Do You see what I see?

This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 7: 1-17.

Last week in our Scripture reading, we had the story of two different Sabbath days with Jesus pushing the boundaries of what it meant to observeSabbath in light of changing circumstances. Today, we have two towns, two healings, two very different circumstances.  In the first healing, the healing comes to one outside of the people of God, to a slave of a Roman centurion.  The Jewish elders sent toJesus appeal to him and declare the centurion worthy for he has helped the Jewish people, even built their synagogue. This was a man of means and it seems a man of faith, for while others call him worthy, he knows his own unworthiness and asks Jesus not to even come to his house but just to say the word and he knows his beloved servant will be healed.  A man of deep faith who was not a Jew. And Jesus heals the servant, expanding the boundaries yet again of who belongs in the Kingdom of God.

The second story is much different. No one calls the man who has died or his widowed mother worthy.  There is no indication that they are a family of means.  The man is not sick but already dead.  But when Jesus comes across the dead man’s mother, it says he sees her and has compassion on her.  As a widow with her only son now dead, she is a woman without hope.  Women at that time were dependent on the men in their lives for survival and she is now a woman without husband or son.  She is doubly vulnerable.  Jesus sees her and has compassion  on her and so raises her son from the dead and in that act she has now been restored to community and survival.

This word compassion is important in Luke.  Compassion is not to intellectually understand that someone is suffering, it is to feel for that person on a visceral level.  The word in Greekcomes from  the word intestines.  Jesus feels for this woman on a deep, gut-wrenching level. Two other times we hear this word compassion in Luke.  Once when the good Samaritan has compassion on the stranger in the ditch and cares for him and again when the father sees his prodigal younger son returning and has compassion for him.

The compassion that Jesus felt, that prompted him to resurrect this widow’s only son, is the call to suffer with the powerless.  Henri Nouwencalls Jesus life of compassion a life of “downward mobility”.  He says “Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.”  “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in  the condition of being human.”

To see those who are suffering and to feel compassion towards them is not always easy.  But it is what the example of Jesus calls us to.  In our own time, we might asked to view someone on the other side of a political argument with compassion.  It might be a woman who has  gone back to her abusive husband again and again.  It might be a teenager who is giving you nothing but trouble.

Jesus sees the grieving widow and has compassion on her.  Who do we need to see that we might overlook?  Where is there suffering?  How can we build a home there?

Dropping Sophia off at school on Friday, I noticed the flag was at half staff.  I didn’t know what significant person had died recently so I looked it up which is how I came to hear about the incredible story of the four chaplains. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington died on this date in 1943 when their troop ship, TheDorchester, was torpedoed. There weren’t enough life jackets, so the four men helped soldiers to the lifeboats, then gave up their life jackets, linked arms, sang hymns, and went down with their ship.  These four men showed the ultimate compassion, the ultimate downward mobility for their soldiers.

To have compassion on another child of God.  To feel a deep, gut-wrenching sympathy and desire to alleviate their suffering. This is the way of Jesus.

After Jesus had given the dead man back to his mother, it says that the crowd was seized by fear and that they glorified God.  Jesus welcomed the worthy and the unworthy,the rich and the poor, he had compassion on those often overlooked and he offered healing to the suffering.  And he asks us to do the same.  Fear and glorifying God seems an appropriate response. 

Jesus became poor and suffered with us, to the point of death so that we might be restored to community with God and one another.  In the communion meal we will soon share,Jesus offers his very self to us and asks us to remember him.  May we do so, we receiving Christ’s compassion and extending that same compassion all.  May it be so.  Amen.


This sermon was delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota on February 12, 2017. The sermon text was from Luke 7: 18-35.

Expectations are a funny thing.

They can help us to be prepared for what’s before us, they can help us to know what we’re in for, they can help us see God. They also can blind us to what’s happening, they can keep us from seeing what is happening right in front of our eyes, they can keep us from seeing God.

The truth is we all have expectations, we have expectation of ourselves, of our kids, our spouses, our parents, our friends, our pastors, our politicians, our athletes, and on and on. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but we do need to be open to seeing things in different ways than what we are expecting.

I also want to stop here a second, and say, for me, not all expectations are the same. I think it is totally appropriate to expect to be treated as a human being, it is totally appropriate to expect to be respected, and to be treated with dignity. Often however, those expectations mean different things to different people.

In our scripture, this morning, John the Baptist, hears about what Jesus has been doing. According to Luke they have not had any direct contact and frankly it doesn’t seem like John thinks Jesus is fitting the expectations of the one to come after him that will make the world better. So, he sends some of his disciples to ask the question, “Are you the one we are waiting for?”

Remember Jesus himself says, that God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor. God has sent him to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

For John, none of this has happened. Many scholars believe that at this point John is in prison, when this story comes up in the book of Matthew, that’s exactly where John is, captive. He hasn’t been released, he hasn’t been set free.

Rev Gord Waldie, of the UCC, tells a story about his first year in seminary over 20 years ago,

“one of the assignments in Introduction to New Testament was to look at a variety of texts and determine if Jesus is the Messiah that was expected. The texts laid out a “job description” of sorts — and Jesus fails. Not only does Jesus fail to free his people from the Roman yoke and setup a new kingdom like that of David and Solomon, he doesn’t even seem to have that task on his to-do list. John seems to have expected active and vigorous cleansing, more repentance and sin stuff. Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that either."

Jesus wasn’t fitting into John’s expectations for the Messiah.

I can’t say that I blame John much here. I mean…when I think about Messiah I’m looking for a big hulking guy, with huge muscles, with a big scary weapon to crush people. Basically I’m thinking of Thor, not the Norse God, but the Marvel character in the Avengers’ played by Chris Hemsworth or the Marvel character Luke Cage played by Mike Colter. Basically I'm looking for a character from the Marvel Universe. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, we can watch the movies or series together. I love them both.

But I digress.

I have always believed that people will live up to your expectations of them. If you have low expectations, that’s what you’ll get, if you have high expectations the same holds true. The problem is when you hold those expectations too tightly or specifically. We must hold our expectations loosely, like sand. If you pick up a handful of sand you can hold it in your hand, only if you hold it loosely, if you hold on too tightly, the sand will slip through your fingers.

When John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question, he expects a simple answer. The question, “Are you the one we have been looking for?” is a simple yes or no question. Jesus, as we’ve seen, doesn’t do what we expect. In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at stories where he has defied the Pharisees understanding of the Sabbath, he’s healed the poor and the rich, he’s even declared the year of the Lord’s favor for those outside the temple. All of this is showing us who Jesus is, Jesus is not the messiah that people were expecting. When Jesus is answered a simple yes or no question his answer to John’s disciples is “look around what do you see? What do you hear?” I take a little comfort in that even John the Baptist, the prophet who proclaimed Jesus’ arrival isn’t sure because Jesus defies expectations.

We’ve started to see and hear things about our church. One of the things I’ve heard the most here is that we are a small church. It normally, goes something like this. I hear a story about some amazing thing that this church has done even in the midst of turmoil and then the person says, but we’re a small church. It’s seems as if it has become part of our identity, one that we aren’t proud of. To be honest, I can’t see it. I know the history of the church; I recognize its effects on our congregation, but I think we are powerful beyond measure. We are blessed with particularly gifted people to do specific work in Red Wing.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Let’s remember that. As we continue to be faithful to our calling, let us remember that other people’s expectations of who God is or what Churches do should not limit us. When they ask about our work, we can say, “What do you see? What do you hear?”

What that work is, I’m not sure yet, we do so many great things already, but I’m hoping that you can help us figure it out. I hope that in a year or so, people will be saying, “Do you go to that Presbyterian church?” because they are not sure how we are able to do the things we do, we are doing things in the community that might not be typically considered, “Church stuff”. I hope we will continue to defy expectations, as we follow Christ along this journey together. Part of that will mean taking a hard look at our expectations of our church, our pastors, and ourselves. We will need to name them, we will need to evaluate them, we may need to throw them out the window. When people start to ask us about our church, we can say “what do you see? What do you hear?”

