Category: sermon remix

Sutherland Springs, One Week Later // Moving Beyond Thoughts and Prayers


Last Sunday, November 5th, was my 39th birthday. As I sat around a table with my family and a few friends, the news of the Sutherland Springs massacre started to come in on our phones. When we were cleaning up the plates of cake and ice cream I glanced at my phone. Tags on Social Media: “I think Traci Smith is nearby” and BREAKING NEWS texts from KSAT. It took no more than a quick scan to realize that this was wide ranging, devastating. Another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church.

another mass shooting in a church. 

I sent a quick text to the Executive Presbyter saying “If pastoral care is needed in Sutherland Springs, I am willing.” I didn’t expect to hear back from her until the next day at the earliest, but she called 20 minutes later. She told me that a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance representative had told her about a vigil in LaVernia, TX, nearby and asked if I would go with her.

This morning in my sermon, I told the congregation about the fear I had as we drove there, with my 10 month old baby sitting next to me in the backseat. I worried we wouldn’t be safe. A church vigil should be safe, right? That’s exactly the point. A church should be safe.

I told the rest of that personal story from the pulpit this morning, including the question I was asked by the pastor there: “What kind of evil is this?”

Deliver us from evil.

We talked this morning about the evil of what happened this week and how we have a responsibility to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers are important, but they’re not enough.

I’m grateful to my fearless colleague Rev. Krin Van Tatenhove and the Mission Elders of my congregation, Patty and Robert, for designing four action stations:

First, a station where folks could write cards and expressions of sympathy to members of the church.

Second, a station where they pick up information on how to talk to children about a tragedy like this. I also included the same practices I recommended to folks wanting to help children after hurricane Harvey.

Third, a station that details the PC(USA) work to prevent gun violence and

Finally, a letter writing station. Our friends at Texas Impact helped us draft the following letter that parishioners could send to Speaker Joe Straus and Governor Abbott:


Dear Governor Abbott:

The recent tragic shooting at a place of worship in Sutherland Springs has once again highlighted policy issues related to the availability of firearms. Specifically, the interplay of Texas and Federal firearms laws, administrative procedures related to those laws, and the special circumstances of domestic violence and mental health woven into this tragedy mandate that Texas continue its ongoing efforts to improve public policy and reduce the chance of the next terrible event. None of these issues is new to the legislature. In fact, we have shown strong willingness to discuss these issues both individually and in relationship to one another. Specifically, we applaud the legislature’s commitment to mental health over the past several sessions. However, we are sadly reminded that there is much more work to do.

We request that you direct the appropriate committees in your houses to conduct a comprehensive review of policy issues potentially related to this tragedy, including:

  • The interplay of, and confusion between, various state and federal gun laws related to possession, transport, and licensure;
  • The communication between local, state, and federal authorities (including military authorities) of information pertinent to an application to obtain a firearm;
  • The communication of aggregated authority to sellers of firearms, and actions taken by sellers to deny a sale; and
  • Current laws related to disqualification for firearm purchase as a result of domestic violence and mental health records.

We believe that such an interdisciplinary review will be valuable to our communities, to Texans in general, and to policymakers as they grapple with the policy issues that such tragedies illuminate.

After the service, I was overwhelmed by the number of connections my San Antonio had to Sutherland Springs. I knew some of the stories, but not all of them. I walked away from service reminded again just how much this tragedy was  in our own back yard, but it’s always in somebody’s backyard…



  1. The letter: please feel free to copy and paste the letter and send to your own representatives. We have no ownership over it and are deeply grateful to Texas Impact for their support.
  2. Resources for children. We provided THIS and THIS today.
  3. PCUSA Resources on Gun Violence
  4. Why Christians Must Support Gun Control 


Sermon Remix: Abundance and the Feeding of the 5,000

Today begins a sermon series on the book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess by Lee Hull Moses. We’re doing an online book study (through a closed Facebook group) and I’m using the free worship planning guide to give sermon starters and some interactive station ideas.

Today’s theme is abundance. As folks walked in to worship this morning, they were greeted with these opportunities for engagement:












It was great to see everyone’s ideas and thoughts.

Of the three scripture suggestions listed, I elected to focus on the feeding of the five thousand. Though it’s Mark’s version that’s suggested in the worship guide, I went with John’s version. I drew out three details that are unique to John’s version.

  1. “There was a great deal of grass in that place” (verse 10). We don’t often think about the grass in the feeding of the 5,000 story. It’s more of a minor character. Yet, without the grass, there’d be no place to gather and sit. There was grass, in abundance. I likened the grass to our pews. We have abundant pews at NPC. What if, just like the green grass, we’re waiting for God to make use of them?
  2. “So that nothing may be lost.” (verse 12). As I said this morning, in all the times I’ve read this passage, I’ve never considered that it might have something to say about waste. We talked a little about how it’s easier to waste when we have abundance. I referenced this modern day feeding of the 5,000 experiment that made use of fresh, delicious food that would have been wasted otherwise. (Side note: THIS is also a great lecture about food waste.)
  3. There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” (verse 9) The child in this story is the one who gets the whole miracle started. We talked a little about the importance of children and youth in our community. I shared that it’s a major pet peeve of mine when folks talk about children and youth being “the future of the church.” Children and youth aren’t the future of the church. They are the church right now.

I ended the message by giving folks some questions to reflect on for the week:

What do you have in abundance in your life? What is like the grass, or our pews, space waiting to be filled by a miracle? What do you have in your life that should not be wasted? What do we have here at the church that we should be careful not to waste? And what children are in your life that are ready to show you you the way to an abundant life?



