Making Room for the Spirit

•May 27, 2018 • Leave a Comment
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Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

Nicodemus came to learn the truth about Jesus.  But Jesus, exercising zenlike wisdom, turns the search around. He challenges Nicodemus to learn the truth about himself.

It’s like a parable told by one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor,[1]who writes that once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on – history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing, and still she had no answer.

Finally, she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She went to South America. She went to India. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house – a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain near the tree line.

She climbed and climbed to reach the front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.

“Yes?” said the kind-looking man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.

“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”

“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.

“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”

“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside.

While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.

She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.

“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”

“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and we will talk.”

It’s a fine story, and offers a fitting image for this new season of Pentecost. It’s a time when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, and, by extension, the opportunities we have to welcome God’s Holy Spirit.

In the quest for spiritual truth, it seems to me that the Presbyterian Church commonly has chosen one of two treacherous theological paths.

One is the path of Fundamentalism, which usually leads toward one unified, inflexible interpretation of scripture. Often, a skillful and passionate defense of that particular interpretation leaves no room for the spirit of love and grace to which scripture bears witness. The Fundamentalist cup is so full of a particular ideological position that there is no room left for Jesus’ compassion or humility.

Another treacherous path is the one toward Liberalism. It often starts with good motives, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of Fundamentalism. But often it ends up exhibiting a similar problem, its cup so full of ideology about general tolerance that there’s no room left for the special way, truth, and life found in Jesus.

There’s a story about the pastor search committee from the sophisticated, affluent Liberal congregation, in which the pastor candidate was asked this interview question: “Do you use the ‘J’ word very often?” The question left the candidate wondering exactly what “J” word, “jerk” and “justice” came to mind, and so she asked for clarification.  “Well, you know, do you talk about Jesus often?” The candidate smiled, and ventured that yes, she did talk about Jesus, whenever she could work him into the conversation. The committee was not amused, and she did not get the job.[2]

Some places, it seems people just want to put only a toe in the water, to have

  • a social-political affinity club, with a little bit of religion,
  • a place for the children to get moral training, with a little bit of religion,
  • a concert hall for musical performances, with a little bit of religion.

It’s like when a pastor is invited to offer a prayer at a community event, not because moral dialogue is going to happen, not because a connection to a faith community is considered all that important anymore, but because the pastor’s prayer puts a nice little cherry on top of the cake someone else has baked, makes the event look all neat and pretty, and places the church’s stamp of approval on what the group has already decided it’s going to do, anyway.

Kyle Childress reminds us that at the real core of the Church’s purpose are essential practices like prayer and worship, “deep work …. God is not for those content to paddle around in the shallow end. Jesus Christ calls us out into the deep, where we come face to face with who God is and who we aren’t ….”[3]It is the God who, in a conversation, gazed into Nicodemus and understood the condition of his soul, the God who inspired awe and reverence in Isaiah, a mysterious, magnificent, single substance in three persons.

I have a confession to make. I did NOT get up early to watch the royal wedding. I wasn’t even mildly interested. Thank goodness some of you were, and alerted me to the sermon delivered by the Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

This week, I watched video of his sermon. It was a remarkable effort. Like most preachers, he was serving as a sojourner in a strange land, preaching to people of mixed experiences, some of whom probably couldn’t have cared less about hearing a sermon at a wedding. In his own way, Curry seemed aimed at getting listeners with rather full cups to empty them a little, to allow the Spirit who comes as the “fire of love” to instill in them new ways of being and acting.

“There’s power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it …. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live.”

“…When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God … that’s fire.”

Sometimes, I say, that fire may even come in the form of hot water pouring over our hand, waking us up to the realization that our cup is too full. Like Nicodemus, we may want certain thoughtful formulas about who God is, or algorithms to ensure answers to our prayers.  Jesus says there is truth that is deeper and more important, truth that isn’t just the facts, but the truth of someone’s character, the truth of a loving and grace-filled relationship upon which you would bet your life. As Barbara Brown-Taylor says, “Turn your cup upside down. Turn your mind inside out. Step into the air. Ride the wind. Be born anew, and live.”[4]

[1]Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for tea, Nicodemus,” Living By The Word, Christian Century, 21 Feb. 1996, p. 195.

