Come to the Table?

A sermon preached on August 28, 2016 ~

The question mark at the end of the sermon title is intentional.  Welcome to the table.  Welcome to the table?

Are we a truly welcoming congregation?  Are we a radically hospitable congregation?

One afternoon this week, I spent some time sitting here, and then walking slowly through this sanctuary. Which of you were involved with the design and building of this space?  Those of you who were may be aware of things that others of us take for granted – and I bet that Marion is aware of these things as well! —  and I wanted to really take it all in.  The beautifully grained and carved and polished woodwork.  The elegant fabric used for the pew cushions and communion kneelers.  The graceful ship’s hull design of the ceiling.  The beautifully crafted banners.  The stunning windows, with their rainbow of blue hues and their intriguing symbolic designs.  (I didn’t even know, until I came here, that the seashell is a symbol for baptism — and I like the seashell window so much that I photographed it for the illustration on my business cards.)

The windows – take a look at the windows on the back wall.  Do you know, without looking, what they are?  One portrays a cross with a wine chalice; the other, sheaves of wheat and a cluster of grapes.  That means that when you walk forward for communion, you come from the symbols of the Lord’s Table, and then you return to the symbols of the Lord’s Table.  And what I wondered, as I wandered through the sanctuary, was whether we live up to the radical hospitality symbolized by that table?  Do we live up to the beauty of our sanctuary in our overall lives as a congregation?

When we invite Jesus into our congregation, does he fit in easily and comfortably?  Or does Jesus, with his ideas and exhortations and his entourage of the poor and the homeless and the broken, create some challenges for us?

We have a story today that starts out simply enough.  Jesus has gone to the home of one of the Pharisees for a Sabbath dinner.  Jesus is always sharing a meal with one group of people or another, and all kinds of conversations happen at these meals.  That’s pretty much the same in our own lives, isn’t it – we gather over meals, and all kinds of things happen – especially if your family is one of the more complex versions of family.  A lot of us these days have the kinds of families in which some of the people who might be present at a big gathering have labels like “former” or “step” or “half” or “ex,”  and while there are families which handle those situations quite well, others are a bit prone to drama.  Well, when Jesus is present, drama has a way of emerging, albeit for different reasons. And at the particular meal that we’re speaking of today, the Pharisees are watching for it.  Is he going to suddenly reach out and heal someone? Is a woman going to appear with a jar of oil and stoop down to wash his feet? Is he going to call someone out for some reason? It can be a little nerve-wracking, to share a meal with Jesus.

At first, Jesus just watches, and offers a bit of advice.  He watches the guests jostling for position, and then he tells them a story about a wedding banquet, pointing out that, rather than grabbing a place of honor and risking the humiliation of the host asking you to move and make way for someone important, it’s better to take one of the seats in the back. Perhaps then the host will do you the honor of asking you to move forward. Nothing too surprising here.

But then he goes a little further, and proclaims that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  With Jesus, it’s never just about the meal.  It’s never just about the ordinary events and experiences of life; it’s always about a deeper meaning.  It’s always about the kingdom of God, the kingdom he has come to inaugurate here on earth.  The kingdom which we, too, are invited to proclaim, in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

A couple of weeks ago, several of our youth came in for an event at which we discussed some of the challenges of high school. We had prepared several questions for them to reflect on, one of which was, “What would you do if you saw a new kid sitting all alone at lunch?”  A couple of the young people pretty quickly came up with the idea that they would invite this new kid to join the group at their table, so they’d have someone to eat with and get to know a few people.  Kingdom behavior.  And do you know, at Bible study this week, as we discussed this passage, the same sort of scenario came up – except this time — at church.  What do you do when you notice someone sitting alone at a Soup Supper or another event?

Jesus himself moves pretty quickly from his story about wedding banquet guests to his kingdom message about humility to this even broader kingdom question of hospitality.  When you are a guest at a banquet, take the lowliest seat, so that you will not be embarrassed by having over-stepped your place.  As a guest of God, know that humility is valued over self-exaltation.  And then: when you are a host . . .  when you are a host, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” – invite those who are in no position to repay you with a reciprocal invitation.

Now, suddenly, we’ve moved way beyond good manners, or even appropriate recognition of honor and humility.  Now we’ve moved into the arena of radical hospitality.  We’ve moved into the arena symbolized by those windows at the back. We’ve moved into the question of what, and who, are this beautiful sanctuary and this expansive building for?

The Rule of St. Benedict, written over 1,500 years ago as monasteries were being established all over Europe, says that, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  In an era in which travel was arduous and dangerous and few overnight establishments existed, the monasteries performed a vital function in welcoming travelers of all sorts.   In writing about the sort of hospitality in which Benedictine monks continue to engage today, monk Daniel Homan says

“Hospitality does not focus on the goal of being hospitable.  It is not about the one offering  hospitality.  Instead, it is singularly focused on the object of hospitality – the stranger, the guest, the delightful other.  One of the inherent problem with programs to develop radical hospitality  is the focus on hospitality as  a goal.  Hospitality requires that our focus is on the other rather than attainment of a concept.”[1]

I think our youth in the cafeteria have the idea.  Their immediate focus was on making the new kid more comfortable by welcoming him or her into the group – on relationship.  On “the delightful other.” How do we do this in the church?

The Methodists have a few things to say about radical hospitality, using Benedict’s words 1,500 years later.  They tell us that “ ‘radical hospitality’ requires intentional invitation and welcome. It goes beyond greeters at the door and handshakes during worship to welcome every person as an honored guest.’

Certainly, being a “friendly” church is good. But being in ministry in a confused and hurting world calls for “radical hospitality,” which breathes our core value: people are important to God and to this church.”[2]

And what about Lutherans?  On a website called “Radical Hospitality for the Rest of Us,” I discovered a short blurb about Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, Washington, “a 100 year old church that has successfully transitioned from being a dwindling ethnic German-Russian congregation in the 1960s to a diverse and vibrant congregation that reflects the demographics of the neighborhood and is deeply engaged with the needs of its community. The church is an unusual combination of Lutheran solidity (efficient systems and accountability) with vibrant relationships and an openness to the unexpected. It is a congregation that embodies the best of the Lutheran heritage of service and grace.”[3]

Well, what does all of this mean for us?  We know that as guests we are to exercise humility – ok.  We know that we do in our daily lives, in even the smallest of ways, has the potential to reflect the kingdom of God.  We know that we are to treat our guests as if they are Christ himself.  But how. Exactly, do we make the leap from being a friendly church to a radically hospitable church?

In have three suggestions for us, from small to big to the challenge of leaving our own space.  Small, and this one is from the Methodists: Decide that each Sunday you are going to greet two people you don’t know.  If it turns out that they are long time members whom maybe you should know, that’s ok. (I know that everyone worries about this!) No one gets to be insulted or embarrassed – that’s the humility part!

Big:  Whom might we invite to one of our events – to a Soup Super, or to something new? Students from Tri-C?  Guests from the Knickerbocker?  People from I don’t know where?  Whom might we welcome as the faces of Christ into our beautiful building?