Sermon Remix: Resurrection || Easter 2017

Christ is Risen! 

He is Risen, Indeed! 

This morning’s message is not one I want to reprint or excerpt. Instead I’ll give a summary of some of the things discussed and link to some things I found interesting as I prepared the sermon.

I started out by borrowing a little bit of the intrigue from Rob Bell’s Resurrection, and the story about Jesus and the Temple. That video is simultaneously profound and straightforward to me. As he would say: so. good.

The rest of the message was centered around this one verse from Matthew:

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

A couple of things stood out to me. First, the earthquake. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave and Karoline Lewis, I was inspired to take the metaphor of the earthquake as far as I could. I talked a little about how the death of my good friend earlier this year shook me to the core. I quoted this from my journal:

All throughout our friendship, Kelly was more than just Kelly. The things that I loved in her are all the things that I aspire to be… a respected pastor, a competent preacher who preaches what she truly believes, an organizer, a leader in the community. She was a force.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that her death feels so cosmic in its significance, as if I have to now wrestle with every single tenet of my faith right now, at this moment. Cruelly, I have to do it by myself, without her, my biggest theological guide.

I talked about the phrase cosmic in its significance and compared it to an earthquake. It is really true that along with resurrection we find tremendous upheaval and shaking. Nothing is the same in resurrection. Everything changes.

I mentioned organ donation this morning and talked a little about the process, and what it has meant to me over the past year.

In addition to the detail about the earthquake, I also expanded a little on the detail of who removes the stone from the tomb in the resurrection story:

In Mark’s version the women came to the tomb and they ask each other “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Luke says “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.”

In John, it’s Mary Magdalene who comes to the tomb, and she finds it already removed as well.

But Matthew is the only one who has this detail of who removed the stone. An angel. An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 

What does it mean to embrace this detail? The stone wasn’t just passively moved. An angel moved it. 

I closed the sermon by offering my very best version of a Presbyterian-style altar call. If there’s any day to call folks to choose resurrection, to choose (or re-choose) Christ, today is that day.

He is Risen, y’all!

The Sermon Remix is a series on this blog where I take a portion of my Sunday sermon and add in relevant links for further investigation and study.

Sermon Remix: Why did Christ Die on the Cross?

This is the week when we come face to face with the dark details of crucifixion. I have to admit how incredibly uncomfortable I am with this story. I think most people are, if we stop long enough to think about it. It’s incredibly violent. Senseless. Painful. We are confronted not just with what happened, though that’s painful enough, but why it happened.

Why did Christ die on the cross?

Those who grew up in the church were often given very simple answers to this “To save us from our sins.” or “To set us free” or “To pay our debts” or “To bring new life.” On the one hand, these answers are simple enough, and an accurate summary of our Christian faith. On the other hand, these answers are completely unsatisfactory. How does the violent death of our savior save us? How?

The work of Christ on the cross is called the atonement in Christian Theology. There are many different theories about what the atonement is and what it means. Certain scripture verses go better with certain theories and no one theory on its own seems to explain the atonement in a full and a complete way. Theories include the Christus Victor theory, where Christ defeats the powers of evil and death, the Satisfaction theory, where Christ’s crucifixion is a substitution for human sin,  and the Moral Influence theory where Christ’s crucifixion brings positive change to humanity. Though it’s interesting to study atonement theory, my own personal view is that work of Christ on the cross is a what? It’s a mystery. One of the deepest mysteries of our faith, in fact.

As Christians we sense deep within us that the death of Christ on the cross means something deeply profound, but when we peel back the layers, we find it’s difficult to explain. Like a masterful work of art, the atonement means something different every time we look at it again. It looks different in different types of light, and it takes on different meaning as the years go by.

I came across this story from the book In the Grip of Grace by Bryan Chapell. He writes

“On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. One survived: a four-year-old from Tempe, Arizona, named Cecelia.

News accounts say when rescuers found Cecelia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators first assumed Cecelia had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecelia’s name.

Cecelia survived because, even as the plane was falling, Cecelia’s mother, Paula Chican, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and then would not let her go.

Nothing could separate that child from her parent’s love—neither tragedy nor disaster, neither the fall nor the flames that followed, neither height nor depth, neither life nor death.

Such is the love of our Savior for us. He left heaven, lowered himself to us, and covered us with the sacrifice of his own body to save us.”

I researched that story a little further this week and read this from a news article in the Baltimore Sun from 1993:

“Using the primitive material of her own body, she in effect strapped herself as a living, human safety device over the 35-pound, four-foot form of her child. And it worked. In one of those successes that make human action and chance look divine, the child survived — with a broken leg and collarbone and burns over 30 percent of her body, breathing through a respirator in the hospital — but breathing.”

I learned in another ABC news article from 2013 that Cecelia survived to adulthood, raised by her aunt and uncle, and that her story was featured in a documentary called Sole Survivor about those who were the only survivor of a plane crash. Fascinating. 

This story about Cecelia and her mother Paula who saved her with her child with her own body is, like the story of Jesus on the cross, a story with multiple meanings. It’s a tragedy.

It’s a story about love.

It’s a story about sacrifice

It’s a story about death.

It’s a story about life.

What does it mean?

Rather than trying to distill that question down to a manageable one sentence theology of the atonement, may we train ourselves to say “It means so many things.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.

