Boat Talk

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This sermon mixes historical data with narrative.  Sources for that data:



Mark 1:14-20  The waves slapped against the boat, as they always do.  The perfect percussion and the warm sun could lull the unexperienced fisherman to sleep as they patiently waited for their nets to sink.  But who could sleep now?  Emotions had been churned till they were raw.  No one in Galilee was interested in a nap today.

John the Baptist had been arrested.  The news spread quickly, but no one objected…at least not openly. Everyone in Galilee went about their work, portraying a normal day. Galileans were very skilled at business as usual. It was a façade covering the burning desire for freedom that was always skin deep. 

Galilee had become the center for the Zealot movement.  Their mode of operation was violent guerilla warfare tactics.  Secret conversations were around every corner.  At any time violence could erupt.

Because of the political upheaval Zebedee had introduced “boat talk” to his boys.  Our equivalent here in the Appalachian Mountains would be “barn talk”.  The language isn’t always clean and the subject matter revolves around things we can’t control, like politics and taxes.  Sides are taken, debates ensue and arguments are projected.  Zebedee wanted to keep that talk in his boat, far from the eavesdropping of any political operatives and far from the dinner table.  Boat talk allowed a father to talk openly with his sons about the lessons he has learned living in this tumultuous time.

Zebedee’s boat talk was a platform for old man to impart his wisdom to James and John by illustrating this history of the Roman rule through his own stories.  All of these stories supported his philosophy, which he quoted regularly, “Just keep your heads down and fish.  Romans and Jews will always need fish.”

Zebedee told the story about the slaughter of 2000 Jews that came to the aid of students that studied the law at the temple.  The young men had gone to class to discover a Roman eagle on the entrance.  Feeling that the eagle violated God’s law to have no graven images, they removed it.  The Romans reacted violently by slaughtering these young students.  When the Jews rushed in to help them, the Romans killed indiscriminately.

With a government like this, what choice did young men have?  Hit and run missions, suicide attacks, terrorist-like invasions in palaces were the work of the zealots. Some days it seemed the only way to counteract such cruelty.

This action in addition to the census (the backdrop of the Christian Christmas story) had further fueled hatred for the Romans.  For the Jews land ownership was a religious matter as much as it was a political matter.  Families owned land because it had been given to them by God.  This land gave them the ability to participate in the economy.  God’s plan promoted financial stability for the family and the expectation that this stability would be shared with the less fortunate. Romans government did not honor Jewish culture. The census gave the Romans the data they needed to levy just enough taxes to push the Jew to the breaking point, but not break them.  When the Jews turned to violence, 2000 men were crucified and 20,000 were sold into slavery.  Zebedee, a young man then, resisted the urge.  He survived and insisted his boys do the same.  “Put your head down and fish.” He would say.  “Romans and Jews always need fish.”

But almost thirty years into policies and taxation based on those census numbers had left Galilee and all of Israel in poverty. Political leaders, religious leaders and their minions lived in luxury.  Everyone else barely got by.  The glory days of the Davidic kingdom seemed even more golden when recalled from the shadow of Roman rule.  This was not God’s plan.

What choice did young men have?  Join the Zealots?  Zealots kept small daggers in their cloaks in case violence should give them the opportunity to slit a Roman throat.  Zebedee checked his sons’ cloaks when he could.

These were the stories that James, John, Simeon and Andrew cut their teeth on.

But for the first time, “boat talk” did not seem so draining.  Another option now stood beside Zebedee’s fishing philosophy and zealot violence.

Before his arrest, John the Baptist’s had appeared along the Jordan River side for 6 months.  His pronouncement was clear, “Repent and believe.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Kingdom talk implied a king.  This message was just the sand paper needed to irritate the Romans.  But the John’s kingdom message was not focused on politics.  It focused on the heart.  And no other symbol portrayed that change of heart message more than the rubric of baptism.  Jews were familiar with baptism through the rite of purification.

