Be Ready

This is the sermon I preached on January 15, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, MN. The text is Luke 4: 14-30. This was my first sermon in this new call.

Last week at the end of the service we invited you to take a star with a word on it. A word that you were asked to reflect on for the coming year. We want you to place this star somewhere you will see it, whether that’s the refrigerator, your car, your mirror, as a book mark,…somewhere you will see it. Currently my star is sitting on my desk next to my computer, where I am, a lot of the time. The word I received is “readiness”. I thought, “what am I going to do with that?” Then I read this week’s scripture.

I hope and pray that this sermon ends differently than it did for Jesus. I hope you don’t get up and drive me out of town, leading me to the top of Barn Bluff ready to toss me into the river. We really like it here. Also, our old cat, Joe might not be able to take another move.

For me this word readiness, fits right into today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus, having been baptized is sent unceremoniously into the wilderness where is tempted and then returns to the region called Galilee, to Nazareth, his home town. He goes to the synagogue, as was his custom, and he reads a familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This would have been well known to the folks in Nazareth, this is one of those passages that is uplifting, hopeful, a good rah-rah passage. Jesus puts the scroll away and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary rendering of scripture called The Message, it says, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people were pretty impressed. They say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

At this point I imagine the crowd all patting themselves on the back, smiling, and saying “Wow, isn’t that Joseph’s son. He’s grown to be such a good boy.”

Then Jesus gives them a word that they are not ready or willing to hear.

Prophets don’t do well in their own town. He expounds on the story of Elijah saying, “You know there were widows in Israel when famine struck but Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them he was sent to a widow in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha but it was only Naaman of Syria that was cleansed.”

In the retelling of those stories, Jesus is reminding the gathered, the in crowd, the haves, that God has and will always be on the side of the least of these.

Jesus is bringing Good News, but as Rev. Jose Morales, Jr. says, “Good News is not always nice news.”

On this weekend in our national calendar, this story of Jesus bringing a hard word to the in crowd seems appropriate. Jesus’s readiness to deliver a message that he knew wouldn’t sit well with the crowd, but needed to be said is apparent. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for saying some hard words, that he knew wouldn’t sit well but needed to be said, too.

On this, our national holiday celebrating his life we remember the beautiful, soaring, and inspiring words of his “I have a dream” speech, we remember the hopeful words delivered in Oslo, Norway during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a sort of talisman whenever we want to talk about equality, he is remembered as this sweet, loving, kind pastor who everyone liked. But as a student of history I know that this was not the case. It seems that at times we have not been ready to hear the Good News in Dr. King’s message but we have chosen only to hear the nice news.

This week I was reminded of the words from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. These are words, I do not like, I do not find comfort in them, they are not inspiring. They are convicting, they are real, they are most certainly GOOD NEWS.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Every time I read this letter, I am pulled up short here. I have yet to be ready to hear these words.

I feel like, I am a person of good will, it seems that you are all people of good will. The people in the crowd that Jesus was talking to were people of good will.

It seems as if the people of Nazareth were people of good will but they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready for the not so nice, Good News, that Jesus was proclaiming. They weren’t ready to hear that they didn’t get any special treatment from God or Jesus because they were the children of Abraham or from his hometown.

The Good News, but not nice news, is and was that the “year of the Lord’s favor” was for all, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Good and nice News is that God loves you, just as you are, no strings attached. The Good and not so nice news is, that love extends to those outside the in crowd, those people you might not like very much.

The people in Nazareth got angry, got violent, because Jesus told them something that they were not ready to hear, that the God’s love wasn’t only for them, God’s justice wasn’t only for them, God’s love was for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the immigrant, the Jew, the Muslim, the unbelievers, those in the LGBTQ community, those of all races, those people whom we might find to be unforgivable. God’s love extends to all. This is the Good News of the Gospel.

May we be ready not only to hear the Good News, but let us be ready to live the Good News, even if it isn’t nice news.

May it be so.

Prophetic Promise

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE on November 13, 2016. The sermon text was Isaiah 6: 1-8.

Audio from the sermon can be found here.

Over the last year and a half, we have been using something called the Narrative Lectionary, it’s a system that selects the readings for us, attempting to walk us through the broad story of scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

Today’s reading comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

It begins, “In the year King Uzziah died…”

As Rev. Marci Glass says, “Biblical scholars love verses like that because dating a biblical text is so difficult. But King Uzziah! We know that. He died in 742 BCE.

