have been addressing what happens as soon as we start to get ourselves quiet – something we desperately need each day.  Say we decide to give it a try.  We sit down for a few minutes of silence.  When suddenly we’re trying to figure out what to have for dinner.  How we’re going to pay that unexpected bill.  What the doctor’s going to say at our annual visit next week.  . . .  The aim of Christian contemplative meditation is to get quiet.  To empty ourselves – including our monkey minds – for God to have a chance to get in.  Who knows:  it might even recover our ability to think and to feel.  Teachers as far back as the first centuries have cautioned to keep at it.  To train our monkey to calm using a word or two to bring ourselves back whenever we notice things other than the quiet creeping in.  We’re not to chastise ourselves, the contemplatives teach, for such lack of focus.  Just notice and bring ourselves back to the silence with words like:  “Have mercy.”  Or “Yah-weh,” the name of God.  Or my current favorite that summarizes our lives with God in this amazing universe:  on the in-breath:  “receive.”  On the out-breath:  “return.”  . . .  Even when we try to get ourselves quiet, some sort of reminder is needed.

In the wilderness, Jesus had his reminders.  Forty days he was out there – getting himself ready to launch his great, God-given mission.  It was a type of initiation.  An intentional testing; for, according to the gospels, it was the Spirit of God in him that drove him into the wilderness.  . . .  The gospel of Matthew portrays it most clearly.  Right before he took off, he ascended from the Jordan waters.  It’s recorded that the heavens were open and he saw the Spirit of God alighting on him (Matthew 3:16).  His eyes still stinging, his lungs re-filling, his whole body soaking wet; a voice from on high proclaims:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  It was the same message they’d hear again at his transfiguration; though we’re not entirely sure who all had ears to hear at Jesus’ big baptism day.  . . .  If we were reading the gospels as just an interesting novel; then we’d find ourselves pulling for this heroic leading man.  For no sooner do the syllables hit his ear drums, than the Spirit drives him far from everything known.  At this point in the film, the background music would intensify.  The hint of those eerie notes underscore.  Wilderness always has been a place of testing for the people of God.  We know of Moses and the Israelites who underwent every temptation.  Hunger.  Thirst.  Fatigue.  This One’s about to run full-force into them all.  At the end of his rope from forty days and forty nights of wilderness fasting, it is then that another voice speaks.

What will he use for reminders?  What will keep him centered in the truth that his sonship is not conditional, as the other voice keeps challenging?  . . .  What keeps you?

It’s part of why we start the season of Lent each year with Jesus’ temptation.  In the wilderness, we see in him ourselves.  Children of the kingdom too.  Sons and daughters of the Voice that proclaims each one of us beloved as well.  Jesus is the heroic lead character with all the right words of scripture.  He knows the reminders needed to combat against tricky tests of instant self-gratification, reliance upon a swoop-in-to-fix-it God, and lives aimed first towards personal gain.  Jesus passes the test because he remembers.  From the inside out he knows whose he is and how he is to be in this world.  . . .

Lent asks:  do we?

Too often the church has forgotten.  We’ve gathered to keep each other company and re-inforce what we already think.  We’ve a long, bloody history regarding the stranger.  And too much apathy in the face of great need.  We’re reaping what we’ve sown; but it’s never too late to re-plant.  Remembering whose we are and how we are to be in this world, the seeds of our efforts can grow.  We can find new, creative ways to make a difference in the lives of people.  We can follow our Christ afresh.  . . .