The priests of the temple had been bought. Rome placed whoever would work with them and for them.  Jewish festivals were honored, but only to keep riots at bay.  Farce described worship.  Ceremonial bathing for women and men, in preparation for many occasions, were always available through the rite of purification.  However, what did the rite offer now?  Was it up to the participant to make the most of it?  When John offered his followers baptism, his crowds were more than happy to partake because he offered an authentic response to what God was doing and was about to do.

Even Zebedee, the old man who encouraged a quiet life of survival, had gone to hear John the Baptist.  Cautiously optimistic, he agreed that John offered an alternative to violence.

Now John the Baptist was gone, sitting in jail, awaiting a trial that may never happen.  Young Jewish men now gravitated again toward the Zealot movement and method.

Zebedee, again, worried for his boys.  Even Simeon and Andrew had been considering what to do.  Young men want to do something besides mend nets and watch fish prices and taxes inflate.  God given disgust as the poor are taken advantage of must have an outlet.  Somebody has to do something.

Read Mark 1:14-20

John the Baptist has a different take on the situation.  This is why the crowds came to him.  John does not lay his criticism solely on the hierarchy with an expectation that change will result.  John included those who had no power.  He challenged them to change their thinking, attitude and behavior.  And he started by speaking of matters of the kingdom.  To the powerless and downtrodden his message is clear:  Live as if the kingdom is here and it begins in your life, heart and mind….right now.

John the Baptist believed that it was God’s job to bring about the vengeance and the Jew’s job to get ready for reckoning.  Fishermen, carpenters and housewives could no longer play the victim.  They were to be held accountable.  The poor have a part in bringing the kingdom and it begins within…repent for the kingdom is near.

When Jesus shows up with a similar message, the hearts and minds of those who would be his closest followers were ripe. “Immediately, they followed him”.

“Boat talk” had prepared the boys for a kingdom on earth – power and might through military strategies, strength and power.  John the Baptist challenges this idea by including those with no power.  But Jesus builds on John’s message by revealing a kingdom of God’s true intent.

Infringed widows and orphans are valued

Children sit on his knee

Sick are healed

Death itself is challenged

For those called to be the original disciples these are unintended consequences.  And they were so challenging, these glimpses of heaven, that the original expectations of national pride and militarism fade into the background.

Our original motives and expectations are challenged when we sign up to do God’s work.  Things never work out like they are supposed to.  But instead of imposing our kingdom (with all your power and influence), I’d like to invite you to look for God’s kingdom…and not only in what you are doing but also who you are becoming.


Spiritual Intimacy on Trinity Sunday

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This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Now that the Holy Spirit of God resides in the hearts and minds of humans (Pentecost), the revelation of all three sides of God is complete. Those three sides are Father the creator, the Son our redeemer and God’s Holy Spirit our sustainer. And this Sunday I will address the topic by highlighting the intimacy between the three sides of God. Once again I will use John S. Dunne’s The Reasons of the Heart quote:

Our minds’ desire is to know, to understand, but our hearts desire is intimacy, to be known, to be understood.  To see God with our mind would be to know God, to understand God; but to see God with our heart would be to have a sense of being known by God, of being understood by God.  

John Dunne’s quote sums up the ebb and flow of a healthy, fulfilling relationship. One side of the coin is knowing the other person in the relationship. I call this “closeness”; John Dunne calls it seeing God with our mind. To be close to God means that I learn all that I can about God through all the means of grace available. But that is only part of the journey. The flip side of the coin is intimacy. John Dunne calls this seeing God with our heart. Intimacy with God means that we feel known and understood by God. (A great example is Psalm 139.)

This ebb and flow of relationship is not unique to God’s prescribed manner of knowing God. Rather, the roots of both sides of the relationship coin outdate human existence.

The nature of God is closeness and intimacy. The intimate nature of God begins in the creation story.   Genesis 1:26 reveals that God the creator was not alone in creation. The use of the plural “us” sets the stage for this monotheistic religion to reveal a deeper understanding of the personhood of this creator. Trinity Sunday gives us a handle on the “us” in 1:26 – Father, Son and Holy Spirit were present during creation. Each knew the other and was known by the other.