The Sermon Remix is a series on this blog where I take a portion of my Sunday sermon and add in relevant links for further investigation and study.

Sermon Remix : Some Thoughts about Baptism and the Book of Order

A few weeks ago I was talking to my sons Clayton and Samuel about baptism.  “It’s when you put water on the baby’s head and the baby officially becomes part of God’s family,” I said. Clayton furrowed his brow and said “But the baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put the water on her head.”

Smart kid. He speaks the truth. Our scripture reading for this morning is one of the stops on the way to Jerusalem that we’ve been taking this Lenten season. The text tells us that Jesus, when he blesses children, says “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them.”

When Jesus is challenged by the disciples on this he says “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

As Presbyterians we baptize babies for this very reason. We remember that we don’t choose God but rather God chooses us, through the mystery of faith. Our book of common worship says 

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established. Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.”

Clearly a baby can not yet do this, but we choose to bring babies before our congregation as a reminder that God has chosen them. We make promises to one another as a community of faith to do our very best to bring the children we baptize up in the church, that they might come to make their own profession of faith one day.  The community is important. How is a child supposed to come back and make his or her own profession of faith if he or she isn’t a part of the community?

This is why our work is only just beginning after the baby is baptized. After baptism we have the hard work of Sunday School training, and Vacation Bible School, we have to get our children involved in faith formation at home and be willing to show our children, by example, what it means to follow Jesus. We don’t simply have a baptism ceremony and walk away. It’s the beginning of a life-long process.

It’s for this reason that our Book of Order requires that at least one parent be a member of our congregation or another congregation for a child to be baptized. The reason is important, and I understand it. Yet I am challenged by how strong our Book of Order is on this. It uses the word “shall” which means it’s a requirement.

A stranger on an airplane once dramatically challenged my view on this requirement. I’m not much of a chatty person on airplanes. I like to put on headphones and listen to music or podcasts. This one particular flight, though, I got to talking with the person next to me. When she learned I was a minister she said, 

“I never went to church, ever, growing up. When my daughter was born, I wanted to have her baptized, but nobody would do it. I called every church in town but they all said no because we didn’t belong. After that I decided we didn’t need the church.”

Those words “we didn’t belong” really stuck with me. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To think of a mother who wanted to explore this mystery of faith for her newborn child and was constantly told “no.”

If she called a Presbyterian Church, I imagine that the pastors she talked to were thinking of our Book of Order that requires a parent to be a member in order for a child to be baptized. And yet, strict adherence to that requirement ensured that a woman and her daughter never ever set foot in a church again because they didn’t belong. How tragic. How unlike Jesus.

Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.”

What might have happened if just one of those churches my seat mate called had said “yes”? What if this woman and her daughter received such a warm welcome in to God’s family that they decided to stay and learn more and be transformed by God’s love? I think the church messed up when we said no to that woman and her daughter, when we said they didn’t belong. It’s not actually true, in my opinion. They do belong. Jesus says so. 

Our own Book of Order says

“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation.” 

I’m grateful for that word “ordinarily” because I think it provides some room, perhaps, to say “yes” to someone like that seat mate of mine who came searching for her daughter, some room to say “This whole thing isn’t about us anyway, it’s about God who chooses us even when we don’t choose God.” Ordinarily, yes, we bring our children to baptism out of a community, to stay in that community and grow up in faith. But there may be times, I think, when God uses the sacrament of baptism to actually bring people to faith.  Who are we to stop them?

“The baby is always a part of God’s family, even before you put water on her head.”

Truer words were never spoken.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says.

“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon Remix: Elijah and the Prophets of Ba’al

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39 

The Hebrew Scriptures of our Bible, what we call the “Old Testament” are full of what I like to call “flashy” stories. Sure, the New Testament has some pretty flashy stuff as well and Jesus being raised from the dead is the flashiest of them all, but when it comes to a nice dramatic story, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is just about the flashiest story of all.

The story starts out with Elijah, the prophet, asking his people a question: “How long will you go around limping between two options? If the LORD is God, than follow him, but if it’s Baal, then follow him.”

What a great question How long will you go around limping between two options? You can hear Elijah’s frustration as he asks the question. Baal is sort a false god who is contrasted with Yahweh, Elijah’s God, the God of Judaism and Christianity. In our story, Elijah is seriously outnumbered. There are 450 prophets of Baal, but only one of him. He proposes a test – the prophets of Baal will put a bull on an altar, and so will he. Then they will wait to see which God burns up the offering with fire. The prophets of Baal go first. They cut up their bull and wait for Baal to burn it up with fire. Nothing happens. The prophets of Baal start to get nervous, walking around and around. They even cut their arms with swards — highly dramatic. Elijah isn’t a very gracious competitor at this point. He starts taunting them “Maybe your god is on vacation” he says “Perhaps he’s snoozing and you need to wake him up?”  Now it’s Elijah’s turn to put Yahweh to the test. He’s not messing around. Instead of just asking Yahweh to rain fire down on the offering, he decides to be a bit more dramatic about it. Elijah asks the people to dig a ditch around the offering. Then they pour water all over the offering and fill the ditch with the water. Elijah wants to be very clear: Yahweh will not only send fire, the fire will burn up the offering and all of the water. So now it’s time for the big showdown. Elijah is very plain in his request to Yahewh, he says “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”  I find this part of the story really compelling as well because Elijah is proving, by his request to Yahweh that the whole point of this show is to bring glory and honor back to Yahweh. “Answer me so that this people may know you.” Not “answer me so I save face” not “answer me because all of these people are depending on me.” Answer me so that this people may know you are God.

