Monthly Archives: May 2017

What Now?

A Sermon for 28 May 2017 — Ascension of the Lord Sunday

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 1:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading assigned for the day of the Ascension of the Lord.  Listen:

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.  “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.  13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.  14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

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


This week marked a significant ritual among Christians of England, Scotland, and Wales.  In years gone by, the week of Ascension Day was the time in which parishes would beat the bounds.  It was a practice that made some practical sense.  “In the days before maps and written title deeds, a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important.  So the custom grew up of walking the boundaries, stopping at intervals to strike boundary stones to ‘mark’ the bounds” (  Supposedly the practice began in France as far back as 470 C.E. and included religious ceremonies.  Three days of Ascension Day week were dedicated to “old parishioners (mixing) with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries”  (  Prayers often were a part of the boundary-marking parade.  The parish priest beseeching God to make fertile the crops growing within the parish’s lands.  Beating the bounds showed to God and any who saw that those living within the boundaries of the parish were devoted to God, from whom they sought “protection from evil and (blessing) of the congregation and the fruits of their labor” (Ibid.).  One source claims that “the youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones.  (And) in some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders” (Ibid.).  As of 1598, Poor Laws made those in need, the destitute, and apprentice children the responsibility of the parish  (  Which unfortunately started another practice of running out of the parish young girls who were found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Which, according to another source, explains why beating the bounds included beating the young boys.  It was a warning to the young men of the parish that (quote) “any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish” (  Isn’t that absurd!?!  . . .  We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals!

If at first the beating of the bounds ritual seems to have nothing to do with the Ascension of our Lord, stop to consider.  Ascension’s not just a time to get tripped up about where exactly he went.  The Ascension of the Lord tells us what now.  . . .  Acts of the Apostles is believed to be something like the sequel of the gospel of Luke.  And the ascension of the Lord opens Acts, just as it had closed the book of the gospel of Luke.  In other words, this writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministering primarily in Galilee before his trek to Jerusalem that got him killed and raised again – while Jesus the Christ played the leading role in the gospel of Luke; in Acts, it’s going to be his followers.  Or the Holy Spirit of God working through his followers in the same way the Holy Spirit of God was working through Jesus.  He kept telling his followers, as the gospel of John records (John 14:12), that it’s better that it happens this way so that we will do greater things than him.  The Ascension of our Lord tells us what we’re supposed to do now:  fulfill the mission he has passed on to us.

Acts opens with the apostles hanging out with the Risen Christ on the Mount of Olives, again overlooking Jerusalem.  I’m sure the view was a bit chillier this side of crucifixion and resurrection.  As the disciples stood on the same spot from which they first entered the city, pre-Passover; they easily could recall all the Holy Week events.  They hear him saying something about being baptized not with water like John the Baptist.  But they just want to know if it’s all about to be over, the whole kingdom of Israel restored as the plot of their long trek behind Jesus comes to a magical, marvelous end.  . . .  Giving them something else upon which to focus, the Risen Christ says:  “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (yes, the dangerous city where they put the Lord to death), in all Judea and Samaria (the provinces that don’t necessarily like such Galilean outsiders), and to the ends of the earth (which includes worlds you can’t even image – people so very different from you who may not even recognize their hunger for the Holy)” (paraphrase of Acts 1:7-8).  They were hoping it all was about to be over.  But it was just the beginning!  . . .  Instead, it’s a near impossible order he’s giving them.  And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order.  Christ says:  You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.

I don’t really know when we Protestant Americans lost the sense of a parish.  Boundaries around those to whom we are responsible as a congregation.  But in some ways, I think a good ole’ beating of the bounds is exactly what Ascension Sunday calls for.  A physical ritual to remind us of the territory that is our near-impossible mission.  We annually would touch markers indicating that the people living in the shadow of this sanctuary are ours.  We, as the body of Christ – commanded by Christ for this mission, have responsibilities to them.  It’s our job to ensure they know and experience the good news of the work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.  It’s our mission to tend to their spiritual needs.  Can’t you almost picture Christ, returned to the Triune God, saying things like:  “check out that church community, God.  They really are at it in their own backyard!”