Seeking to know God is something I hear preached with great confidence. However, the idea of spiritual intimacy with God is something that I never hear. So today I am zeroing in on intimacy.

Now what I am about to say is true. And you know it is true because you have experienced and felt this truth. Listen up to this: Intimacy only happens when trust is readily available between all parties. Only when you feel that the other person is safe are you willing to open yourself up to be known. The environment of the relationship must be accepting of us, us at our best and us at our worst. Remember to be deeply known means that we offer the best and the worst of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our triumphs and our failures. Only when we offer everything and it is accepted with unconditional love do we experience intimacy.

The Holy Trinity, who existed at creation and beyond, practiced closeness and intimacy. The Holy Trinity, the personhood of God also practices safety and trust. This is who God is. And this is how God wants us to live – in imitation of the Almighty.

A three ringed Trinity insignia can be used as an object lesson. The shared section in the middle can illustrate intimacy.

The creation story also teaches us that we are made in the image of God. We have the desire to be known by others and by God. We long to be deeply understood. Naturally, we desire safety and trust within our relationships so intimacy can happen. This longing that stirs in our souls points to our creation. We are made in the image of God.

Science has discovered the fingerprint of God upon our souls. We have learned that babies that are not nurtured fail to thrive. Essential is the safety of assured care and bonding with a caregiver. Studies prove that the better the care of a child, the more likely a productive and happy the adult will result. The trust factor between child and caretaker is a constant throughout the human life and experience. Even as adults, we need to feel a level of trust in our relationships, an assured acceptance that allows us to drop the façade of perfection and offer all that we are. Giving ourselves in this way means we become vulnerable. We risk rejection and hurt.

Jesus sets the standard for vulnerability. While the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was rolling along, unimpeded, God’s relationship with humans was not so successful. So God poured out a portion of Godself into human flesh and became vulnerable. All of this was in order to communicate God’s love for humankind. To live like Jesus means we seek and cultivate relationship built on trust and adopt vulnerability as our default button.

And that is the challenge for our relationships. Made in the image of God, we desire intimacy. And for intimacy to take place we need to trust. When trust is available, we feel that we can let our guard down and be real or vulnerable. Gone is the façade of perfection and ever present is the freedom to offer our broken selves to God, to our life partner, to our children, to our families and close friends. As we progress in our comfort with vulnerability, we will find that we need less trust. As a result we are more honest with ourselves and others about who we are, our abilities and our limitations.

The desire for intimacy lives deep within us. And so it should, after all it came from God. So work to build trust and respond to that trust with vulnerability. Abandon the masks you so easily don and take up the practice of being real, broken and needy with each other and with God. This is the lesson of the Holy Trinity.

Once upon a time a princess of a great King became of the age of marriage. Now the King loved his daughter and found her to be uncommonly wise for her age. So he, uncommonly, allowed her to choose her husband. The search began and eligible bachelors from all parts of the kingdom descended upon the palace. The princess greeted each one, but never removed the veil that covered her face.

After months had passed and no husband was found, one simple craftsman decided he would seek the hand of the princess. He wanted his place in the line of bachelors before but his forehead carried a significant birthmark. As a child, he received horrific teasing. Memories of those days caused him to doubt that the princess could love him. His decision to enter palace caused him to create a plan to cover his markings. He entered the palace wearing a hat with a feather that covered his forehead. And in order to be doubly assured the princess would not catch is physical fallacy, he borrowed a jeweled walking stick from his fellow craftsman.

Feeling he was ready to preform, he entered the palace with quite a confident gait. Much to his surprise, when he laid eyes upon the princess he felt a tug of affection upon his heart. He wanted to speak quite plainly to her but, out of fear, he proceeded with his plan.

“Dear princess!” He proclaimed, “Your beauty is unmatched. Your eyes, like the rubies of the walking stick, are mesmerizing! You soul sparkles within like these diamonds….”