King Uzziah had reigned for five decades in relative peace and stability. King Uzziah died as Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, Assyria which was a vast military power in the area was coming closer and closer to Jerusalem. It would be just another 16 years before the Northern Kingdom of Israel would fall to Assyria. So the year that King Uzziah died was an uncertain time for the people of Israel, there was a lot of anxiety in the country about what their future might be.

Isaiah goes to the temple, this house that Solomon built, a holy place where God is and he has this vision. He sees God sitting on a throne so high and lofty, so large, that it is only a bit of the hem of God’s robe that fills the vast temple where Isaiah is standing. There are six-winged seraphs shouting, not of God’s might, but of God’s holiness. They are praising God so loudly that this magnificent building begins to shake.

What a powerful vision! Isaiah’s response is immediately: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips. Do you remember Wayne’s World from the early 90s “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”

As soon as he sees God’s holiness, his own sinfulness becomes apparent to him. This is actually why our worship services are structured the way they are to this day. We begin with a call to worship and a song that gives praise to God. And John Calvin believed that as soon as you praise God’s goodness, you can’t help but recognize your own lack of the very same qualities. And so it is appropriate to go immediately to confession and then an assurance of your forgiveness.

Before we can become who we want to be in Christ, we must first be humbled to recognize how far we have to go. Isaiah had a good track record before this, he had a faithful life up until this point. Just as each of you has led a good life, you have helped others along the way. But all of us, when in the presence of holiness, know that we have fallen short of the glory of God.

Rev. Glass suggests, “The point is that in the middle of a particular moment in human history, Isaiah finds himself transported into the presence of God. There was a particular moment in Isaiah’s faith journey when he needed God in a new or different way. And I could give you a whole sermon on Assyria, Babylon, exile, and what was happening for Isaiah.

But I’m more interested in what is happening in our lives that requires God’s in-breaking now. Perhaps it is “In the year that the Cubs won the World Series….”. Or maybe it is more like “In the year my loved one was diagnosed with cancer….” or “In the year I lost my job….”

We all have moments in time—moments of celebration or moments of pain— when the particular context in which we find ourselves helps us realize that God is calling us to respond in a particular way.”

I’d like to propose a particular historical location where I think we are today. “In the year our pastor left.”

Over the last two weeks, the news that is both exciting, nerve wracking, and sad is that my wife and I have been called to a new congregation. Which means that now we are beginning a transition process.

Yesterday, members of the session met with our Committee on Ministry liaison to start to talk about the process for which you will undertake in the coming months. The session will have many decisions to make and I trust that they will make them prayerfully and faithfully. Also, you as a congregation will have many decisions to make and I trust that you will make them through prayer and discernment. Even each of you individually will need to make decisions. I know that God will be with you throughout this process.

Much like the seraph in Isaiah’s vision, they were shouting “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” God’s glory is not only in Jerusalem, not only in Israel, not only in the Presbyterian Church or the worldwide church. The whole earth is full of God’s glory. God is near wherever you may find yourself. I read a great sermon this week on this passage:

“The whole earth is full of God – all time, all space – and it is because God is here, because there is as much of the Holy Ghost in this place as ever there was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, because the forces of God are unexhausted, because the mighty river of God which is full of water is flowing through this place, that you and I are certain of blessing. I believe that if some people had been in that very upper room itself when the Holy Ghost descended, being blinded by prejudice and passion and worldliness, they would have heard only a noise, they would have perceived no flame. On the other hand, if Peter or John were sitting where you are now, their faces would be lighted up with supernatural light and they would say “Did you not see? Did you not hear? God is here. The great God has come down from the heavens to bless these people. God has promised and he has come.”

God is near. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.

Once Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness, a live coal that had been taken from the altar was touched to his lips and he was told that his sins were blotted out and that his guilt had departed. And immediately he heard the voice of the LORD saying “Whom shall I send and who shall go for us?” and Isaiah replied “Here I am, send me!” He didn’t yet know to what. But he had been called in the fire of the coal, just as we are called in baptism. In baptism, we die to ourselves so that we can rise with Christ, living for Jesus in a world that needs to hear his message.

In the midst of precarious situations, like Isaiah was in, like our church, our nation, and our world is in, the voice continues to ask us. In a broken and fearful world, with injustice everywhere, and with brokenness in our own church, our own town, our own denomination, who will speak for the Lord. By ourselves, we are inadequate. But through God’s grace, we may stand and be his lips, confident in God’s power (not ours), that we too can express “Here am I. Send me.”