Going out? We are a people sent by God to share the good news of God’s love. Where might we be sent to share that love through hospitality – to help serve a meal, to deliver food, to in some other way give of the abundance we have been given?

This all started with a story about who gets the seats of honor, and who perhaps does not.  But where Jesus is concerned, everyone gets a seat of honor.  Those symbols in the windows at the back, those symbols of bread and wine and cross – they are not just for us.  They are for the whole world and we, like Jesus, are called to be for the whole world.  We all, in fact, sit at the same place.  We are all invited :to sit at the Lord’s table, and there are none who are either too high or too low in status to be excluded.  As the old saying goes, ‘The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.’ “[4]

Welcome to the table is not a question – welcome to the table is an exclamation.  All are welcome – all are welcome by the Host of Love to the community of love.  Amen.


[1] Lonni Collins Pratt with Father Daniel Homan, OSB.  Radical Hospitality.  2011.

[2] Poona Patodia, “Is it time to move from friendly to radical hospitality?”



Holy Healing

A sermon preached on August 21, 2016 ~

What needs to be healed in your life, I wonder? Or in the life of someone you know? 

We all have our list, right?  The recent injury, the long-term condition, the critical illness, the mental or emotional disorder which so hampers daily life.  And we know how long it can take for a health matter to be resolved – and I would venture that most of us in this sanctuary are covered by good health care plans.  Long waits in doctors’ offices may be a feature, but that’s about as bad as it gets.  We don’t live in a remote part of Africa in which virtually no maternity care is available, or in Aleppo, Syria, being bombed so heavily that almost no medical resources at all are left.  And yet even we, with all of our health care advantages, understand the value of immediate response. In fact, isn’t one of the Clinic’s main advertising slogans these days that you can get “same day care?”  Because “everyone deserves world class care?”

World class or same-day care didn’t mean much for the woman in our story today.  We don’t know – was she a young woman, suffering from a birth defect like spina bifida or a lifelong challenge like scoliosis?  Was she an older woman, bent down by osteoarthritis?  Was she a woman in midlife, crushed by the weight of depression or grief?  What we do know is that for eighteen years she had been bent over, bent so that she mostly saw other people’s feet, bent so that she could not do the simplest of tasks with ease, bent so that she was excluded from conversation, from daily household work, from community life.

And Jesus?  Jesus is on the road toward his destiny in Jerusalem, a journey that takes up several chapters in Luke, and he has stopped by a local synagogue and received an invitation to preach on the Sabbath.   “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” – we know that commandment, although we tend to think that we are exempt from observing it – we know it, and so did Jesus’ Jewish community.  The Sabbath was a day set apart, a day for rest – because God rested – and a day for celebration – because the Jews had been freed from slavery.  The Sabbath was a day of liberation – for God and human beings alike – liberation from the toil that competes for time and saps energy and distracts us from wonder and awe at the beauty and magnificence of creation. 

And Jesus, according to the critical leader of the temple, has upset that priority, because he has, upon seeing that bent-over woman, reached out and healed her.


We don’t want to misunderstand the leader.  He is not an insensitive or cruel person, indifferent to the woman’s plight.  He is simply doing his job as he understands it: protecting the synagogue service and the teaching of faith from disruption.  And, perhaps even more importantly in his own eyes, he is affirming the faith given to the people by God by reminding them that they are to keep the Sabbath holy – set aside, reverenced with their time and attention – and accusing Jesus of violating one of the fundamental tenets of Jewish life with God.  We are so used to hearing this sort of story from our own point of view that we forget how important the laws of observance were to Jesus’ own people, and how they treasured those laws as a gift from God. 

But the synagogue leader is missing something here!  He is missing one of the main points of Sabbath  ~ the celebration of freedom from bondage.    Here is a woman enslaved by her condition, as the Hebrew people were once enslaved in Egypt ~ unable to live into the fullness of life, burdened by a condition imposed upon her and limiting her very movement ~ and Jesus is enacting the experience of liberation right before the eyes of those in the synagogue.

In Bible study this week, someone made a comment right on target about this text.  We remember that Jesus said, “I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it” ~ and here he is, the embodied fulfillment of the law, serving and healing someone cast aside as one of the least.  Jesus also said that the Sabbath was made for us, and not we for the Sabbath ~ meaning that we were not made for the purpose of being bound to the Sabbath law so that we might be burdened by it ~ as the woman was by her condition ~ but that the Sabbath was made so that we might know a taste of freedom.

Did Jesus have to complete this healing on the Sabbath?  He did not ~ he could have waited until evening.  What difference would another afternoon have made to someone who had been suffering for eighteen years?  That’s the point made by the temple leader: Why disrupt the day, why blatantly pound a chink into the edifice of the law, with an act that would be as effective later that evening?

But Jesus has another point to make.  Jesus is not merely on an errand of mercy; Jesus is on an errand of urgency.  Jesus is here to launch the kingdom of God, the new creation in which all will be healed and whole, in which we will all be divested of the burdens of sin and completely freed for love.   Jesus is here to tell us that the extravagance of God’s love cannot be constrained, even for a few hours, by laws which delay or impose barriers to the healing of the world.

The precepts of Sabbath teaching, the rituals of Sabbath meals ~ all of them are important, all of them serve to ensure that we remember who God is and who we are ~ but in the absence of love for others, they are as nothing.  And if on a Sabbath day the opportunity arises to heal another person and we do not make the most of it, then are we not forgetting that the Sabbath was made for us?

Is there a better way to spend a holy day than by offering freedom to another human being?  Is there a better way to spend the Sabbath than by offering immediate and complete healing to someone damaged in body and Spirit?  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy ~ remember the Sabbath and love your neighbor.  Amen.


Friday Five Back to School Edition

Monica has posted a RevGals Friday Five about school favorites.  I think that sixth grade might have been my favorite year ever, so I will start with sixth grade answers:


  1. What was your favorite thing about school?  Biology!  That year we learned about amoebae and euglenas and we dissected a frog and I decided to be a doctor.  I loved it!
  2. Who was your most memorable teacher?  Mr. Curran, of course, our classroom teacher who rose above the limitations of our very small rural school. (Did we even have an official science curriculum?)
  3. With whom did you sit at lunch?  Probably Sarah.  We ate as fast as we could and bolted for the blacktop outside which passed as our basketball court. (And were laughed at when we suggested a girls’ basketball team.)
  4. What is/was your favorite school supply?  Our textbooks.  I loved our green world history book, which was filled with news from the ancient world.
  5. What do you think “kids these days” are missing out on?  The simplicity of the demands made upon us.  We lived out in the country, and lessons and sports and other after-school activities mostly didn’t happen.  We rode the bus home after school and went outside to play.

But then, there was my senior year of high school, in a girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts.  More answers!


