Tag Archives: Lake Michigan

  “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.)

“Living Wisdom”

A Sermon for 16 August 2015

A reading from the gospel of John 6:51-58. Listen for God’s word to us.

These are words recorded on the lips of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Next, a reading from the book of Proverbs 9:1-6, wisdom passed on to us. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

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

A little song from Sunday School had a significant impact upon me when I was a child. Inspired by one of Jesus’ parables, the words are: “The wise man built his house upon a rock.” Do you know it? “The wise man built his house upon a rock. The wise man built his house upon a rock and the rains came-a-tumbling down. The rains came down and the floods came up.” Can you guessed what happened? “The rains came down and the floods came up. The rains came down and the floods came up and the house upon the rock stood firm!” Stanza two: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand. The foolish man built his house upon the sand.” Now, you have to understand that I actually was growing up on the sand. To this day, my family’s home remains along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Actually we live right across the road from the sandy beach and my dad and his brother own what was in my childhood one of the sole spots of sandy beach for miles around – it felt like our own little ocean oasis. The level of Lake Michigan was high in those years. Over the decades it changes – something to do with the dams way up at the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Supposedly, the water levels of the Great Lakes fluctuate according to what’s going on with those dams. My dad remembers sandy beach stretching on for miles during his childhood along Lake Michigan. The water’s also down these days so that my niece and nephew have enjoyed miles and miles of Lake Michigan sandy beach during their childhood too. Not so during the years my sisters and I were growing up. It was true that a foolish family built their house right on the shoreline and when the level of the lake rose, they failed to install the tons of gigantic rocks everyone else had to in order to keep their homes from being washed away. The house long had been abandoned. We weren’t supposed to go in it because – like the little song says: the foolish one built their house upon the sand and before they knew it, the whole thing had tipped on its side. It was ruined. The song from childhood summed it up well: “And the house upon the sand went SPLAT!”

From that little song, we were supposed to be learning a lesson about wisdom – the best way to build a life. The foundation upon which to stand. And I guess in some ways I was. Though every time we sang that song, my childhood mind was stuck on the literal house down the beach from us – kind of like those recorded in John chapter six who are listening to Jesus that day. He’s trying to teach them about the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – the food which is him that metaphorically must be taken in as the way to life. The way that we drink in his words and scarf down his deeds in order that he’s seen abiding in us, even as we abide in him. . . . His listeners are confusing what he’s saying with cannibalism – thinking he literally wants them to eat a chunk of his body and vampire-like drink of his blood. The early Christians often found themselves accused of this as they gathered around the table saying, “Take and eat: his body has been broken for you. Drink, for his blood has been shed for you.” It was an act to form them. To shape them more and more into those who lived like him. . . . He’s giving his listeners the words of life – the wisdom they need in order to live now and forever. And they, like the foolish ones, are missing it.

Proverbs doesn’t use the word abide. Instead the writer paints a picture almost exactly about which Jesus speaks: to abide in him and he in us. . . . Wisdom has gotten things all ready. Her house is solid – majestic enough for seven massive pillars. In other words: big enough and strong enough for all. Every last detail has been tended – right down to the polished silver at each table place-setting. She’s invited all who will hear to come, sit at her table. She’s waiting – ready for all to feast together. To abide in her home. Dwell with her. Live – in her company. Walk in her ways. . . . The wise one lives so. To their detriment, the foolish turn to their own way. . . . We sure could use a little more wisdom these days. A few more lingering long at the table of wisdom – drinking in her ways, feeding upon her deeds until all we do resembles her.

Be clear that wisdom is personified throughout the Old Testament in the feminine. But it’s not the female part of God, though some people kind of think of it that way. Wisdom often is interchanged with Spirit – Sophia in the Greek, Chokmah in the Hebrew – the word used in the original language here in chapter nine of Proverbs. Both words are feminine – not girly, just given the label feminine in the construct of language. English is so unlike ancient – and many modern languages too that label every noun either masculine or feminine. The labels have nothing to do with gender in the way we think of male or female – what’s macho masculine or frilly feminine. So it’s not like God the Creator or Father is the boy part of God, and God the Spirit or Wisdom is the girl part. It’s just another aspect of the Spirit which is God. The depth of insight we know comes from God and is a part of God. The Wisdom of which Proverbs writes is a knowing part of God that certainly resides in Jesus, the Son too. It’s not like the facts and figures that make up information. More than that, it’s real knowledge. Wisdom is kinda like the insight in our guts that moves us to do what God would do. To live as God would have us.

And my, how the world needs it today. Though it wasn’t discussed in depth at Home Book Club this week, Sister Joan Chittister writes of Wisdom in her book that explores the gifts of aging. Wisdom – that deep understanding, Joan writes, “Is the bedrock of a society. It enables us to see why we do what we do, to realize why we cannot do what we want to do in all instances.” And not just because she’s writing about aging, but because she truly believes the elders of a society have something particularly significant to give, she goes on to write: “It is in the development of understanding (or wisdom) for the next generation, in the co-creation of the world, that the older generation has so serious a role to play” (The Gift of Years, p. 123). Sister Joan wrote these words nearly a decade ago when she already was in her early 70s so she says: “Our role now (elders of the world) is to be what we have discovered about life. Our responsibility is wisdom.” We must show “all another way to live” (Ibid., p. 125).

I would agree and add that wisdom is not the responsibility of the aging alone. Wisdom is the land in which all we who claim Jesus Christ Savior and Lord are to dwell. “Laying aside immaturity,” as Proverbs claims, “and walking in the way of insight” (Prov. 9:6). This is the way of living not to our own desires – as the immature do. But to the desires of God. As those filled up on Christ, until his ways are all that’s seen in us. After all, it is as if those who take him into their lives are ingesting him so that the blood that courses through our veins looks just like his – ready to be poured out for the benefit of another. The flesh that is our bodies mimics his – enacting his very same deeds that bring life to the world. . . . This is the way to live wisdom. The way (metaphorically) to make our homes in the presence of the One who leads our actions each day. . . . Living wisdom is our responsibility even as it is the gift we give to all today who need to see another way to be in this world. Not out for our own gain. Not in it all on our own so that we fail to remember that we are tied to one another. Like a world-wide web of life that realizes “that the only thing that is good for any of us in the long run is what is good for all of us right now,” as Sister Joan also wrote in that chapter on Wisdom (Ibid., p. 126). We are all in this changing world together. And we, in whom Christ dwells as we dwell in him, know best that the only thing that the remains in the end – all that survives the storm of life – is him: Love. Life poured out for the life of all. . . . Let us lay aside any other foolishness to walk, live Wisdom.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)