What would the ascended Christ say about us?  . . .  This congregation has discerned an awesome mission statement:  Serving God by Serving Others.  But who are the others?  In my years of working with churches, it seems to be the most difficult part of heeding Christ’s command.  Clarifying who it is who will be the target of the congregation’s mission ministry efforts.  Some of us always want to keep up the mission we’ve been supporting for years – even if we no longer have the passion or ability to continue that particular work.  Some of us want to help everybody – thinking we need to save the world, even though Jesus already has that role covered.  Some of us want to focus on young people and others want to ensure the needs of the elderly are met.  I wonder what would happen if we literally beat the bounds of the three to five mile radius around us, declared it the parish, then got busy learning the needs of those living within our bounds?

I reconnected in the past year with an old friend from Divinity School whose congregation is alive!  But it wasn’t so when first he arrived there.  A typical urban flight situation, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of the old faithful too stubborn to leave.  As my friend got busy among them, he asked them to look around.  To see what the needs of their community were.  And not just to look, but to ask:  ask the real people they encountered around the neighborhood just what it was that they needed.  Before long, the small congregation opened their doors as a soup kitchen.  They started feeding anyone who was hungry.  A clothes closet came next as people seemed to begin coming out of the woodwork.  Worship attendance increased as those around the neighborhood started seeing that this congregation took seriously the human need existing in their midst.  It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t always easy.  And it’s not a cookie cutter mold for all churches everywhere as if doing these same ministries will automatically bring the same results here.  It’s the story of a congregation that slowly, over the course of several years, found and began to excel at its niche.  It even has become a leading voice in their area for pushing the bounds of the wider church’s definition of inclusivity.  Through team work, intentionality, and commitment to Christ’s command; that church has found themselves to be a thriving, diverse collective of disciples of Christ who are committed to the needs of those living right around the blocks of their neighborhood.  It remains an impossible mission, but one blessed by the presence of God’s gracious Spirit.

Ascension Day is so important.  . . .  As he’s lifted up like Enoch and Elijah – two other righteous ones of God whose feet supposedly left this earth in the same way.  While Christ is taken out of the-kind-of-sight they’ve been having of him since before and after his resurrection, the apostles have to have another message to get them to stop just standing around gawking up at the skies.  . . .  Acts records that they finally go back into Jerusalem and they stay together.  Praying and waiting for this empowering gift that will infuse them with the courage and energy, determination and clarity to emulate the One now lifted before them.  To be about the business of carrying on his mission even if it means standing before the powers that want him dead, engaging those so totally different from themselves, and journeying into the wild unknown.  . . .  It’s the near-impossible mission the crucified, risen, and ascending Christ entrusts to his followers.  The work he commands us to do.  So that we will do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!

Happy Ascension Sunday, disciples of Christ.  Let’s get out there to serve within our bounds!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Not Alone

A Sermon for 21 May 2017 – 6th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:15-21 (NRSV).  We continue to hear portions of Jesus’ words to his disciples at their last supper together the night before his death.  Listen for God’s word to us in this message recorded on Jesus’ lips:

“’If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’”