This world is changing, our expressions of faith are changing, but as Lutheran pastor, Erik Parker says,

"Imagine telling anyone who has regularly been in a pew for the past 15 years that it is possible that our currently declining and aging church may be full and bustling again in a few decades. They will laugh at you.

Well, maybe they would have [a few months ago].

But now all the things we thought were important are in reversing decline like flashy worship, entertaining sermons, lattes for sale in the lobby, Nickelodeon night for the youth, and all the other things we think will “attract” people mean nothing now. Churches, especially mainline ones, will need to focus again on the core things that we have always been:

We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.

We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict, and violence.

We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.

We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel."

My prayer is that people see the Lord working through us as we provide voice to the voiceless, we provide safety for those in danger, we provide comfort to the afflicted and we afflict the comforted and may we always hold loosely, how and what we do, remaining nimble and available to respond when God calls.

May it be so.

Perpetuity's Promise

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE on October 23, 2017. The text was 2 Samuel 7:1-17. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

We’ve come a long way since last week. Last week we talked Hannah and her giving over of her son Samuel to God, to be raised by Eli as a nazirite. Since that reading, Samuel grew up, he responded to God’s call by saying “Here I am, Lord” and became the prophet of Israel. The Israelites became convinced that they wanted, that they need a king. To quote Baptist blogger Chuck Hooten, “Israel wanted a king. For years God had acted as their provider, protector, and sovereign but in the face of mounting pressure from rival nations and the innate human desire to look and sound like everyone around them Israel wanted a change. They wanted a king that was made of flesh and blood. The prophet Samuel begged them to reconsider. He told them that a king would tax them, oppress them, force them to work for his pleasure, and take their sons off to war. The people were unswayed. It was a king of flesh that they wanted and so it was a king of flesh that God would provide.

When we meet Saul in the book of 1 Samuel he is everything and more that the people wanted. He was tall, athletic, and handsome. If a group of people were in the market for a king and Saul walked in the room the search would always be over. Saul was king material...or so they thought. Saul proves to be a reflection of the people themselves. Just like Israel he was brash, prideful, arrogant, and quick to make hasty decisions that would have lasting consequences.”

It didn’t take long for Saul, to royally (pun intended) mess things up. David was chosen as a boy to be faithful to God and to serve Saul, he was taken from a pasture, he slayed Goliath, he marched in battle with Saul, when Saul and David ‘s companion Jonathan were ultimately killed David became the King of Israel, he was a warrior king, and to this day is the model for kingship in for the Israelites. He, with God’s help, defeated all of Israel’s enemies, he even conquered Jerusalem to where it became the capital of the nation of Israel, it is still called Royal David’s City, we often sing about it during Advent. The King of Tyre builds David a royal palace and then… Deep Breath

David sits down, all the enemies are defeated, he has a moment to rest, probably one of the first moments since he was a boy. He surveys home, his kingdom, and he reflects on his life. He decides that God wants, God needs the same things that he needs or wants. He decides that he will build God a house of cedar.

He takes this notion to his trusted advisor, Nathan, a prophet, who initially says, “sounds like a good idea.”

Then God comes to Nathan and gives him a different word, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders[a] of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

David is then reminded, we are reminded of how God has been with David from the beginning: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you. Then comes the promise, not only has God been with David, God promises to BE with David. “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take[b] my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;[c] your throne shall be established forever.”

In short, God tells David, thanks but I got this. You do your job and I’ll do mine.

I will tell you, the first time I read this passage I was reminded of a catch phrase used by The Rock during his time in the WWE, he would say, “Know your role!”

It reminded me of playing football. Each person on the team has a role, quarterback, wide receivers, linemen, running backs, linebackers, defensive backs, coaches, trainers, equipment managers, cheerleaders, on and on. They all have a role, and the teams that do have players that focus on their role, they don’t try to do too much, they do their job and they do it well.

This also works in the communities, in companies, on farms, in churches, even in households. When everyone knows their role, and when others are willing to support them in that role, the whole house, church, farm, company, or community benefits.

I have a role here at First Presbyterian Church, our session has a role, our deacons have a role, our Presbyterian Women have a role, our Sunday School teachers have a role, each and every one of you has a role to play in our vision of Planting Seeds of God’s Light here in Nebraska City and throughout the world. For some this role is performed outside the walls of this church. I asked in a recent Builder article for you to start to think about where you volunteer your time, where to donate money, where do you serve? In your bulletins there is a slip of paper for you to start to thinking about that and write it down. In a few minutes during the offering I would like you to place it in the offering plate so we can compile of a list of all the places that First Presbyterian is working.

My guess is that some of you, do too much, some of you do too much not because you are greedy or controlling, but because you care, because you want to give back to God and to the community that raised you, that has done so much for you. This is not a bad thing, but it might also not be a good thing.

David was reminded of his role, he was reminded that is wasn’t his job to build a house for God, that God was, is, and will always be in charge. God had tapped someone else for that job. God promises David that he will never let him or his household go. This is the beginning of the Davidic line that leads straight to Jesus. There are ups and down, valleys and mountaintops, righteous and wicked players, but God never forgets God’s promise to David.

God will not, has not, forgotten his promise to us.

We have been here for almost exactly 161 years, we have had 30 pastors, we have had over a 1,000 members. Currently our doors are open and our facilities are used by groups from around the community. Last week alone, we hosted two funerals that were attended by so many people we had to open up the wall. We have members on just about every board in the city, we have members who volunteer their time, energy, intelligence, and love for organizations on the local, state, and national level. We have members who do things for others, in the name of God, that we will never hear about or never see.

God is abounding in steadfast love here. It’s not always pretty, it’s not always a mountaintop, but even in the valleys we have seen that God is with us. Now for us, we have discerned that our job our role as a church here in Nebraska City is to Plant Seeds of God’s Light. Let us remember is not our role to save the world, or solve all of its ills, it is not our role to do everything or be all things to all people. Our role, to quote borrow from Rev. Dr. Joel Lundak, is to plant as many seeds as we can, for as many people as we can, for as long as we can. We might not get to see the fruits of our labor and we may never get to know if the harvest was good, but we do know that God is faithful and that, like David, God will never take away God’s steadfast love from us.

May it be so.

Principled Promises

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE on November 6, 2017. The sermon text was Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10, 4:1-11. Audio from the sermon can be heard here.

This morning I want us to take a look at a story that many of us have heard since we were kids.

Roger Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, tells us that “The book of Jonah is one of those unique Old Testament stories that easily transfers to children’s Sunday School. This has resulted in a cottage industry of Jonah-themed Bible materials for children, whether flannel board materials, coloring books and, of course, the creation of the first VeggieTales movie, which grossed $25 million in box office sales.”

Today, however, we are going to take a look at the Jonah story with fresh eyes and like many of the stories of the Bible we will see that it’s not really a children’s story about a man in a big fish.

It’s a story about the grace and justice of God. It’s a story that stretches our understanding of the width, breadth, and depth of God’s love. It broadens by a mile our original definitions of justice and mercy. We imagine a merciful God but then God shows greater breadth to that mercy that we could have imagined, and then a justice that is broader still.

Now that we have a little context, let’s dive in.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors[a] said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

17 [b] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.


The title of this section of Jonah is “Jonah Tries to Run Away from God”. How does that work out for anybody in the Bible or now? Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and he doesn’t want to. So he flees. The more you learn about Nineveh, the more you understand where Jonah is coming from. Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a violent people who regularly killed Israelites. In fact, it would be the Assyrians who would come and destroy the northern kingdom is Israel. These are truly enemies for Jonah. One commentator suggested that this would be similar to God asking a Jew to go, preach to a guard at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. No wonder he doesn’t want to go give them God’s message.