God answers the prayer, loudly and clearly. God answers, clearly and unequivocally. The fire consumes the stone, the offering and the dust. It even licks up the water in the trench. 

I’d like to lift up a few things about this passage and what it might be saying to us about living a devoted and faithful life as we try to live our faith in the world.

First, Elijah, though he is outnumbered 450 to one believes that Yahweh is important enough to take a stand for  He starts with that important question “how long will you go around limping between two options?” Elijah knows something important: the prophets of Baal are worshipping a false God.  As I read this story, I’m not so interested in thinking about it in the sense of “my God is better than your God.” That is, I’m not convinced that the message for us, here, as we listen to this story is that we ought to prove to faithful adherents of other faiths that Yahweh will win some sort of contest. On the contrary, I believe Christians are called to interfaith dialog and understanding. I am interested, though, in speaking up against the false gods of our time. We might each define the false gods of our time in different ways. One way for me to identify them, I think is to look for the “ism” words: consumerism, materialism, narcissism,, sexism, racism, nationalism. These are the false gods that we’re asked to speak out against in our age and culture. When we’re asked to bow down to the god of the marketplace, the god of owning the most stuff, the god of “whatever I need and want must be best” the god that my gender, my race, my country are the best. These are the baals of our time. Sometimes we try to dabble in both worlds, just like the folks in our story. What would Elijah say? How long will you go around limping between two options.

The next thing I’d like to lift up about Elijah from this story is that he’s willing to do the work to bring people along. When Elijah first makes his proposal that the people are wavering between false gods and Yahweh, the text says that the people were silent. They didn’t even speak a word. When it’s time to put Yahweh to the test, though, Elijah has brought them along. He builds the altar, he cuts up the bull, he gets people to haul the water. It makes me think of the work that we do in our community and in the world to speak out against the false gods of our time. It’s hard work, and if we’re doing it right, we’re not doing it alone, we’re drawing others in to the story with us.

Finally, Elijah is letting God be God in this story. At the beginning of this chapter, in a part that we didn’t read this morning, we learn that this whole thing is taking place so that the drought can end. Why is this important? Well, two things: one it makes the water part all that much more impressive. Elijah is pouring water on the offering to show that it’s not spontaneously combusting. Second, Baal is supposed to be the god of storms, so if the drought ends without this “showcase of the gods” the people might take it to mean that Baal has gotten his power back. We already talked about the fact that Elijah is outnumbered here, but I didn’t mention yet that this whole showdown is taking place on Mt. Carmel. Guess where Baal is supposed to live? That’s right. Mt. Camel. So all of these prophets of Baal are actually allegedly on Baal’s home turf here. There is so much stacked up against Elijah in this story. So much. He knows that if he does “win” this encounter, it will be for one reason, and one reason only: Yahweh is truly God. It’s not that Elijah isn’t righteous (he is), it’s not that Elijah didn’t work hard (he did) but the offering is burned up for one reason alone and it’s this: The Lord, indeed is God. The Lord, indeed, is God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and sustainer of us all, Amen.

The Age of the Spirit

Happy Birthday, church! Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit coming to the early church. To me, it’s one of the most exciting days of the church year, right up there with Easter and Christmas. It’s a huge celebration, a party. There is much to be thankful for when we come to church on Pentecost. We come to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the third person in our three person trinity. Christians believe in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Holy Spirit are distinct, but also the same. They are completely different and absolutely all the same. Christians believe in one God, not three.  If that’s hard for you to grasp, I have good news: nobody understands the trinity. Even theologians whose job it is to understand the trinity don’t understand the trinity. We try to explain it with symbols like the fleur de lis or a shamrock, but we always fall into some sort of heresy when we try to explain it.  This week, in preparation for Pentecost I’ve been reading a wonderful book about the Holy Spirit called The Age of the Spirit by theologian Phyllis Tickle. The book takes me back to seminary a little bit with all of the history of Christian theology it contains. The book traces the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit throughout Christianity in the East and West and talks about some of the questions Christians have had about the Spirit and how we have resolved them (or not, sometimes!)  It’s fascinating stuff, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who is looking for some theological brain food.

It is through this book The Age of the Spirit that I became acquainted with a theologian named Joachim of Fiore (or, if you want to be fancy and use his Italian name it’s Gioacchino da Fiore). Joachim of Fiore lived from 1135 to 1202. Before I go any farther with this, can we pause to think about that fact for just a second? This person that I learned about this week died 814 years ago. Eight hundred and fourteen years ago. And yet, when you hear about his theory, it’s going to sound so modern to you… so unbelievable. His theory was this, that modern history could be thought of in three relative ages that correspond with the three persons of the Trinity, first the age of the Father, which he said characterized the Old Testament. Makes sense, right? The Old Testament is full of all of those wild stories about obedience to the law, and a strong sense of the majesty and holiness of a God who is wholly other. Second was the age of the Son, the age in which the New Testament was written and understood. The third age, the age of the Spirit, was the age in which was to come, an age in which Christians would relate to the Spirit most of all. Phyllis Tickle’s book references this and asks the question “What if we’re living in that age, right now?” What if the age of the spirit that Fiore was pointing to is the age in which the are living at this very moment. It makes sense, I think, that we would be living in the age of the Spirit. After all, as Tickle reminds us, there was a time when it was easy and normal for Christians to pray directly to Jesus Christ, but this doesn’t seem exactly right to us now. It seems as if the Holy Spirit is becoming the more relatable person of the Trinity these days. Does that make sense to you? It does to me, for sure. Of the three persons in the trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, the Spirit feels the most accessible in this day and age. Even people who don’t easily recognize themselves as Christians identify with the Spirit and spirituality. Have you ever met someone who says they are “spiritual, but not religious?” A lot of times people who talk about being spiritual but not religious are actually invoking language and traditions about the Holy Spirit that go back thousands of years. Part of our job as Christians, I think, is to interpret the Holy Spirit and to remind people that that spirituality they claim is part of our tradition, that the Spirit they identify with is that same Spirit present all the way at the beginning of our story, literally. In the second verse of the bible, Genesis chapter 1 verse two we read that the “spirit was hovering over the waters.” The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach and it is the same word as breath.