God is here. God has promised and God has come. You are the message bearers in this time to that reality. The world needs to know of God’s holiness, of Jesus’ compassion, of the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

To that end, I will be inviting you to the baptismal font during the offering to remember that you have been baptized and called for such a time as this. When you come forward I will make a sign of the cross on your hand and say “Remember your baptism, remember your calling and be thankful.” To which you may reply “Here am I. Send me.”

Like Isaiah, we come for God in the sanctuary, we take God with us. Here am I, send me.

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.

Amplify. Amplify. Love. Love. Listen. Listen.

Hearing God in Conversation

I am convinced that one of the key roles of the church in our time is helping people to see that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular.  That every moment of every day has the potential to be holy and God-filled.  Thus, I was intrigued by the title of the new book “Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere”.


Overall, I found this book very accessible, written in a style that made the pages go quickly.  The author used every day examples that were relatable to my life. As I read through the chapters, the book increased my desire to seek God’s voice in my life.

There were a few issues for me with this book, however. The book is written with exclusively male language for God which I find troublesome.  I believe the author could have made his point while reaching a broader audience had he used inclusive language.  Also, in several chapters the author is discussing ways of encountering God that are long held traditions within the Christian faith such as Lectio Divina and spiritual direction.  He writes as if these were new concepts not ancient ones.

I am glad I read this book and feel like it helped spur me to seek a deeper conversation with God.  Despite my critiques, I would recommend this book to those searching for a more intimate relationship with God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

This book is fabulous. It’s great for young people about to go out into the world. It’s wonderful for soon to be parents as they set their goals and plans for parenthood. It’s a balm for parents who are already riding the roller coaster of parenting reminding them to get back to basics, encouraging them, and assuring them that they are on the right track, or at least there is a track that fits them. 

I will be sharing this book not only with parents, but also, with graduates. 

My parents have always taught me that equality matters that I should judge someone by the content of their character, but I admit that I do not do that. I am a racist. Let me repeat, I AM A RACIST.

I don’t want to be, my parents never taught me to be, but I have learned it through my existence in this world and living all over this country. It’s baffling to me to admit that when I see a black face it causes a myriad of negative reactions. It shouldn’t be this way. My friends in elementary school were of Indian, Peruvian, African, Greek, and European descent. The first people I hung out with in Dallas when I moved at the end of sixth grade were the dudes on the basketball court; they were all black; my neighbor who I spend a lot of time with is black. Yet, my thoughts persist.
I remember the first time I was more athletic than a black guy on my team. It didn’t compute, weren’t black people superior athletes? It’s what I saw when I watched sports, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Lawrence Taylor, and on and on. It was the white guys that were the smart athletes, but not the most athletic, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, John Stockton. I mean, I remember in 1990 Rex Chapman from the Charlotte Hornets, who is white, was in the Dunk Contest. “I thought that’s for black guys.”

I remember the first time a black kid was smarter than me. It didn’t compute, weren’t black people silly, loud, and ignorant? That’s what I saw on TV and in the news. I will say now, looking back, I did not understand the social commentary of In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or the glimpse I got into black culture by staying up late and watching “It’s Showtime at the Apollo”.

In high school, I thought I was being enlightened, by making a differentiation between black people and the “N” word; I even had a Confederate Flag sticker on my truck. I was, no, I am still nervous when I walk in a city and I see a group of black people. I try to play it cool, I try to act like I’m not hyper aware, but the truth is, I am.

I’m not telling you all of this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I’m not telling you this because I want to take some kind of moral high ground. I’m telling you this because I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where the treatment of people is more often than not based on the color of their skin. If you don’t know what I’m talking about there are plenty of places you can read about the struggles of people of color in this country who are just trying to live their life, have some freedom, and pursue happiness just like the rest of us.

It pains me that my next door neighbor has to have conversations with his two sons that I don’t have to have with mine about the realities of dealing with people in authority. It pains me that talking about race is labeled as part of the problem. It pains me that even though, I read about, pray for an end to, and learn about the history of racism in this country there are still deep, deep learnings that I can’t seem to let go of regardless of the number of people of color who I interact with, who are shining examples, who are role models, who are more faithful, and who are more loving than me.