This story reminds us to be wary of any faith that tries to narrowly define who is in and who is out of God’s kingdom. It reminds us that God repeatedly tells us to welcome the foreigner, the stranger, that we ultimately are Gentiles grafted into the vine of God’s kingdom. And of course, it begs the question: Who is your Nineveh, the people you really don’t want to believe could be part of God’s salvation plan? In this week of the election, is your Nineveh Democrats or Republicans? Is it immigrants? It is Muslims? Who is your enemy? The Feasting on the Word commentary says, If God intends real salvation for all the peoples, then in all seriousness, we must at least talk to our enemies …… In this deadly serious mess, the only way to avert total catastrophe is to talk. What an appropriate message during this week of the election when the rhetoric on both sides has become so divisive, and it seems that people can’t even comprehend talking to someone on the other side. The only way to avert total catastrophe is to talk to one another.

But all of this is centered on us. How do we respond to God’s call, how are we like Jonah? What if we read the Jonah story and asked a different question? What does this story tell us about God? What about God is revealed to us in this story?

The first thing revealed about God’s nature in Jonah is that God calls us to surprising, even ridiculous things. What is the most shocking, ridiculous thing you can think God might call you to? That’s what is happening in this story. God doesn’t always work in clear, straight paths that make sense. Sometimes God works in astounding, confounding ways. And sometimes God call us to join him in these surprising things.

Let’s read Jonah 3 now and see some more about what this story might reveal about God’s nature:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

I know that we are skipping the time that Jonah spent in the big fish, which is the part that we focus on most of the time. Some have said that it seems implausible that a big fish would swallow a human whole and then spit them out on the beach three days later, often the image of a whale is used, like Pinocchio we think of Jonah with a candle sitting in the belly of the whale. One commentator said that the idea of Jonah spending three days in a whale and coming out unscathed is more believable than what happened when he reached Nineveh.

Can you imagine all those cows and horses in sackcloth? What I wouldn’t give for a Polaroid of the whole city, including the animals covered in sackcloth. I read this week that Jonah is considered the most proficient of all the prophets. He speaks a total of 8 words and the whole city repents. No other prophet can say that.

For a second time, God gives Jonah the message. The second thing we can say about what we learn about God is that God journeys with us, even in our stubborn rebellion. When we try to run, God is there. When we are in the pits of despair, God is there. When we come to our senses and return to God, God is there. God journeys with us, no matter where we are or how much we are currently rebelling against God.

Let’s finish the Jonah story:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush,[a] and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

We finally hear from Jonah why he fled to begin with. Because he knew that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And Jonah didn’t want any part of that if it was extended to his enemies. Here is what we learn about God. God’s love is extraordinary. God’s grace is for all. In this story, the just thing would be for Nineveh to suffer. They had caused and would in the future cause so much suffering for Jonah’s people.

God is asking for the right to love our enemies regardless of the consequences. When God’s grace and God’s justice come into conflict, grace wins. Love wins. Sometimes that means that we are going to get burned, we are not going to get the justice we want. The God who calls us into surprising adventures, who journeys with us even as we rebel, who chooses to extend love and salvation to all people, that God whom we worship and serve has chosen grace - for us and for all, our friends and our enemies. This is the good news that we proclaim.

May it be so.


Covenantal Promise 

This sermon was preached on November 20, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE. The sermon text was Jeremiah 36: 1-8, 21-23, 27-28 then 31: 31-34. Audio for the sermon can be found here.

Last week we read the calling of the prophet Isaiah, this week we flash forward about 200 years to the reign of Jehoiakim, near the end of the career of the prophet Jeremiah.

Last week, Israel was facing destruction by the Assyrians, yet now it is the Babylonians who have conquered and begun to send the nations of Israel and Judah into exile. Jeremiah has been rather unpopular in his homeland. As the Babylonians begin to take over, Jeremiah calls upon the Judeans to submit, this is the consequence of the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Their lives and history will be forever changed. Jeremiah acts out the destruction of the kingdom and for his trouble he is confined to the palace, a prison of sorts. He can no longer go to the temple; he can no longer be with the people.

So here we are in Chapter 36. Jeremiah is instructed to write down all the words that the Lord has revealed to him. Jeremiah dictated the Lord’s words to Baruch, Baruch then read them to the people, then placed them in a room, Jehoiakim sends Jehudi to retrieve the scrolls.

As Jehudi read the scroll, little by little the king rips it a part and throws it in the fire.

Rev. Mary Austin says, “Curiously, the king doesn’t have the whole scroll burned immediately. He listens to each section, and throws it into the fire, as if caught between wanting to hear that God and the prophet have to say, and wanting to stop up his ears and ignore the whole thing. We can’t tell if he just wants to hear what the people have already heard, or if he’s interested in what God has to say. We don’t know if he’s burning the sections as a sign of defiance, or in despair that he won’t be able to comply with what God is saying. He is caught between what is and what should be.

I sort of understand where Jehoiakim is coming from. Have you ever received a performance review that you didn’t agree with. I have you ever been scolded, especially in adulthood, by someone and taken it well.

We, I, get defensive. We lash out, we crumble up the paper and throw it out the window, we tear it up and burn it, we quit our job, we quit our church, we break our relationship, we refuse to listen, we lash out. This happens all the time, we see it on social media, we see it in regular media, we see it from friends, family, we see it from our politicians, our police, our military, our pastors, our members, our kids.

How many times in your life have you looked back and realized that the person who corrected you, who called you out, who spoke prophetically to you was right?

For me it’s innumerable. My camp director who told me I was a born leader but that I ran right up to the line of appropriate and stopped and the people I was leading didn’t know where the line was and regularly ran past it. My CPE supervisor, who told me that I was a fundamentalist. My Committee on Preparation for Ministry that told me I wasn’t ready to be ordained, that I would have to do a few more steps.

I was so angry, sometimes I’m still angry. I wanted to cuss all of them out, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to quit, I wanted to tear up their words and burn them.

The thing is, they were all right. They helped me see my own sins and shortcomings and make changes. Some days, those changes are visible, some days they are they aren’t. I try to do my best every day.

Jehoiakim, didn’t have to listen, he was the king after all. Well at least that’s what he thinks. Let’s read a little more of Chapter 36 starting with verse 30.

"30 Therefore thus says the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. 31 And I will punish him and his offspring and his servants for their iniquity; I will bring on them, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and on the people of Judah, all the disasters with which I have threatened them—but they would not listen."

This shows us that God’s word is more powerful and lasting than the actions of a narcissistic king. This is what happens when people in power, when we don’t heed the prophetic words of God. When we dismiss pain, when we dismiss fear, when we dismiss people because they don’t look, sound, or worship like us. This is what happens when we forget that it is Jesus Christ who is king and we are not citizens of this world, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are aliens in a foreign land, and regardless of ruler, senator, representative, or president, it is Christ who is King of our land and our hearts.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday before the beginning the season of preparation of expectation we call Advent that we celebrate with the birth of our savior, the in breaking of the God with us, Emmanuel, the reminder that it even in the darkest night, the light of Christ shines in the darkness and nothing can overcome it.

We remember that Christ, our king, came in the form of a helpless baby, grew up and taught us to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves, He taught us to care for the least of these, he taught us to love each other as he loved us. The Apostle Paul, in the second chapter of the book of Ephesians, reminds of that Christ came to break down the dividing wall that is built between us.

Christ who reminds us that God is with us.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us in chapter 31.

"31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

The beauty of this new covenant, as Professor Roger Nam says, is that it is:

* Inclusive, not divisive (Jeremiah 31:31) -- It includes both the northern and southern kingdoms. This is a remarkable break from the tensions and outright animosity between the two kingdoms, which continued through the life of Christ (John 4:4-26); the participants explicitly include the “least to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).