Before the craftsman could get another word out, the guards carried him away and turned him out on the street.

This time the craftsman decided to wear a turban to see the princess. Turbans were not worn in his country but it was the only thing that would cover his birthmark. When he saw the princess, he followed his heart. The craftsman spoke plainly to her. He complimented her beauty, and then he asked questions about her. None of the other suitors had asked about her! They only gave speeches taunting their accomplishments. Now she felt a tug at her heart. After the simple craftsman left her throne room, she asked the guard to follow him home and note where he lived. She was curious about the craftsman in the strange hat but a little dismayed. Her suitor refused to look at her. He kept his head to one side. After some thought, she decided she could not live with a man who refused to look her in the eye and dismissed any thought of calling the craftsman back.

The craftsman left the meeting feeling a sense of accomplishment because he was not thrown out of the palace. He thought about the princess every waking hour. And he became most curious to why she kept a veil over her face.

In the meantime, suitors came and went. And her father became very impatient.

One day the King threatened to choose a spouse for the princess. He begged her to choose the suitor she liked the best. Out of desperation, she sent her guards to fetch the craftsman and bring him to the palace immediately.

The craftsman arrived in his work clothes and had no time to borrow a hat of any nature. Tired and dusty he stood before the princess’s throne. Sweat glistened from his birthmark.

The princess rose from her throne and stood in silence for a long time. Then she asked one question.

“Craftsman, why do you not look upon my face? Do you find me repulsive?”

Shaking in his boots, the humble craftsman replied, “On the contrary, I find you beautiful, inside and out. I dare on look upon you because of this mark.” The craftsman pointed to his forehead. “I have had it from birth and I fear it will dishonor you.”

“Have no fear, craftsman. Gaze upon me now, I command it to be so.”

The obedient craftsman turned toward the princess, who had descended her throne and now stood eye to eye with him. Her veil was now on her shoulders. It no longer covered her face. The princess’s beauty was radiant to him because on her chin was a similar birthmark.

The lesson of Trinity Sunday is as true for us as it is our craftsman. Build trust with God and with others. Drop the hats with feathers and turbans. It is your vulnerability that draws others to you. Jesus, like the princess, came to our eye level by becoming like us. So live like Jesus and be vulnerable.

Ascension Sunday at Gray UMC

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This Sunday I’ll be preaching at Gray United Methodist Church in Gray, Tennessee.  GUMC has three services.  Heritage and Lifesong worship simultaneously at 9:30am, while the traditional is at 11:15am.  Heritage has an order of worship that is very traditional and most of the participants are of a more mature age range. 

This Sunday is also Ascension Sunday.  The lectionary prescribes Acts 1:6-11 which is Jesus’ departing words and ascension into heaven.  In this sermon, I address the meantime between Jesus’ ascension and return through the lens of aging.  Just as the physical Jesus leaves the disciples, our physical abilities leave us.  The actions of the disciples following Jesus’ departure give us insight into the aging process as we await to be made whole in heaven.

I have erroneously believed that aging happened at a given point in time. No one told me it kind of snuck up on us. I suppose this hard held belief was fostered by my father. While still in high school, I remember greeting him in the kitchen and his face had fallen. It seemed like yesterday, this rather young (yet seasoned) man I called “Dad” fussed at me for going to bed too late. The next morning, he was gone, replaced by an older version. Another morning, while home on a college break, he asked me to read the back of a food label. I asked, “Can’t you read that Dad?” He responded with, “I could yesterday. I just can’t focus.” The next day he was fitted for glasses. Now they rarely leave his face.

Approaching 40, my body reminds me that I am not 19. My body, medically, takes after my father’s side. I have scoliosis. I must be mindful of what I lift and how I move. I have therapy every other week. And just last year, I started allergy shots because my body does not bounce back as it once did with my yearly sinus battles. While I may be wiser, I do move slower and this body needs more care. This is my new reality.