What is it that this ruach has to say to us now, today? I think to understand our faith presently, we can gain a lot of insight by going all the way back to the early church and think about what life was like for those earliest Christians. At that time, Christians didn’t call themselves Christians, the believers were Jewish in every sense, sticking to Jewish laws and customs and also following Jesus, but it didn’t stay that way. Soon other believers, people who had nothing to do with Judaism and didn’t necessarily want to started following Jesus. Again I am quoting from the book the Age of the Spirit “It became apparent to all that the beloved community had a problem… Were these gentiles, these pagans, really Christians or merely lookalikes and wannabes? Every evidence of genuine belief was in their lives and in their conduct.” To decide if followers of Christ had to become Jewish before accepting Jesus, a conference called the Jerusalem Conference was held, the evidence of which shows up in the book of Galatians and the book of Acts. We know what the result is, or we wouldn’t be here today. The believers decided that no, one did not have to become Jewish to follow Christ. Thus is the beginning of what I see as a long, consistent history of Christianity’s tradition of welcome and inclusion and embracing outsiders. Yes, it is true that Christianity has spent a lot of time trying to decide who is “inside” and who is “outside” of the faith, but isn’t it also true that we have often discovered that this faith we proclaim is much broader and wider than we ever imagined? Christianity has spread and grown and thrived and lasted for thousands of years and has grown to include believers from all corners of the earth. This is certainly the work of the Spirit. On this Pentecost Sunday it might be good for us to meditate a little bit on what the Spirit has done over the past two thousand years and what the Spirit might be doing in this time and age. As I look at the world around us, I see the Spirit inviting us to continue to open our minds and our hearts and see how broad Christ’s message is. I believe the “spiritual but not religious” around us might just find that the Spirit they so know and love is not a new thing, but that same Spirit that was hovering over the deep in Genesis, and present at the baptism of Jesus, and like tongues of fire coming down on the people at Pentecost. People often talk about “new age” faith, but the Spirit is actually as old as the creation of the world.

Our scripture for today tells us “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” The Spirit delights and surprises. The Spirit shows up when we least expect it to. Our job is to listen for the Spirit and to not be surprised when it shows up in strange and unexpected places.

I have been surprised and delighted to see the Spirit showing up all over the place at Northwood  in ways that ring true to that verse “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”  I hear the sound of the Spirit as women gather, monthly, to work on Days for Girls kits to send all around the world. I don’t know where that is coming from or where it is going. I hear the Sound of the Spirit as I listen to our new Parish Associate, Krin, talk about his journey to ministry (it’s a great story that I hope you all get to hear sometime). I don’t know where our friendship with Krin has come from or where it is going. I hear the sound of the Spirit when I hear Owen talk about plans for a Choir Camp this summer or Jamie talk about what is happening with the youth. I don’t know where those things have come from or where they are going. Ministry to our community, ministry in Zambia. The Spirit is present. We hear its sound, but we can’t really control it, it blows where it pleases. Our job, then, is to be open to receiving it, to welcome it, and to follow where it leads. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.

Sermon Remix: Spiritual Spring Cleaning II


We are finishing our two-part series on “Spiritual Spring Cleaning” this week.  Last week we talked about how our material possessions can weigh us down and we considered how “living lighter” might affect is spiritually.  This week we are going to continue with that, but instead of thinking about the possessions that weigh is down, we are going to consider some of the attitudes and beliefs that we carry that might be weighing is down. What beliefs do we carry around that cause us to get stuck?  As we think about how to answer this, we’ll look to our passage for this morning, Matthew 19. We’re looking at two passages: the passage where Jesus talks about letting the children come to him and the passage known as the “rich young ruler” passage. They come one right after the other in our chapter, and their contrast is good food for thought.

In the first passage, the passage about letting children come to Jesus, we read that children were coming to Jesus and that some of the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, were shooing the children away. Jesus tells the Pharisees no, “let the children come to me because such it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Immediately after that, Jesus runs into a person who asks him the pointed question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, but the young ruler persists. “Which ones?” he wants to know. Jesus lists off some of the commandments and also adds “also love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man assures Jesus that he’s kept all of these and wants to know what more he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he should sell all of his possessions, give his money to the poor and then come back and follow Jesus. This, the scripture tells us, is too much for the young man, and he goes away full of grief, because he cannot do what Jesus is asking here.

I read a sermon this week called “It begins with a child” that talks about the rich young ruler:”The rich young ruler has status. He’s obeyed the law since he was a child, but he hasn’t kept his child-like-ness. He wears his achievements and his riches like an honour. He comes with all the trappings of wealth and walks away sad because he cannot leave these things to come empty-handed to follow Jesus. He did not realize that the Kingdom begins where people are.”