* Lawful, not lawless (Jeremiah 31:33) -- The new covenant will build on the Torah of God. Now, the people have a new strategy for staying faithful to God. Pursuant to the Jeremiah 36 episode, it will center on the written word. It is better to think of a Torah in the sense of God’s “teaching,” rather than New Testament constructs of Torah as legalism. Torah was an expression of how the community could maintain covenantal fidelity.

* Divine, not human (Jeremiah 31:33) -- Whereas the older covenant was broken by the people, God pre-empts this possibility by making Himself the primary agent of the new covenant. Note the first person emphasis, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”

* Relational, not distant (Jeremiah 31:34) -- The earlier covenant was intimate in that it involved a God who “takes by the hand” and the metaphor of marriage. The new covenant incorporates these features in that they will fully know the Lord in both intellectual acknowledgement, but also inclusive in the intimate ideals that they will know the Lord and be known by Him.

Most significantly, the new covenant is indeed new! The cloud of sin no longer hangs above the community. For God declares, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” With the freedom from sin, the people can now move forward in their relationship with God.

This new covenant is much more protective and lasting. In the midst of the Babylonian sufferings, it enables the faithful to be grateful to God. Although politically oppressed, with little economic hope and an unknown future, the covenant of God brings rise to thanksgiving to all.

As we gather on this Christ the King Sunday, as we remember that the covenant, the knowledge that God has placed on our hearts, let us continue to work so that all feel safe. At school, walking down the street, in the class room, even in the theater, but let us not be so safe that we can not hear when God is speaking truth to us, for often times the Good News is not Nice News.

Rev. Mary Austin says, “God promises a new covenant, when fragile, temporary scrolls won’t be needed anymore because God’s law will live in our hearts. We won’t need a book or a tablet or a scroll. We won’t need someone to read it to us, or teach it to us. We won’t need an intermediary. No ruler will be able to do away with God’s word simply by burning it up. It will live fully in our hearts.

We haven’t arrived there yet, but God’s promises still stand. In a time when our own country is buffeted by violence in words and actions, when we seem to be overtaken by a spirit of division, God’s word comes back to us through the prophet. The invaders at our gate are the inner armies of hatred and separation, but God’s promises endure for those who are willing to hear, and to live with God’s persistence.

Let us have ears to hear and hearts open to repentance as we are called back to be the people of God, the hands and feet of Christ in this foreign land.

May it be so.

Great Ends of the Church Sermon Series- May 15

This is the third post in a series where I will be journaling through the Consultations on the Common Texts while preaching a sermon series on the "Great Ends of the Church". Here's the plan. Today's scriptures are Psalm 29, Ezekiel 3:12-21, and Luke 9:18-27. Today we are reflecting on the scripture from Sunday (Acts 16:16-34)

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The Great Ends of the Church Sermon Series

[DISCLAIMER: Young energetic pastor is about to completely nerd out and invite you along.]Over the course of the next six weeks we will be looking at, dissecting, and celebrating the Great Ends of the Church that are lined out in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). They can be found in the Book of Order,

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Can You Hear The Stones- Luke 19:28-40

ImageHere is the text of the sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013. The scripture is Luke 19:28-40.

“I tell you if they are silent even the stones will shout.”

Have you ever been in a situation, you know the kind I’m talking about where it’s quiet and there is an expectation of quiet. Whether it’s a worship service, a meeting, a bible study, a quiet room, a library, the list goes on and on and the person you are with won’t be quiet, won’t lower their voice. It’s embarrassing. Why won’t they be quiet? It’s uncouth, it’s uncivilized, it’s maddening.  

I know this because I have two young children, I know this because I like my family have loud voices that carry a long way, I know this because if you tell me to be quiet I’m either going to get really, REALLY loud or I’ll shut down completely, I know this because I am easily embarrassed.

That’s what the Pharisees were doing right? They were just asking Jesus to calm his disciples down, they were creating a scene, they were too loud, they were uncouth, they were embarrassing.

You see there was another parade going on that day. One that was very different than the one we celebrate on Palm Sunday.

The other parade was taking place across town, that parade was for Pontius Pilate. It was filled with large warhorses, weapons, banners, trumpets, and all the pomp and circumstance that could be mustered. This parade had a very different point, it was meant to intimidate, to remind the Israelites who was in charge, it was in it’s very nature the height of psychological warfare. It was as good or better than anything we saw from the USSR during the Cold War and still see by North Korea today.

As biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it, “From the west came Pilate draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor. He moved in with the Roman army at the beginning of Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. Insurrection was in the air with the memory of God's deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.”

From the east, a commoner’s procession, Jesus wearing an ordinary robe and riding a donkey; some of the Pharisees were scared, they were nervous that the procession of Jesus and the exuberance of his followers was going to upset the delicate partnership they had with Pilate. Everything would be all right as long as Jesus and his disciples didn’t upset anyone.

To their command to “scold your disciples, tell them to be quiet.” Jesus quotes the prophet Habakkuk “If they were to be silent, even the stones would shout.”

You see the deal the Pharisees had struck with Romans, the deal that Jesus was coming dangerously close to upsetting by his teachings and his miraculous works was an unjust system. It was a system that benefited the Pharisees and those in power; it did not care for the poor, the widow, the children, the orphan. It had gotten to the point that the cries of injustice were so loud that even the stones would cry out for justice. Justice for those who were oppressed by the same Old Testament laws that had been created to lift them up, left to fall by the same covenant designed to catch them.  Jesus had come to do, what he had been called to do, he had come to speak truth to power regardless of the consequences to his own health and good name. Within a week it would see him betrayed by his own disciple, have the back of the people he came to lift up be turned, and he would be executed as a common criminal.

Every time I read this story, I get so mad, so mad because this story continues to be told over and over and over again. People, groups, organizations rise up to speak against injustice and then they become subsumed by the power or silenced by the power, through execution, inaction, or slander.

The Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, the list goes on and on. I want to focus on two people that you may never have heard of, these two I believe are the stones shouting for justice.

The first is Mary Harris Jones, in Appalachia she was known as Mother Jones. Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever and her workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1871, she began working as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. From 1897, at around 60 years of age, she was known as Mother Jones. In 1902 she was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mineworkers and their families against the mine owners. In 1903, upset about the lax enforcement of the child labor laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a Children's March from Philadelphia to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York.[1]

Mother Jones worked tirelessly until her death in 1930. Her work saved countless children from working in the mines and helped many men fight for a decent wage. Her work continues to be seen in my home state of West Virginia, where she stood up to those in power even leading to her being beaten by security from the coal companies when she was in her 80s. Mary Jones refused to be silent; she refused to allow children and those whom she loved to be treated as chattel to line the pockets of big city coal barons.

Can you hear the stones shouting?

Another stone that shouts is a young woman by the name of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a student in Pakistan. Malala has become known for her work for women’s rights and for the education of girls in the Middle East.

In early 2009, at the age of 11/12, she wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls. The following summer, a New York Times documentary was filmed about her life as the Pakistani military intervened in the region. Yousafzai began to rise in prominence, giving interviews in print and on television and taking a position as chairperson of the District Child Assembly Swat. She has since been nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu and has won Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize. She was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is the youngest nominee in history.[2]

On October 9, 2012 a Taliban gunman shot Malala in the head and neck in an attempt to assassinate her while she was getting off her school bus. Malala was unconscious, in critical condition and was taken to the hospital.

After she was stabilized she was flown to England for treatment. After reconstruction of her skull and her hearing restored she was released in February of this year.

This week Malala returned to school, now in the United Kingdom. When asked about her first day she said, "I am excited that today I have achieved my dream of going back to school. I want all girls in the world to have this basic opportunity,"

Regardless of those in power telling her to be silent, regardless of the fear she felt, regardless of the attacks she has endured, Malala still fights for right for women and girls all over the world to get an education.