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


Have you ever taken on a project that ended up being too big for you to accomplish alone?  Maybe you’ve gotten yourself in over your head on a project at work and needed to call upon a few colleagues to help.  I’ve heard some of you speak of enlisting help to clean out your parent’s home after their passing – a difficult task made a little easer with the help of friends.  If being honest, I’m pretty sure anyone who ever has attempted to raise a child has said:  “Help!”  . . .  One spring a few years back when I was serving in a specialized ministry to children and their families; we came up with the idea to take old crayons, melt them down, then make new big crayons for the preschool children at the Martha O’Bryan Center.  This was a project intended for the fifteen or so first through sixth graders who attended the church’s Wednesday Night missions ministry.  The kids were all about hands-on projects to serve others.  The plan was to do a crayon drive opened to the whole 1,400 member congregation.  After about three weeks of that, the Wednesday Night kids would sort the crayons into like colors, then unwrap ones still rolled in that crayon paper.  As the project progressed, the children would be assisted by an adult experienced in such crayon-making who had some sort of hot plate for melting the wax and cute molds of letters, animals, and fun little shapes just right for the hands of pre-school colorers.  Perhaps you see where this is going.  . . .  The children of Wednesday Night made posters to put all over the church facility:  “COLOR DRIVE FOR MARTHA O’BRYAN PRE-SCHOOLERS!  Bring in your old ones; we’ll make them into new!”  We set out a small box beside my office door.  Sunday morning when I arrived, I already had to push through bags of crayons overflowing from the small collection box we had prepared.  And the crayons just kept coming.  Week one, week two, week three.  Even though we hadn’t seen 1,400 people in a week for ages, I think every last member of that church dug out the old crayons tucked back in their cupboards used by children who since had had children and some even grandchildren too!  By the time we called a halt to the crayon drive, I had like three large storage tubs filled to the brim of old crayons eager to be made into new!  After about a month of Wednesday nights, we finally had them all sorted, much to the exhaustion of the children who were excited to work on the project the first week, but pretty tired of it all by the end of week two!  And that was just the sorting.  Peeling off that tight paper glued by like super-glue around each crayon took forever!  We finally enlisted all the children’s Sunday School Teachers to make crayon peeling a project in the church’s ten children’s classrooms for a few weeks later that summer.  The adult assistant for the project and I each spent hours late at night at home for weeks trying to get at least a reasonable amount of crayons ready to take to Martha O’Bryan.  I still remember someone a year after when they were bored to tears recovering from surgery at home asking if I had any little project they might be able to do while they were laid up at home.  I returned the next week to their house with two huge plastic bags full of sorted crayons still needing to be peeled!  Eventually we gave up trying to complete the project – which is why I still have a two gallon plastic bag full of unpeeled crayons – which I could have brought to give out to you all today to enlist your help in the effort too!  . . .  Needless to say, the project ended up being WAY bigger than anyone anticipated and even WAY bigger than a small group of children and two overly-optimistic adults could accomplish!  It happens sometimes that we take on projects that are way too much for us to handle on our own.

Whether they realized it or not, Jesus knew.  Mid-way through the gospel of John, as Jesus gathers with his friends for that final meal; he gives them a project he knows will be way too much for them to handle on their own.  We heard it last week, and Thursday night of Holy Week too:  “a new command I give unto you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  It’s how the whole world will know you follow my way!” (paraphrase John 13:34-35).  This is the way the gospel of John tells of Jesus instructing his friends to make an impact in the world:  being like a light that shines for others to see as the diverse group of folks he’s pulled together show his kind of love to one another.  Imagine what it was like for Peter, who history tells us perpetually was jealous of Mary Magdalene.  Imagine what it must have been like for him to show self-giving love for her.  How would it have been for someone like James or John who once worked really hard for a living as fishermen now asked by Jesus to extend the genuine hand of brotherhood to someone like Matthew, a tax collector who likely had cheated his fellow neighbors out of their hard-earned money as he lined his own pockets in an endeavor for the Romans.  And that was just in the inner circle.  What was going to happen when once this movement spread to those like Saul who used to hunt Jesus’ followers for the religious leaders, and those like the eunuch of Ethiopia who wanted to know about the One who freely gave his life, and even those like Lydia whose business in purple cloth far exceeded any wealth the rest would ever know.  They were going to need help, all right.  They would need the Spirit of God living in them if they were going to follow Christ’s command to make an impact in the world by loving one another.