If you’ve never heard of One Thousand and One new worshipping communities, then I hope you’ll go home to google it.  It’s the PCUSA’s effort this decade to find ways to connect.  This week I’ve been trying to figure out how best to share the stories with you – the inspiring clips of churches that have started anew.  The incredible ways some Presbyterians in this nation have taken risks to share the love of God with strangers in their communities.  These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who remember whose they are – and how they are to be in this world.  In Kentucky an existing church opened a volunteer-staffed coffee shop to be a place of welcome.  Locals started to gather.  A community began to form.  Young people especially love it – a respite from the daily grind.  It’s become the Friday night place to be.  . . .  A ruling elder in an inner city decided she wasn’t going to judge anymore those hanging around on the nearby streets.  She organized her church friends to make sandwiches, then head out to feed the drug addicts and prostitutes of their block.  As they hand out lunches, they stop for one-on-one conversation and prayer.  The curious they’ve met have come to the sanctuary on Sundays.  And they all are finding their lives uplifted as they listen and care for one another.  . . .  I think it’s Arizona where one woman moved into a trailer park.  She invited folks to come sit a spell under her canopy to share the concerns of their lives.  Soon a small group gathered.  Songs got sung.  Prayers were raised.  The woman ended up in seminary to become the Trailer Park Pastor.  She’s teaching and living the stories of Christ.  . . .  There’s a group for Sunday morning runners that’s become a powerhouse service ministry in their community.  An elderly congregation that’s finding ways to house an elementary string symphony and their parents.  And just because I love to sit in rocking chairs, I absolutely love the story of the church in West Virginia.  On the way to nowhere, attendance dramatically dwindled.  About the time the doors were going to be closed, someone had an idea.  Why not get back to their roots?  Bluegrass surged through their veins.  So, and this is my favorite:  every pew was removed from the sanctuary – just the cross left up on the front wall.  They moved in those wonderful wooden rockers side-by-side in one big circle.  Settling on Tuesday nights, they found a few fiddlers and invited folks far and wide.  They’re no longer open on Sundays, but pack-out the place every Tuesday for an hour of those old time favorites as folks rock in those chairs and share their lives with each other.  The potluck out back after solidifies the experience.  . . .  These all are Presbyterians.  Individuals and churches of our denomination who are finding new ways to reach neighbors for Christ.  Remembering.  Remembering whose they are – and how they are to be in this world.

Whatever we use as reminders, we too must remember.  We follow the One who overcame the tests to serve himself that he would complete his great, God-given mission.  Sons and daughters of the kingdom, we too must remember our call.

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


© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


  “A Lenten Warning”

A Sermon for 1 March 2017 – Ash Wednesday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  Listen for God’s word to us:

“’Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  . . .

“’And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’”

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


I grew up in Wisconsin in a home in the woods along the shores of Lake Michigan.  More than anything, my sister who is two years older than me and our neighborhood friends LOVED to explore outside.  In the summers we’d ride our bikes as far as we could without being away too long for mom to ask too many questions when we returned home.  We spent a lot of time playing on the rocks along the shore line – something we were NOT supposed to do lest we slip and get our shoes wet.  (Getting our shoes wet was a sure sign to mom that we were up to something of which she did not approve!)  We tromped through the woods for as far as we could go without getting totally lost.  And it was on those treks we’d discover the signs.  “Beware of Trespassing,” they shouted.  We were about to leave our parents’ property lines.  You haven’t met my sister, so it may come as a surprise that I was the cautious one among us.  Those signs made an early impression.  They were all it took to keep me from crossing the line.  Beware.  Beware because beyond this point you shall not go!

You too may be familiar with such warnings to beware.  Perhaps you heard the tornado sirens this morning warning us all to beware.  Maybe you have neighbors with a ferocious dog.  “Beware of dogs” reads a sign hopefully posted on their property to be sure no one accidentally gets hurt.  Chemical cleaners tout such warnings.  Medicines not to be taken while operating heavy machinery or consuming things like alcohol have ‘em.  Even roadway signs warning us of fast rising water and trains barreling down the tracks.  Beware each warns because conditions hazardous to life lie before us.

According to the annual Ash Wednesday text of chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, beware kicks off the church season of Lent.  Beware Jesus says mid-way through what has been recorded in Matthew as the infamous Sermon on the Mount.  . . .  As the primary sermon of Jesus in this gospel, it’s of note that his words take his listeners to the edge of his parent’s property.  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).  Which goes to prove that Jesus was a good Presbyterian – lifting up that Reformed Theological principle of ours to “shun ostentation and seek proper use of the gifts of God’s creation” (PCUSA Book of Order, [F-2.05]).  We’re not to do anything in our faith lives in order to be showy.  It’s not like we can draw enough attention to ourselves that the LORD God of the Universe would take note of us.  We must beware of making a to-do because it’s not about bringing notice to ourselves as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s about proper use of the gifts of God’s creation.