Can you hear the stones?

Who are the stones in our lives that are shouting? What are the things that are so necessary that they have to be said? What are you willing to shout, even when those around you tell you to be silent?

The Good News is even though they crucified him, they could not silence Jesus! Even though his disciples shuttered themselves in a room, the word got out! Friends, Jesus calls us to a better way, not an easier way. Jesus calls us to shout from the mountaintops and in the gutters and on the streets and in the hills. We will not be silent, we will shout with out loudest voice. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one who comes to set the captive free. Blessed is the one who gives voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and never forgets that we are called to love….first.

Can you hear the stones?



Photo by Tmaurizia

Witness to the Resurrection for Nan Rodgers Bolt

Here is the message I gave for my grandmother, Nan Elizabeth Rodgers Bolt. The text was John 14:1-3 At this time, in this place I am comforted by the words that wherever I am God will be there too and I hope those words are comforting to you as well.

In this time where we gather together to celebrate the life of Nan Elizabeth Rodgers Bolt, or Nana as I knew her. We are reminded that God has prepared a place for us, God opens God’s hands to us and bids us welcome because there is room to spare.

How often do we worry if there is going to be room for us? How often do we fear that we won’t be accepted? How often do we worry that we won’t be prepared?

We all know that Nan didn’t like surprises. She liked to be prepared, prepared with the right shoes, or the right make up, making sure her lipstick was perfect before she left the car, because we all know that you can only put on lipstick in the car. Nan was that way as long as I knew her that was confirmed through all the stories I have heard about her, she was like that even to her last moments.

On Friday morning, the day she died Nan woke, got ready for the day, and asked the caregivers if they would fix her hair. After her hair was done, she laid down and when they came to check on her, she was gone. It was like she knew that it was her time, she knew that she would be seeing her loved ones that had gone before her. She was preparing to be dealt in to the next hand around the bridge table with Ruby, Juanita, and Charles. The room for her had been prepared, it was ready, she was ready, God was ready.

That’s the promise of the scripture, that there is room for us here on earth and in heaven. Room for us to be with God, room for us to be with family, room for us to be with each other; there are so many places where we are told that there is not room, both real or perceived, but the promise from the Gospel is that THERE. IS. ROOM.

The more we can know, really know, that there is a place for us. A place in God’s house, a place in this world, the more we can open the doors and participate in the work of God preparing room for other.

The theologian William Barclay writes about a group of soldiers during World War II who had lost a friend in battle and wanted to give their fallen comrade a decent burial. So they found a church with a graveyard behind it, surrounded by a white fence. They found the parish priest and asked if their friend could be buried there in the church graveyard.

“Was he Catholic?” the priest inquired.

“No he was not,” answered the soldiers.

“I’m sorry, then,” said the priest. “Our graveyard is reserved for members of the holy church. But you can bury your friend outside the fence. I will see that the gravesite is cared for.”

“Thank you Father,” said the soldiers, and they proceeded to bury their friend just outside the graveyard on the other side of the fence.

When the war had finally ended, before the soldiers returned home, they decided to visit the gravesite of their friend. They remembered the location of the church – and the grave, just outside the fence. They searched for it, but couldn’t find it.Finally, they went to the priest to inquire as to its location.

“Sir, we cannot find our friend’s grave,” said the soldiers to the priest.

“Well,” answered the priest. “After you buried your fallen friend, it just didn’t seem right to me that he should be buried there, outside the fence.”

“So you moved his grave?” asked the soldiers.

“No,” said the priest. “I moved the fence.”[1]

Today we remember, we celebrate, we proclaim that THERE. IS. ROOM. And that Nan is making herself at home with God, a home that she has always lived in, a home that is promised to each of us.

Jesus says, "Don't be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me…where I am you will be too.“

May it be so.




How Will We Know? Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Here is the text of the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church on February 24, 2013. The sermon text is Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. (I know there are lot of typos in this one, but it's late.) My daughter Sophia from time to time will pick out a large book at our house and start calling it her bible. “Daddy can you read my bible” “Have you seen my bible?” and on and on. It first was actually a bible, given that Heidi and I are both pastors it’s not unusual for there to be a couple of bibles laying around. She also has a couple of children’s bibles that have played this role, it has also been Shell Silverstein’s “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and most recently it is the First Presbyterian Church Nebraska City cookbook.

I was looking through that book when my wife and I realized this church has a pattern, a thread that has woven it’s way through the entire history of First Presbyterian Church since Henry Giltner arrived in 1855. There is an ebb and flow in this congregation that I think can help us understand where we are right now and where we are going in the future.

The thread is a thread of major change a couple of times a century.

Our first building was built in 1857, for 45 years we faithful worshipped and learned there, then we built a new building in 1902. From 1902 until 1962, 60 years, we lived and grew in our second building, then in 1962 we built and moved into our new building, the building that 50 years we’ve call home still, the building where many of you were married in, where you raised your kids, and now your kids are raising their own kids.

Now breathe, I’m not about to suggest we need a new building, but what I am suggesting is that God is calling us to our next big change that will hopefully will set our course for the next half century.

What if we re-purposed our building to provide a high quality but affordable daycare and preschool for working parents? What if we opened our doors to the middle school across the street as an evacuation location or partnered with them to educate the children providing them a safe place to ask questions? What if we had a contemplative place opened all the time that could be used for prayer, meditation, and spiritual development? What if we ripped up all the pews and turned faced them towards one another? What if we partnered with the city to create a recreational area for students? A place where they could strengthen their whole selves, a place where they could learn and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually the questions are endless and these aren’t my ideas they are ideas I have heard from you, in meetings, on you idea board, in conversations with you, as well as members of the surrounding community.

Now I know these are pretty wild ideas, they are fairly unbelievable honestly, and certainly we won’t do all of them, we might not do any of them, they may be too big for us, they may be too hard, they may be too impossible…but I don’t think so.

I believe we are in a moment, a unique position, where like Abram, we can have an honest conversation with God and hopefully move forward in faith.

In our scripture lesson today we kind of enter in the middle of the story. We’re in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah, even before they get their new names. We get to listen to a conversation between Abram and God. It’s the type of conversation that you would only have with someone you had a close and trusted relationship with.

At this point in the story Abram has already packed up his things and moved to Canaan, then Egypt, been separated with his nephew, Lot, reunited with Lot, sold his wife into slavery…twice, and been blessed by the high priest Melchizedek, A LOT has happened since Abram and Sarai began their journey in the faith and trust that they would have a son and their descendents would number more than the stars. Yet, Sarai is not yet pregnant. So it seems understandable that Abram has some questions.

God’s words to Abram, “"Don't be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great." Don’t seem to cut it. I picture Abram rolling his eyes, much like you would with your friend says trust me over and over again and they haven’t lied, but what they told you hasn’t quite worked out the way you planned.

God reassures Abram, "Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have." Abram presses, “"LORD God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?"

It’s a great question.

It’s a question we ask, we probably should ask, and if we don’t at least think about we seem impetuous or rash or silly. I mean really, we are going through this transformation process. You all set out in the fall of 2010 and have talked and listened and prayed and I know been promised that there would be more members and more energy and more spirit. So far we are two years plus in, from what I can tell there is more energy, there is more spirit, there is ideas, but I’m willing to bet that isn’t what you were expecting. I’ll tell you this, in the fall of 2010 I sure wasn’t expecting to be living and serving in Nebraska, but I’m glad God had a plan and here we are.

You are probably getting tired of me talking about this but we really want your big hairy audacious goals or dreams for this church, what crazy idea has God spoken to you. I’m sure when Abram, was in his eighties at this point, got laughed at when he told people that he was following God who promised that he would have more descendents than stars.