I have had to accept that my original premise was false. Aging happens slowly and (shocker!) it is happening to me.

The disciples had an original premise about the resurrected Jesus. Some assumed that he would take over right then and there – after all he had defeated death, taking the Roman Empire a breeze! Jesus does just the opposite, he leaves town…for good.

Read Acts 1:6-11

The disciple’s ability to hear the voice of Jesus, touch Jesus, see Jesus move about is gone. They stand in shock, watching, hoping that they are not alone. But they are. And this is their new reality.

The two men in white represent a transition from wanting the physical presence of Jesus to the acceptance of reality without a flesh on bone leader. That expectation must be released.  All of life, every chapter, is characterized by letting go of something. Youths enjoy putting aside childish ways and trying on adulthood, until they arrive.  Still then, we struggle to find the true self God has created and called us to be. We must let go of facades that underserve us. We let go of our expectations we put on others and learn to enjoy them for who they are.  We learn to dismiss the cultural “norm” and risk to discover new possibilities.

The most difficult “letting go” task involves our physicality. Aging slowing takes away what we used to do and adds new routines that are a nuisance. The two men in white often usher us into transition. To the disciples they redirect from a physical expectation to a spiritual longing. Yes, one day Jesus will return, but in this present moment, what does it mean?

To those of us who hurt and ache, the transition is to accept our broken bodies, care for our broken bodies, and love our aging bodies with a mind’s eye toward the spiritual. Yes, we will be restored, but in this present moment, what does it mean?

What spiritual lessons are taught by being vulnerable, dependent and attentive this physical life?

  • I work harder, not smarter. Aging has taught me that I can adapt.
  • I have learned to laugh as things change. (Aging can be funny and I can be funny!)
  • Aging has taught me to love myself, take time to be healthy. (I’m God’s child and worth the effort!)

Jesus has not returned to the world stage in physical form yet and our world is still broken. What does it mean? Acts 1:13-14 tells us what it meant in that immediate moment for the disciples.

They learned they could support each other (Acts 1:12-13). They learned they could pray (Acts 1:14).  And they did these things with more faith and love than ever before.

It’s not the destination but the journey that shapes the soul.  Allow your brokenness to shape you.

Henri Nouwen on the temptation of Christ

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Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Click Here for a great article on bread by Henri Nouwen

Theologian Henri Nouwen summarized the temptation of Christ in three distinct categories:  relevance, popularity and power.  The human need for bread was relevant and pragmatic.  Jesus had been fasting.  The allure of throwing oneself off the temple is tempting because Jesus’ personhood (Son of God) would no longer be questioned.  This feat would allow him to move about his purposes unhindered.  The third temptation would give Jesus power, a world fashioned to Jesus’ liking.

The frightening similarity of each temptation is that Jesus could use each of the devil’s deals to complete his mission:  Bread, for the physical journey, popularity to get everyone on the same page and power to shape things as he would like.  So aside from the devil’s authorship, what is so bad about these temptations?

Henri Nouwen would say that these temptation appeal to the illusion of “having it all”.   My good friend, Dr. Joe Perez lends these words to our conversation:  Even when we achieve these personal desires (relevance, popularity and power), it is always fleeting, never permanent, and not totally whole. Thus, it can create an addiction to chase these experiences.  As with all addictions, one is left unfulfilled and wanting more.   These desires will always be with us.  It is the nature of being human.  However, the Christian spiritual life is one that speaks kindly to these voices that demand we give in and offers a gentle management of constant temptations for those who seek a new perspective.

Henri Nouwen recommends maintaining a spiritual tool box filled with alternative ways of thinking about our lives and experiencing our emotions.  He offers to us a life of contemplative prayer, confession, forgiveness, and theological reflection.   A closer analysis of Jesus’ responses reveals that his tool box must have included these spiritual devices.  They are delivered cloaked in the authority of scripture.

Currently, we are in the Christian season of Lent and these practices are common observances of this holiday.  Jesus leads the way through Lent by pointing out dangers along our spiritual walk.  He also guides us toward more holistic living by prescribing an alternative way.