In the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed hearing from many of you in our Listening Sessions.  We’ve still got lots of decisions to make as we navigate the way forward into this congregation’s future.  But I heard so many of you tell stories of your most meaningful ministry experiences in loving others.  In serving for God as you did everything from take care of homeless strangers, to be with children in need in short-term mission either as a counselor for the summer or as those ensuring they’d get clean water.  Some of you spoke of sitting with those of a different race as early as the 1960s to hear what life was like for those long-considered second class citizens in this nation.  Others of you told of ways you really want to make an impact in the lives of families who bring their children downstairs each week – whether or not those families ever end up upstairs in this sanctuary with us.  And still others want to ensure the needs of the surrounding community’s older adults are met – not necessarily the financial needs, but needs for human connection – breaking the isolation that aging alone at home too often brings.  It’s been wonderful to hear the passion you all really do have for the mission of this congregation:  for Serving God by Serving Others!  Someone even brought up the idea in a recent meeting of thinking about this congregation’s ministry as a concentric circle.  Like a pebble dropped into water having an outward ripple effect, it’s as if caring for the members of this congregation is the first ring of the mission, making a positive impact in the lives of the families and staff of the pre-school downstairs is the second ring, making a positive impact in the 1-5 mile radius of the local community is the next ring of mission, and making an impact in the word internationally through the mission of Living Waters for the World is the fourth ripple of impact in the mission of this congregation’s expression of Serving God by Serving Others.  It’s an interesting way to think about it, which certainly needs additional refinement as it rolls around in your thoughts and hearts.  And one thing’s for sure:  if this congregation is going to fulfill Christ’s command to make an impact in this world through love, then the Spirit of God surely will be needed among us.  The Spirit that guides into a new future.  The Spirit that revives when we’re weary.  The Spirit that persists in pushing us forward when we’re afraid or overwhelmed or just not wanting to go.  The Spirit of God is needed to fulfill the mission of Serving God by Serving Others!

The good news we hear from the gospel of John today is that Jesus has promised that this Spirit will be with us.  Wherever his people love one another, there God’s Spirit dwells!  We’re not quite to Pentecost Sunday yet, just six weeks into the season of Eastertide; but the gospel of John assigned in the lectionary for this Sunday wants it to be known that the church of Jesus Christ has not been abandoned.  We may be aging and this building may need a little repair – like a new HVAC.  We may not yet know exactly how to make a positive impact in the community living a stone’s throw from this sanctuary.  But we are not alone in this project Christ has given of Serving God by Serving Others.  The Spirit of God is with us.  And if it feels like the Spirit is missing then we better get busy loving one another to re-experience the Spirit with us all over again.  It’s a high calling but we do not undertake this endeavor alone.  The Holy Spirit of God abides with us.  Together, a little blood and sweat from us, a dash more reviving Spirit from God; together the Way will be made.  Trust the words of our Lord:  “I will not leave your orphaned.”  The Spirit of God abides with us today and evermore!

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

© Copyright JMN — 2017 (All rights reserved.)

The Way

A Sermon for 14 May 2017 – 5th Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 14:1-14 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“’Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.’  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’”

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

Little Ziggy is about to get baptized.  A bundle of wonder, the adventure of his life unfolds before him!  He’s been born into a loving family, with a great big sister, and parents doing all they can to provide for his every need – including his every spiritual need.  In just a few moments he’ll be brought.  Promises will be made – not just by his mom and dad, but by you all too.  Until the day he’s old enough to claim Christ for himself, we’re doing it for him today.  And every day hereafter he will be a brother of ours in Christ.  It’s important that we remember that he’s not too young to be experiencing faith already.  From the time we are born into this world, the nurture we experience from the adults of our world is our first experience of a loving God.  To the extent that he’s surrounded in love by his family at home and his family of faith here, his trust of God is being formulated before he even has words to exclaim how amazing God’s grace feels!  . . .  Baptism days are big days for us all in the Church of Jesus Christ.  . . .  I hope we don’t forget what it first was like, when the Risen Christ’s followers underwent the sacrament for themselves.  As the radical movement was spreading, people who had been raised according to other religious practices were drawn to the water.  They were schooled in the message of the abundant love of God as shown to us in Jesus, the Christ.  They were asked if they were ready – ready to enter into a new family.  A new covenant community where they would walk with one another, helping each other not only to understand what this disciple of Christ thing all was about, but also to live as one initiated into the covenant.  One engrafted into the group.  They were entering – as is Ziggy today, as have we all at some point in our lives.  Baptism is about entering into the Way of Christ.

Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault presents it beautifully in her book, The Wisdom Jesus.  She reminds that Jesus isn’t just Savior.  That is only part of his work among us – to save us from the cycle of our sins that can make life now a living hell.  Western Christianity has emphasized this as Jesus’ role.  Meanwhile, we’re discovering that the Eastern Church initially understood Jesus as Life Giver.  As one who invited others unto the path of wisdom.  Life Giver, Bourgeault writes:  is one “whose life is full, integrated, and flowing.  Jesus’ disciples saw in him,” Bourgeault explains “a master of consciousness, offering a path through which they too could become . . . enlightened.”  Ones whose primary task on earth is to “put on the mind of Christ.”  To live the Master’s way.  (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 21).

The gospel of John describes this way . . . the Truth that leads to Life.  Jesus is desperate at the last supper with his friends to teach them that he is one with the Father.  In him, the one laying down his life, Jesus teaches that the Father can be seen.  One commentator writes:  “In John, Jesus himself embodies the way to God and therefore the way of discipleship” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Vol. 2, Donald Senior, p. 469).  His life, death, and resurrection show the path of how we are to be in this world – disciples of his who follow in like manner.  . . .  And what do we see when we look at him?  He shows us that his way is the way of being so fully united with God that one is at one with God’s will for the world.  It’s the only way, says Jesus the Life Giver, that we will find ourselves with God.  . . .  This is the way described right before this four-chapter Maundy Thursday monologue, when Jesus gives the new command to “love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way “by which all will know we are his disciples,” he claims, “if we have love for one another” (John 13:35, paraphrase).  Thankfully, all are invited to this path.  Everyone’s welcome to follow in the way of emulating our Savior and Lord, thereby finding ourselves saved.  Given Life now and forevermore.

It’s not the path that ends at the baptismal font.  It’s the way that’s just beginning.  As Ziggy grows, it will be up to his parents and us too to show him the way.  To teach him how to use the personality, skills, and time he’s been given in such a way that his life is united with the One whom Jesus called Abba, Father.  . . .  Listen to the words that soon will be proclaimed at the font:  “In baptism, God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to the very household of God.  . . .  By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.”  . . .  We’ll plead to God in prayer today that Ziggy will be “a new creation through these baptism waters” to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  It’s a tall order for such a little guy.  So we’ll ask God to “strengthen him to serve  . . . with joy” until all is made new (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 1993; pp. 403-415).  Before it’s all over, we’ll see the water on his brow and hear the proclamation that he is a child of the covenant . . . one to whom God will keep the promises made here today forever!  . . .  But this day is not just for him.  It’s for us all too!  In a moment, I will remind you to remember your baptism.  To remember and be grateful!  For you too are a child of the covenant, marked in your own baptism, no matter how long ago, as one who also has promised to follow in Christ’s way.  To embody the path of Love for as long as you shall live.  . . .  It means we’ll get busy now – ensuring we too continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  We’ll nurture one another and pray we’re strengthened always to live the good news.  To embody in word and deed that the Way of God is the path of showing love to one another AND to those in this world who are in any kind of need.  We’ll lay down our own desires to be united with God’s will for a world so deeply cherished.  We’ll live as new creations serving with joy until ALL at last is re-newed.  The light of our lives growing as we follow in the Master’s Way.  . . .  Brothers and sisters together, let us always give thanks to our Savior and Life Giver Jesus, the Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

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 7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter


            A reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:41-47.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