[2]Kyle Childress, “It’s about God,” Living By The Word, Christian Century, January 23, 2007, p. 16.

[3]Childress, p. 16.

[4]Brown Taylor, p. 195.


The Beginning

•March 21, 2018 • Leave a Comment

180312 circle window“The Beginning” Circle Window, First Presbyterian Church, Edwardsville, Illinois, unveiled 3.18.18. Created by Emil Frei & Associates.

“He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” –John 1:2-3

We live in an age in which it is possible to define the beginning of the universe without any reference to God. There’s even a song that goes along with this point of view, from a TV series now in its 11th season, with some very clever script writing. The song goes like this:

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state

(Come on, you can sing it with me)

Then nearly 14-billion years ago expansion started, wait.

The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool.

Neanderthals developed tools.

We built a wall (we built the pyramids).

Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries

that all started with the big bang! Hey![1]

As the theme song suggests in its own lighthearted way, it has become common to describe the beginning of the universe as an impersonal process governed by principles that humans can understand through science and reason.

Today, we move that imaginative, even fanciful, vision of events into the background, and allow it to function as the backdrop against which to see the contrast of a different vision. The Christian Faith still dares to proclaim that before the Big Bang, behind all the unimaginable vastness of space and time, and underneath all the incredibly complex physical and chemical processes that make matter matter, there is God.

There is not necessarily a conflict between faith and science. I’ve told you once before the story of Allan Sandage, the esteemed astronomer, whose observations led to the new dating of the universe of “nearly 14-billion years” celebrated in song. The questions that bothered him most were the ones whose answers couldn’t be found in the eyepiece of the telescope. Among them: why is there something rather than nothing? Sandage said, “It was my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science. It is only through the supernatural that I can understand the mystery of existence.”[2] In the portion of the larger Church occupied by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we stand with the likes of Allan Sandage, valuing science, but also believing in the God who orchestrated the beginning that science seeks to understand.

“The Beginning” is the theme of our new circle window, and the scriptural texts that inspired the window’s artist are the ones we have read (Genesis 1:1-31; John 1:1-5). The writers of these texts couldn’t have predicted the conflict that exists today between people of faith and people who say that science and reason can explain the universe apart from any reference to God. But, if the biblical authors were here with us, they might recognize some of the same dynamics. The priestly writers who finalized the form of the ancient creation narrative recorded in Genesis were addressing Jewish exiles in a world in which Babylon and Babylonian gods seemed to control the future.[3] The disciple John who penned our gospel reading lived in a turbulent time in which God’s people were persecuted, and it seemed that the forces of Rome would shape the world indefinitely.

When the authors of our texts told each respective story about the past, it was not for the purpose of escaping the present. When they told a story in which God provides the energy, shape, and form of how the world began, it was a profoundly political and countercultural thing to do. It was the equivalent of saying that Babylonian gods have no lasting power, that Rome will not rule forever: for the God who is responsible for the beginning is the same God who controls the way the story ends.

In simplest terms, “The Beginning” window proclaims that God in Christ shaped the beginning of the universe. Like any work of art, it will take on deeper meaning as we interact with it through time. I invite you to notice the way in which the window also contains symbolism about the beginning of our congregation.

First, recognize the Chi-Rho symbol in the window: formed from the Greek letter “chi,” which looks like a slightly rotated letter “x,” and the “rho,” which looks like a letter “p.” These are the first two letters in the Greek “Christos,” which we translate as “Christ.” See the way the Chi-Rho divides the circle into 4 quadrants. Look at the upper left quadrant, which echoes elements in the “Deluge, Covenant, and Rainbow” window. Look at the sun, and the aura that surrounds it. If you count the whitish spikes of light that emanate from the sun, you will count 18.

Then, look at the upper right quadrant, which echoes elements of the “Parable of the Sowed Seed” window. Look at what you might imagine as stars next to a crescent moon, or seed falling from the hand of God. If you very carefully count the whitish dots, including the smallest ones, you will count 19.