For those who live the preaching life……

I recommend to those who live the preaching life to approach Lent by living and preaching in the gray.  Often we approach scriptures with a black and white mentality.  We warn of the black, we point to the white.  While some of those sermons are helpful, most of them only teach behavior modification.  I would encourage an alternative, gray route.  Allow Lent to be a time of teaching the congregation to form questions about themselves and about God.  (And not for the purpose of the Almighty Pastor to deliver and eloquent answer!)  Rather develop your sermon as a safe place to invite uncomfortable questions to hang.

Taking Matthew 4, for example, the temptations are always with us.  We are human.  Instead of warning about the downfalls, invite the congregation to ask “why?”.  Why is this desire with me?  Why does it materialize in this fashion?  Why did God give me this desire?  The sermon becomes a time to explore these questions that dare not be uttered (for fear they may be wrong/black).  The pulpit brings a question and then encourages the congregation to think about it alongside the pastor.  No definite answers are offered.  Instead, the congregation leaves with things to contemplate throughout the week.  My experience is that many pastoral issues that require a sounding board seek the pastor out!  What an honor!

Let’s take a more detailed example.  Take a look at the first temptation of Jesus (You may  like to click on the picture to find the article by Nouwen that I’m going to use).  My sermon would humanize the desire to be practical and relevant.  Just setting this norm tones down the anxiety in the room.  I can see their thoughts “Whoa.  This is good.  She is not talking about just me.”  Humanizing sin and emotions is a great way to build trust between the pulpit and the pew.

What I mean by humanize is that every human in the Sunday assembly owns this struggle.  We are all together (even the human Jesus).

The next movement would incorporation Deuteronomy 8:3, allowing scripture to interpret scripture.  This would bring us to Nouwen’s point:  Bread is given to us by God so that we will entrust ourselves completely to  God’s word.  So now the question:  If God gave bread so we will entrust ourselves to God’s word, is there a purpose for this need to constantly be practical and relevant?  The rest of the sermon explores this question.  I would make the point that relevance is a by product, not a goal.  The goal is staying in love with God.  This is the thought process of Henri Nouwen.  And his thoughts allow the congregation to embrace the voice of the temptation, recognizing the good in it.  This voice that demands relevance, efficiency and practicality is not black or white, it is gray and gray is where we live.

Just as Jesus “did not deny the importance of bread but rather relativized it in  comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God (Nouwen)” we do the same with this internal voice by humanizing it and being comfortable with the gray.

Another excellent sermon strategy was inspired by this Nouwen quote:  The radical challenge is to let God and the divine Word shape and reshape us as  human beings, to feast each day on this Word and thus grow into free and  fearless people. Thus we can continue to witness to God’s presence in this  world, even when there are few or no visible results. A good litmus test of this attitude would be to invite the congregation to reflect on a time when they felt useless (at the bedside of a dying person, perhaps.)  How comfortable were they when feeling useless?  Explore those feeling with the congregation and juxtapose them the words of Jesus and Nouwen’s thoughts.  Once again, we humanize feelings and experiences and invite the Divine scriptures to weigh in.

Just a few thoughts for the preaching life….


The Uncomfortable Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday is March the 5th this year.  Churches that observe this religious day will invite participants to receive a mixture of oil and ashes upon their foreheads in the form of a cross.  The ancient rite instructs the worship leader to recite Genesis 3:19 as the ashes are applied.  “For dust you are and to dust you shall return”.  These are the words of God, spoken to Adam and Eve after they partook of the forbidden fruit, causing sin and death to come upon our world.