  1. What was your favorite thing about school?  Late evenings in the basement “smoker.” Believe it or not, smoking in specified locales was a senior privilege.  We set up the laundry room with our tables and typewriters (LOL!) and notebooks and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, writing our papers and talking ~ and smoking, of course.
  2. Who was your most memorable teacher?  That year it was probably my religion teacher, Mr. Smalley.  Later I would learn that he, like many of our religion teachers, was ordained and in possession of a doctorate.  The class was “Church and Society,” and it was where I first read Freud and Bonhoeffer.  He was also the teacher who told me not to be so parochial with my college choices and to get out of New England.  (He was right,  but I didn’t listen.)
  3. With whom did you sit at lunch?  We had assigned tables which rotated periodically.
  4. What is/was your favorite school supply?  Paper!  Always something to write.
  5. What do you think “kids these days” are missing out on?  My high school experiences were fairly unusual.  I think that I am most grateful for the education we received in choral music (religious school, mandatory chapel).

And most recently there was seminary, which I attended in my fifties, commuting to Pittsburgh a couple of times a week from my home in Cleveland.  Another set of answers!


  1. What was your favorite thing about school?   Actually, it was probably the long walks I took through the Highland Park neighborhood every day.
  2. Who was your most memorable teacher? Edwin van Driel, who showed up at the end of my second year and articulated an approach to Christianity that addressed a lot of my own “issues.”  He would eventually preach at my ordination service
  3. With whom did you sit at lunch? Cindy and Scott, two people whom I met in the first weeks of school and who became my best seminary friends.
  4. What is/was your favorite school supply?  My laptop, of course.  (Definitely NOT the Hebrew and Greek flashcards over which I labored for so many long hours!)
  5. What do you think “kids these days” are missing out on?  They aren’t kids, are they?  But I think the seminary education is getting better and better, so they aren’t missing out on anything.  Except time ~ enough time to absorb it all.

Truthfully, I love school so much that I would go back for a D.Min. if I could!

Paul and the Beatles Concert


The Beatles were the music of our lives . . .  Hundreds of memory episodes from my life, late elementary school through high school, come complete with Beatles music.  And so do many memories of my life with my kids, who learned the same songs as children, and gave me Beatles CDs as gifts.

First memory: A girl from our class ~ we must have been in 5th or 6th grade ~ came running out to the playground during recess to tell us that the Beatles had made a song about prostitution.  Little Greek chorus that we were, we all cried breathlessly, “What is prostitution?”  I don’t recall the answer, but I’m sure that our classmate didn’t know the answer any more than the rest of us did. (The song was “Can’t Buy Me Love.”)

In sixth grade, four of us lip-synched our way through “Eight Days a Week” for a PTA variety show.  I was, of course, John ~ the intellectual one.  Not that I knew that word, either.  But he wrote poetry and made funny drawings, and that was good enough for me.

In seventh grade, I went off to a convent boarding school.  On our very first night, we had some sort of event which conflicted with a Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Paul McCartney would be singing “Yesterday.”  I was heartbroken.  Later I learned that some of the eighth grade girls had skipped the event — a meeting? chapel? — and slipped down to the lounge to watch.  Clearly I had some work to do in terms of learning how to manage boarding school life.  (I learned quickly.)  On FB, I dedicated last night’s rendition of “Yesterday” to one of those eighth grade girls.

Yes, last night my daughter and I went to Paul MacCartney’s second concert here in Cleveland.  It took me 50 years, but I got to hear Paul in person.


My daughter asked which was my favorite Beatles album.  That would have to be Rubber Soul, associated with evenings in the dorm in Catholic School.

In 11th grade ((different boarding school), a group of us found ourselves “campused” (that’s like being grounded) during our long fall week-end, due to some middle-of-the-night exploits on the boys’ campus the preceding semester.  We took a turntable and the White Album down to the pool and swam all afternoon to the sound of the Beatles.

That same year, Abbey Road was released.  That one’s associations include long late nights in one of the seniors’ room, talking over and around those very strange songs.

In  the spring of 1970, both Let It Be, the Beatles’ final album, and McCartney, Paul’s first solo album, were released.  I worked on Cape Cod that summer, and came down with mono on my birthday at the end of July.  Those songs are all burned into my mind as a result of long August afternoons spent doing nothing beyond listening, draping myself over living room furniture and pondering my tragically dashed end-of-season plans.

That concert last night?  Fantastic.  Leaving aside the obvious ~ the 74-year-old Paul McCartney delivering nearly three hours of nonstop rock ‘n roll, from the hard-driving “Hard Day’s Night” to love songs like “Here, There, and Everywhere,” with a hefty dose of Wings music, new music, and Beatles anecdotes ~ it was a night filled with energy, memories, and 18,000 people singing along to “Hey, Jude.”

I wish that I could have seen all the Beatles in concert.  But the 50-year wait for Paul was worth it!


Ruined (Book Review)


[Trigger: Rape. ]

Ruth Everhart, a Presbyterian pastor for the past 25 years, has written a brave and important book, skillfully addressing a topic often spoken of only in hushed tones and behind closed doors.  On an ordinary Sunday evening transformed into a night of terror, she and her college housemates were brutally attacked and raped by two armed intruders, an event she describes in terrifying and compelling detail in the opening chapters of her memoir.

The consequences of the attack were no less brutal, in emotional and mental terms.  The police and prosecutors did their job, resulting in a lengthy sentence for at least one of the men, but the criminal justice process is a lengthy one, filled with postponements and compromises. The college and others charged with the care of the women responded with astonishing incompetence. Family and friends had no idea what to do or say.

It is in writing about the spiritual consequences of her rape, however, that Ruth’s writing particularly shines.  Ruth was a deeply religious young woman, raised and attending college in a Christian tradition in which concepts such as predestination, God’s will, God’s foreknowledge, God’s plan, God’s sovereignty, and God’s ordination of specific and limited roles for women were hammered relentlessly home.  She was bewildered, angered, and devastated, not only by the rape itself — by the invasion of her body and by the violence and the humiliation forced upon her —but by what those things might mean in the context of the religious tradition she held dear.  Could a rape at gunpoint have been God’s will for her life? Her questions, and her attempts to make sense of what happened and to forge a new spiritual path, will no doubt be meaningful to the many people of faith who have been taught not to question God’s ways.  She emerges as a powerful role model in the Biblical tradition of seeking answers from God when the events of life threaten to engulf us in confusion, sorrow, fear, and rage.

A disturbing element of the book which I hope that Ruth addresses someday has to do with its racial overtones.  Ruth and her housemates are all white; the perpetrators of the crimes against them are African Americans.  I can imagine – and I cannot at all claim knowledge here, but I can imagine – African American women heartbroken as they read the many physical descriptions of the men – both because it is black men who are responsible for such vile acts of depravity, and because of the reminder of how others look at their sons, men with the same physical attributes.  Ruth herself, dealing with after-effects which today might well be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress symptoms, is surprised and shocked by some of her own reactions. (I should add that, having once practiced law in the area of domestic violence, and as the mother of a son who is a criminal defense attorney, I have been party to many discussions about violent crime, and about race and the justice system – and that that topic is not the focus of this book.  But it lurks between the pages.)