God recommits to God’s covenant with Abram, they follow the ritual of the time of splitting a sacrificial animal, except God asks Abram to split all of the animals to prove how dedicated to this God was. A covenant was cut, literally, a contract was signed, by two parties, Abram and God and much like any contract you have ever signed there are commitments made by both parties. God promises to give Abram descendents and Abram promises to trust God and continue to follow God’s leading. Abram was not a passive participant in this covenant and we aren’t passive participants in this process of transformation that God is leading us on and has been leading us on since Rev. Giltner in 1855. I imagine he could have never imagined where we are now, I wonder if 50 or 100 or 150 years from now will those reading the history of First Presbyterian Church or the history of Nebraska City be able to look back on our journey and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

God has cut a convenant with us, God’s faithfulness has shown itself through the last 150 years, God’s faithfulness has shown itself through the stories that I have heard from you, the stories of heartache, the stories of triumph, the stories that are still being told. As our story of faith unfolds, I’m am certain that it will be different than we anticipated but when we look back we will be able to say, “Wow, what a ride, who would have ever guessed that First Presbyterian Church of Nebraska City could of started that…”

How did they know it would work?

The truth is we don’t, we try and fall down, we step out in faith, we get lost, we find our way back, we find our way forward, we fail, we triumph, but through it all we have faith that the God that sent Abram out of Haran and gave Abram his son, Isaac, who began our ancestry, is the same God that is sending us out to not only be transformed as a congregation but to transform the world around us.

Let us not be passive, let us hold up our end of the covenant with God, let us continue to dream and trust, knowing that God is, has been, and will be with us all along the way.

Get Past It! Luke 4:1-13

Here is the text of the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church Nebraska City on February 17, 2013. The scripture is Luke 4:1-13.

So here we are, we have begun the season of Lent, the season of penitence, of fasting, and prayer; the season of repentance. Last Wednesday we were reminded that we come from the earth and to the earth we will return. We took ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that there is work to do, that we are in need of grace, and cleansing so that we may be able to see God more clearly in our lives.

Growing up in the south, I often saw those preachers, heard those preachers, “REPENT, REPENT THE END IS NEAR!!! YOU BETTER GET RIGHT WITH GOD, BOY!!!! TURN FROM YOUR EVIL WAYS!!!! REPENT, REPENT!!!!!”

Those guys always terrified me; I mean really, I was scared they were going to physically assault me, they seemed so angry, so sure, so convinced that I was evil. I didn’t think I was evil, I still don’t. Sure, I’m not perfect, but evil no way. I think there is a long way between “snotty kid” to “evil”. So because I related that term “REPENT” to fear and anger I rejected it out of hand. I don’t need to repent I’m fine.

I know that for many the idea of giving up something is important to them during Lent. A lot of people give up chocolate, or sweets, or soda, or alcohol, etc. etc. That was not part of my tradition growing up. I never saw the point, the people I knew that gave up stuff weren’t changed, they couldn’t wait for Easter Sunday so they could have candy or a chocolate bar or a soda or a glass of wine or whatever it was. A pastor friend of mine talks about a man who smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day. Every Ash Wednesday, he would give up cold turkey and Easter Sunday, he would pick it up again. I’ve done it, given up something on Ash Wednesday only to have it reappear on Easter Sunday!

There has been a push recently for adding something to your life, adding community service or volunteer work, adding a devotional reading or prayer time. I’ve done that too, added something on Ash Wednesday and put it back down again on Easter Sunday, if I made it that far. These are nice gestures, they come from a good place, but I’m not sure they ultimately get us closer to God or empower us to do the work of God.

I told you that I completely shunned the word or even the idea of repentance or the need for it growing up. When I went to seminary I changed my opinion, I was enlightened you might say. The word that we translate as repentance in the Bible is a Hebrew word, shuv, it literally means “to turn”. IT LITERALLY MEANS TURN.

It doesn’t mean give up all that you’ve known or throw away all your loved ones. When we get out of whack it is because we have turned away from God, to repent means to turn towards God. It may require a 180° turn, it may only be a light twist. In this season of Lent we are called to turn from the thing that tempts us away from God and do our best to turn towards God, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. If eating chocolate, or candy, or drinking a soda keeps you from focusing on God, then by all means turn from it and turn towards God. I pray that turning lasts longer than six weeks.

We normally think of this need for repentance, the need to turn from our temptations, to master them before we start our journey with God. I’ve heard it a thousand times, “I need to get my life right, and then I can get back into church.” Or “I just need to get some things figured out then I can start praying” These are nice sentiments but they just aren’t biblically accurate.

In our scripture lesson today, we find Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Do you know what happens in the life of Jesus, right before this passage? He is baptized! That’s right, he got baptized, THEN, went into the wilderness and was tempted. In our churches, in our society, we often get it backwards, we think we need to face the temptation first, then we can be good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough to be baptized or to do God’s work. The truth is YOU ARE ENOUGH, God has made you that way, God who knitted you in your mother’s womb, God who rejoiced at your birth, God who smiles upon you everyday has been, is, and will always be with you and until you recognize that you are a child of God, wholly, completely, warts and all you won’t have the strength to turn from those temptations and turn to God.

It was only because Christ had the sure and certain knowledge of the love God felt for him that he was able to turn away from the temptations of the Devil and keep his eyes focused on God.

When we embrace the fact that God loves us, just as we are no strings attached, AND God loves us enough not to let us stay that way that we will embrace the need for turning to God.

Often times at the beginning of Lent we start strong, we have resolve to keep up or discipline but as the weeks move on, our will power erodes we find it easier to give in, then before Easter we give up, or we’re so focused on eating that chocolate bunny on Easter Sunday that we forget why we started the process in the first place. We forget that the goal, at the beginning, was to take something away, or add something so that we may be more centered on God, instead we become centered on the thing that we’ve given up or taken on and not God. It has the opposite of its intended affect.

Often in our lives, our temptations are larger than chocolate and candy; they are less obvious than need to abstain from alcohol. Our temptations are subtle behaviors, they are not always bad, and they always are something that we want.

Let’s look again at the temptations of Jesus. Jesus was first tempted by bread. Jesus was fasting, I’m sure he was hungry; if he can turn a stone into a loaf of bread he could feed all the hungry. Eating bread, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but for Christ in this instance it is not sufficient to define his ministry.

The second temptation is to rule the world. It would seem that Jesus desired power, if Jesus ruled the world; he could do it more justly, more lovingly, certainly more compassionately than the Romans that ruled the known world at that time if he just worshipped the Devil. Jesus reminds the Devil that we are called to worship God alone.

The third temptation, to cast himself from the top of the temple, because God would protect the righteous and Jesus was certainly righteous. I’m sure Jesus would have loved some help, to be taken up by angels and carried off. Don’t we all. But Jesus reminds us that God is not to be tested.

Food, control, comfort these aren’t bad things. Much like our own desires to control others, or situations it’s not a bad thing to want things to go well but when the need for that control turns us away from God, it’s a bad thing.

If you’re like me, I am tempted to respond every time someone misspeaks or says something I don’t agree with, this happens a lot on social media and sometimes in coffee shops. It was causing me to no longer see good in people that I have known and loved for years. It was deteriorating our relationship and we weren’t going anywhere. There was no need for me to respond and I told myself that I wouldn’t but every time one of my friend would post something, I couldn’t help myself I responded. Because I was unable to resist the temptation to correct these people, I simply hid their posts from my wall. It helped me get past my temptation.

Often times, we try so hard to resist temptation, we pray about it, we stop cold turkey, we think we have it licked and then slowly it creeps back into our life and we’re back to square one.

I read a comic strip online called Coffee with Jesus. It’s great, 3 or 4 frames that get right to the point. This week’s comic entitled “Get Past It” Kevin asks Jesus, “You know that thing I struggle with?” and Jesus responds, “I do.” Kevin says, “I keep asking you to help me get past it, but it’s still there always a temptation.” Jesus sips his coffee and replies, “It’s still there because you flirt with it endlessly, love it so much, and actively pursue it Kevin. Put it behind you, not in front of you.” 