 Why would Christianity assign a day to contemplate death?  Are not Christians supposedly happy with their personal relationship with Jesus?  There are positive benefits to the spiritual life however reaping some of those rewards require us to be uncomfortable. 
The Order of Worship for Ash Wednesday is uncomfortable.  First of all, there is no preaching.  Secondly, many opportunities are given for the contemplation of scripture verses by way of silent prayer.  The scriptures chosen are not “happy”.  Sorrow, death, and acts of lamentation and repentance in response to sin are just a few topics worshippers are invited to internalize while silence fills the sanctuary.  I liken the experience to attending my first funeral as a child.  I remember slowly approaching the casket.  The room faded away.  All the sights and sounds were gone and there I stood; me and a corpse.  Was I too going to end this way?  I was ten years old and in perfect health.  Just the other day, I amazed my 5th grade class by balancing a tater tot on my chin only to project the fried potato bit upwardly, landing it perfectly in my mouth.  I did all of this while standing on one foot!  How could a casket be in my future?  Why could life not be an eternal continuing of tater tot feats?
My grandmother brought me back to the room.  Her wrinkled hand took my arm, leading me to our assigned pew.  I noted every wrinkle and arthritic knot in that hand, realizing that she would probably die before me.  I felt comfort knowing that she and I had a similar destination.  Knowing I was not alone brought peace as the shattering thought of growing up,  growing old and dying sank into my adolescent mind.  I relive this moment every Ash Wednesday service and add a deeper insight each year.
The awareness of the death’s certainty has great value in the spiritual life.  It teaches us to embrace each chapter of the life we have been given, gleaming lessons and giving thanks.  It bonds us together as sojourners of a common journey, breeding compassion for our fellow humans.  Christians think about how the life, death, suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ weighs in the scales of their personal and communal lives.  In summary, death gives us questions about life, that otherwise would be futile. 
Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dy’in” tells the story of a man diagnosed with cancer.  The chorus gives his reaction to the medical news:
I went sky divin’,
I went rocky mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’.
There is great value in the contemplation of death.  It gives us the starting place to begin each day with the end in mind.  Ancient Christians found this so valuable that they programmed Ash Wednesday into the yearly worship cycle.  I hope we can make room for these uncomfortable thoughts that prepare us to “live like we were dy’in”.

Christmas Courage

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And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:38

When God decided to invade history for the sake of redeeming humankind, God used a 13 year old woman child named Mary.  The angel Gabrielle is sent to reveal God’s plan and Luke 1:38 is her answer.

Mary did not fully grasp, at that very moment, how close all those close calls were going to be:  the almost quite divorce from Joseph, the long journey to Bethlehem resulting in a barn birth, the two and a half year hide out years in Egypt; fleeing King Herod.  No not at that very moment. At that very moment, I think she thought about her father.  He was the man in charge of her upbringing and protector of the family’s social status.  His primary job was to deliver Mary to the marriage bed pure. The primary qualification for a wife at that time was sexual loyalty and knowledge of and a work ethic toward running a household (take it, her mother taught her most of these things.). But the buck stopped with her father.   If those things did not happen, public shame plagued not only Mary but her family and especially her father.  Did he deserve that?  Was the sacrifice of her father’s honor worth this?  Things had been set up to go so smoothly; with the betrothal to Joseph.  By saying “yes” to God she would have to sorely disappoint and shame two men in her life; one representing her past, the other her future.

Yet, God chose her – a woman-child without the means to support herself.  How easily she could have been cast aside by these two men and everyone else.  Mary defined vulnerability and we should not be surprised at God’s path.  The God of the Bible is attracted to human vulnerability.  God chooses a woman-child in Luke 1, comes in the form of a baby in Luke 2, grows up to heal the sick, bless the children and speaks to a Samaritan woman.  This list goes on.  Yes, what is with God and human vulnerability?  We humans don’t get it, as a matter of fact, we don’t like it!