Some of you already have guessed where this is headed. If you put the “18” in the upper-left quadrant together with the “19” in the upper-right quadrant, then you get “1819,” the year in which 1st Presbyterian Church Edwardsville was established at a worship service on March 17. Today, March 18, 2018, represents the beginning of the congregation’s 200th year. After 199 years of ministry, after 133 years at the Kansas St. campus, following nearly a year in temporary quarters, wandering in the wilderness, God has granted FPCE the gift of new beginning.

Today’s scriptures, and their sermon in window form, call us to contemplate the mystical beginnings of the universe. But stay with me just a while so we can go a little deeper. The rich symbolism also inspires us to moral action. It calls us to live as refractors of light in a world that is sometimes morally dark. You feel the battle between darkness and light: when you face the specter of psychological depression, and are tempted to surrender to despair; when you’re facing an overloaded schedule full of stressful challenges, and are tempted to mask problems by eating too much, drinking too much, or using drugs illegally; when in a conversation about a difficult social or political issue, someone calls you names or attacks your character, and you are sorely tempted to respond in kind.

This week, there was another such conversation playing itself out in social media and in the news, when a candidate for the state legislature in Maine criticized a Parkland High School student, who is rather outspoken about her views on gun violence prevention. As is too often the case, a difference of opinion on issues escalated to a personal attack, and Emma Gonzalez was dehumanized with hateful labels, which I choose not to repeat here. It is distressing to realize how common this sort of behavior has become, and how often the people we expect to defuse and correct it are the instigators. How easy it would be to respond in kind. Almost every day, there is a temptation placed before us to turn from the light to the darkness, and charge into the chaos by succumbing to a spirit of hatred and revenge.

As I was writing this sermon, the famed physicist Stephen Hawking died. In his early writings, Hawking left open the possibility that God might exist; in his later writings, it appears his journey into atheism was complete. But even Stephen Hawking recognized that all the magnificent mathematics and phenomenal physics he could contemplate did not matter if something else were not true. In a statement issued at his death, his children remembered that Hawking said, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”[4]

Over against the spirit of hate, let the spirit of love be the choice we make. The calling of every Christian is to recognize the darkness for what it is, and to let God’s light shine through you, to be little circle windows through which God makes many new beginnings. For in Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, the final demise of hatred and chaos has begun. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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


[1] Big Bang Theory Theme Song, by the Barenaked Ladies, in album Hits From Yesterday & The Day Before (2011).

[2] Significant portions of this paragraph are adapted from “Science Finds God” by Sharon Begley and Marian Westley, “Newsweek” 20 July 1998.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 25.

[4] Marina Koren, “Remembering Stephen Hawking,” The Atlantic, 14 March 2018,


Trust for Transformation

•February 25, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Since I last preached on February 11, there’s been another well-publicized school shooting. It happened on Ash Wednesday, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen were killed, and at least sixteen wounded.

Unless you’ve purposely avoided the news, it’s impossible to ignore the aftermath. Some of the stories are, unfortunately, too familiar: stories of shock, grief, funerals, stories of two very different narratives about the causes of gun violence, political standoffs, and inability to take legislative action toward any kind of a solution. Some of the protests seem different, too, with students themselves taking a lead role in school walkouts, protests, and appeals to legislators.

In the midst of these events, perhaps you have heard people debate use of the expression of “thoughts & prayers.” On the one hand, it is natural for people of faith to pray in times of crisis, to assure others in need that their concerns are being regularly reflected upon, and lifted to God in prayer. It is customary for politicians to offer the collective condolences of their constituencies, and to assure the grieving that their needs will not be forgotten.

On the other hand, many argue that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. To address gun violence again and again with only thoughts and prayers is, some think, not only trite, but also sacrilegious. If Kierkegaard was right when he said that prayer changes the one praying, and our thoughts about a problem, and our approach to a problem, never change, then some rightly ask, “Are we truly praying?” The current debate over thoughts and prayers reminds us that theology and politics cannot be so cleanly separated as some would like.

Most of you know me well enough to realize that I exercise care to avoid partisan political sermons. In my private life, I’ll be glad to share my opinions, if you’d like to hear them. But from the pulpit, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, or which party has the best platform. On the issue of gun violence prevention, I happen to believe that there are both Republicans and Democrats who support measures that would decrease gun violence, but most are partial measures that must be combined in some way to have better effect.