I hope that Ruined is much read and discussed, in general and in particular in our churches. In a world and in an institution in which women are often marginalized; in which our concerns are often dismissed and our bodies are frequently the objects of commentary, derision, and unwanted attention; and in which the word “rape” is quickly silenced — this book needs to be a subject of conversation.  We all have much to learn from Ruth Everhart about how to care for those in our midst for whom rape has become a reality.

And I hope that Ruth writes a sequel. I am longing to read the story of her journey into a tradition in which she was welcomed into ordained ministry, and grew into the voice which makes this book possible.

Thank you, Ruth, for the care and courage with which you have begun the conversation.


River of Life

green river 2

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the tenth in the series, was preached on August 16, 2015. (I don’t seem to have a copy of the ninth sermon.  What I do have is a vague recollection of having preached without a manuscript that Sunday. ) This sermon is on one of my very favorite topics: God’s new creation.


This has been a watery summer!  As you know if you’ve been here for even one Sunday, we have been using the study series Come to the Waters in our Thursday Bible study classes, and the themes of that study have served as the springboard for our summer sermon series.

We began with Genesis, and the turbulent waters of chaos from which God created the universe.

We remembered the life-giving waters of baptism, and renewed our own baptismal covenant.

We moved into the story of God’s liberation of God’s people: the crossing of the Red Sea from slavery into freedom, the gift of water to a people trudging through the desert, and the crossing of the Jordan from desert journey to promised land.

We talked about the stormy waters in which we encounter Jesus, and about the waters of justice which we are all called to serve.

We plunged into the streams of mercy, which represent both forgiveness and abundance.

We wondered with the woman at the well about living water, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and last  week we pondered the rivers of living water — our own spiritual gifts, be they hospitality or  teaching or compassion or something else.

And today – today we reach the river of life in the Book of Revelation

In other words, we have hopped, skipped, and jumped across and through the entire Bible, with a view toward how many, many times water appears as a means by which God engages with us.  Water, water everywhere, as we realized at the very beginning.  Water at the beginning and at the end, and all the way through.

Now I am wondering today: How many of you have ever read any of the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible?  How many of you remember ever hearing a sermon on the Book of Revelation?

Revelation is a book we tend to steer clear of.

For one thing, we like to focus on the Jesus of the gospels, on his story and on the stories he     tells.  When we move out of the gospels, we head for the epistles, the letters of the early church     in which we are advised on how to be church ourselves.  And when we take leave of the Greek       Bible, we like the basic stories of the Hebrew Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses. David . . .  and   the prophets, who remind us of our call to social justice.  Revelation?  We avoid that one!

Revelation seems like a weird and incomprehensible book to us.  It’s filled with strange visions and symbols, and who knows what those mean?  Seven seals?  A woman clothed with the sun?   A rider on a white horse?  Who understands any of that?  It can help to know that the Book of        Revelation is basically a book written in code, a book for the persecuted Christians of the first  century, a book designed to conceal its meaning from the Roman authorities.  But you still have     to decode the code – and that’s not easy in a book of apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic – now there’s an unhelpful word!  What does that mean?  It actually means      disclosure, or revelation, of something hidden, and in the Book of Revelation, it means a    disclosure about end times.   Many of us, thanks to movies and books like the Left Behind series,   have come to think about the end of the world as a time of terrible violence and destruction, and if that’s the case, of course we don’t want to read about it, code or no code.

In our culture, we have developed another  theory, a vision of end times, at odds with this idea  of a violent, bloody was with disastrous consequences for almost everyone.  We have developed    an idea of heaven – heaven as a place to which we get to go after we leave this crisis and sorrow- ridden world, heaven as a really nice place in which we will dwell in some sort of    disembodied form – and which yet will be filled with all the things we like, whether those be  chocolate or golf courses, as well as with the people we love and yes, God, too – all in some kind of spiritual form.

This world, this creation, will be done for – it will disappear, and we will all go to a heaven filled with flowers and waterfalls and other lovely things.

But in reality – in reality, as we are promised in the Bible, something much grander lies ahead for us.

The reality is a renewed and restored creation, a city filled with the blessings of a garden, and the river of life running through it.

That’s what the Book of Revelation is about!

Let’s listen to what theologian N.T. Wright says about this new creation:

“The God in whom we believe is the creator of the world, and . . .  will one day put this world to rights. That solid belief is the bedrock of all Christian faith. God is not going to abolish the     universe of space, time and matter; [God]  is going to renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy     and purpose and delight, to take from it all that has corrupted it. ‘   . . .

The last book of the Bible ends, not with the company of the saved being taken up into heaven,  but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, resulting in God’s new  creation, new heavens and new earth, in which everything that has been true, lovely, and of  good report will be vindicated, enhanced, set free from all pain and sorrow. God, [God’s very  self], it says, will wipe away all tears from all eyes.

One of the great difficulties in preaching the gospel in our days is that everyone assumes that   the name of the game is, ultimately, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, as though that were the  last act in the drama. . . .  But —  Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world; God will  make new heavens and new earth, and give us new bodies to live and work and take delight in   [God’s] new creation.

And the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has  already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter morning, having  faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has corrupted and defaced God’s lovely   creation.”[1]

This, as Bishop Wright tells us, is the “real theme in the scriptures which gives meaning and purpose to all of our life . . .   .  This theme is present in a thousand passages, celebrated in poetry and song, articulated in rich and dense theology, lived out by the Lord Jesus himself.”[2]

So what is the new creation, and what has it got to do with us and our water sermons?

To start with, we thirst.  Our Psalm reading today reminds us: as the deer thirsts for water, so we thirst for the living God.  Others of our readings this summer have reminded us: the Israelites thirsted in the desert.  We thirst for justice, and for mercy. The woman at the well discovers that she thirsts for living water.  We pour out our longings, as the Psalmist says.  Water represents our hopes, our dreams.

And so often, the result of all this pouring out of longing is that we find ourselves in watery storms.  The Psalmist says that, too:  “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.”  We are lost in difficult waters; we are submerged by the waves.  Think of the disciples out on the sea in their little fishing boat.  Think of how we try, and yet we sink, just like Peter.

And then – ahead – promised by God: a new creation! Heaven and earth BOTH renewed and restored.  A time in which the sea is no more!  (Now, that line has always bothered me.  I love the sea.  How can its disappearance be a good thing?  But we need to remember what we talked about at the beginning of the summer: to the people of the Bible, sea represented chaos.  “The mention of the absence of the sea in this new creation is meaningful [because] in the ancient accounts of the creation of the world, the sea represents the most formidable element of creation, associated with the primitive abyss that is opposed to the Creator.”[3]  So perhaps there will be seas in the new creation – I, for one, hope so – but there will not be chaos.)

Instead of chaos, there will be a holy, glorious city.  A city whose gate is never locked.  A city – and let’s pay attention here – not a city to which we go “up,” but a city which comes to us.  The renewed creation is our creation, not a distant, far off heaven in the sky.

God will dwell with us; God will make God’s home with us.

God will wipe away every tear.

Death will be no more.

All who are thirsty will drink.

God will make all things new.