If I knew now what I didn’t then, I’d probably had postponed my own wedding.  But at the time, and being the person I was, it was a sweet deal.  I was a year out of seminary and serving as a head pastor at a medium church in a large town.  I had the paycheck, the parsonage and the car that ran.  My to-be husband at the time was tiptoeing through seminary via long distance learning and serving as a youth pastor.  When he decided to quit work and return to school full time, I became the sole bread winner, the chief homemaker and primary CEO.  He called me his “sugar momma”.  But don’t worry, I was a benevolent dictator!   I did feel “large and in-charge”….until I woke one Thursday morning with a small scratchy feel in the back of my throat.  As the day progressed, I felt weak, even dizzy at times.  Before lunch I called the doctor, who graciously squeezed me in her schedule at the end of the day.  The trouble with the appointment was the timing, it came after my husband returned home.  Kevin came into our living room to find me in the middle of a pile of blankets and pillows with our faithful Labrador (and blog mascot) at my feet.  He soon realized that he did not need adoring eyes to behold his new bride.  He needed a thermometer, a wet washcloth and a puke bucket!  I was sick and I had to depend on my new husband to take care of me.  This was vulnerability.  My sugar momma façade had been reduced to a puddle physical misery.

Even in this unattractive state, would my husband still care for me?  Did he only love me when I was his sugar momma?  God bless that saint I married!  Not only did he hold my hair back while I made use of the puke bucket, but he ran into the bathroom afterwards and called his momma asking, “What do I do?”  It turns out my new husband felt just a vulnerable as I did.  And out of that whole first year of marriage (which can be the most rough) this memory is the sweetest because this moment pivoted my attitude from playing the role of sugar momma to being real and authentic in my marriage.

Brene Brown says it like this, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.”  Mary makes no pretenses of who she is.  She is very well aware of her situation.  Could you imagine if Gabrielle made the same announcement to King Herod’s wife?  It would have been a negotiation between super powers!  But not Mary, she had her feet firmly planted in the truth of the hour.  She knew who she was and she was well acquainted with who had sent Gabrielle.  Embracing that truth gave her the courage to say “yes”.

Going to sit at the bedside of a dying friend, taking responsibility for an error at work, confronting a family member about bad behavior….all of these are vulnerable moments for us humans.  None the less they present themselves daily and Christian ethics teaches us to lean on honesty and tell the truth.  How do we say “yes” to the Christian way?  We, like Mary, embrace our vulnerability, our fallibility, and our limitations.  With one foot in that truth and the other in the truth of God’s love for us we find courage.



Advent in July, The Reverend David Graves

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This blog post comes from the preaching gifts of The Reverend David Graves of Kingsport, Tennessee.  David was one of our lectionary presenters at our “Lectionarypalooza” event at Emmanuel Christian Seminary on August 8. 


An Unexpected Christmas Message Series


As we approach Christmas Day, I am proposing a theme during advent of unexpected moments and what God does in the midst of them. With the Gospel lessons coming from Matthew, this thought of unexpected moments flow through this Gospel. You could set this theme by using the genealogy in Chapter 1 especially verses 1-6, and correlating it with Matthew’s own conversion experience in Matthew Chapter 9. Matthew, a tax collector did not have a chance in this world, and one day Jesus invited Matthew to follow him. It was an unexpected moment. I wonder how many people in our culture are thinking I don’t have a chance. This was Matthew until he met Jesus. Could this Advent be an unexpected Christmas where Christ becomes known or made known in a deeper way?

December 1-Matthew 24:36-44 (The telling of the second coming in not knowing the day or hour). Unexpected, but be prepared for the unexpected. One could really go a lot of different directions with this one.

Title: “Stay Alert!”

Theme: We tend to believe that we can rescue ourselves.

December 8-Matthew 3:1-12 (Ministry of John the Baptist)

Title: “Going First”

Theme: Who will you extend grace to?

December 15-Matthew 11:2-11 (Ministry to the people)

Title: “Recognizing the Unrecognizable!”

Theme: Our God is a great God!

December 22-Matthew 1:18-25 (Virgin birth of Christ)

Title: “A Covenant Keeper”

Theme: God keeps God’s promises-that’s good news!

Bonuses messages:

Christmas Eve-“A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Theme: It is the same old story

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

December 29-“Second Chance Christmas”

Theme: God continues to invite us to a relationship.

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23

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