Do you do that? Do you flirt with, love, and pursue the things that we know are not good for us, that keep us from seeing and hearing God in our lives? I encourage you to put your temptations behind you. If that means not eating chocolate, or candy, or praying daily, or taking pictures, or whatever you need to do to turn away from your temptation and towards God then do it.

I know that’s easier said that done, but with the sure knowledge that you are loved by God regardless of what tempts you. I know without a shadow of a doubt that you will be able to move, ever so slightly, one step at a time, little by little, to a closer walk with God.

May it be so.

Are You Listening? Luke 9:28-43

This is the text of the sermon I preached on February 10, 2013 at First Presbyterian Church, Nebraska City. The sermon text is Luke 9:29-43.

Have you ever had one of those moments you wanted to remember forever, you wanted something to remind you of that moment?

I have these rocks that I carry around in my briefcase, now they are little rocks, pebbles really. I got them from my trip to the Middle East in 2006. I had the pleasure of joining other seminarians on a trip that took us to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. The two rocks that I carry come from Mt. Sinai, or The Sea of Galilee or maybe the Pyramids. When I picked them up and put them in bag. I knew I would remember where they came from. The sad fact is they are just rocks, rocks that I carry around in my bag. When I look at them, I don’t remember all the amazing things I saw walking in the shoes of our biblical ancestors, I just get frustrated because I can’t remember where they came from. I should probably just put them in the yard or something; maybe really confuse some archeologists hundreds of years from now. How did this rock from the Middle East get in Nebraska? For some reason I can’t let them go, I’m stuck. I want to get back to that literal mountaintop experience but I can’t seem to find it again. So for the time being I carry around a couple of random rocks in my briefcase.

We do it all the time. We try to hold on to those moments, instead of holding onto the meaning of the moment, the lesson that we learn from experiencing that mountaintop.

In the 1730s, in the American Colonies we experienced what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” “It resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of deep personal revelation of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.”[1]

Some of the most famous preachers of this time in American Protestantism were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. You may have heard or heard of Jonathan Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God.” Edwards was not known, as a great orator but still was able to attract a huge following. George Whitfield on the other hand was a known for his skills in preaching, so much so his reputation would precede him, the crowds would be huge, bigger than any church could hold. He would preach in parks and squares and wherever they could find enough room to fit the people. He was like the Colonies’ first rock star. He was like Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Justin Bieber all wrapped into one. One of his most famous fans was Benjamin Franklin; he devoted 45 editions of his Gazette for Whitfield’s writings.[2]

The sermons those men were credited with, the religious fervor they were able to conjure up, the people they were able to reach from all accounts had mountaintop moments hearing them preach. They would preach then they would leave, on to the next town, and inevitably the religious fervor would fade, life would take over, that special feeling that you get when you know you are in the presences of God is harder and harder to recall and then what. If you come down from the mountaintop are you somehow less faithful? 

This was one of the unintended consequences for the emotional nature of the sermons, many would be raised to heavenly heights but would come crashing down and lose faith when their world returned to “normal”. Many had no one to answer the hard questions of faith, many lost faith as quickly as they had found it. They knew how to stop; listen and they wanted to hold on to that moment forever but they did not know how to move on down the path of faith.

That’s not to say that we should not be emotionally connected to our faith, that we shouldn’t seek those mountaintop experiences. I know for my own faith journey, it is those mountaintop experiences that feed me for the journey that continues when we come down from the mountain. Whether those moments where at a retreat, summer camp, a worship service, or conference or whether those moments came in a hospital room, sitting around a table, or working in your yard those mountaintop experiences help to guide us on the long road of faith.

In our scripture lesson today, we read from the Gospel of Luke in a story often called “The Transfiguration.” In our passage, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray. Jesus’ face is transfigured and his clothes shine bright white and he was talking to Moses and Elijah. The scripture reminds us that the disciples were “weighed down with sleep”. Seems like they always are. They just can’t seem to stay awake can they? Peter realizes what is going on and he offers to build dwellings for you and your friends. Before he can even finish his offer a cloud engulfs them and they heard the voice of God and were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? The voice of God says, “This is my Son, Listen to him!” 

Peter, James, and John see Jesus talking with the spirits of Moses and Elijah and instead of being told to build an alter or to create a temple, or even pick up a rock to remember the experience they are told, by God to Listen to Jesus.

I’m sure Peter, James, and John were dumbfounded by the whole experience, they wanted more, they wanted to talk to Moses and Elijah, pick their brains, figure out how it was going to all play out. All they got was listen to him! They were so dumbfounded they did tell anyone.

Isn’t that how it happens, we have an experience, I have a few stories, times when you were so astounded at what happened that you couldn’t explain it to anyone? Everything clicks, everything works out and things are perfect. We say things like, “If I could bottle that, I’d be rich.” “This is what church should feel like.” “I wish this would last forever.”

The sad fact, the reality is you can’t bottle it, church does feel like that sometimes, and nothing last forever.

Even for Jesus and the disciples as soon as the day after they come down the mountain, Jesus casts a demon out of a young boy. A boy they disciples couldn’t heal by themselves. Jesus says, “You’re not listening.”

Often we don’t listen.

We get swept up in the euphoria of God that we don’t do the work of God. Sometimes it happens that we get excited about a new calling we dive right in, then something happens, our call loses its luster then we think about quitting, then we quit. There are stories of you starting things, stories of you doing great work, stories of you sticking with it.

From all that I have heard the Best Flood Friends ministry is a time where the euphoria and the work met and this church was enlivened by the idea that you were worthwhile, that you were needed, and you not only had the ideas but the ability to implement those ideas. You were able to cast out demons of loneliness and grief, of hunger and abandonment. All were astounded by the greatness of God.

Our challenge is not to build dwellings to that moment in the life of this church. Our challenge is to learn from that moment as it leads us down the path of ministry. We learned that we are committed, we are equipped, we are capable.

Our next step is to put that knowledge to work. I asked you last night to think of the most audacious goal you have for the church. We will begin asking you to share those with us throughout the season of Lent. What is the next demon we can cast out? What is Jesus saying to us? Are we listening?

Those mountaintop experiences provide us with food for the journey. Let this meal we are about to partake in feed us, nourish us, and embolden us to take that next step out in faith.

Let us pray.

Dear God, we are full of questions, we are full of doubts, there are so many needs, so many ways to help, so many we can become paralyzed wanting to make a monument to past glory. Give us the strength to press on, to listen to your call on our congregation, to learn from the moments when we have seen your face. Dear God, we are listening, open our ears so that we may hear.




Bloom Where You are Planted. Jeremiah 1:4-10

This is the text of the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church, Nebraska City on February 3. The sermon text is Jeremiah 1:4-10.

An old pastor was in his office one morning going through his normal routine. When a young man, who was considering the ministry came in and sat down in his office. After talking about their lives, the young man paused and said to the older pastor, “When did you know you were called to the ministry?”

The old, wise pastor sat back in his chair paused and said, “This morning.”

Every day we are called anew, some days hearing that call is harder than others, some day you might think that God has made a mistake. Not me Lord, I’m not smart enough, I don’t know enough, I don’t have enough energy, I’m too old, I’m too young, and on and on.

This is part of my story, when I was a junior in high school; I gave my first sermon in church. After my senior year, after another sermon someone came to me after the sermon and said, “You should be a minister.” I scoffed at that, a minister? Me? You can’t be serious, pastors were good people, who got good grades, who knew the Bible, I was not a pastor, nor would I ever be. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say, I haven’t always been a pastor and my actions reflected that.