We don’t consider it enough, do we?  That we are part of God’s creation.  That we are a gift, beloved by the Creator of the heavens and earth.  . . .  How are we using the gift that is our life?  . . .  This is what Lent asks – what Lent warns, really.  For against the span of eternity that is God, our lives are just a speck.  As one wonderful song puts it:  we just get so many trips ‘round the sun (Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”).  Beware!  We must not waste it!  . . .  Three times in the last six weeks, my work as a pastor has taken me to the liturgy we Presbyterians use for a Service in Celebration of the Resurrection of Life and of the precious deceased person.  “The grass withers.  The flower fades.”  Quoting the Psalmist, I led the congregations in prayer with these words in every one of those Memorial Services.  From an eighty-year-old to a seventy-two-year-old to a twenty-three-year-old.  In my twenty years of ministry, I’ve been a part of such services for one as young as a still born baby, a seven-year-old, those approaching 100, and every other age in between.  None of us knows how long our days on earth will be.  A Memorial Service is too late.  Too late to be warned about the reality of how fleeting life is.  . . .  That’s the beauty of Lent.  Of Ash Wednesday especially.  Every year the liturgical calendar brings us back to it.  We cannot escape.  Nor should we want to.  We need the reminder that is Lent.  The re-prioritizer that is this night.  . . .  Later in this service we each will have the opportunity to be warned.  To hear the truth that is meant to keep us alert to the gift that we are, which is to be purposefully used.  Tonight we remember that we are dust.  And to dust we shall return.  We feel the ash trace across our skin to mark us for all the world to see.  AND we feel the sign of the cross.  We are reminded that we are to live likewise – the Way of self-giving love.  We are to let go of how we want it all to be, in order to follow in the footsteps of the One whose Way leads to Life.  Lent tells us to make it all count here and now – and let God work out the happily ever-after.

Welcome the sign, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let this Lent be the warning to give of ourselves now as the gifts God intends us to be.

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

©Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Also for Us

A Sermon for 26 February 2017 – Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 17:1-9.  Listen for God’s word to us.

          “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

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

 Week ONE among you has been wonderful!  Amid the new-hire paperwork, setting up the office, and preparing for this first Sunday together; I had a chance to meet a hand-full of you.  Beebe has been incredibly welcoming and helpful.  Session members have come by to fill me in on immediate info.  A few of us already have begun dreaming about ministries to begin to strengthen your connection with one another and ready this congregation for a future filled with hope.  Day two was especially fun, as that was the day I followed the boisterous sounds of young children’s voices down the stairs, up the hall, and into the Playcare Directors’ office.  I’d already met little Ziggy earlier that day – and his momma Kendra too.  Then as I stood in the Playcare office, another little one made her presence known.  Instead of Ziggy’s shy gaze that eventually turned to smiles, the little one in the office that afternoon was beat red.  Her whole little peach-fuzz head was as scarlet as a ripened tomato.  She screamed at the top of her little baby lungs.  It turned out that I wasn’t the only one having her first week here.  For in the arms of a patient Playcare teacher was thee most unhappy three-month-old you ever did see.  She squirmed and bellowed as the teacher gently tried to satisfy what had to be insatiable screams of hunger.  It was 2:15 p.m. on day one of Playcare for that precious little girl.  And no one all day long had been able to get her to take her bottle to eat.  Her face was contorted while tears streamed down her red-hot cheeks.  You could feel the heat of her discontent all the way across the room.  Her whole countenance was unhappy!