And in the midst of this renewed creation?  The river of the water of life, bright as crystal.  No more scary, churning, chaotic waters of the deep seas, but a bright, shining, flowing, river of peace.  A river of joy.  A river of justice.  A river of healing.  A river along which the tree of life grows and produces fruit and healing leaves.

We, today, we live in an in between time – in between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the complete restoration of his universe.  We live in the already-but-not-yet time of Jesus Christ – the reign of God among us, but not yet complete.  The work of the kingdom awaiting our participation.

But we live in a time of great, good news.  The world will not always be as it is.

People will not always hunger or thirst.

Bullets will not always fly; bombs will not always explode.

Young women will not always be sold into sexual slavery.

Rivers will not always turn orange.

Racism and other –isms will not always hold people captive.

We will not always be separated from our loved ones.

Because – because God is going to renew and restore all, and God is going to dwell with us, and death, in all of its insidious forms, will be no more.

Because all of creation will be healed, and a river will run through it.



[1] N.T. Wright. Bishop of Durham, “The Road to New Creation,” September 23, 3006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Professor Nicolet Anderson, Working Preacher, November 4, 2012.

Image: Green River, Utah



Living Water

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the eighth in the series, was preached on August 2, 2015.


Do any of you recall the book Silent Spring? Written by Rachel Carson and published in 1962, Silent Spring revealed the effects of chemicals, pesticides in particular, on our air, land, and waters.  With that book, Rachel Carson effectively launched the modern environmental movement.  The title of the book comes from a poem, and refers to the silencing of birdsong – the springtime quiet silence we could expect if we continued to pollute our earth and its waters with chemicals – if we allowed our waters to die rather than to live.

People are often under the impression that the problem with environmental poisons, such as DDT, is that animals, including birds, ingest them directly.  But perhaps the most significant problem is that the chemicals seep into the water system, into groundwater, streams, rivers, and oceans, and cause them to die, thus transforming entire ecosystems which depend upon those waters.

In Ohio, a major symptom of waters dying from pesticide use was the declining bald eagle situation.  In 1979, the Ohio bald eagle population had been reduced to four nesting pairs – in other words, bald eagles had been almost eradicated from Ohio. The reason? Dying waters.  DDT seeped from farmland into the waters of Ohio, and from the waters into the fish, and from the fish, into the eagles.  And then – the problem wasn’t that the eagles died from eating the fish.  The problem was that, with so much DDT in their systems, the eagles hatched eggs with shells that were too thin – and when the eagles settled into their nests to brood their eggs, the eggs cracked open under their weight.

The effect of pesticides on waters – on dying waters – is pervasive and insidious. From farm to water to fish to eagle to egg – DDT affected every ecosystem level critical to eagle life, and almost destroyed the entire population.

But then – after Silent Spring sounded the alarm, and environmental protection laws were passed, and DDT was banned, and we began to regulate the uses of pesticides and other chemicals – the waters began to clear, to heal, and to live again!  Today, there are about 200 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Ohio – a sign that living waters are as essential to life at all levels as dying waters were destructive to entire systems of life.

Jesus knew something about this.  Jesus knew something about the differences between water which is never enough, water which fails to quench thirst, and water which is life-giving and healing.  Water which runs clear with the presence of the Divine.

When Jesus encounters the woman in our story today, the woman at the well, he has become deeply acquainted with the insidious waters of a faith which is, at best, limping along.  In Judea, to the south, people are arguing over who is baptizing more disciples, Jesus or John.  Who has more adherents, the Presbyterians or another denomination?  Who has more followers, Donald Trump or Jeb Bush?  We’re familiar with these arguments, aren’t we? – and we know that they are not exactly life-giving.

Jesus, tired and worn down by disagreements which detract from his ministry, heads north, back to Galilee.  But he and his disciples stop in Samaria, in Sychar, a place in which he is pulled right back into the disagreements which so intrigue people of faith.

The Samarians, you see, although they, too, are descendants of Abraham and Jacob, have some significant religious differences with the Jews, so much so that it is extremely unlikely that a Jewish man like Jesus would come to a well seeking water from a Samarian woman. For that matter, in that time and place, it would be a violation of numerous religious laws for a man to ask a woman not his wife, or daughter, or mother, or sister, for a drink of water.

So Jesus has waded right into the waters of disagreement, of rules which diminish rather than further life, of rules which create hierarchies and divisions rather than community and connection.  It’s one thing to recognize appropriate boundaries, to create rituals and regulations which identify who we are and help us to celebrate our lives and our heritage.  It’s another entirely to focus on our differences in ways which deride and criticize others.

And this Samaritan woman – she gets right into it with Jesus.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samarian?

How is it that you, a man, ask a drink of me, a woman?

Where do you get that living water of which you speak?

Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob, who gave us this well?

But Jesus – Jesus is quietly persistent.

I have living water to give you.

This water here, this tangible water – it will not quench your thirst forever.

If you drink the water I offer, you will never be thirsty again.

The water I offer will become a spring in you gushing up to eternal life.

In other words, the water I offer will fill every crack and crevice in your thirsty life.

The water I offer will be yours for generation upon generation.

The water I offer will pervade your life with renewal, and will flood your life with growth.

How do you know when you have encountered the living water of Jesus Christ?

Living water moves!  Living water nourishes!  Living water creates new life! Living water overcomes barriers!  Living water seeps into every level of your life!

In the Bible, water is often understood as a symbol for the Spirit of God, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  I wonder what might happen if each of us this coming week understood our presence here in worship,  and our encounter with the word, through the reading and the sermon, and with sacrament, through our receiving of communion, to be an encounter with Jesus.  With Jesus himself! – an encounter as real and personal and deep as that experienced by the woman at the well.  And then I wonder . . .

What if we moved forward into this week and asked God for a specific grace, a specific gift: that we might remember, every day, that we ourselves are filled with the water of the Holy Spirit?  That Jesus has given us living water, water that completely quenches our thirst?

I know that we Presbyterians aren’t a very demonstrative lot.  We are the chosen frozen, after all. We look askance at emotional expression, even, or perhaps especially, in church.  But we also hold our scripture in high esteem, and it’s right there in the Bible; Jesus himself says it: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  The water that he has given YOU – and you have been marked with that water ever since your baptism – that water that he has given YOU will become a spring in YOU gushing up to eternal life.  To a new life.  To a life in which the kingdom of God prevails.

So think about that this week.

If you pause as you get out of bed one morning and think, I am filled with the water of the Spirit, will your day be different?

If you are trying to complete a difficult task and you think, I am thirsty for this to be over, but the Spirit quenches my thirst, will things proceed more smoothly?

If you get angry at someone, but before you say anything, you pause to consider, my words are moistened by the Spirit, will some unexpectedly gracious words come out of your mouth?

And if you are acknowledging and relying upon the living waters of the Spirit, the waters offered you by Jesus, will your words and actions affect others in grace-filled ways?

They will, because water affects every aspect, every level, whether of a single organism or an entire ecosystem.  Healthy, living waters mean that hundreds of eagles soar across the skies of Ohio.  Healthy, living water from Jesus mean that the Spirit soars in our lives.  Amen!