This week, I’ve asked myself “What might a pastor say about America’s culture of gun violence that someone else couldn’t say better?” One thing I invite you to reflect upon is an irony I observe: Americans buy more and more guns, but feel less and less safe. According the Congressional Research Service, there are at least 300-million guns in America, twice the number in 1968.

Since 2010, the manufacturing of guns has increased from approximately 5.5-million to nearly 11-million per year.[1] If, as a society, we keep buying more guns but feel less safe, something is very wrong. Heightened fear and growing distrust are driving many Americans to pursue safety and security by buying more weapons that, by their very nature, are unable to provide the safety and security we crave. And that is a spiritual problem.

We’re not unique in this regard. Heightened fear and growing distrust have been at the root of problems for a long time. I didn’t have to look very deep into scripture to find an example, as it’s possible to see in the gospel text the lectionary suggests for this second Sunday in Lent.

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, circumstances are changing for Jesus’ disciples. They had envisioned that their busy ministry with Jesus would lead to positions of prestige and comfort after a regime change for their nation. Jesus now turns their thoughts toward a radical new destiny at Jerusalem. He begins to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed. Fear is heightened, distrust of people outside their circle begins to grow.

It’s hard to blame them for their feelings. The messianic expectations of the Hebrew people made Jesus’ message confusing. In the context of Roman occupation and oppression, the common thought was that God would send a liberating Messiah. Perhaps he would have superior courage and skills in using weapons, like King David displayed when he outwitted the armies of Saul, or when he slew the giant Goliath with his sling and five stones. The disciples expected Jesus to be the new sheriff in town, God’s special agent, the General who would be followed by Hebrew warriors protecting them against Roman criminals and madmen. Peter wants to stir up the crowds, recruit the tribes and clans, put the best possible swords and spears into their firm and courageous hands.

Sometimes, I think we are Peter. When challenged to think of transformation in terms of giving up something we consider our right, our defenses go on high alert. Peter takes Jesus aside to challenge him for presenting a weak message and a weak front.

Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get out of my sight, Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus envisioned transformation coming through trust in an alternative strategy, something different than an endless escalation of arms. There is a familiar pattern in their conversation. Peter talks to God incarnate as we sometimes direct our “thoughts and prayers,” trying to change the mind of God to fit our way of thinking. God’s reply is “It’s time for you to change.”

Joshua Silva-Noah is a young pastor in our presbytery, serving Grace Presbyterian in Crystal City, MO. Josh came from Trinity Presbyterian in East Brunswick, New Jersey, where he served as youth director, which happens to be the same congregation I served as seminary intern more than 30 years ago. It was my privilege to moderate Josh’s ordination service in July 2015.

Josh was featured on Fox 2 news a few days ago, as a follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon “thoughts and prayers.” I can’t say it any better than my young colleague in ministry, when he preaches, “the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to more than ‘thoughts and prayers;’ it also calls us to action. And Christians who do not act, do not believe the Gospel. Without action, prayers are meaningless. Without action there is no transformation.”[2]

I think our ability to act is compromised by our inclination to fight, as highlighted by David Brooks in a New York Times piece this week. He described the way in which the nonprofit group “Better Angels” placed people of different viewpoints in the same room. The Republicans got to vent about the labels that are meant to hurt and shame them: “racist,” “uncaring,” “uneducated,” “misogynistic,” “science deniers.” The Democrats had their chance to talk about the stereotypes thrown at them: “against religion and morality,” “unpatriotic,” “against personal responsibility,” and so on. Then, after everyone had a chance to clear the air, the conversation went deeper. The group discovered they had more in common than they realized.

Brooks suggests that the good work of such a conversation points to a deeper truth: “We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.”[3]

I invite you to consider the high degree of consensus we have for common-sense, nationwide gun measures, according to a Quinnipiac poll[4]:

  • Ninety-five percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun sales, including 94% of all gun owners.
  • Seventy-nine percent favor a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases.
  • While not as overwhelming, a significant majority of 64% believe the sale of assault weapons should be banned, and
  • A similar 64% percent believe the sale of high-capacity magazines greater than ten rounds should be banned.