I loved the way that writer put it, the rich young ruler has obeyed the law, but he lost his “child-like-ness.” It makes me wonder a little bit what it is about the faith of children that Jesus is lifting up when he says “It is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” and, more specifically, what is it that Jesus is lifting up that is over and against what the rich young ruler highlights in his conversation with Jesus.

In honor of child-like-ness and, just for fun, I thought we’d all benefit a little from these sweet anecdotes of the ways that children understand faith sometimes:

One parent says

  • I had been teaching my three-year-old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: “Lead us not into temptation,” she prayed, “but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.”
  •  And one particular four-year-old prayed, “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
  • A little boy was overheard praying: “Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it. I’m having a real good time like I am.
  • A [Sunday] school teacher asked her children, as they were on the way to church service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping.”
  • Six-year-old Angie and her four-year-old brother Joel were sitting together in church. Joel giggled, sang, and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough. “You’re not supposed to talk out loud in church.” “Why? Who’s going to stop me?” Joel asked. Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, “See those two men standing by the door? They’re hushers.”
  • A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’ “Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus!”
  • A [Sunday] school class was studying the Ten Commandments. They were ready to discuss the last one. The teacher asked if anyone could tell her what it was. Susie raised her hand, stood tall, and quoted, “Thou shall not take the covers off the neighbor’s wife.”

Those are great, right? I love seeing the world through the eyes of children, and particularly faith. I’ve come up with three things that I think children have when it comes to faith that maybe the rich young ruler didn’t have anymore. Let’s think about these as we consider our own spiritual spring cleaning this week.

First, children have freedom from possessions. It’s not that children don’t have a favorite toy or get caught up in the trappings of materialism. I know they do. It’s that children don’t rely on them in the same way that the rich young ruler did or does. Children don’t necessarily even understand money and earning and where things come from in the same way that adults do. I remember my childhood view of a checkbook. To me, it was just a piece of paper on which someone could write down what they wanted and… poof! There it was. The ruler in our story, though, understands his possessions in a very different way than the children coming to Jesus to be blessed. For him, possessions are literally standing in the way of Jesus.  I wonder how that is for us, and if we can relate.

Second, children have freedom from the law. This ruler is so concerned with getting it right and doing it right. Even his initial question is flawed: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As if there is something that he can do, as if grace is not freely given but rather earned by some acts of righteousness. In my experience children do not experience faith in this same way. They are aware of experience, and ritual, celebration and laughter, but they’re not trying to earn God’s favor. They’re just living their lives.

Finally, children have freedom from answers. For the young ruler, every question that Jesus answers is just the start of another question. When Jesus says “Obey the commandments” he wants to know which ones. When Jesus answers that, there are even more questions. It’s not that children don’t have questions… it’s that they are not bound to them in the same way. They seem to be content with not knowing. Sometimes the younger they are, the easier it is for them to live in a sea of not knowing. Before I went to seminary I taught Spanish to elementary aged children, Kindergarten through 5th grade. The philosophy we used was gradual immersion where students just had to start to pick up on what was being said as we spoke Spanish almost 100% of the time. The younger the child, the easier it was for that child to follow along. My theory was that, in kindergarten, you already have no idea what’s going on, so what’s a little Spanish going to hurt? The older the children got, though, the more frustrated they were when they didn’t understand. I think it’s not all that different with faith. The older we get, the less content we are with the world around us, the more we try to figure it out.

Children have a lot to teach us about faith and “living light.” Their views are often simple, uncomplicated. They don’t know everything, and they’re not afraid to admit that. What would it mean for us to put more “child-like-ness” into our daily experience of faith? What would we have to let go of or clean out? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of us all, Amen.






Sermon Remix: Spring Cleaning Part 1

If a flood came and washed away everything you owned, or a fire burned every single possession in your home to the ground, what would you miss the most?

I remember about 6 years ago Elias and I were on a short term Presbyterian Disaster Assistance work project to help some folks in Iowa who had experienced flooding up to the ceiling. The woman whose house we were helping to clean and gut told us the story, “It’s fine, because it’s only things,” she said. “There was just this one thing…”  she said, and her voice trailed off. She told us about this box of photos she had, and how they floated away. She saw them floating, down the street (I don’t remember the details of how) but she said the pain of that was too much to bear. I remember her saying that it was the only thing she wished she hadn’t lost. “The photos,” she said. “I wish I still had them. There was no item of clothing or jewelry or book that she would have liked to have had. No DVD or plastic tchotchke she really wished was still around. Those photos, though. What a loss.

What’s the one possession you value the most? What’s the thing you treasure the most?

When Elias moved to the United States he he took English classes at the International Institute in Detroit. It was a wonderful community of English language learners that helped him in so many ways. Not only were there folks from all over the world there, learning English together, but they talked about North American culture, in addition to learning English. A few weeks after moving here we were driving around and Elias shouted “Stop! Stop!” I slammed on the brakes, a little alarmed.

“What?!” I exclaimed. “What is it?”

“I think that’s a garage sale! I want to see it! I learned about it in my class! It’s a sale where when you have so many things, you sell them from your garage!”

I chuckled a little bit and agreed to stop so we could admire this North American cultural phenomenon.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” I said. “What do you do with all of your extra stuff in Colombia?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I guess we don’t have that much extra stuff. Or if we do, we just give it to our families.”