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


If you’ve been to Shaker Village outside of Lexington, Kentucky, then you know how wonderful it is!  It’s a museum of a village that once was teeming with men, women, and children.  But it’s more than just some old museum; it’s a retreat destination and a bit of a working farm where you can stay overnight in refreshed Shaker quarters.  Everything is reminiscent of the Shakers:  from the clean lines of the chairs and nightstands, to the simplicity of the TV-less rooms, to the recipes at the dining room tables.  The food is so good:  fresh from the farm and so sumptuous.  The Shakers believed in delighting in the fruits of the earth as much as they believed in living simply as a sign of humility before God.  They believed Christ called them out to be a light.  Living together in simplicity, setting their hands to the plough that all of them could eat and worship and live – collectively.  Communally.  None of them owned personal property, but pooled their resources once they came to join the community.  They would live by the community’s codes – willing to take their turn at whatever task was theirs for the day for the benefit of the common good.  Of course, they failed to realize that their celibacy vow would lead to eventual elimination – I think only 3 Shakers are left in the United States.  But for a time, their way of life seemed idyllic – seeking not to compete against one another as is the norm in our market-driven world, but to be alongside one another in humility and harmony and joy.

It reminds me of the followers of the Risen Christ according to the story we have before us in Acts of the Apostles – though they didn’t do the celibacy thing so that men and women continued to have children to whom they could pass on the joy of following the crucified yet Risen Christ.  According to the book of Acts, which is considered a continuation of the gospel of Luke; the part we heard today picks up right after Pentecost.  The breath of God filled the first 120-or-so followers of Christ who had gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost just fifty days after Passover.  Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over Israel who had come to observe the festival celebrating God’s giving of the Law on Sinai 50 days after the exodus.  When the Holy Spirit hit those first followers, Peter preached such a rousing sermon about the Risen Christ, that suddenly the movement jumped to over 3,000 people who wanted to know what to do in response to this very good news.  . . .  Maybe the story’s a bit of an exaggeration, like a fish tale, told after the fact to stress how like wildfire the way of Christ was spreading.  But Acts of the Apostles wants us to know that those who first heard wanted to know how to live their life in response to the Risen Christ.  They wanted to know what to do.  How to be.  They wanted to put into practice the kinds of things that would help them grow into this message Jesus had been teaching – this word of a God so full of love for us all that Life would be the final word each day and forever.  “They devoted themselves,” Acts reads, to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (Acts 2:42).  And just to round out the picture of what this looked like, Acts states that:  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:44-47).

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to tell us that this means we all need to head off to the pawn shop tomorrow to sell everything we have then come huddle up together here in one perpetual overnight lock-in, which church youth so often love.  I think, rather, we are to know that our first Christian ancestors committed themselves to certain practices in order to stay connected – not only with one another, but with God.  They understood themselves to be caught up together in a higher calling.  They didn’t exist, any longer for themselves alone – if ever they ever thought they did.  They knew themselves bound together so much so that the earliest Christians commonly would sell something they had in order to give what was needed to another.  It’s like they knew that saying that “the shoes in my closet that I no longer wear belong to the one who has no shoes” (Sara Coven Juengst).  Jesus made it clear to them that their own desires took a backseat so that they would come to embody this way of being – together, putting first the needs of the collective.  Loving as deeply as does our God.  . . .  One commentator puts it beautifully:  “The newborn church (was) a place where the deepest human longings for God, community, and basic provisions were being met in abundance for all” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Timothy B. Hare, p. 427).

It’s good for us to remember that that sorta was the church’s story at least throughout our first 300 years.  Not that times always were easy – we can’t romanticize it.  Any quick read of the New Testament letters lets us know that the early church most certainly struggled on the journey of learning how to be the church together.  But they were growing, maturing, laying the foundations for the future.  . . .  Take for instance, the church in the 2nd Century Roman Empire.  They were a tiny, but powerful movement because the church lived by a different ethic – connected to God and others in ways those around them were not.  They really were a light in a very different kind of world.  . . .  Like the first house churches that were an eclectic array from across culture.  There were some slaves, right alongside those who were free.  Women of means were a part of it – sometimes with their husbands and sometimes without.  Those freshly widowed were a part, and in fact, thanks to their place in the church, they would come to find new purposes in their lives.  Supposedly it wasn’t atypical for those of the Roman Empire to abandon children that didn’t suit their fancy.  Soon the early church took in such abandoned children and created an order of widows, financially supported by the church, who became mothers to such discarded children.  Isn’t that beautiful?  That our first Christian ancestors figured out a way to care for those put aside by the empire.  . . .  People were tradesmen, and fishermen, and every now and again a Roman nobleman even joined.  . . .  There was something powerful about being connected together in a way they were not anywhere else in their day.  They would look around to see the diverse faces in their midst that proved that a radical kingdom had begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  . . .  According to one scholar, the 2nd Century church, “welcomed outsiders, regardless of their background, and thus overcame the obvious divisions of gender, ethnicity, and class that characterized the Roman world” (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 56).  They believed and enacted what Christ taught, that all are worthy in God’s eyes, not just the elite, learned, wealthy men.  They embraced that all are to be loved:  women, children, and men too.  That all reflect the very image of God – even if Roman society taught otherwise.  The welcome they extended was radical in a culture that sought to keep certain people in certain places.  The result was that those on the fringe flocked to such a people of inclusion.  It was one of the earliest marks of being church.