Given these numbers, I think we can make a difference in keeping gun violence prevention a high priority issue for our country to resolve:

  • Sign a petition;
  • Find model letters from gun-violence prevention organizations, and write a personal letter to your legislators;
  • Be an advocate for gun-violence prevention in your workplace and organizations to which you belong;
  • Support with your financial gifts gun-violence prevention advocacy groups.

It’s like the wisdom of 19th-century pastor Edward Everett Hale, who said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And what I can do, I ought to do. And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I shall do.” If thoughts and prayers are going to lead to change, then we must trust Jesus enough, we must trust one another enough to listen and respect honest differences, and come together on strategies; we must trust to be transformed.

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


[1] Scott Horsley, “Guns in America, By the Numbers,” National Public Radio, 5 January 2016,, accessed 21 February 2018.

[2] Joshua Silva-Noah, sermon based on John 11, 18 Feb. 2018, posted on Facebook profile 19 Feb. 2018.

[3] David Brooks, “Respect First, Then Gun Control, New York Times, 19 February 2018, accessed 24 February 2018.

[4] Quinnipiac University Poll, 12 October 2017,, accessed 23 February 2018.

Divine Audit

•November 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Here is the basic question I derive from today’s scripture readings and seasonal themes, a question that both ties everything together and leaves me with a point of practical real-life application.


The first text from the book of Judges comes from the time following Moses and Joshua. The Israelites had moved into the Promised Land, but are not really in full possession of it. They’re faced with conflicts posed by Canaanite culture and foreign fighting forces.

We’re given a mere sketch of the situation, but it appears that a respected leader of the tribe of Naphtali named Barak  has charge of thousands of warriors. He might be engaging the enemy, but is not.

  • Perhaps he is intimidated by their seemingly superior weapons.
  • Perhaps he is paralyzed by analyzing and reanalyzing potential strategy.
  • Perhaps he simply isn’t feeling well.

In any case, it’s the prophet Deborah who challenges him. Deborah gives him the Lord’s winning strategy, encourages movement, and ultimately goes with him into battle. Deborah is the real hero of the story; she calls Barak to be a better steward of the people and land that God has placed in his care.

In Jesus’ parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25, the prospect of a long journey prompts a wealthy man to entrust his resources to three different managers. Like Deborah, two who have been entrusted with much manage their charge well. And, like Barak, one responds to the challenge in a less faithful way, and fails the master.

In Jesus’ parable, there is no mercy shown by the master. When the master comes to the poor manager given just one talent who appears to have chosen the safest course of action, the master seems to have a psychotic break, sounding for all the world like an abusive or sadistic person. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

At first hearing, we may take the side of the poor manager. Why does a manager pursing a seemingly conservative course of action received such a harsh judgment? What are we missing that justifies the ending of Jesus’ parable?

I’ve preached on the passage four times in the past, but this time couldn’t help but read the parable in light of my course work in the nonprofit management program at UMSL. Recently, I completed a case study on fraud in a nonprofit organization. For the assignment, we were charged to examine the organization’s policies on risk management, to determine whether the internal controls were being practiced, and to what extent there were weaknesses in its system of checks and balances.

In the corresponding lecture, Professor Stuerke, Ph.D., C.P.A., described typical characteristics of those who commit fraud. She said that often they are seemingly exemplary employees, who arrive early to work, who offer to stay late. If the officer who is supposed to be locking up the checks or counting the cash is too busy, they’re glad to do those things. If the officer who should be signing authorization vouchers or reconciling bank statements is overwhelmed with an urgent need, they’re glad to take over that function, too. They create so much goodwill by their desire to serve that they’re trusted too much (40 Billion dollars a year too much, according to the Missouri Attorney General).


This is called the Fraud Triangle, with three points or sides:

  • Pressure prompting internal motivation (I need money) …
  • Rationalization or internal justification (they don’t show enough appreciation, they don’t pay me enough) …
  • are joined by Opportunity (I can take this money, and no one will know).