It makes you think, a little bit, doesn’t it? All the stuff. We have lots of stuff. Where does it come from? Plastic things. Extra clothes. Toys. Paperwork. We have a lot of stuff lying around, especially in our North American culture.

Consider these mind-blowing studies and statistics:

  • There are 300,000 items in the average North American home.
  • One British study found that the average 12 year old owns over 200 toys but plays with about 12 of them. I have to assume this is the same (or worse) in the U.S.
  • The size of the average North American home has tripled in the past 50 years

When Charles and Melissa Johnson left for Zambia, we helped them make a video that would interpret their call to mission service. I remember one of the things Melissa says on this video about what it was like to sell most of the things in their house. She says, “I just realized that I don’t need all of these things stacked around me. I don’t need all these cups. I don’t need these glasses.”

All of these things stacked around me. It sort of rings in my ear, sometimes.

There’s a website called “” It’s pretty simple. All you do is enter your net annual net income and it will tell you how wealthy you are compared to the rest of the world. If you earn $50,000 per year, you are in the top .31% of income earners in the world. If you make $12,000 per year, you’re in the top 14% of income earners in the world and if you were to earn just $2,000 per year, just $41 per week, you’d still be richer than 60% of the whole world.

Globally speaking, we are the richest of the rich, and we have a lot of stuff. Maybe too much stuff at times. We have broken things, plastic things. We have shoes we don’t wear, clothes we don’t need. We have stuff in storage units and our garage. It’s overwhelming sometimes, all of the stuff.

And what of all of these possessions? Do we find joy in them? Do they make us happy? Actor Jim Carrey says “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed so they can see it’s not the answer.” It’s so tempting, isn’t it, to think that a bigger house or better car or more space will make us happy and bring us joy, but we know it’s a lie. The stuff stacks around us, and it actually encumbers us, sometimes. We always think we’ll be happier with just 20% more than what we actually have, no matter how much it is that we have.

Jesus said these words “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?

This morning I’m excited to announce an event our church will be hosting on June 11th — that’s about six weeks from now. It’s called “NPC Spring Cleaning.” Here’s what’s going to happen. On that day a 24 foot long semi truck is going to show up in our parking lot. The list of all of the things that we can put on the truck is here. I mean, you can put almost anything on this truck — except furniture. If you have furniture you need to get rid of, talk to me, because we can maybe come up with a separate plan for furniture if enough people need to get rid of it.  But anything else we can put on the truck. Electronics. Sporting goods. Clothes. Appliances. The stuff doesn’t need to even be in good working order. It can be broken. The truck is not going to the dump, it’s going to be recycled, repurposed, reused and resold. If it looks like we (and our friends) are about to fill up the 24 foot long semi, there will be another one on deck ready for us to fill. We could potentially fill up two 24 foot long semis with all of the stuff that we and our friends don’t need. We might find extra space in our garages, in our living rooms, in our closets, and most importantly, in our lives. Here’s the best part: we get paid for everything we put on that truck, even if it’s broken. Even if it’s a hideous shirt from the early 80s.

In addition to getting paid for most of our stuff, we are also going to spend a little bit of money to get something else out of our lives: paper and documents. A secure shredding service is coming to help us get rid of old paper that is clogging up our church and homes. If you have a lot of paper waste that it’s time to shred in a secure way, bring it on June 11th! The service is secure, the boxes are locked, and when it’s shredded, we’ll get a certificate of destruction ensuring us that our documents have been properly shredded. Poof. All the excess, all the paper, all the clutter… let’s get it out.

Getting rid of excess and simplifying our lives isn’t so much about cleaning up our space, although that’s certainly nice, it’s a spiritual practice. I live what Thoreau says about this:

“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify, simplify! Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”

Elevation of purpose. How can the process of taking a look at the things we own lead to a sense of elevated purpose? I think this might be the journey we can consider for the next six weeks or so as we do it together.

Here are some more details about this amazing and fun plan for June 11th:

  1. If you need boxes, we’ll have some next week so you can get started
  2. If you like to be on social media, there’s a Facebook Event page for you to post pictures of your progress if you want so that you can keep motivated. Use the hashtag #NPCSpringCleaning
  3. One of the things that I’m most excited about for this project (besides the fact that it will be a nice fundraiser for us, I think we can expect to earn several thousand dollars) is that we will be recycling and keeping things out of landfills, especially electronics. Interestingly, electronics are the things that are hardest for folks to get rid of (who wants to buy that old flip phone and mp3 player?) yet they’re the biggest money makers for this fundraiser. One of the things that you might consider doing is placing an electronics recycling drop off box in your neighborhood or workplace or friend’s church. Help the planet. Help Northwood.
  4. You can participate at whatever level you’d like. Maybe you’ll want to bring just one box of extra things. Maybe you’ll want to go through every room in your whole house.

We, my friends, are rich. Very rich. Rich in possessions, rich in Christ’s love and mercy. Let’s come to the table this morning remembering the first line of the Psalm we read this morning “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of us all. Amen.

Resources for further study:

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker

Sermon Remix: Sabbath as Relinquishing Control

How do people answer the question “How are you?”

“Fine”, or “good,” Am I right?

After that, what do you think the next most popular answer is?

I think it’s busy.

It’s almost like a reflex. How are you? Busy. The thing about busy as an answer (and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone) is that it doesn’t say very much at all. One can be busy and content, or busy and devastated. Busy tells others that we’re doing a lot, but it doesn’t tell them what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.