Streams of Mercy

high falls

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the seventh in the series, was preached on July 26, 2015.


A few days ago, I was out walking early in the morning, and I paused to pick up a piece of paper lying on the sidewalk.  That piece of paper turned out to be a flyer or bulletin insert from a church – from Fairmount Presbyterian Church, in fact – and near the top of its listing of services and events, it said, “Experience the Holy!”

“Experience the Holy” – what a great invitation, I thought. What a wonderful way to think about why we come to worship – to experience the holy.

And what a marvelous way for us to think of today’s topic –mercy: as an experience of the holy.

As you know if you’ve been around this summer, we have been focused on water for a couple of months, thanks to our Bible Study, Come to the Waters.  Did you know that water is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible?  I learned that this week as well, since it was mentioned in another flyer – that one advertising the fact that the author of the Come to the Waters study will be speaking at Rocky River Presbyterian Church in August.  800 times water is mentioned – 800 experiences of the holy – and we’ve touched on only a few of them.  Perhaps mercy encompasses them all.

I would guess that, for many of us, the first word that comes to mind when we think of mercy is forgiveness.  Perhaps we imagine characters in a novel or film seeking mercy – seeking forgiveness from a ruler or a leader for some wrongdoing.  Perhaps we think of someone pleading for mercy from the court as the sentence for a criminal transgression is being handed down.  Perhaps we think of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

The Lord’s Prayer is sometimes referred to as “the perfect prayer.”  It is the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples as a model when they asked for instruction in prayer.  A short prayer, with short sentences – and in this one short sentence, we ask God to forgive us, to show us mercy, as we do the same for others.  This model prayer reminds us that we are always in need of forgiveness, and we are always in need of extending forgiveness to others.

Perhaps you think not?  I know that some people resist the Prayer of Confession, which comes so early in our order of worship, muttering to themselves, “I’m a good person! I’m not a sinner!”

The two are not mutually exclusive.  We are, on the whole, good people.  And yet we miss the mark all the time.  Someone we are oblivious, or careless, to the hurt we inflict. Sometimes we make mistakes.   Sometime we are intentional about causing harm, or at least dismay.  How astonishing, then, that we are taught to pray for forgiveness.  For mercy.  For an experience of the holy.

But Jesus does not permit us to forget that we, too, are called to forgive.  Isn’t that a bit more difficult?  A lot more difficult?  I recall a friend, having forgotten something he had promised to take care of for me, saying, “But you are forgiving.”  “No, I’m not!” I thought silently, and angrily.  It’s not easy, is it?

And yet forgiveness, extending mercy to others, is essential to our peace of mind.  Do you know that even the Mayo Clinic website has an entry on forgiveness?  Listen to what it has to say:

” . . .  if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing  forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can  lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it   doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”[1]

Or we might put it more succinctly: When we don’t forgive, we hurt only ourselves.  When we do forgive, we experience the holy.

Jesus, although he speaks very succinctly in the Lord’s Prayer, knows whereof he speaks — from Scripture, and especially from the psalter, the Book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible.  Listen again to the words from which he learned the healing power of forgiveness:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51).

The Psalmist is using the imagery of water to describe what happens when God’s forgiveness is effected.  God blots out our transgressions, just as we blot out a stain with a wet washcloth.  God washes us of our iniquities, our wrongdoings – the holy experience of forgiveness is like the holy experience of standing under a warm shower, and allowing the dirt and grime of the day to be rinsed away.  God cleanses us from sin – God’s cleansing is like a hot bath, with a scrub brush taken to those stubborn spots of mud.

Forgive us, as we forgive others – but forgiveness, whether we are the recipient or the giver, is not a simple exchange of words, or even of acts.  Forgiveness is a deep, deep cleansing, a transformation of who we are.

But the mercy of God is even more than that – more than forgiveness of our errors, more than the grace by which we forgive others.  The mercy of God is the water in which the entire creation is bathed.

Pope Francis, who has become an astonishingly popular religious figure for people of all faiths and none, is a passionate advocate for God’s mercy.  In the quote on the front of your bulletin today, he recognizes the bridge between mercy as our personal experience of God’s love and mercy as an expression of God’s creative gifts, the mercy which the prophet Isaiah anticipates.  When we listen to Isaiah’s Chapter 35 depiction of renewed creation, we get a glimpse of a world infused by mercy – by the goodness, the generosity, the extravagant hospitality of God:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Mercy is not merely about forgiveness.  Mercy is about growth and beauty – about the experience of the holy.  When we seek and receive forgiveness, when we bestow forgiveness, the dry deserts of our angry and hardened hearts begin to bloom – with gratitude, with joy, and with peace.

waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

God’s merciful creation is God’s exuberant creation.  God offers mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is, just as God pours water into our lives, from the waters of world creation to the baptismal waters of our own creation.  God does not want the desert to remain a dry and weary land, not any more than God wants us to be parched by heartache and brittle with longing.

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

What are the burning sands in your own life? Where do you fear to tread because the soles of your feet will be singed?  Where is the thirsty ground in your life?  Where are the hard and cracked places, the places where nothing seems to cushion your walk?

In those places, promises Isaiah, in those places, quiet pools and gurgling spring will appear.   Where you are tormented and exhausted, a pool, an oasis, of God’s merciful presence will appear.  Where the work is too hard and the journey too long, springs of water will rise up to quench your thirst.  God’s mercy saturates the earth and all of us who inhabit it.

One of the contemporary poet Mary Oliver’s most famous poems is called “The Summer Day.”  It seems to me that her poem captures much of this vision of Isaiah’s, this vision of a world overflowing with the mercy of God.  A world in which God’s gracious mercy goes far beyond forgiveness, and even far beyond personal transformation – a world in which wave after wave of God’s abundant love surges throughout our lives, offering us opportunity upon opportunity to experience the holy.  A world which invites us to respond with our very lives.

Here is Mary Oliver’s version of Isaiah’s vision:

“Who made the world?

. . .

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Indeed, what is it that you are going to do with your one wild and precious life, in a world saturated by the love and mercy of God?




Image: High Falls, DuPont State Forest NC ~ August 2016

Waters of Justice

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the sixth in the series, was preached on July 19, 2015.


This has been a season of water!  Plenty of water outside, with all the rain we’ve had.  And water inside, as we make our way through the Bible Study, Come to the Waters, and gather to worship around the same themes: creation, baptism, thirst, danger, courage, and presence.

How did you do with last week’s assignment?  Those of you who were here last week know that we talked about the episode in which the disciples are caught in a windstorm out on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus comes walking across the water to them.

We learned that, regardless of whether we are hiding out in the boat like most of the disciples, waiting for the storm to pass, or emboldened like Peter to strike out on the water, Jesus says the same things to us: Be not afraid.  I am with you.  And we learned that the disciples saw, in Jesus’s presence and power, the Son of God.