And so fraud happens.

Back to the parable: The master is going away on a long journey, and entrusts his greatest assets to his best advisors. The third servant, given charge of a single talent, sounds a little bit like the perpetrator of fraud in my case study. He was afraid, he says, looking ahead to an insecure future, the sort of fear that might have prompted him to feel pressure: “I need money.” He calls his master a harsh man, in whose employ he may rationalize a poor choice, for perceived lack of appreciation. He could have invested the money with the bankers, and returned it with interest, but there was no adequate system of internal controls that kept him from taking the opportunity to bury the talent in the ground.


A “talent” – an ancient measure estimated at 60 to 80 pounds, posed a significant temptation. Imagine a talent of gold or silver. It was equivalent to years of wages, perhaps a lifetime of labor. This was big money. Consider this possibility: perhaps the manager who buried the talent instead of putting it in the bank did so in the hope that his long-absent master never would return, and that everyone else in the household managing larger sums would forget about his single talent. Then one day he would dig it out of the ground to use it as he pleased.


The master supplies every need of his servants. He comes home from a long trip asking, “How have you used the resources I have placed in your care?” Jesus says that when the Master hears the reply of the servant who buried one talent, the response is not simply, “Oh well, he didn’t think it through carefully,” or “he wasn’t as creative as he could have been.” Jesus’ response is like what ours would be if we caught an employee in the act of mismanaging funds for personal gain.


As our bulletin materials state, today is pledge commitment Sunday, and the preacher is challenged to consider what the gospel reading for the day might have to say about the annual exercise of raising revenue to support our mission and ministry in a new year. I don’t think the point of the gospel text is to give preacher an excuse to shame you into giving. Even if it were, I know that shame tactics don’t work. I’ve been part of another organization that, year after year, told me this was my organization, and, if I wanted it to succeed, I had to do more and more to help it raise funds. What a drag. I don’t think the point of the text is to promote fear as a feeling of anxiety or panic. In fact, that kind of fear is exactly opposite the direction of our campaign theme “fearless generosity.”

Jesus’ parable about the Master who settles accounts with servants seems relevant to the extent that it encourages a reverence for God, who watches over us, and a healthy respect for your peers in this community, your brothers and sisters in Christ who also are managing resources for the collective good, to whom we owe the duty of doing the same with whatever resources God has placed in our care. The parable reminds us that we arrive at last at a “divine audit,” when each one will be held accountable to the Master according to the gifts and talents he or she has received, no matter how small they may seem. Jesus suggests that God will not be interested in hearing about all of anxieties that prevented our investments in his kingdom, or the rationalizations about disadvantages, and how we might pledged a greater percentage if we had been given more from the start.


The basic question posed by God will be: “How have you used the resources I have placed in your care?” “What have you done with what I have given you?” May we be found to be good and trustworthy servants!

Built on a Sure Foundation

•November 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment


At this season of the year, when the growing season comes to a close, and reminders of death are present all around, the Church universal celebrates the saints who have gone before us. In some traditions, the celebrations have been divided, November 1 devoted to “all saints,” especially holy people, and November 2 devoted to “all souls,” more ordinary Christians like me and you.

At First Presbyterian, we often combine related events, like we’re doing this year. We remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died during the past year. We recognize new 50-year members, and celebrate the faithfulness of all those who have spent their lives with this congregation. We reinforce our union in Christ through the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remembering that these ties are not limited by space or time. For many of us, the day provides a focused opportunity to grieve the loss of a particular family member or friend. When we pause for reflection, we realize that we are indebted to them in ways we can’t completely express, and may never completely comprehend. They, and those who came before them, have laid for us a foundation of faith, hope, and love that goes back through the generations to all the Christians who have ever been, back to Christ himself.

The ways that some churches symbolize these connections is particularly moving and inspiring.

This past summer, during our time in Berlin, Germany, I was able to briefly visit Reconciliation Church. Long ago, this is how it looked.


During the Second World War, controversy was stirred by two of its pastors, who aligned themselves with the Confessing Church movement that opposed Nazi ideology and interference in church life. The members were divided between those who thought opposing Hitler was a good idea, and those who didn’t. After the war, the Russians began to exercise their influence.