As a got older, I kept finding myself in pastoral roles. My summer job in graduate school was as the Trip Director at the Presbyterian camp in West Virginia. Then when I got out of school, I couldn’t find any jobs in my field. I have a master’s in physical education and planned to be a college baseball coach, no options there. I also worked for the university during school. I was in charge of the officials for intramural activities for West Virginia University. I sent out about 100 resumes, not even one call back. I think God was trying to tell me something. The job I got was as a youth director at a large church in Denver. I was definitely not ready for that.

I came home to West Virginia and found myself back at the camp, now as the Assistant Director, leading worship, being the pastor to the staff. I started seminary with the express desire to never be the pastor of a church. They say, if you ever doubt that God has a sense of humor, just tell God your plans.

For most of that time, I believed that I was answering a call but God had the wrong number.

Now after years of fighting, giving in, resisting, embracing, being planted, being uprooted, shifting, and standing still I have the honor of serving with you as your pastor.

In our scripture reading today from the book of Jeremiah we hear a piece of his call story. God says to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

That’s fairly intimidating, don’t you think. “Prophet to the nations”? Yikes, I didn’t sign up for that, says Jeremiah, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

This response is normal, right. Moses said it, Isaiah said it, Ezekiel said it. I mean really who says, sign me up when you hear a voice from God say, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

I have a hard enough time deciding what I want to eat for dinner much less deciding what to pluck up or pull down, what to destroy and overthrow, or what to build and plant. I can barely get my children to listen to me much less prophesy to nations.

I believe that through God we can do more than we could ever ask or imagine, but I wonder if our call is often to pluck up or pull down things in our own lives, in our own communities, we are to build and plant in our own lives, in our own houses.

Maybe Christian calling is not just reserved for those asked to do mighty things. It is the invitation to every Christian to witness to the gospel by investing with radical grace whatever worldly roles God opens to us.

A phrase that my wife have held on to recently is, bloom where you are planted. I wonder if that is what God is calling us to do. Can we at First Presbyterian fix all the problems in the world? Maybe. Can we have a positive influence in Nebraska? Probably. Can we begin to address the needs in Nebraska City? Certainly. Can we respond to God’s call in our own homes? Definitely.

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

What is your deepest gladness? What is the world’s deepest hunger?

For us to answer these questions we might need to pluck up those weeds that cloud our vision, pull down the barriers we have built up over years of security, maybe we need to destroy some assumptions that we’ve always held, maybe we need to overthrow the perception that God’s grace and mercy are only available to a few. It will lead to build up each other and our community, to plant new seeds bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

I said last week, that I don’t know anything about farming, which is true, but I do know that in order to harvest fruit this season we need to pull up the weeds, we need to pluck up last year’s crops, we need to overturn the soil to prepare the land so we can plant our new crop. We often need to plant new seeds, we can’t continue to grow the same fruit in the same soil.

The soil here at First Presbyterian is fresh, it is nutritious, it is prepared for us to plant new seeds, to tend them and to watch them grow into the harvest that will sustain this city, this state, this world, and us.

We have an opportunity to experiment; we can plant whatever we want. It might be something that no one has ever tried here. It might whither and fade, it might flourish and expand our thoughts about what type of things can be planted.

Over the last year or two, you have been in a transformation process. The transformation has worked hard and now you have appointed a Vision Team. That team will be working over the next few months trying to form a vision for this church. We will be dreaming about what our crops will look like, what type of seeds will we plant. I want to challenge you to dream with us. I want to challenge you to think of the most bold, audacious, inventive goal you have for this church. The sky’s the limit; there are no limitations, dream big. In time I want you to share that goal with us, I want to pray for that goal, I want you to name your deepest gladness, and I want you to seek it’s meeting with the world’s greatest need.

I said last week that we are all in this together, but I didn’t say we were all the same. We can be unified without being uniform. Let us work together, let our passions combine, let our ideas grow, let us build up the body of Christ, let us plant the seeds that open our eyes up to the mystery of what we can do when we allow God to put the words in our mouths.

May it be so.

We're All in This Together. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Here is the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church, Nebraska City on January 27. My first Sunday with them.

I was watching the inauguration festivities this week and I was struck by something. I was struck by the diversity of the people in the crowd, I was struck by the men, women, young, old, that stretched from the Capitol steps to past the Smithsonian. If you haven't been to Washington, DC, that's a long way. I was struck by my twitter feed and facebook wall. (If you haven't heard yet, I like social media and am on it A LOT!) My feed and my wall which often are filled with disagreement and not always civil discourse was filled with a pause to reflect on the pageantry and the realization that we are, in fact, in this together. I was struck that Paul Ryan, not exactly the President's biggest fan, tweeted "I congratulate President Obama on his inauguration, and I join the country in celebrating this American tradition."

I'll be honest with you, I'm kind of nervous talking about the inauguration on Sunday morning, mostly because I know that there are some deeply held beliefs and positions that can cause conflict or friction. I also believe with all of my being that if we don't acknowledge that we have different views and that that is a GOOD thing, then we, as a country, will continue to be stagnant and the conversations will continue to be filled with vitriol and we will never get anywhere. If we don't accept that a wide spectrum of voices is better than a narrow one and that more voices are better than less, then we will continue to be polarized and feel uncomfortable talking about "those topics."

It is precisely "those topics" that will get us to moving forward to a more civil, a more kingdom-like society. Now what does that have to do with Sunday morning or First Presbyterian Church or our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning?

It means that, Paul was right. "We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink." To put it in more contemporary words, quoting High School Musical, We are all in this together. Young and old, new members and long time members, friends, children.

If we are going to truly be transformed, transformed by the Word, transformed by the Spirit, if we believe, like the Lord's Prayer says, "Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.", then we will need everyone, I need everyone. All of you! I know that some of you don't feel like you have a lot to give right now and that's ok. I know that some of you do.

Some of you love planning events and some of you don't. Some of you like me, love meetings. I know it's hard to believe, but we can be honest here. Some of us would rather have a root canal than go to a meeting. Some of us love young people, some don't, some love older people, some don't, some are doers, some are idea people. It's going to take all of us, because we are the Body of Christ! It's going to take all of us, I need all of you, to join with me to be the hands and feet of Christ in Nebraska City, Southeastern Nebraska, the Midwest, the country, and the world.

When I visited in November, my family and I had the pleasure of staying at the Lied Lodge. As soon as you walk in, there in the stairwell, is one of my favorite quotes by Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only that that ever has."

What I have learned so far about First Presbyterian Church is that you are thoughtful and committed and you are changing the face of Nebraska City. Through the respite care program, through the Best Flood Friends program, through the Friends of Faith Thrift Shop, and on and on. We, together, as the Body of Christ, will continue to learn and grow from those experiences and they will shape our vision for the future.

Some will be called to be apostles, some as prophets, some as teachers, some will speak in tongues, some will intrepert tongues, the scripture says. For us, right now, that means that some will be sent out with a specific calling, whether that is serving on Session or Deacons, some will be called to vision for the future, guiding us through the sometimes treacherous and often tricky path of change. Some will be called to teach, both young and old, both in the church and in the community, some will be blessed with the ability to speak to those outside our walls spreading the Gospel of Christ in a language that can be understood by those who have never heard the powerful message of grace that God offers.

We will need to listen to our youngest and our oldest, our most active and most inactive, but most of all we must listen to the Spirit that has lead us to this point. The Spirit that led Jan Marion to make a phone call to a youth pastor, who was standing at a bus stop in Washington, DC. The Spirit that led that youth pastor to pray and listen, the spirit that led the search committee to pray and discern and ask tough questions, the spirit that led my family to fly out here, the spirit that was unmistakeable as we got to know you, the Spirit that has led me here, the spirit that has led us here, the spirit that will lead us forward as we seek to be the very reflection of Christ to our neighbors.

You are the Body of Christ, we are the Body of Christ, let us use our gifts, our knowledge, our ambition, our prayers, and God will show us an even better way.

May it be so.