And the radical welcome of the earliest churches wasn’t all.  In an increasingly chaotic world, the early church was an anchor for one another.  Because of their baptism into Christ, they instantly were not alone.  They literally were bound to one another – engrafted together into something beyond themselves that would be there to shape them for the living of each day.  That would be there with them to show them how to live in loving connection with God and others every day.  . . .  History tells us that in those first house churches, 15 or 20 people would connect twice daily to sing and pray and hear the Apostle’s teachings read aloud.  Before work in the morning, and after work at night; this was where they belonged.  This was where they were grounded – they didn’t expect to do it on their own.  Our first Christian ancestors found stability among one another.  Belonging – which was another of the earliest, attracting marks of being church.

It helped too that the early church was ready – whatever came – because the Roman world suffered shattering plagues twice in about a hundred-year period.  . . .  Christians already were living according to the command to love one another.  They already were caring for the hungry and thirsty and sick.  They already were looking after the needs of the widows, children, and strangers.  So, when the plagues hit, our 2nd and 3rd Century ancestors in the faith kept on doing what they already had been doing.  They simply took care of one another.  We hardly can believe it as it’s such a different culture from our own, but imagine the power of seeing – pretty much just among the Christians – what one historian describes as:  “Basic nursing care (like) sips of broth, cold rags on the forehead, tender backrubs, a change of bedding, visits from loving friends – (which all) strengthened the sick and helped at least some of them to overcome the disease” so that immune they in turn could care for others with it (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 65).  And their commitment to connection mattered, even in death; because if one was lost to the plague, Christians would care for the deceased’s body with a proper burial.  They didn’t do like others did:  leaving the dying out in the streets in fear as was common among non-Christians in the Empire.  They’d even take in the dying whose families had abandoned them; tenderly caring for them until the end and beyond.  . . .  Such sacrificial service was another very clear mark of being church together.

More than just interesting stories from the past, all of it very well gives us some clear marching orders as the 21st Century church.  Of course throughout time, we’ve erred too often in other directions, but what a glorious early history . . . to be a people of radical inclusion, rock solid stability, service to others despite the risk.  . . .  It’s needed today as much, if not more, than ever before:  the Church of Jesus Christ living likewise each day for the sake of a world in such need.  May it be so.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


The Power of Food

A Sermon for 30 April 2017 – Third Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of Luke 24:13-35.  Listen for God’s word to us on this Third Sunday of Easter.  And remember:  according to the gospel of Luke, we’re still hearing of events that took place on the day of Christ’s resurrection.  Listen.

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”  They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?”  They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.  They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”  So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God!