The church building was in the Soviet Sector, but the pavement in front of the church and most of its parishioners were in the French sector. This meant that when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the outer wall passed directly in front of the church and the inner wall passed directly behind it leaving the church blocked off to all but the border guards. The church building stood isolated in what came to be known as the ‘death zone,’ a no-man’s land separating freedom from oppression. After the fall of the Wall, their old building in ruins, the congregation considered how they might live out the promise of reconciliation that eluded them for decades.

The congregation, led by the Spirit I believe, envisioned a new Chapel of Reconciliation to thank God for the reunification of their church and nation. They weren’t wealthy, so they aimed at making the chapel “as big as necessary, but as small as possible.”


It feels connected to the earth, sustainable, easy to maintain. Says one pastor, when you worship there, “you are truly in touch with nature and you get a sense of the reconciliation that we are challenged to pursue”[1] with the world, and with each other.


The inner structure is made of clay walls. Into the clay the builders mixed the broken stones of the old church.

When it came time to lay the foundation for First Presbyterian’s new church building, the project team wasn’t too excited about my idea of grinding up old bricks to mix the foundation for the new. But we were given permission to make a symbolic contribution to the foundation.


In the footings, and to hold up the steel reinforcing rods, an assortment of bricks from our old building form part of the foundation for the new.


Later today, we’ll have another opportunity to participate in another ceremony with important symbolism. At 12:30 PM, we’ll gather at the new building at 3601 Ridge View Road to participate in a “floor-tagging activity,” writing on the cement floors our names and the names of beloved saints, over which additional flooring materials eventually will be laid. The names will remain a perpetual witness that our church is “built on a sure foundation” of saints and servants, apostles and prophets, all the way back to Jesus himself.

This may seem an unusual thing, and you may question why we would spend time on an activity with a result no one ever will see. In answer, I’d like to point you to an inspirational video by Nicole Johnson.


She compares the seemingly mundane work of life to the work of those who built the great cathedrals of Europe. If you read about these cathedrals, you will find the builders of the cathedrals often are described simply as “unknown.” Johnson tells the story of an artisan who was observed to be working a long time on a detail on a high wall that, without scaffolding, would never be examined again. He was asked, “Why are you spending so much time on something no one will ever see?” He replied with an answer Christians might remember when asked why we do what we do: “Because God sees.”

Humble artisans whose names are unknown to us today gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. Day after day, they showed up day to do their part on a project that often took centuries to complete. They made sacrifices for a job they would never see finished for a building they would never spend time in. Nicole Johnson was so inspired by this revelation, she says, “It was as if I heard God say: ‘I see you. You are not invisible to me. No sacrifice is too small for me to notice .… I smile over every one’.”[2]


In the spirit in which Johnson speaks, and as we honor the saints and inscribe their names today, may we hear the voice of God saying, “Remember you are building a great church. It never will be totally finished in your lifetime. You may not get to live there very long. But if you build it well, I will. I will live there, and make my home among its people.” Thanks be to God!


[1] Henry G. Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, pp. 76-77.

[2] Nicole Johnson, “The Invisible Woman,” accessed 9 November 2017.

The Faith of the Reformers

•October 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

cornerstoneReformation Sunday + Cornerstone Dedication; Matthew 22:34-40

Today we mark a unique confluence of events: the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and the dedication of the cornerstone at First Presbyterian’s new building.

I’ve thought about this day for a long time, all the way back to 1983, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. The school sponsored a special lecture series marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. For the occasion, the university invited a visiting scholar who was very Luther-like. His name is Hans Küng. He is a Swiss, Roman Catholic theologian who, like Luther, had gotten himself into trouble with Church authorities. In 1979, he was formally censured by the Vatican for denying traditional doctrines such as the infallibility of the Pope, and banned from teaching in Catholic schools. These events provoked an international controversy, and formed the context leading to his popularity. I was fortunate to be a student in Dr. Küng’s class. At the time of the class, I was applying to graduate school, and knew that I would be answering God’s call to full-time Christian ministry. I imagined that if I survived the challenges of life and the rigors of the pastorate, then there would come a day in the latter portion of my ministry that we would be celebrating the 500th anniversary not of Luther’s birth, but the event of his adult life for which he is best remembered: the nailing of the 95 Theses upon the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, the symbolic act that launched the Protestant Reformation. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been looking forward to this day all my ministry, just as I realize this is a day which, for quite different reasons, some of you have been looking forward to for twenty years.