Today, we are moving out from last week’s focus on ourselves to a focus on our neighbors, and on the rest of the world.  We as Christians are called to journey both inward and outward.  We are called to an inward journey of growth in faith – to lives of prayer, of contemplation, of study, of worship, both on our own and in community.  And we are called to an outward journey of mission – of being sent to spread the good news of the kingdom of God among us, through both word and action.

Last week, we were immersed in the waters of our inward journey, wondering about ways in which we come to know and understand Jesus in our own lives, whether we are frightened or brave, whether we are cowering in a boat or stretching ourselves to meet him.

This week, we move on to the waters of our outward journey, to the waters of justice and service. To the world beyond ourselves.

Let’s start with Amos, the prophet.  Sometimes people aren’t so sure what a prophet is.  Is a prophet a fortune teller, someone looking into a glass ball or shuffling through Tarot cards, to tell the future?

Not in the Biblical sense.  In the Biblical sense, a prophet’s job is to call the people back to God and to God’s priorities.  Often, a prophet’s job is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo, with the way in which we have drifted away from God, and to return us to God and to what God wants.  As the saying goes, the church’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – and the prophet is in charge of the second half of that equation.  To afflict the comfortable.

What does that mean?  How are we called to be afflicted?  What should agitate and disturb us?

We are called by the prophets to be afflicted by the cry for justice in our country and world.  We are called to be aware of unfairness, of wrong doing, and, even more, of what we might do about it.  And – there is always something that we can do.  We start by learning, and then we take action.

A few weeks ago, as you know, I was in Washington, D.C., advocating for mental health and suicide prevention legislation and dollars.  How did that come about?  Well, I started by learning.  I started by reading and talking with people about mental health and suicide prevention, and learning about statistics and causes and prevention.  I learned that a lot of the assumptions people make about mental health issues are not true – we know all kinds of things today that we didn’t know even a decade ago.  And then I went to work as a volunteer for a suicide prevention organization, writing letters to our senators and representatives about mental health legislation.  And now I’ve been to Capitol Hill twice, along with 300 other volunteers each time. Never did I think that I would be one day talking to a United States Congressperson about the National Violent Death Reporting Act, or about legislation to ensure that veterans receive proper medical screening – but I started learning how to afflict the comfortable, and how to seek justice for the underserved and unserved in our health system.

Three hundred of us.  And the week before I went to Washington, I learned that a friend from another congregation had been there advocating for diabetes education legislation. And while our group was there, we met some of the 700 people there to advocate for environmental legislation, and some of the 900 people there to advocate for funding to treat and cure pancreatic cancer.

Justice in action.  Inspirational, and amazing, and life-giving.

But I can’t do that, you might be thinking.  Maybe that old prophet Amos, 2500 years ago, maybe he meant that we should cause justice to roll down like waters, but he didn’t mean me.  Or us, in our little church. In which case I would say, Who do you think he did mean?  Of course he meant you!  He meant all of us!

Too hard, you say.  Can’t do it.

But you have done it – think of our Selma program last winter!  Remember – we were able to take dozens of students and their teachers, from both Euclid and Cleveland, to see the movie Selma, and then to host them for lunch and a panel discussion. That was a wonderful day in this church – so many of you helped with the lunch and the overall visit – and that was justice in action.  Justice in the form of education – which is the first step in making changes in society.  We haven’t done enough of that around here – that’s for sure – but we made a start.

And there are other ways in which we reach out, not only on behalf of those seeking justice, but directly to those in need.  Our outward journey is about service as well as about justice.

Let’s look at Jesus and what he says.  One of the things of which our water study has reminded us is about how many ways we come to see and to know God.  We wonder about that, don’t we?  When disciples wondered the same thing, Jesus told them a story about a king, who says to those at his right hand, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  And the king’s followers say, “When did we ever do anything like that?” And the king says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The work of justice is the work of seeking out and altering the root causes of injustice – of poverty, of discrimination, of inequity in health care, in education, in housing.  That’s why we talk about making changes in our laws, and about educating our children so that they can be the next generation of change.

But as long as injustice exists, so does the need for caring for our neighbor. So does the need for providing food and drink and hospitality and clothing and care for the sick and imprisoned.

And some of those things we do well, and it is in offering that care that we see the face of Jesus most immediately in front of us. You may have heard me quote Sue R. before: she once said that, with our meals and our thrift shop, “we feed and clothe the neighborhood.”    We don’t do those things just to be good people, of course.  We do them because we are called to see the face of Jesus in our neighbors.  When we offer food and drink to others, when we provide them with low-cost clothing and household items, when we help others who are in trouble or sick – we are doing the same for Jesus.

Jesus, of course, learned from the prophet Amos, just as we do.  One thing we know for certain about Jesus: he knew his scripture!  He was raised with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which for him would have been the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament.  And thus he knew the prophets well – the prophets whose words he himself had come to fulfill.

This means that he understood the call to serve as he himself did served.  He also understood the call to justice – that it is not enough to feed the hungry, but that we are called to further the kingdom of God so that there is no more hunger.  And he knew something more, something more that Amos says: that these calls, these calls to service and to justice, grow out of our worship.  That our inward journey leads to our outward journey.  That worship by itself is not enough – that we cannot call ourselves true disciples of Christ unless we follow him into the world and its needs.

Amos was on fire when he spoke to the people all those centuries ago.  Amos told them that God was not the least bit interested in their assemblies and music and offerings – in fact, Amos told them that God DESPISED their assemblies and music and offerings – because that’s all they did.  They may have worshipped in beautiful and even sacrificial ways, but they did not go forth into the world to share God’s goodness and love.  They did not participate in justice, rolling down like waters, or in righteousness, running like an ever-flowing stream.  They did not leave the sanctuary ready to roll up their sleeves and help others. They stayed in place, in their temple and in their self-satisfied lives, they stayed stock-still, as if they were stuck in a puddle — when they were called to be on the move – to be part of the rolling, running, MOVING waters and streams of justice and righteousness.

What about you?  Will you go and help with the community meal this afternoon?  Will you write a letter to a congressperson this year?  Will you remember that we are called to be a people moved to action just like the rolling and streaming of the waters of justice and righteousness?

Can you do those things?  Can you follow Jesus, knowing that to see him in others means to act for them and with them?

I know that you can!  Start today!  Go into that kitchen after church and lend a hand, go to the meal and visit with our guests, go online or read the paper and learn about hunger in Greater Cleveland.  You are the people of God, and so you are called to be people of service and people of justice!  Amen.

Stormy Waters

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the fifth in the series, was preached on July 12, 2015.


Just in time – Jesus comes to rescue us.

As we have moved through this summer’s Bible Study, Come to the Waters, our attention has been often been focused on Biblical passages other than those in which Jesus himself acts.  We did speak of his baptism, in the waters of the Jordan River, in which he like us, is named as God’s Beloved.  But we have also looked at the waters of creation covering the earth; at the waters missing from the earth as the Israelites trudged through the dry desert, and at the raging waters of the Jordan during the season in which the river fills and the Israelites had to cross the river to reach the land God had promised to them.  Today, having pondered what the desert and the Jordan crossing mean for us, as individuals and as a church, we are presented with tumultuous waters again, and with Jesus himself in the midst of them.  Just as we need him, he is here.