I will continue to listen to the voices that are different than my own. I will continue to do my best to teach my kids differently than I was taught by society. I will continue to recognize when I am being racist, I will continue to call out racism when I see it. I will not let this continue. It can’t continue.

There was a movie that I saw my senior year of high school by John Singleton called Higher Learning. It deals with race, racism, and what can happen if we don’t acknowledge our fears and the let those fears grow into hatred, which leads to violence. The last scene of the movie is one word of text. It says, “UNLEARN”.

I will continue to try and unlearn the racial constructs and narratives that I have been taught and I will pray my kids never learn them.

While at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church last week in Portland, Oregon, I was asked to contribute a blog post to the Presbyterian Outlook regarding dependent care at General Assembly. This has been a long conversation for my wife and I, if you want to know the whole saga you can follow this link.

Here is the text of my post:

“I am so thankful for the new Dependent Care Reimbursement Policy that the Office of the General Assembly made available for the 222nd General Assembly. This solution has been a blessing to our family and is a beautiful third way that helps alleviate some of the stress of parents and caregivers who are called to service as commissioners and advisory delegates to the assembly. This, for us was a giant step forward.

I’m also thankful for the work of the Committee on Local Arrangements who has provided a family room to change diapers, nurse babies, and give kids and parents a place to be while here at the assembly, complete with live streams of the plenary sessions. I am so thankful for all those that helped make it possible for more people with dependents to be a part of this, the signature gathering of our denomination.

In 2012, my wife and I, both Teaching Elders, decided that we would meet my family in Pittsburgh for the 220th General Assembly of the PCUSA as observers, a chance to have a family reunion of sorts. It was a great opportunity for us to see family and connect with colleagues from around the nation, as well as, be a part of the beautiful connectional nature of our church. It was a reunion that Co-Moderator Jan Edmiston described as, “by blood and by baptism.”

We inquired with the Office of General Assembly about the options for childcare, family rooms, etc. as my son was stilling nursing at the time and my daughter was only two years old. The response from the OGA was suboptimal. At the assembly after talking to several people, including COLA, PCCCA, and OGA we were told that the office would take it under consideration.

Two years later, at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit, I was elected as a commissioner from Homestead Presbytery and my wife, again, planned to attend as an observer with our children. My father was volunteering in the newsroom and my mom was an observer. Once again, there were no options for parents or those with dependents; no quiet space to nurse babies, no dedicated space for children to be children, no place for them to be welcome in worship, no place to tend to the needs of people in our charge. Needless to say I was disappointed. 

That’s when Joseph Morrow of Chicago Presbytery and I submitted a commissioner’s resolution regarding, specifically, childcare at General Assembly meetings. Moments before I was to speak on the floor of the plenary I walked to the back of the hall, where I saw a woman huddled next to a stack of chairs nursing her young child. It further strengthened my belief that we could do better as particular churches, as mid councils, and as a denomination. The vote did not go our way, it was referred to the OGA in committee, after a heartfelt debate on the resolution on the floor of plenary, the assembly approved the recommendation to the committee. Our resolution had lost, we were sad and angry, but we are people of the resurrection.

I was so ecstatic to hear the news that the OGA was implementing the Dependent Care Reimbursement Policy. I think that the OGA and COLA have worked together to help those of us with children and dependents to have an opportunity to be here.

There is still some work to do. An overture (05-05) that would amend the Book of Order to require all councils to adopt a dependent care policy was disapproved by a close vote in committee. I would urge this assembly to disagree with the committee when if comes before you and vote to amend G-3.0106. As Overture Advocate, Kathy Stoner-Lasala, Teaching Elder from Great Rivers Presbytery said, “There are many in the cloud of witnesses who are not here. These are excluded disciples.” 

In my own presbytery, there are a significant number of teaching elders with young children, ruling elders with spouses who are sick or in need of care, there are people who have the energy, the passion, and the calling, but they can not answer the call to serve because we have not opened our hearts, minds, and souls to the needs of those with dependents. We have not listened to their struggles; we have not worked together to do better.

I believe the OGA and COLA have done their part, they have answered the call of welcome. I want to thank Joann Lee and the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns for carrying this mantle for so long, I want to thank the OGA and COLA for their work, I want to thank Great Rivers Presbytery , New Castle Presbytery, and Santa Fe Presbytery for picking up the mantle and taking it on. The question, now, is will our sessions, will our presbyteries, will our synods provide a policy that meets the needs of those in their communities?

May it be so.”