This weekend, Protestant Christians all around the world are marking this event that was a harbinger for greater freedom of conscience, and religious freedom in general. The Reformation that was launched by Martin Luther was extended and organized by John Calvin in Switzerland. Through the leadership of Calvin’s disciple John Knox, the governance of the Presbyterian Church was established in Scotland, with profound benefits for the development of our democratic form of government in the United States, and throughout the Western world.

In retrospect, and in sympathy with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the reformers were not perfect in every respect. Luther’s frustration and impatience with the Jewish people for not converting to Christianity led him to advocate some very harsh and unjust anti-Semitic practices.[1] John Calvin, too, was frustrated by the beliefs and practices of other Christian sects, leading to his approval of the execution of a pastor who did not believe in the trinity, a sad chapter often referred to as “the Servetus Affair,” after Michael Servetus, the executed pastor.[2] The reformers displayed reactionary zeal for their newly rediscovered doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, a belief so vehement that it sometimes resulted in behavior so unChristlike that it damages our reputation yet today.

In this light, it is a particularly good coincidence that the revised common lectionary suggests for this day the gospel text I have read. The question that the lawyer put to Jesus was aimed at getting his sense of priority about 600+ laws you might codify from the Hebrew Testament. This approach to the law was one in which the average man and woman had little hope of fulfilling. Only the religious elite could claim superior obedience, and therefore superior favor with God. This system of law has the power to reinforce evil and deliver death to the people among which it is practiced. It was this evil and death that Paul had in mind when, speaking of his former life as a Pharisee, he called it all “rubbish.”[3] It was this evil and death that Jesus had in mind, when he said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”[4]

We listen to the story of Jesus and the Pharisees, and we hear that to grasp the letter of the law too tightly is to risk sacrificing its spirit. Among all the religious laws and traditions we have received, we need a way of sorting out which laws are most important. No longer must we live by the limited ethic of the hundreds of laws and codes we cannot possibly remember. When faced with more competing religious claims than you can keep track of, remember that charity is more important than doctrine. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the greatest and first commandment. A second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


[1] Noam E. Marans, “On Luther and his lies,” The Christian Century, 11 Oct. 2017,, accessed 27 Oct. 2017.

[2] accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

[3] Philippians 3:4b-9.

[4] Matthew 23:23.


A Note from the Pastor

•October 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment


photo courtesy of Jerry Barber … FPCE newsletter article for November, 2017

The photo that accompanies this note was taken by Jerry Barber, and is my favorite from recent weeks at the construction site. It reminds me of a drama that takes place in some European churches at Pentecost. Doves are placed through a window slightly ajar, or let down through camouflaged holes in the ceiling. The choir makes the dramatic sound of the wind. Rose petals are cascaded down representing tongues of fire. In my mind, the photo is captioned with the words, “Come Holy Spirit! Make this place your home!”

Throughout scripture, God’s people are called to look in two directions in way summarized by a theme we’ve been using: “Envision the future, remember the past, share the experience.” This month offers a unique opportunity to participate in this three-fold movement. On Sunday, November 12, we will celebrate Remembrance Sunday at both worship services, naming the members and special friends who, during the past year, have journeyed to God’s eternal realm. We will celebrate monthly communion this day (instead of November 5). New fifty-year members will be recognized. Following the late service, we will travel to the new building at 3601 Ridge View Road to participate in a floor-tagging ceremony, writing on the cement floors our names and the names of beloved saints, over which additional flooring materials eventually will be laid. The theme of the day ties together all our special symbolic activities: “built on a sure foundation.”

You’re invited to join us this special day. If you’re unable to be present, please pray that God will give us all courage and strength to complete this marvelous journey of faith.

In Christ’s Service,

John C. Hembruch, Pastor

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