Today’s story is so familiar that perhaps you barely heard it being read.  The disciples are in their boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee; the winds rise; and Jesus appears them, walking across the water.  Peter decides that he will do the same and leaps out of the boat.  At first, he, too, walks easily on top of the waves, but then he looks down and begins to sink.  Of course, Jesus recues him, and the disciples, completely in awe of Jesus’s powers, declare him to be the Son of God.

You know this story, right?  Mostly you probably think of it as a miracle story – after all, that’s how we refer to it in popular culture.  Even if people have little knowledge of the Bible, they know that someone who “walks on water” can do anything.  Maybe you’ve wondered if it even happened – did any of the miracles in the Bible really happen?  Some people are inclined to say “yes” – it all happened just as it is written.  Others are a good deal skeptical, and may point to the fact that, in the ancient world, walking on water was described as something the gods did — a metaphor, a symbol, of their power and authority.  And still others joke about it:  One of our members, who shall remain nameless, told us in Bible study this week about learning to swim, and waving at her mother from the water, to reassure her mother than she was indeed conquering that difficult skill.  What her mother didn’t know was that she was waving from shallow water, with one foot on the bottom of the pool!

So we have a familiar story, a miracle story, a story that maybe we can’t quite take seriously.  We think we’ve got this one down.  But today I want you to think about some things that you might not have noticed in this story.

To start with, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat.[1]   They don’t just decide to sail off into the night – he makes them – he compels them – to get into the boat.  Jesus himself is going up the mountain to pray.  They must all be exhausted – they’ve just fed thousands of people.  And Jesus needs to be alone.  But the disciples – he sends them off together, he insists that they get into a boat, and he sends them into a windstorm.

There’s that idea of being sent that we talk about so often.   We are expected to move, to travel, to go from this place to that.  There’s a certain restlessness to discipleship, isn’t there?  Discipleship is not about remaining in one place.  Get into the boat and go – that’s Jesus’s command.

And go where?  We’d like to think that when God sends us off in in a boat, we’re going to have a nice quiet sail around a calm bay, and maybe a picnic to enjoy out there in the peaceful water.  I don’t know about you for sure, but I always have this idea that God is going to send me into a life of ease and success.  A safe neighborhood, a contented church, a classroom filled with studious students – those are the boats in which I hope God is going to send me off.

But . . . no.  Jesus sends the disciples off into the winds.  Jesus sends them off into a tumultuous seas.  Jesus sends us into real life, and gale-force winds bear down on us.

Where Jesus sends us, we are going to be battered.  I actually love that word – the disciples’ boat is battered by the waves.  Think about what battered means.  You might think that it means worn down, beaten up – and it does, of course, mean those things.  But people who have been battered by the waves of life are also often people of great wisdom and peace.

Not always, of course.  Some people who are battered by life’s storms allow hurts to strangle them with bitterness and anger.  But for those who open themselves to the experience of the fullness of the struggles of life comes a new depth of understanding, of compassion, and even of hope.

Our Christian faith tells us that these things – understanding, compassion, hope —  come from Jesus.  The same Jesus who comes to the disciples and who speaks to them comes to us and speaks to us. And it doesn’t seem to matter who you are, which kind of person you are.  Are you hiding out in the boat, like eleven of the disciples, terrified of the winds and hoping to remain safe right where you are?  Or are you like Peter, willing to climb out of the boat and willing to try to pass across the water?  The truth is that we all have some of each of the disciples in us, depending on the day and the situation.

And what is Jesus’s response?  To the disciples cowering in the boat and then crying out in fear because they think they are looking at a ghost, he says, “Take heart; do not be afraid.  It is I.”    Isn’t this what Jesus always says?  Be not afraid.  I am with you.

To Peter, who suddenly understands the force of the winds and begins to sink, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and says, “Why did you doubt?”  In other words, I am with you – spoken with actions, not words, this time.  And: Do not be afraid.  There is no reason to doubt.

Jesus’s message is pervasive and consistent.  You know, as parents, we are often told to be consistent.  Always the same rules, always the same consequences.  Not really one of my own strengths as a parent.  But Jesus always is consistent.  I am with you.  Don’t be afraid. This is a message we need to hear, over and over again, in our personal lives and in our lives as a congregation.  Whenever we set out on stormy waters: Jesus is with us.  We need not fear.

As we have talked about these intense waters in our Bible Study classes these past weeks – the rushing waters of the Jordan which the Israelites had to cross to reach the Promised Land, and now the waters of the Sea of Galilee stirred up by the wind,   we have also been talking about our own journeys of faith and, in particular, times of significant growth for us.  Times in which we came to understand who God is and what God’s presence means to us.  In fact, this past week, in one of the classes, we drew symbols of important times or events in our lives of faith.  I’m no artist myself, although I do love to color, so I was really excited when Sue was able to identify one of my own drawings!  Talent aside, however, I think that it was helpful for us to think about times in our lives when we have discovered God anew or discovered something new about God.

And so I have a challenge, a project, for you this week.  I’d like you to do just what we did in class – I’d like you to draw, or color, some symbols or pictures of important times in your growing faith.  You don’t have to draw, of course – although making art, doing something with your hands, can really help to sort things out in your mind.  But if you don’t want to draw, at least consider:  What are three times in your life in which you came to recognize or know God a little better, as Peter and the other disciples did Jesus through this adventure in the boat?

You may come up with some expected events, some times of church ritual and celebration, like a confirmation, or a wedding.  You may recall some important encounters or conversations that have had a life-long impact on you.  And you may even discover that during a time or two when you have been battered by the winds of life, God became more present, more known, to you.

The disciples become convinced, as a result of Jesus’s presence and actions, that he is, as they proclaim, “truly the Son of God.”  They discover that, even as they are battered by the winds of the storm, they are also battered by the love of God.  There’s actually a famous poem by the 16th and 17th century English poet John Donne which begins with the words, “Batter my heart, three person’d God . . .”.   It’s an intriguing idea, since to be battered means to be beaten or pummeled – really, by the love of God?  But God’s love is as insistent as the waves rising in the winds, and God’s love pushes us to grow, to change, to become more attentive to the mysterious ways in which God moves – even, or perhaps especially, in the gales of our lives.

And so: pay attention, this week.  Look back.  Look at your lives right now.  Might you hear the voice of Jesus, telling you not to be afraid?  Might you see his hand stretched out to steady you?  Might you know that God is present, in all of the challenges and winds of our lives?

Let’s close again with the words of the poem we heard last week, with a reminder that

you do not cross the boundaries alone,

that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,

that in the depths that would knock you

off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor


to hold and to guide, and waters of danger

shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos

may bring newness of life, and out of the noise

of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.[2]





[1] I am indebted to Professor Carla Works for her exploration of this idea in her August 10, 2014 Working Preacher column.

[2] Andrew King. “Into the River.” A Poetic Kind of Place.

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