Today we’re talking about Sabbath as relinquishing control.

Have you ever met a busy person who seems to have all of the time in the world… just for you? Have you ever met someone for whom time seems to multiply? They seem to be manufacturing time, these people. Where do they find the time? How do they do everything they do? I think Mark Buchanan in his book The Rest of God has it right. He argues that there’s an irony to time, that the more we try to keep time and hang on to it, the less time we actually have. The more we give away, the more we have. He writes:

Hoarding is only wasting. Keeping turns into losing. And so the world of the stingy shrinks. Skinflints, locked into a mind of scarcity, find that the world dwindles down to meet their withered expectations. Because they are convinced there isn’t enough, there never is. This all relates to Sabbath-keeping. Generous people have more time. That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away — who treat time as a gift and not a possession — have time in abundance. Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough. They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven. There is, of course, a place for wise management of our days and weeks and years. But management can quickly turn in to rigidity. We hold time so tight we crush it, like a flower closed in the fist. We thought we were protecting it, but all we did was destroy it.

Writer Annie Dillard says it much more succinctly when she says “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” When we spend our days savoring pancakes with our grandchildren or when we spend our days listening, really listening to our friends and neighbors, we practice sabbath. I love to tell the story of Bruce, a mentor from college who refused to pick up the ringing phone when we were having a conversation. When I asked if he needed to get it, he said “I’m talking to you.” Time multiplies when we give it away. When we let go of having to do every little thing, we find time we never knew we had.

We live in the age of “multi-tasking” — we think we can do more than one thing at the same time, like watch TV and knit a sweater, or talk on the phone and do the dishes, or listen to a sermon and send text messages. (I’m kidding on that last one. Clearly no one does that, right?) Research suggests that multitasking is a myth, though. Our brains can’t multitask, we can only switch our attention, sometimes very rapidly, from one thing to another. The irony of multitasking is that it takes us twice as long to get tasks done when we multitask and the time we thought we were saving we were actually losing.

To practice Sabbath as relinquishing control is to consider that maybe we can’t fix every problem we think we can. This is a challenging message for a lot of us, especially if we’re achievement driven and want to succeed in the world. We want to fix things, build things, make things better. We believe that if we work harder and put forth more effort more things will be fixed, the things we build will be stronger and taller and all that is wrong in the world will be resolved. Maybe, but the scripture reminds us this is not always so: For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under the sun. To practice Sabbath is to recognize that not all problems are fixable, not all things are under our control. Sometimes we must simply rest.

A writer friend recently quoted someone who said “Honoring Sabbath means letting go of our treasured illusions of being indispensable.”  (I think this person is the original source). We are important, certainly, but we have choices about how to spend our time, and the answer is not always send one more email or go to one more meeting.

I love Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and I may have quoted it before from this pulpit, but it’s just so good, and so appropriate to this topic: 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

When we practice sabbath we recognize that everything, including us, dies, and way too soon. The way we spend our time matters. If we’re not careful, we’ll blink and 100 years will be behind us.

I’ve been focusing most of this message on the need to slow down and relinquish control when we feel like there is too much to do and not enough time, but I want to shift our attention a little bit to the opposite struggle: what to do when we have too much time, but not enough purpose. There are stages in life and people connected to us who are feeling this. People who are being crushed under the weight of too much time: stay at home parents who are trying to find meaning and purpose while staying at home with small babies and children who can’t engage in meaningful conversation, people whose illnesses require them to sit in chairs, or even lie down in bed for hours, days, weeks, months at a time, people who are in the last years of life and have no children, or parents, or relatives or friends. For some, time is an ocean, and they’re drowning. I’ve got some specific people in my mind who fit this description. They’re people who are connected to this congregation, but they are, somehow, on the very margins. I visit them from time to time, but not nearly as much as I wish I could. One of the things I love about Northwood is how well we take care of one another. I talked about this last week: If someone is in need, there’s often a whole crowd of people to help fill that need. I’ve felt a growing, gnawing sense that I should simply bring this need to you, then, in the hopes that we might be able to help these folks who are drowning under an ocean of time. I’ve worried about it, though, because everyone I know in our congregation is already so busy. Yet, as I think about this idea that time multiplies when we give it away, I feel compelled to throw it out there and see what happens. I’m thinking of five or six people on the borders of our community who could use a regular visitor, maybe an hour or two every other week. It’s not something that everyone has a calling to do, so please, don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel a calling to this. (I mean it! It would be an utter sermon fail if someone came away from a sermon about Sabbath feeling like he or she needed to do more!) But I do trust that there are a few of us out here who do feel a calling to give some time away to someone. If you think this might be you, please pray about it and we can have coffee and talk about who the people are and what their specific needs might be. We could go on our first visit together. 

In the same spirit, if you’re drowning in time and feeling overwhelmed by it and lonely, please let someone know so you aren’t suffering in silence. Being lonely is nothing to be ashamed of, and our church can (and will) help.

Time. It’s not ours. It never was. It belongs to God. Yesterday Samuel wanted some pecans and I was opening them with a nutcracker. It was a huge mess. I happened to be talking to a friend on Skype while this whole scene was unfolding and she said “Yeah, pecans are tricky, it’s almost like you have to crack them just enough to open them, but not so much that you crush them.” Sort of like time, I think. We want to save it and give it away, but the balance is so hard to come by, so we let it go and we ask God for wisdom and help. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all. Amen.