That little one stands in stark contrast to the transfigured Christ we hear of in Matthew’s gospel.  Six days after he had asked them “who do you say I am,” six days after Peter proudly proclaimed him the Son of the living God, six days after Jesus told them the path of self-emptying love would lead directly to a cross before resurrected life could begin.  Six days after all that, Jesus’ countenance was changed too.  His face wasn’t beat red like the little Playcare three-month-old, but shining as bright as the hot summer sun.  Up on that mountain, when Peter, James, and John looked upon him; he radiated.  It was as if everything about him turned the purest white.  Translucent-like.  Like in art that circles the risen Christ with a glorious golden aura; halos around the crown of his head and something like light exuding all about.  It was a miraculous transfiguration for sure, something absolutely incredible to behold.  But it wasn’t the first time it had occurred.  In the first Scripture reading, we heard when Yahweh called Moses up on a mountain.  There he was to receive the law.  As God was working to transform the newly-freed-from-Egypt slaves into God’s very own; a cloud covered Moses and the mountain.  “The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai,” Exodus 24:16 reads.  “And the cloud covered it for six days.”  Moses face eventually would burn red-hot with anger when at last he returned to the people to discover their transgression not just of making, but also of reveling before a golden calf (Ex. 32:19).  When at last he returns to the mountain in order again to be enveloped by God, this time Moses’ face continues to carry the radiant splendor of the LORD.  The Scriptures record it as “the skin of his face” shining “because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34:29).

I imagine it as love.  Beaming right from the center of his chest, to every cell in his body, until at last his face glimmered and his eyes sparkled from the amazing energy of God.  . . .  I’ve seen it elsewhere too, haven’t you?  In faces alight when lovers gaze into the eyes of the one who fully accepts them for who they are.  In the glow of grateful parents when first they hold their newborn child.  In the way we look when we are in our flow – using our particular gifts to meet the needs about which we care the most.  It is said about such folk that they radiate.  That they sparkle.  That they shine for all the world to see.  Every cell of their bodies filled with the loving light of God.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ encounter on the mountain intentionally included three eyewitnesses just to be sure his followers would get that transfiguration is for them too.  O, it certainly was a wake-up call to the closest of his disciples.  Peter, James, and John saw their Lord changed.  They got caught up with Jesus in a cloud that overshadowed them too.  They saw the figures of Moses and Elijah with Jesus and heard the beautiful words:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17:5).  Trembling in fear they fell to the ground – maybe because they’d just heard the definitive voice of God.  Or maybe because the command to heed one who’d just told them of a path of letting it all go . . .  perhaps that Way was too much for the disciples to integrate.  At least before they saw it enacted in full in Christ.

Three Sundays ago the lectionary took us to the gospel of Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ great sermon.  I hope your guest preacher that day used The Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus brilliantly said:  “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”  Remember that?  “No one after lighting a lamp,” Jesus says “puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way,” he then commanded “let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14-16a).  Shine.  Radiate.  Glow.  Let your face sparkle with the amazing love of God for us and for all!  You know, without such joy in us.  Without such grace exuding from the very center of our beings, how are others today going to see the loving Light of God?  . . .  Sometimes we’re our own worst advertisements.  We follow the One who lit-up this world wherever he set his feet.  Yet we put on our serious, church-going faces to get all somber about what we’re supposed to be doing in here – and out there in the world as well.  We can take ourselves way too seriously and get all caught up on head trips about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit too.  But it’s a celebration to which we’ve been invited.  A party thrown by the risen Christ who does not want us to fear one thing, but to radiate with the very same Love that transfigured him on that mountain.  He’s chosen us to be behind him in this great adventure of letting ourselves go that others may join the dance too.  He commands us to be light – enlightening others as well.  Allowing all to see.  He needs us to shine.  And glow.  And sparkle with a Love that always leads to Life.

It’s why we’re here – as members of the body of Christ.  Why we, the church, exist.  To shine brightly for all the world to see.  . . .  Part of my work among you as your interim pastor will be to help you tease out – as you begin a new chapter in your life as a congregation without your previous pastor – now and in your future; what will be your unique mission?  I want to know and then help you build upon the particular difference you, as a congregation, seek to make in the lives of people.  I want to know what you are passionate about.  What matters so deeply to you all that you joyously and generously will invest your blood, sweat, and treasures into that piece of God’s mission in this world.  As a part of the body of Christ, what ministry is it that will set your hearts on fire until ya’ll brilliantly shine?!?!

This is our charge, brothers and sisters in Christ.  And the work we will undertake together.  . . .  Transfiguration is also for us.  He told us so.  For we are the light of the world.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)