Have you seen the Chobani Fruit Symphony?  It begins with a drummer setting the beat on a high hat cymbal, which is made of two coconut halves.  The rest of her set includes some sort of melon as a snare and an apple and orange as her ride and splash cymbals.  A synthesizer made of peaches, limes, and strawberries comes in next.  Then an eclectic choir of singers begins:  “What the world needs now.”  Some sort of instrument, which includes hanging bananas, chimes in.  The camera zooms out to show they’re all in a field under a massive shade tree with children playing in the background.  The singers continue:  “is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.  What the world needs now.”  The commercial closes with a caption filling the screen:  “Food Brings Us Together.”  Then the final frame:  Chobani:  “Believe in Food.”  . . .  It’s an uplifting little ditty.  About thirty seconds to show both the bounty and diversity of the land – food and people of every color combined in a little symphony of love (

Believe in food.  Food brings us together.  In a web search for the Chobani commercial, another site pops up.  “Oliving the Life,” it’s called.  With a two minute read entitled:  “Five Ways Food Brings Us Together.”  It’s some sort of site promoting the health of The Mediterranean Lifestyle – generations gathering around tables filled with the kinds of food that have sustained people as far back as the days of Jesus.  “The power of food,” the article begins.  “Sharing food with others brings a wealth of benefits.  These moments help us make friends, find love, and end hostility.  Breaking bread together is a way to remove barriers and helps us explore new cultures and build stronger relationships when we socialize.”  The article continues: “Food brings us together and your family can benefit in several ways” (  According to the piece, “sharing meals with the people you love, whether it’s just to catch-up over a simple dinner or partaking in a massive celebration” such meals lead to a happier, healthier life (Ibid.).  Food.  Brings us together for good.

I’m guessing most of us don’t think of it enough.  The power of food.  Our need for food – not only to fuel our bodies, but also to sustain our emotional life, keep us mentally stable, and fill us up spiritually.  Food literally brings us together – the grains of the earth entering us every time we take in a simple piece of bread.  The fruits of the trees and the vegetables of the garden coming into us to give us what we cannot live well without.  United with God’s incredible creation as we eat, we can call to mind our utter inter-dependence.  We need this earth to survive as much as this earth needs us for its own continued well-being.  Even if we dine without another human being, food unites us with this great, big, God-given earth.  Thankfully, food also unites us with each other.  If nowhere else; then at least around fellowship tables downstairs, or in the parlor, or right here in this sanctuary.  Food has the potential to make strangers into fast, forever friends.  If we open ourselves to dine with another, it’s likely we’ll push back our plates at the end of the meal to rise from the table different.  Changed because we listened.  And laughed.  And along the way shared the stories that make us who we are.  O the power of food.  The beauty of a table.  The miracle of being brought together every time we eat!

I think they sensed it.  Those friends distraught one Sunday night who make their way home from Jerusalem, back to the routines of life in Emmaus.  The story goes that a stranger came walking along – interrupting the conversation in which they are trying to process their sadness.  He nearly calls them fools, unwilling to believe.  And yet, they invite this strange One to stay.  Strongly they urge him, the scripture records (Luke 24:29) because night is falling.  The day comes to a close.  And what’s the first thing these two do as soon as the stranger agrees to come in?  They set the table.  Perhaps a few olives, some hummus, a scrap of bread.  Some fruit of the vine – whatever they can find upon arriving back home after the long weekend away.  Making do, they sit down together — unaware that by the time the meal is over, their lives never will be the same.  At some point around the table, the stranger takes.  Blesses.  Breaks.  Then gives the bread.  Granted, they hadn’t been involved in that act as we have every first Sunday of the month and High Holy Days of the year too.  But according to scripture, they had been present at least once on a hillside as multitudes were fed, and again in an upper room in Jerusalem just a few days prior.  Though scripture remains silent about many of the day-to-day aspects of Jesus’ life during his three years of ministry; most likely he gathered daily for a meal with those who had decided to follow this astounding rabbi.  Yes, this was an act by One they had seen before.  . . .   In Emmaus, the table brings together the two hosts with The Host.  Food opens their eyes to the face of Love, risen now and ever in their midst!

That’s the power of the table.  The strength of broken bread.  The liturgy reminds us monthly:  every time we eat the bread, each time we drink together; we recognize the Risen One in our midst too.  In the faces of each other.  In the eyes of those we’ll come to meet the next time we sit at table together.  And just in case we wouldn’t catch the truth from words, he commanded the act for us to know deep within:  believe in food.  For indeed food brings us together.  Taste.  Drink.  And be glad!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)